Sightings: Saturday 27 November 2021: Mantes, Disinfo; Hyperreality, Irony

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“…

Book Review: Neil Rushton’s Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Neil Rushton’s Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a timely and accomplished first novel. It might seem odd to review this book at Skunkworks, but Rushton’s novel touches on shared concerns in its treatment of transhumanism, alternate realities, and the non-human intelligent entities, Faeries.

The book is timely, in the first instance, because of the character of the narrator-protagonist’s life. He is a broken soul, depressed and suffering a kind of PTSD following the sudden death of his mother and sister in a car crash. His unresolved grief culminates in a psychotic break while waiting in line in a shop landing him in a psychiatric ward. When the story proper begins, we find him released and living alone and friendless, eking out his life on a combination of government assistance and freelance webdesign, self-medicating with cannabis and, most importantly, psychedelics, given him by a shadowy, semi-official figure, Ober. Despite the extremity of his condition, the narrator is a Millenial type, depressed, medicated, and living precariously, whose typicality is reinforced by his remaining anonymous.

The novel is germane, further, because of its thematic concerns:  psychedelia and entheogens, transhumanism, nonhuman intelligences, and, more traditionally, because of their inescapability, suffering and mortality. Without giving too much away, the novel plots the narrator’s treatment with increasingly experimental psychedelics under Ober’s, and soon his colleagues’, care. As one might well imagine, as the treatment progresses, what is real becomes more precarious and amorphous. The deftness and delicacy with which this aspect of the narrative is dealt is one of the novel’s stylistic accomplishments.

The narrator’s treatment and attendant visionary experiences introduce another timely topic, transhumanism. But, unlike the simpleminded, techno-utopian version of Ray Kurzweil, Rushton envisions, or so it seems, given neither the reader nor the narrator are sure of what is real or not at any given time, a transcendence via entheogenically-driven evolution. The plot is haunted, too, not only by visions of the posthuman, but of the non-human. Weird, protean intelligences appear throughout, impish, defamiliarized versions of the folkloric Faery, here turned to a more modern or postmodern significance. Rushton’s uncanny re-imagined Little People bring to mind David Lynch’s unsettling, daemonic inhabitants of the Black Lodge. And anyone acquainted with the evergrowing body of entheogenic literature will be reminded of the entity reports that compose one part of it.

In more conventional, literary terms, the emotional heart of the book is the narrator’s unresolved grief and the attendant need to come to terms with mortality. Beneath the theatrical trappings remarked above (nevertheless, a not unimportant part of the novel’s architecture) is the process of the narrator’s painful and harrowing exploration of the painful frailty of human connection, familial and otherwise. One risk the novel takes is in its attempts to employ the extremes of the plot as a means to defamiliarize and so make new its heady thematic and emotional content.

And it’s just here in how ably this otherwise apparently unassuming novel carries off this difficult task that its more literary artistic achievements shine. Despite being a novel of first-person introspection and profound experience, psychedelic and emotional, the plot never bogs down, an accomplishment in its own right. The growing disorientation of the narrator over the reality of his experiences is deftly handled so that that confusion is vividly represented but without ever confusing or frustrating the reader. Despite the gravity and complexity of its concerns, the novel is constructed with a sly, intertextual irony, drawing on Shakespeare, Byron, Lewis Carroll, pop culture, folklore ancient and modern, and other sources to weave the plot’s materials, which, as they are slowly revealed, complicate, intensify, and lighten the reading experience.

In the wake of the French Revolution’s descent into the Terror, trust and hope in Progress or the sudden advent of a new world or age both faded. Writers, then, struggled to understand and render this new, obscure relation to time, history, and endings, composing in answer works without a clear ending or even, sometimes, beginning, novels and poems where reality and imagination, realistic prose, fairy tale, and dream, all served to blur the meanings of ‘vision’, most notably in those works of Romantic Irony, such as Novalis’ unfinished and unfinishable novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, forerunners of those forays into postmodern undecidability, such as the novels of Thomas Pynchon.

Rushton’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a deceptively unassuming participant in this tradition, equally our condition. It combines the perennially, personally urgent matters of death and grief, the real material conditions of millenial life under neoliberal capitalism, a more overarching concern with the fate of humankind, and speculations about knowledge and reality all within a narrative equally introspective and plot-driven, woven of an ambivalent tissue of the present moment and the literary inheritance. Rushton’s book will find a home on the bookshelf, beside titles by William Burroughs, Terrence McKenna, and their fellow travellers.

Neil Rushton. Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun. London:  Austin MaCauley, 2016. 289 pp.


Neil Rushton is an archaeologist and freelance writer who has published on a wide rushtonvariety of topics from castle fortifications to folklore. Recently he has been exploring the confluence between consciousness, insanity and reality and how they are affected through the use of a wide variety of psychotropic drugs. His first novel, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, explores these issues to the backdrop of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd. He also writes a blog-site devoted to the mythology and reality of the faeries: