Sightings: Saturday 11 June 2022: We are not alone

Today’s synchronicities prompt today’s offering.

First, The Guardian posted a review of Philip Ball’s forthcoming The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, from Animals to Aliens, which is concerned with expanding the concept of intelligence to include the animal and even plant, a project readers here will recognize. Especially remarkable is the review’s concluding passage:

…most of our fantasies about advanced alien intelligence suppose it to be like us but with better tech. That’s not just a sci-fi trope; the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence typically assumes that ET carves nature at the same joints as we do, recognising the same abstract laws of maths and physics. But the more we know about minds, the more we recognise that they conceptualise the world according to the possibilities they possess for sensing and intervening in it; nothing is inevitable. We need to be more imaginative about what minds can be, and less fixated on ours as the default. As the biologist JBS Haldane once said: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Our only hope of understanding the universe, he said, “is to look at it from as many different points of view as possible.” We may need those other minds.

Like, wow. Has Ball been a visitor, here?

Secondly, the Johns Hopkins University Press kindly shared an article from one of its periodicals, Josh Shuster’s “Critique of Alien Reason: Toward a Critical Interplanetary Humanities”. Shuster’s nod to the title of Kant’s magnum opus; the invocation of critique, as such; and the urge toward an expansion of the purview of the humanities (as per Jeffrey Kripal’s efforts) all echo concerns here at the Skunkworks.

Shuster examines the recursive relation between the potential discovery of an Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and that discovery’s consequences for our self-understanding and understanding of life on earth in general, but no less (which is important, here), the ways “The science of the search as well as the cultural and civilizational questions embedded in any possible contact event are connected [if not determined] fundamentally to established philosophical positions towards cosmology, alterity, and co-existence.” Among these evolving positions is the growing awareness “that we require a contemporary—and more-than-human—political model for how to share the planet as a whole,” not only with humankind, but all the earth’s other lifeforms, an essential thesis here at the Skunkworks. The urgency of this question is underlined by humanity’s marked, indeed catastrophic, failure to share the earth, either with its own kind or its animal and plant Others. In this regard, Shuster draws the inference—one often drawn here—that “The ironic failure to connect SETI and the search for inhabited exoplanets to habitability crises on Earth…means that SETI research is at risk of continuing to repeat the failure to share the biodiverse [and racially, culturally diverse] Earth.”

Shuster draws our attention to one fundamental flaw in SETI, rooted in its cultural embeddedness: “The long history of treating Black and Indigenous bodies as Other and alien is encoded in historical conceptualizations of extraterrestrial otherness,” a not uncomplicated matter. Shuster draws out the implications of this embeddedness: “The meaningfulness of SETI, in other words, does not depend alone on whether or not there is actual contact with ETIs. What SETI most compellingly offers is a place for public reflection on and enaction of a commitment to planetary sharing and cosmological commons.” Such reflection brings into play the recursiveness Shuster is at pains to illuminate:

Thinking humanistically about the planet, …would include thinking of what can be called the interplanetary humanities in the context of a potential plurality of worlds. SETI research and thinking envisaged thus would play a role in understanding Earth as a planet among planets and in shaping the trajectory of planetary thinking in the environmental humanities. The result is that the scientific and cultural implications of SETI will help inform the humanistic thinking about our planet and vice versa.

Deliciously, in this regard, Shuster lays out Kant’s “rational alienology” as discovered and originally researched by Peter Szendy, not to present it in and for itself but as “an opportunity to sketch out some of the basic conceptualizations that are implicit in what [Shuster discusses] as a chiasmus of Kant’s thinking of SETI and philosophy.” One implication of Kant’s reflections Szendy teases out is the startling insight that “thinking SETI does not necessarily mean actually thinking about aliens, but recognizing methodologically and formally how human consciousness imbricates within itself an alien consciousness. This alien consciousness is ultimately in a paradoxical way deeply intimate yet radically unthinkable at the same time.” Delightfully, “Szendy finds similar implications … in the work of Carl Schmitt, Edmund Husserl, Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas, each of whom entertains at key moments how the alien point of view from exoplanetary space fundamentally changes conceptualizations of dwelling, cosmopolitanism, and human being on Earth.”

