Luis Cayetano has again been kind enough to engage me in conversation and give me free reign to improvise further thoughts on a wide range of topics, consciousness, UFOs, technology, society, the Enlightenment, conspiracy theory, and so on and so forth.
It’s a long one, clocking in at just over two-and-a-half hours, and, despite my preparatory efforts, the sound quality of my end was not as clear as could be and should have been. Nevertheless, we were able to orbit, touch on, and dig into a number of interesting topics and questions, including how fictions become truths, the UFO-as-fetish, problems in interpreting the symbolic dimension of the phenomenon, among many others.
Thanks again to Luis Cayetano for producing the interview and its YouTube incarnation. You can hear it, here.
In a Facebook group I’m given to haunting, one member posted a number of photos of mantes (that’s (one) plural for ‘mantis’), observing, e.g., “Yet another photograph of a praying mantis that at the same time reminds me of how modern Western fantasy artists depict fairies AND extraterrestrials.”
Whether anyone else might make the same connection, what struck me is how I first took the claim: it’s not that (as in a sighting or encounter report) the alien Other (fairies or extraterrestrials) look like mantes but that the mantis resembles them.
At first I was reminded of the (post)modern phenomenon of hyperreality, where it’s not the original that legitimates or “grounds” the representation, but, in our media-saturated society, the other way around. The American novelist Don DeLillo provides a good example: in his novel about the Kennedy assassination, Libra, a woman in the crowd that has come out to see the president says excitedly, “Oh! He looks just like his pictures!”.
The poster’s thinking is prima facie hyperreal in as much as it gives primacy to the representation (the pictures of fantasy artists) over the real object (the mantis) those representations are modelled after, i.e., what’s important about the mantis is its resemblance to artistic depictions, not how the mantis might inspire these representations or the encounter reports and folklore that the artists in turn interpret. Reality or its ground might be said to flow not from the real object to its picture, but from the picture to the real object.
But the poster’s thinking is both more uncanny and complex: it’s not the picture that makes the pictured real as in hyperreality, but, the representations of those liminal beings (fairies and extraterrestrials), whose very reality is questionable, that evokes the unquestionably real thing (the mantis). That is, the relation here is more ontological (the questionably real brings to mind the unquestionably real) than hyperreal (the picture grounds the authenticity of the depicted).
But what has been overlooked here is that it’s not mantes-as-such that bring to mind the artistic renderings of ETs and the Fae, but photographs of mantes that evoke artistic depictions. Strictly, one kind of picture brings to mind another kind; the photographs (themselves artistic renderings) bring to mind non-photographic artistic renderings. Is the resemblance between extraterrestrials and fairies on the one hand and mantes on the other, or is it between how mantids, liminal and real, are represented artistically? Is the poster moved by the resemblance between the insect and the reported morphology of certain alien Others or by conventions of artistic representation in different media?
What’s wound together here are two curious considerations. On the one hand is the transparency of media of representation, how attention is paid to what is pictured rather than the medium or manner of that picturing, an aesthetic anesthesia endemic to our time wherein the photographic has long since replaced the drawn or painted, but a moment no less of the erosion in our reflexive faith in photographic evidence (never mind realism) in an era of CGI and Deefakes. On the other is the no less thought-provoking resemblance between descriptions of nonhuman entities, extraterrestrial or otherwise, and their all-too-human or all-to-earthly morphology. This latter consideration doubtless has something to do with how anomalous experiences are made sense of and the provocative ways species and race are bound up with thinking about extraterrestrials….
A not unrelated development is the announcement that the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG) is to replace AATIP (Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program). The more excitable among the UFO community are persuaded this shift in (American) official stance toward Unidentified Aerial Phenomena is another move in that dance-of-many-veils called Disclosure.
A more historically-informed perspective, namely Kevin Randles’, judges “that we are looking at Twining 2.0, meaning there really is not much new here. We are in the summer of 1947 when the Pentagon didn’t know what was happening and began an investigation. The only real difference is that this seems to be more transparent… though the Navy has classified the sighting reports.”
A no-less deflationary stance is taken by a regrettably-pseudonymous author at Medium, “INFO_OPS” who makes the case that this most recent “UFO mania” beginning with the bombshell series of articles in The New York Times at the end of 2017, the subsequent creation of To The Stars Academy, down to this most recent announcement “is the result of a coordinated defense or intelligence influence operation.”
However much INFO_OPS’ adopting a pen-name (not unlike “Q”) raises the question of whether or not their contributions are any less part of “a coordinated defense or intelligence influence operation”, both their and Randles’ interventions underline that things are not as they seem, that the “official-version-of-events” is just that, a version of things, whose index-of-refraction, however much it seems transparent, is not.
