Sightings: Saturday 26 June 2021: Contact, the Great Silence, and the Preliminary Assessment

Amid the breathless suspense leading up to Friday’s release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP, I spun a discussion thread with a persistent interlocutor around the theory that UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft, aka the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis or ETH. In the course of that back and forth, he linked a YouTube video on the matter. Aside from the ETH, the video’s interviewees pursued two lines of thought that touched on other, more urgent concerns…

“Culture Shock”: Kent Monkman’s “The Scream”

It’s a commonplace in ufology and the more scientifically-formal search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to contemplate the consequences of contact between humankind and a much more technologically-advanced extraterrestrial species (not race) in terms of that between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, etc. For example, Tyler Cowen, a student of “Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico”, making the comparison, refers to “the Aztec empire, which met its doom when a technologically superior conqueror showed up: Hernan Cortés and the Spaniards.” The devastating consequences of this encounter are almost always couched in terms of “culture shock”, the approach adopted for instance by Dolan and Zabel in their A.D. After Disclosure.

It is perhaps no accident that those who speak in these terms are white, North American men; how such speculations are framed by interested parties outside this demographic in the rest of the world, I am unsure. What is striking about thinking of the consequences of contact in terms of culture shock is that it passes over if not represses the more painful facts of the matter implied in Stephen Hawking’s more laconic observation: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

The topic is timely because when we Canadians, for example, “look at ourselves” in the light of two fields of unmarked graves recently discovered on the grounds of residential schools what is revealed is that the disruption of the cultures of the First Nations is not so much due to some catastrophic shift in world-view, however radically unsettling, but the overt and covert violence of settler colonialism, i.e., that the very foundation of the Canadian nation state is premissed on the liquidation of the indigenous population as a means to exploiting the natural resources within its borders unhindered. Canada’s First Nations didn’t experience a spiritual crisis encountering the French, Dutch, and English, but have suffered being displaced from their lands and resources through violence or subterfuge and having their children forcefully removed to residential schools whose explicit purpose was summed up by Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the federal Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-32: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department…” The shock to their culture was the result of intentional cultural genocide.

There is a not unrelated paradoxical irony at play in the way that one will hear in the same breath blithe speculations about civilizations thousands if not a billion years ahead of our own and reflections on “the Great Silence”, that we have yet to discover some bio- or technosignature of extraterrestrial life of a sufficiently-advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

Anyone familiar with the work that goes on here in the Skunkworks will be familiar with the implications of that first idea, but, here, I want to remark two other problems with this notion of so long-lived a civilization. On the one hand, one might ask “Whose culture?”, i.e., how to conceive of a culture or civilization that transcends the life of its biological substrate, the species of which it is a culture; a culture that outlives the species whose culture it is stretches the imagination, even moreso if that substrate is imagined to be transbiological, as such “artificial life” (if it can be said to possess a culture at all) would be more likely to change at an even greater rate than a biological species does under the pressures of natural selection. On the other hand, if we “look at ourselves” we find that one of the longest-lived, continuous cultures on earth is that of the aboriginal peoples of Australia, about 60,000 years. What underwrites the longterm stability of such cultures, however, is their having found a sustainable form of life, one rooted in a more harmonious relation to earth’s life support systems than that ecocidal relation characteristic of the so-called advanced, high-tech societies.

When it comes to the Great Silence, in an early articulation of an idea now termed “the Great Filter”, Sagan and Shklovsky in 1966 accounted for it by proposing that perhaps “it is the fate of all such civilizations to destroy themselves before they are much further along,” Unlike the pattern of repression that characterizes thoughts about contact, in this case UFO discourse has been explicitly related to existential threats to human civilization if not homo sapiens itself, from Jung’s proposals in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky to George Adamski‘s Venusians and Klaatu of the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still to recently revived stories of UFOs interfering with nuclear missiles to Vallée’s and Harris’ recent Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret the UFO has been associated with the danger posed by the advent and proliferation of nuclear weapons. More recently, beginning especially with the growing number of abduction stories in the 1980s, the mythology has come to weave itself into the more general ecological crisis, with abductees reporting they have been shown scenes of environmental destruction (a theme taken up by the 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still). Unsurprisingly, e.g., believers in and proponents of Disclosure (official transparency about the reality of and longstanding relations with extraterrestrial civilizations) maintain that zero-point or free-energy extraterrestrial technology can replace our stubborn reliance on fossil fuels. However much the UFO orbits these existential threats, the fantasies this association gives rise to by way of solutions are as weighty as the angel hair that used to fall from the flying saucers: either the extraterrestrial intervention is prophetic (revealing a truth, however much we already know it) or the solution to the problems technological development brings with it is just more technology. In either case, it seems, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to the social order than underwrites present-day technological change, capitalism.