Shuster concludes his study with a reading of Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence,” which “piercingly reflects on how the desire to look up at the skies and contemplate alien contact frequently corresponds to a refusal to look down and around at the forms of contact among interspecies others on Earth,” a frequent theme addressed here at the Skunkworks. Indeed, Shuster articulates a not uncommon thesis we ourselves has posited here:

The Fermi paradox, embedded in the Anthropocene, may be explained by the irony that the science and technology that allow a civilization to become spacefaring also relies on extractivism, exploitation, and climate-changing processes that undermines that planet’s life. Instead of asking aliens how to escape the bottleneck of the Anthropocene, it would be easier to ask counsel of our animal neighbors. The only way out of this paradox, as Chiang’s parrot recognizes, is that SETI must be folded into multispecies relations and multispecies relations into SETI. [my emphasis]

Here’s to more such chance encounters, not because their authors are likeminded, but because of what they bring and contribute to a shared, urgent body of concern.

The Dialectic is a Trickster, or the Trickster is a Dialectician

If William Murphy over at The Anomalist found my post on Robbie Graham’s take on the hyperreality of the UFO “brainy”, I can only shake my head over what he or the like-minded will make of this one…

A central line of argument I’ve been developing here at Skunkworks concerns how the imagination of the Alien Other relates to society at large. The UFO as a piece of “advanced technology” is merely (“mirrorly”) a reification of the recent history of one society on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world. That is, when the science-fiction script writer, the UFO believer, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher all imagine extraterrestrial, technologically advanced societies, they are only projecting the “First” world onto other worlds, as if instrumental reason were identical with human intelligence in general, as if anthropomorphic cognition were the universal goal of evolution, and as if the destiny of such intelligence was tool-use and an inevitable development of what we recognize as technology, which progresses along a linear scale, such that some is more or less advanced than others.

Such speculations about UFOs are a kind of manifest content of an unconscious dream logic, whose latent content concerns how we understand our own intelligence and that of other forms of life, whether those real ones with whom we in fact share the planet, or the Alien Other. Understood as belonging to an alien race, the humanoid or anthropomorphic Alien Other is a projection of our singular selves; understood as a member of an alien species, the Alien Other is a surreal reminder of our belonging as an equal member to the family of all living things, simultaneously raising other organisms to our pretended level.

The Abrahamic apotheosis of humankind that sets it above all other creatures (Man being made in the image of God and being granted sovereignty over creation) I among many other ecological or ecosophical thinkers take to underwrite the capitalist exploitation of the natural world, animal, vegetable, and mineral, as sheer raw material. For this reason, I have argued that the intrinsic value of animals and plants need be recognized (rather than their value as means to our ends let alone their exchange value under the commodity form), marshaling the findings of research into animal and plant intelligence to undermine the Abrahamic singling out of homo sapiens and to culture greater humility on our part and deeper empathy toward all the other children of Gaia with whom we share the planet.

The foundation of my argument—that recognizing the personhood of nonhuman nature might halt their commodification—is overturned, however, by the sharp insight of philosopher Michael Marder. Marder is most famous for thinking about plants, though his philosophical work is both more wide-ranging and radical. By chance, I was led to his Los Angeles Review of Books Channel, The Philosopher’s Plant, and thereby to his post “A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity”. There, he makes the argument that

…To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital….

I still maintain that the majority of ufological discourse is ideological, unconsciously reasserting certain views of human being and society that maintain a status quo; however, the hope that unmasking this function and balancing these views (that humankind is king of creation with which it can do as it will) with their dialectical Other (human beings are one creature among others in a symbiotic, ecological system) might somehow serve at the very least to call them into question, itself gets caught up in a larger process whereby anything that can possibly come into view, e.g., animal or even plant intelligence, is immediately potentially subject to being exploited for profit.

Surely, to the ufophilic or ufomaniacal, these thoughts are farther out than speculations about how ET gets here from Zeta Reticuli or how to decode crop circles, but for those who dare read the phenomenon in the context of the real conditions of the world that form the matrix for its appearance in the first place, they reveal how much more grave and consequential the UFO mythology is in its implications and the knotted ways it is woven into and out of what we might make out of being human in the early Twenty-first century.


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 old Protagorian con

In the comments on a particularly Gnostic-pessimistic post at UFO Conjectures, one interlocutor makes the following remark:

‘Creation’ is humanity’s ‘raison d’etre’ and is ultimately what distinguishes us from other sentient creatures, including other intelligent ‘higher primates’.

Ok, apes, crows & other species make tools &/or elaborate constructions to attract potential mates but there’s no orang-utan ‘Art’ or chimp ‘Science’ (beyond figuring out how best to access food).

My first impulse was to question this claim factually, with a quick internet search, which revealed, among other things, the arfulness of Amblyornis inornatus (Vogelkop Bowerbird). I was also reminded of a remembered passage from Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology describing a circular dance by, I think, chimpanzees. But then on some reflection I realized I’d fallen for the particularly insidious assumptions that underwrite the claim for humankind’s special, creative status.