This hermeneutics of suspicion can be applied not only to official statements about the phenomenon but to the phenomenon itself (or, at least, how it is itself represented in the form of sighting and encounter reports). Jacques Vallée has over decades consistently argued that the provocative irrationality of persistent features of the phenomenon mitigates against the theory that we are dealing with visitors, explorers, or invaders from other planets, dimensions, or times. Such high strangeness demands we reorient or reconfigure the categories by which we make sense of the world in order to integrate and assimilate the phenomenon’s bizarre behaviour. However, it’s precisely how destructive (if not deconstructive) the phenomenon is of our existing worldview in just this way that stages the phenomenon’s theatricality: the phenomenon is no longer what it appears to be (an alien spaceship surrounded by its crew collecting soil and plant samples, for example) but enacts a meaning beyond itself.
Such dissimulation, by government, media, or the phenomenon itself, bears a resemblance to literature, whose language is characterized precisely by its not saying what it means, operating by what critic Paul de Man termed “irony”. And there is surely no less (conventional) irony in the behaviour of the ufophilic or -maniacal. Their ardent desire for the truth, which would finally dispel the mystery, is the very reason they are so readily seduced by the bluffing and stonewalling of officialdom, the outright deception of intelligence operatives, the stories or tales of journalists, hoaxers, or outright hucksters, and, finally, perhaps—a la Vallée—the very phenomenon, a state of affairs that dates back to the earliest days of the modern phenomenon (post-1947), as can be read in the pages of Donald Keyhoe‘s books, that the Air Force possesses evidence of the truth of the matter but suppresses or misrepresents it until such time as the powers-that-be deem the general public fit to have the earth-shaking secret revealed. Instead of such revelation (or “disclosure”), we have experienced an endless deferral, a mindboggling efflorescence of reports, photographs and films, ‘zines, articles, books, documentaries, movies, and so on, in a word text, a situation summed up aptly in Derrida’s famous (and generally misconstrued) claim that “il n’y a rien en dehors du texte“…
Of those generous enough to comment on the conversation, one observes:
You could argue that ufology as it currently exists is inherently racist in that it’s an effort to place aliens (the really radical Other!) into categories based on appearance. The fact that white/European/male flavored aliens keep turning out to be at the top of the hierarchy just shows that ufology is very much an outgrowth of Western modernity.
The commenter explicitly takes her cue from anthropologist Christopher F. Roth’s chapter in E.T. Cultures: Anthropology in Outerspaces (ed. Battaglia) “Ufology as Anthropology: Races, Extraterrestrials, and the Occult”. Roth’s thesis is that “ufology is in one sense all about race, and it has more to do with terrestrial racial schemes as social and cultural constructs than most UFO believers are aware” (41), i.e., that extraterrestrials (ETs) are made sense of according to racial categories and notions about race already in place, in ways that are often as unconscious as explicit. Some of Roth’s conclusions are tenuous while others are quite compelling and provocative, but I think both his and the commenter’s thoughts on this matter likewise elide in a telling manner an important distinction that is also confused by UFO believers, that between race and species.
Despite acknowledging that in the literature one finds “a bewildering array of alien abductors, with the typical Grey only one species [!] among a panoply that include[s] mummies, trolls, sasquatches, and robots” (69) (one could point to the the many volumes of ET entity reports compiled by Albert S. Rosales, as well), Roth restricts his analysis to humanoid ETs that lend themselves to a racialized understanding, such as Nordics or Greys. ETs range in their morphology from the human (such as the Nordic), to the (to coin a distinction) humanoid (such as the Grey), to the anthropomorphic (such as the Reptoid or Insectoid or Mantid), to creatures such as one reported in Japan, a combination of “starfish and human.” ETs, then, might be said to appear along a continuum that ranges from the human to the animal, which would explain why web searches for both “extraterrestrial races” and “extraterrestrial species” tend to return nearly identical results, depending upon one’s search bubble. Even among those ufophiles whose efforts are most heavily invested in ETs, the terms ‘race’ and ‘species’ are used inconsistently: Michael Salla refers to ETs as other races without exception, while Corey Goode uses the terms interchangeably.
This confusion, on the one hand, reinforces the charge that ufology is a pseudoscience. Any ET as such will be another species both with respect to terrestrial homo sapiens and in regards to each other. Even the concept of race as anything other than a cultural construct has been consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history. Moreover, the idea often found in abductee, contactee, and conspiracist literature that ETs interbreed with humankind is nonsense. How such imaginings emerge from and play into various aspects of racism is fairly well laid out by Roth.
But, on the other hand, this muddle among the believers also touches on the relation between the human and the animal in a richly contradictory manner. ETs, first, reflect an anthropocentric thinking, as I have often pointed out before. That ETs are identified as other races reinforces how much they resemble us. Morphologically, they are humanoid (in the case of Nordics or Greys) or anthropomorphic (in the case of Reptoids or Mantids); they are, moreover, like us, technological and social, but, most importantly, they spontaneously pick out human beings from the manifold other species of life on earth as the one most like themselves, mirroring our identification with them as extraterrestrial intelligences, the very same prejudice that underwrites the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
However much ETs are anthropomorphic, that they appear in forms closer to the animal than the human, whether reptilian, insectoid, avian, feline, picsine, or what have you, and that they are grasped equally as different species ironically effaces the anthropocentrism that governs their morphology and by the same stroke negates the anthropocentrism that divides the human from the animal, itself a cultural, ontotheological distinction no more scientifically tenable than that of race. That ETs appear more animal than human (seeming different species) while at the same time appearing as our equals in sentience (as different races of the same species) overturns the speciesism that haunts so much ufological discourse.
