Alien “Races” or “Species”?

At the end of January, I had the pleasure of discussing with M. J. Banias the topic of “Abducting the Alt-Right: Race Politics and Paranormal Subcultures”, a conversation I followed up on here.

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 alienGreyAlien 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 http _in5d.com_wp-content_uploads_2015_03_dnghdgthan 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.”

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Imagine That!

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!).

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

A thematically complex film, Arrival‘s depiction of the alien Heptapods is as creative as https _i.ytimg.com_vi_ghgfg2iqpd0_hqdefaultits 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.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

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. https _blogs-images.forbes.com_markhughes_files_2015_10_under-the-skin-1940x1035.jpgEven 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.

 

The Mothman Prophecies (Max Pellington, 2002)

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. https _medialifecrisis.com_files_images_articles_201712-popgap_mothman-prophecies-2002_mothman-prophecies-2002-00-10-21The 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. https _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_en_6_68_vienen_txfThese 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.

Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1971)

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.

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