The bias of the thinking is revealed by analogy with the comparison of “advanced” to “primitive” cultures, by and to the advantage of the former. As Jerome Rothenberg observes in the Pre-face to his groundbreaking assemblage, Technicians of the Sacred (1967):

“Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time of their hands.”

In the same way, measure everything by the Sistine Chapel or Quantum Mechanics, and the world is full of uninspired, dim nonhuman animals, but once change the unit (or focal species) of measurement, and the world thrives with not only creativity and intelligence, but nonhuman powers and virtues, as well. The young William Butler Yeats mocks anthropocentric pretense with an eloquent simplicity in his poem “The Indian Upon God”.

There’s a reason philosophers in the Twentieth century coined the expression ‘ontotheology’: for the fateful confluence of Judeaochristianity (in which Man is created in God’s own image) and Platonism (and, with it, the inheritance of Hellenic thought) shores up an anthropocentrism that has reigned from then until now. It was most famously Protagoras of Abdera who is said to have stated that “Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not,” usually rendered as “Man is the measure of all things.”

The identification of “creativity” with human creativity is part and parcel of the identification of “intelligence” with human intelligence that roots and orients the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis about the origin of UFOs. It is also, arguably, this anthropocentricism that justifies the ways of Man to himself in his exploitation of every being on (and, in the planning stages) off the earth as either raw material or commodity, a mode of behaviour that has resulted, most poetically, in mussels being cooked alive at low tide in the superheated waters off the coast of California.

Photograph: Jackie Sones


“Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth”

I’ve argued often here that imagining advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is a mere projection of one more or less accidental cultural formation of one species on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world of homo sapiens.

Now, James Tour, a synthetic chemist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, publishes an open letter making a case he summarizes as follows:

We synthetic chemists should state the obvious. The appearance of life on earth is a mystery. We are nowhere near solving this problem. The proposals offered thus far to explain life’s origin make no scientific sense.

Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth.

Tour’s argument touches on not only exobiology, but SETI, and so, by extension, ufology and the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH), let alone the Neodarwinist consensus. Our inability to reasonably and confidently posit how life arises from nonliving matter on earth surely alters at the very least airy speculations involving the Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox, let alone the persuasiveness of the ETH.

Of course, it doesn’t follow that just because we can’t formulate exactly how life arose on earth that it hasn’t occurred elsewhere under different conditions or in different forms, which would be merely another tenuous generalization from our own situation and current state of our knowledge. Nonetheless, Tour’s argument surely reveals the ignorance and hubris that underwrites the widespread belief in the ETH (let alone Disclosure (to say nothing, here, of Neodarwinism)), exposing, in turn, how it is rooted not so much in science or reason but in ideology, psychology, and imagination.

Most pointedly, Tour’s article might serve to sensitize us to the mind-boggling singularity, precarity, and preciousness of life—all life—already existing here, on earth, moving us to attend to it and its preservation, such biophilia having always been at work in its own surreal, dialectical way in our rumours about the UFOs and their pilots and, indeed, in the messages they have communicated to us.

The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis: Symptom or Pathology?

David Clarke in his How UFOs Conquered the World:  The History of a Modern Myth refers to the “UFO Syndrome”, “the entire human phenomenon of seeing UFOs, believing in them and communicating ideas about what they might be” (12), what I have called “ufophilia” (and am tempted to term, sometimes, “ufomania”). Even before George Adamski published his story of meeting a man from Venus, a latter-day Lord of the Flame, in 1953, and even before Project Sign’s famous Estimate of the Situation, desperate to explain the recalcitrant mystery of high-performing aeroforms intruding on American airspace, the public imagination had already ventured that Flying Saucers might be spaceships from another planet populated by Extraterrestrial Intelligences (ETIs), an explanation for UFO and close encounter reports that later came to be called the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Though the notion of ETI was already in the air, the most notorious example being Orson Welles’ 1938 The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, the idea as such runs much deeper, and, in its ufological guise as an element of the UFO Syndrome, possesses graver implications.

flying_saucers_are_real_cover_keyhoeAn important ufological popularizer of the ETH is Donald Keyhoe. In his first book, The Flying Saucers are Real (1950), he wrestles with the question of the origin of the flying discs. Having been pushed to the ETH by a process of elimination, he tries “to imagine how they [ETIs] might look” (136). Having read what he could of what we today call exobiology, he understands that there are “all kinds of possibilities.” Then, he makes a telling confession:

It was possible, I knew, that the spacemen might look grotesque to us. But I clung to the stubborn feeling that they would resemble man. That came, of course, from an inborn feeling of man’s superiority over all living things. It carried over into the feeling that any thinking, intelligent being, whether on Mars or Wolf 359’s planets, should have evolved in the same form.