In all these speculations about technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations one can discern a play of revelation and concealment. On the one hand, thoughts about contact or the Great Silence relate and are related to mundane, human matters: the history of colonization during the Age of (so-called) Discovery or the resilience and sustainability of culture and civilization especially under the strain of increasing ecological pressures. On the other hand, on inspection, these reflections betray a repressed, social content that is the mark of the ideological. The (on-going) material violence of European colonization becomes a merely spiritual shock; “civilization” is abstracted from the bodies of the civilized, as if it might be possessed of some immaterial immortality, while, simultaneously, the real, long-lived cultures on earth are overlooked precisely because their form of life contradicts the self-estimation of the advanced societies as having superseded these more primitive contemporaries (i.e., precisely that these cultures are our contemporaries, that they are, therefore, no less modern than ourselves is what must be denied); and the solution to the problems “development” causes is thought to be ever more development, reinforcing the status quo at the base of the problem.

Just as UFOs or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) appear to fly free of gravity and the physical laws of inertia and momentum, so too the thinking about or related to them frees itself from the material base (society, culture, and nature) of its ideas to flit around as nimbly, but, just as the countless stories of UFOs might be said to constitute a myth, a collective dream, the truth of these speculations is no less their grave, unconscious, repressed, all-too-earthly content.

As for that preliminary assessment on UAP? What of it? Here’s something on a leaked draft of a report on an arguably more urgent matter…

Disclosure and Unacknowledged Nonhuman Intelligence

In his recent conversation with Bryce Zabel, M. J. Banias makes a telling analogy, between the moon landing whose anniversary is presently being marked and another hypothetical world media event, the announcement (@ 56″) that “humanity is not alone and there is some other intelligence and it’s active with us and it’s trying to engage with us in some way.”

At this point in the interview, Banias and Zabel are caught up in their conversation, and their enthusiasm gets the better of their reflective faculties. For, if there is a heartbreakingly unacknowledged fact about life on earth it is precisely that “humanity is not alone,” that there are other intelligences living here, active with us, which cannot help but interact if not engage with us.

As I have argued ad nauseum here and will continue to do so the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence both suffer from an anthropocentric hyperopia that overlooks the wildly varied forms of intelligent life with which homo sapiens shares the planet in a squinting search for ourselves offworld.

As is well-acknowledged by naturalists, many species are self-conscious, from elephants, to great apes, all the way to corvids and even ants. Moreover, these and other species exhibit both intelligence (even fruit flies and jumping spiders weigh and decide between alternative courses of action) and culture (whales and elephants, for example, can be shown to possess natural languages). The capacity for numeracy is evident in bees, and, most compellingly, increasingly so even in plants. How much more mindblowing is the possibility plants on earth exhibit a radically nonhuman consciousness than that some humanoid, technological race (species?) inhabits an impossibly distant exoplanet? And how much more urgent is the need to reflect on the implications, moral and material, of how we engage with the alien (nonhuman) forms of life around us (to wit), let alone what the character of that interaction entails for how we might treat extraterrestrial life if and when we discover it, or how it might treat us if it discovers us first?

The Message of the Medium

It wasn’t that long ago that those long intrigued by the UFO mystery were tempted to declare the phenomenon and its study (ufology) moribund if not downright dead in the water. Yet, today, they’re blogging on the edge of their seats and even, when their breath isn’t bated, whispering the word “Disclosure”. Their excitement has been resurrected by recent revelations in print and television (History’s series Unidentified) concerning apparent encounters  with classically super-performing aeroforms in 2014 and 2015 by Navy pilots in training maneuvers from Virginia to Florida off the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. This about-face got me thinking.