The inability to distinguish race from species is contradictory. On the one hand, it can be understood to articulate and support racism, in the ways Roth outlines, that would alienate human beings from each other, making other races into other species, as well as maintaining the fateful division between human and nonhuman life. On the other hand, the confusion fuses the two terms, revealing the kinship of all species of life, as if every organism were a sibling of every other.
This blurring of race and species is, therefore, not so much a symptom of ignorance and backwardness as a psychoanalytic index of the repressed contradiction of our culture’s actually living between two worlds, one, ontotheological and anthropocentric and by extension necrophilic, the other biocentric and biophilic. Ecological anxiety and environmental consciousness have been constants in the more religious or spiritual dimensions of the phenomenon, as the messages from the Space Brothers about the dangers of atomic power, the visions of catastrophe shown abductees, and conspiracist rumours about suppressed, free energy technology attest. The manifest content of this collective fantasy, of “extraterrestrial races interacting with humanity”, in its ignorance and surreal irrationality, leads us to discover a radical latent content, revolutionary in its import, in the way it reveals and overturns the foundations of the anthropocentric domination of the earth that has stamped itself on the very geology of the planet in the guise of the Anthropocene and resulted in the most recent mass extinction. As the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote “…where danger threatens / that which saves from it also grows.”
Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures has complained, rightly, I think, about the uniformity of the alien in both recent science fiction and in the contact reports ufology chooses to scrutinize compared to the early days of the modern phenomenon in the 1950s. Any reader of Skunkworks will know too the consistent criticisms I level against the obsessive anthropocentrism of ufological speculations. As I commented myself on Reynolds’ complaint, recent cinematic and televisual incarnations of the Alien Other came to mind that strike me as strange enough to begin to approach just how uncanny a truly alien entity might be. (Though none compare to this real world report out of Japan, here!).
A thematically complex film, Arrival‘s depiction of the alien Heptapods is as creative as its plotting and its probing the relation between language and consciousness. Its first virtue is how the aliens resemble octopi or squid more than human beings. Recent discoveries concerning the genetics and intelligence of octopi harmonize nicely with this conception. Despite their being linguistic, tool-using (technological) creatures—an anthropocentrism I often criticize here—the radical difference of their language due to their profoundly different mode of temporality and the way their ships resemble stone more than metal and dissolve in mist rather than shoot away into the sky also set their depiction apart from the stereotypical Little Grey Man in his Flying Saucer. The cognoscenti will recognize in that fading away a correlate to real-world sighting reports.
Like Arrival, Under the Skin is more than an alien body-horror film. Still, its version of the alien is even more cunning. The aliens seem to be fluid, a witty metaphor, capable of filling the role of a human being, whose skin they don. Even when this disguise is finally ripped off in the movie’s climax, the audience sees only an impersonal black form, as featureless as the liquid form is amorphous. By refusing to actually depict an alien, it employs a visual metaphor that is all the richer for its being nonliteral.
Though strictly more about ultraterrestrials than extraterrestrials, Pellington’s cinematic version of John Keel’s classic book includes one of the most compelling representations of what would otherwise seem a UFO encounter experience: an indistinct, blinding orange-red light, which seems as much an interdimensional portal as a UFO, an uncanny dread or calm, and a vaguely-human figure, communicating in a weird, whispering hybrid of telepathy and speech. The figure of the Mothman not only appears as a dark, indistinct, red-eyed menacing silhouette, but pareidolically as a mark on a car’s radiator grille, tree bark, and, most wittily, in a brainscan image.
The X-Files (Chris Carter, 1993-2018)
For all its inconsistencies, when The X-Files was good, it was very, very good, however unconsciously. On the one hand, it presents us, rather wearily, with varieties of Greys; nevertheless, the ETs appear also, more provocatively, as hybrid clones, shapeshifters, and a black oil. These latter imaginings share the strengths of those in Under the Skin and The Mothman Prophecies in being more suggestive than literal. As hybrid clones, the alien is as much a monstrous DNA as nonhuman being. The shapeshifting variety (however anthropocentric) wears its protean, unclassifiable Otherness on its sleeve, as it were. And the black oil combines alien-as-infection body horror, the fluid identity of the shapeshifter, and a metaphorical resemblance to petroleum ,all in a single, tour de force image.
Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, Tarkovsky’s arthouse film Solaris is a richly suggestive cinematic work that transcends mere genre. The title’s planet, which mirrors and conjures the desires of the humans sent to explore it, is a vivid metaphor for the projective character of human understanding in general and how we place as much as face objects of perception, especially the alien Other. Lem’s metaphor encapsulates much of my critique of the ETH and its implications.