Keyhoe, here, is either ignorant (which he certainly seems to be concerning evolution) or disingenuous. The “stubborn feeling” that the ET pilots of the flying saucers “would resemble man” is hardly “inborn”. A longstanding thesis among thinkers concerned with the ecological crisis is that the thoughtless abuse of the natural world by, especially, Western industrial society is aided and abetted by its Judaeo-Christian heritage. Famously, in Genesis, man is made in God’s own image (I.26) and given dominion over creation (I.27) (an idea mocked with a theosophical flavour in Yeats’ early poem “The Indian Upon God”!). This (what a philosopher might term ontotheological) anthropocentrism is the source of Keyhoe’s feeling and more importantly it serves to reinforce capitalism’s assumption that anything and everything on (and off!) the earth is a potential resource to be exploited for profit.

There’s a strikingly illustrative scene in the film Clearcut (1991). The manager of a logging company is abducted by an ambivalent character, who is either a Native militant or, more interestingly, a nature spirit come to revenge the ruthless clearcutting of the forest. The manager is tortured in ways that mirror the loggers’ treatment of trees and, at one point, the militant holds the manager over a cliff overlooking a breathtaking natural vista, asking him, “What do you see? What do you see?” to which the manager answers, desperately mystified by the question, “Nothing!”. The fateful confluence of the Judaeo-Christian ontotheological anthropocentrism and the rapaciousness of capitalism blind humankind to both nonhuman intelligence and the innate value of nonhuman life. I have argued at length elsewhere that any unprejudiced reflection on and consequent non-anthropocentric conception of intelligence radically dethrones and decenters whatever human intelligence might believe itself to be. It might appear ironic, then, that The Anomalist can share links to UFOs and Contactees in the same space as others to new discoveries in the realm of plant and animal intelligence.

Orthon (l) and George Adamski (r)

Another irony is discernible in the concerns expressed by both the Space Brothers and other ETs. If the ETH is underwritten by a religiously-inspired anthropocentrism that in turn supports the economic system whose activity has in a matter of hardly two centuries resulted in the latest mass extinction, then the striking anthropomorphism of ETs might be said to be an imagination at the very least consistent with this catastrophically destructive social order. However, as is well-known, the Space Brothers of the Contactees landed to warn us of the dangers of atomic weapons, while abductees or Experiencers report being shown distressing images of nuclear war and environmental destruction; there has been from the start an environmental/ecological dimension to ET encounters, consistent with the view that the reports are inspired by the anxieties engendered by technoscientific development in so-called advanced societies.

As compelling is the case that the ETH is a symptom of a deeper, mortal malaise in Western society, the matter is, of course, more complex. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry Turtle Island (1974), Gary Snyder writes (47):

…Japan quibbles for words on

what kinds of whales they can kill?


A once-great Buddhist nation

dribbles methyl mercury

like gonorrhea

in the sea.

Here, Snyder reminds us that the relation between religion and economy is a complicated question; however much the Judaeo-Christian idolization of the “human form divine” is harmonious with the profit-driven and otherwise mindless exploitation of the natural world, religious views that, in this case, are overtly concerned with non-human life exist, however uneasily, alongside such insensitive destructiveness. There is, moreover, an analogous paradox in certain aboriginal worldviews, which, on the one hand, speak of “the flying people” (birds) and “the crawling people” (snakes) and that have been the inspiration for radical ecological initiatives, such as the push to give rivers and ecosystems rights under the law, while on the other, their understanding of the UFO phenomenon invokes stories of Star People, who, at first glance, seem to be as humanoid as any Venusian. These paradoxes pose new questions and open curious avenues of investigation regarding the globality of the UFO phenomenon and the equally global extent of the society whose technoscientific character the ETH might be said to reflect and affirm.

The theme, as poet Walt Whitman would say, has vista. The belief in ETI is itself paradoxical in character:  it is both widely-held (by more than half the population in the US, UK, and Germany) but thought unserious, fit only to inspire light entertainments or crackpot obsessions. Yet, as the psychoanalytic study of the trivial shows, the margin reflects the deepest concerns of the centre; indeed, that these concerns are exiled as flaky is precisely a sign of their gravity. The ETH symptomatically expresses profound aspects of human self-regard that have equally grave consequences for social behaviour.