As early as 1965, Jacques Vallée grasped that “The phenomenon under study is not the UFO…but the report written by the witness” (Anatomy of a Phenomenon, vii). However, a variation on this methodology, one adopted by John Keel (and many others) as recounted in his Operation Trojan Horse (1970), is the collection and collation of reports of witness reports from the news media. The example of Keel’s practice suggests the possibility that waves of interest in the phenomenon are not directly related to any patterns in the phenomenon itself but are mediated by patterns of reporting on the phenomenon in the media.

In a media environment governed in the final analysis by profit, as in the case of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other outlets that have recently carried these sensational stories and op ed pieces on them, it is tempting to attribute this sudden, revitalized excitement not so much to new developments in the field (after all, the sightings recently on record bear all the hallmarks of pilot encounters from the late 1940s to today) but to patterns of demand and supply.

If we begin at the crest of a wave of interest, UFO stories will sell well. However, public interest can and will reach a saturation point and interest and sales will fall off. After a sufficient time, however, the potential interest in the phenomenon will again be ripe for stimulation, and reports appearing at that time will swell another wave of fascination and the market for stories, journalistic and fictional. Consciously or not, the media might be said to employ a kind of rotation method (as in agriculture) when it comes (at least) to the UFO topic because of the nature of their customers’ attention spans.

These recent dramatic encounters may well be nothing more (again) than, as astrophysicist Leon Golub opines, “bugs in the code for the imaging and display systems, atmospheric effects and reflections, [or] neurological overload from multiple inputs during high-speed flight.” But, like those pilots spoofed by their new, unfamiliar instrumentation, those surfing this most recent swell of excited interest may, as well, be merely taken for a ride by the code running the media.


Addendum:  Since my first attempt at articulating the reflections above, Chris Rutkowski has made public his own, not unrelated, thoughts on this most recent media furor, worth a gander.





“What we have here is a failure of imagination….”

Sometimes, like Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures, I roll my eyes over the ufological, which seems to perennially re-invent the wheel, only to spin it in the same, well-worn rut.

Paul Seaburn at Mysterious Universe informs us of a new book Die Gesellschaft der Außerirdischen: Einführung in Die Exosoziologie (The Society of Extraterrestrials:  Introduction to Exosociology) by scholars Michael Schetsche and his research assistant Andreas Anton at the Institute for Sociology of the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg, Germany.  Schetsche and Anton essay three scenarios of human contact with an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization:  remote (via some medium of communication), indirect (through the discovery of an artifact of undeniable alien manufacture), or direct (in the form of a piloted or unpiloted alien spaceship). The first scenario is the goal of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI); the second and third are believed by some to have already happened, not only by the adherents of Exopolitics and the Disclosure movement but even (it would seem) by religious studies scholar D.W. Pasulka in her American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, wherein an inexplicably “alien” artifact plays an important role. At any rate, Schetsche and Anton contend that an instance of alien technology could pose a material threat (imagine small children playing with a hand grenade) or inspire conflict between nations eager to secure and exploit what they can learn from it. The third scenario is compared to the contact with and colonizations of the Americas and Africa by technologically superior Europeans; even if the extraterrestrials don’t conquer or colonize the earth, the social repercussions of such contact might incite social chaos. Says Schetsche, “Even if people do not kill each other, direct contact can destroy the social, economic, political and religious structures of countries.”

It’s getting to be a tiresome exercise explaining just how dreary and somnambulent such speculations are. In general, they develop a deeply questionable anthropocentrism that merely projects features of human society on to imagined extraterrestrial societies. Aside from perversely restricting “intelligence” to the Promethean, technoscientific version characteristic of one chance vector of one part of human history, it assumes an immediate recognition between Us and Them. Even the writers of Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home had more imagination, probing the possibility that intelligent life on and off the earth is not restricted to only those “made in God’s own image.”

The second scenario, the discovery of an alien artifact, is, by extension, no less problematic. First, it is assumed we could in fact recognize an alien artifact as such. The recent controversy over the possible artificial, extraterrestrial origins of ‘Oumuamua among institutional researchers or the longstanding if less respectable speculations that one or more moons in the solar system (including the Earth’s) may be artificial illustrate the problem. More problematically, any piece of technology sufficiently within our own relatively primitive, earthbound purview would be unlikely to belong to a spacefaring civilization, unless technology-as-such is fairly uniform throughout the universe and the discovery of warpdrive is right around the corner, or we have already back engineered the propulsion systems of crashed flying saucers or been taught their principles and construction by their manufacturers as part of an agreement, Faustian or otherwise, an arrangement within the parameters of Schetsche’s and Anton’s speculations but not likely one they would ascribe to.

The third scenario is also all-too-recognizable among the cognoscenti. Offhand I can’t recall the earliest instance of Europeans-meet-the-Native-Americans analogy, but the prediction that direct contact would “destroy the social, economic, political and religious structures of countries” has a history that runs from the earliest, anxious investigations into the phenomenon by the United States Air Force to the most recent “After Disclosure” writings of Richard Dolan. It is curious that sociologists don’t explore the fact that for decades more than half of people in the developed world already believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial, intelligent life and its either having already contacted us or the possibility of such contact. Indeed, the default understanding of ‘UFO’ is “alien spaceship”. That the reality of the third scenario is in a sense already accepted, either as an all-too-mundane possibility or as a real if suppressed reality for believers, witnesses, or experiencers surely calls for sociological scrutiny, especially since the undeniably real social, economic, political, and religious disruptions we in fact suffer seem utterly unrelated to exosociological events.

Of greater sociological import are the reasons why books like Schetsche’s and Anton’s obsessively repeat the anthropocentrisms outlined above, while ignoring the very real “social, economic, political, and religious” significance, effects and implications of this reflex and its projections. As Pasulka makes repeatedly clear in her recent study, regardless of whether “UFOs are real” the belief they are or may be has real world effects.

Plus ça change… Jung, Skunkworks, and UFO Reality

If the number of hits a blog post generates might be thought a sort of Gallup test, then events this past (first!) year at Skunkworks seem to confirm Jung’s own experience with the world press in the 1950s, “that news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome, but that scepticism seems to be undesirable.”

Skunworks was launched 21 February 2018, and the first post after the inaugural one was an encyclopedia article I had compiled for James R. Lewis’ UFOs and Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Myth on attempts to explain UFO phenomena and close encounter experiences as resulting from electromagnetic effects. It garnered over 400 hits. Then, most recently, with a little help from two, initial friendly notices from UFO Conjectures and The Anomalist that, in turn, resulted in the post’s being shared on even more platforms, a essay on the logic of ufology Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO generated, again, over 500 views. Meanwhile, posts exploring why UFOs and in particular the ETH prove so compelling, due to deep sociocultural patterns with equally grave implications (What’s so compelling about ET, Cover-up and Disclosure?, The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis: Symptom or Pathology?, and Ancient Astronauts, the Linguistic Turn, and the Hermeneutic Circle) generated less than a hundredth of the interest.

This pattern would seem to support the intuition that inspired another post concerning the enduring if unacknowledged influence of Donald Keyhoe, that the views Keyhoe presents in his first book The Flying Saucers are Real (1950) still govern and guide most of what passes for ufology to this day, that the various stabs at understanding the nature of the UFO are curiously, obsessively repetitive, that ufology seems frozen in a certain schema since the modern advent of the phenomenon over seven decades ago. In that most popular, recent post, I distinguished scientific ufology that seeks to identify the object or objects that underwrite UFO Reality from phenomenological ufology that brackets the question of the being, reality or nature of the UFO to turn its attention to the UFO Effect, how the UFO phenomenon affects human beings individually and collectively, what it might be said to mean. Here, it seems, is another holding pattern, another compelling aspect of the UFO Effect, the way UFO Reality possesses such an exclusive fascination for the ufophilic.

The well-known poet T. S. Eliot famously observed that

the chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be … to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.

Eliot-the-ufologist might say that the question of UFO Reality diverts the mind of ufophiles and most ufologists, while the phenomenon does its work upon them….


“The UFO Canon” and Other Embarrassments

A recent remark by UFO Conjectures‘ Rich Reynolds, a passage from Jacques Vallee’s Revelations, and my recent interventions with M. J. Banias’ thoughts on the UFO-community-as-counterculture all swirled together in this morning’s vortex and gave me pause for thought.

In the tempest-in-a-teacup (tsunami-in-a-saucer?) of reactions to History’s new series Project Blue Book, Rich Reynolds writes that he’s “ashamed” of “all UFO enthusiasts who accept this horrendous ‘entertainment’ as a worthy addition to the UFO canon.”

Just what might be said to constitute the ufological, if not the UFO, canon, was brought home to me as I was following up the topic of the sociopolitics of the UFO.

I find M. J. Banias’ approach not uncompelling, and I look forward to its book-length exposition, and I was not unpleased with the admittedly very provisional, preliminary notes I’d written on the question, until I reviewed some of the existing research. A foundational and still vitally pertinent book on the sociology of belief in UFOs is the 1995 volume The Gods Have Landed:  New Religions from Other Worlds (ed. James R. Lewis). One of the ten chapters is John A. Saliba‘s “UFO Contactee Phenomena from a Sociopsychological Perspective:  A Review,” forty-three pages, including seven-and-a-half of references, outlining sociological and psychological approaches to the phenomenon from 1948 to its present.

Despite its likely being somewhat dated after more than two decades, Saliba’s paper concretely maps the foundations for any subsequent sociology of the UFO community. In terms of sociological approaches, he provides an overview of the various ways of conceiving of the UFO mythology, the cultural context of the UFO, the social status of ufophiles, folkloric dimensions of UFO sighting and close encounter reports, and of the ways people group together to share their varying kinds and degrees of fascination with the phenomenon. In the course of this survey, I was reminded of G. E. Ashworth’s structuralist approach, of the important distinction to be drawn between sightings and reports, and research that had already been done on what Banias’ might call “the UFO subculture”. I was made aware, as well, to my shame, of the shallowness and fragility of the foundations of my own most recent reflections on these matters.

Whether one believes the phenomenon begins no earlier that 24 June 1947 or not, the phenomenon is one with a history. And with this history goes a parallel history of reflection, investigation, and research. And in this regard, writing about the UMMO affair around the same time Saliba is researching his survey, Vallee makes the following observation:

There are now three generations of UMMO ‘researchers’…

The third generation is young and naive. It has neither the long-term background in ufology of experienced researchers…nor the healthy scientific skepticism of the sociologists. They start from scratch and they believe anything that comes along. (125-6)

Surely, more senior members of “the UFO community” recognize in those who flock to websites devoted to Exopolitics or Disclosure, who comment feverishly on the universe of YouTube channels devoted to these topics or “the latest sighting” those who “start from scratch and [who] believe anything that comes along.” But, given the modern phenomenon goes back over seventy years, who can claim a complete knowledge of even the history of the phenomenon, of the “UFO canon”? On the one hand, anyone acquainted with it knows the phenomenon is global, but is it not the case (and I ask honestly not rhetorically) that ufology is still predominantly parochial, e.g., American ufology proceeding as if the land mass of the continental United States is the most important zone for sighting and encounter reports? And even if this is less the case within the context of the more generalized globalization of culture facilitated by the internet, has the whole story of the UFO up to, say, 2001 even been written (a review of Richard Dolan’s UFOs for the 21st Century Mind is in the works!)? And does not the same hold true for those who seek to “reframe the debate” (and, yes, a review of Robbie Graham et al.’s UFOs:  Reframing the Debate is also in the works) or those who would reflect on the phenomenon’s sociocultural (or, as they can say in German, geistig, “spiritual”) significance?

Given the perplexing nature of the phenomenon itself and the historical depth of our various relationships to it anyone tempted to tug at the veils of its mystery must at some point find themselves out of their depth, which is salutary, for it prompts us to find again our footing.