Piping in on Hanks and Bullard on the Myth and Mystery of UFOs

Micah Hanks talks with Thomas E. Bullard concerning the folklore and reality of the UFO phenomenon. Hanks and, surely, Bullard are two with whom I share much in common on this matter, but there are some directions their conversation takes that give me pause for thought.

Not unsurprisingly, the problem of the relation between a folkloric (or sociological) study of UFO and entity encounter reports and claims concerning their physical reality or nature comes up. I’ve addressed the matter at least twice, here and, at greater length, here. Briefly, the problem Hanks and Bullard address is in the final analysis a methodologically real one. Nevertheless, it is at the same time perfectly legitimate and in fact quite fruitful for scholars such as Bullard to merely hold the question of the physical reality or nature of the phenomenon in abeyance, to merely leave it unasked, so that the meaning of the phenomenon might be examined all the more attentively. Of course, at a point, that plethora of meaning bleeds and pools into ontological questions, as Bullard is the first to admit up front.

But this methodological consideration dovetails into a more troublesome area, that has as much to do with the prejudices of Anglo-American thought as the phenomenon itself. As the research of Bullard and others has been taken to suggest, the UFO phenomenon, or more properly the UFO mythology, considered as a body of stories, because of the parallels it shares with folklore around the world, e.g., those between alien abduction and what Bullard calls “supernatural kidnap”, arguably arises from some “universal framework”. At those words, Hanks immediately brings up Jung’s Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes. Invoking universals and, even more so, universals posited to arise from the age-old, collective experience of homo sapiens, is, to say the least, problematic. The rooting of archetypes in experience betrays a need or drive for reference, as if stories must ultimately spring from what Hanks calls “a physical instigator or agent.” The same thinking applies to discussions of the Vision of Ezekiel:  did he have a spontaneous religious vision, suffer some kind of psychotic break, sight a complex space ship he described the best he could, etc.? What’s passed over is that this vision is presented in a text, however strikingly original, in a recognized genre, i.e., Ezekiel’s vision does not demand any external stimulus, psychological or otherwise, but may just as easily, and more profitably I would argue, be understood as a work of prophetic literature, with no more external, real world reference than Dante’s Commedia.

More gravely is the way that such mythological thinking dissolves what is uniquely modern about the phenomenon as we experience and communicate it now into some vastly more general distillation of species-wide experience, occluding what light the present version of these stories might throw upon our present predicaments. On the one hand, Jung himself navigates the problem by attempting to explain how the anxieties unique and immediate to the postwar world evoke a response from the archetypal tailored to that world. However, on the other, I would offer, given that stories are narrated in languages in the contexts of cultures, what is most informative about the mythology is its pertinence to what is special to our present historical moment not general to the human condition as such.

Bullard himself, at the beginning and end of his conversation with Hanks, makes statements that imply this more historicist approach. Hanks quotes a passage from Bullard’s research into alien abductions, words to the effect that what is important about these stories is not so much their reference to real-world experiences as their “status as narratives.” Then, near the end of their talk (around 01:23) he pleas for an openness to novelty in thinking. I contend that what is most significant about the UFO mythology is its functioning as a manifest content of a kind of collective dream (what Jung termed a “visionary rumour”) that expresses and articulates the anxieties and aspirations unique to (our) modernity.

Nevertheless, at the same time, I’ll be the first to counter that, just as the relation between the meaning and being of UFO reports and other stories are complexly intertwined, in the same way, the mythological and historicist (ideological critical) interpretations of the mythology are both exclusive but no less mutually implicated.

At any rate, not that Hanks or Bullard need any of the infinitesimally small promotion Skunkworks might offer, I urge parties interested in their approach to the topic to listen in and let their own thoughts pipe in. Bullard begins speaking around the 00:48′ mark.

On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”

There has been lately, understandably, some miscomprehension about what I’m up to here at Skunkworks or what I’m on about in my comments at other ufological blogs (mainly UFO Conjectures). The Anomalist (31 July 2019) takes my critique of the view that for some ufophiles fragments of UFOs function like sacred relics of old as turning the question of recent claims made by To The Stars Academy that it has acquired unidentifiable metamaterials “into a philosophical disquisition”, while Rich Reynolds insists on believing I’m trying to “use the ‘techniques’ of philosophical thought to get at the UFO problem” (which for him is only the question of the reality and nature of UFOs).

One of the earliest posts here was titled “Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO”. There I distinguished Scientific Ufology (concerned with the reality, truth, and nature of the UFO) from what I called “Phenomenological” Ufology (that brackets the question of UFO Reality to focus on the UFO Effect, the varied and various ways the UFO is meaningful in culture). The discerning reader will grasp that the latter includes a study of the former, i.e., Scientific Ufology, as an activity carried out by human beings, is one aspect of the UFO Effect, but, more compellingly that the attempt to grasp the reality of the UFO comes up empty-handed, while holding the question of UFO Reality in abeyance is rewarded with a plethora of concrete phenomena for investigation.

It was of course Carl Jung whose own justly-famous thoughts on flying saucers as A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies operated under just this distinction. Since, the UFO-as-cultural-effect has been the subject of study from a wide range of disciplines, from what today is most readily recognizable as Cultural Studies (including anthropology and sociology) in works such as M. J. Banias’ The UFO People, Bridget Brown’s They Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves:  The History and Politics of Alien Abduction, Jodi Dean’s Aliens in America, Brenda Denzler’s The Lure of the Edge, and the scholars collected in Deborah Battaglia’s ET Culture, to Folklore (e.g., Thomas Bullard’s The Myth and Mystery of the UFOs and David Clarke’s How UFOs Conquered the World:  The History of a Modern Myth), Religious Studies (e.g., the scholars represented in James R. Lewis’ The Gods Have Landed:  New Religions from Other Worlds, Christopher Partridge’s UFO Religions, or Diana G. Tumminia’s Alien Worlds:  Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact, the dual-authored The Supernatural:  Why the Unexplained is Real by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal, or the single-authored volumes Aliens Adored:  Raël’s UFO Religion by Susan Palmer or American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology by Diane W Pasulka), Art History (e.g., In Advance of the Landing:  Folk Concepts of Outer Space by Douglas Curran and Picturing Extraterrestrials:  Alien Images in Modern Mass Culture by John F. Moffitt), and even Philosophy (e.g., Evolutionary Metaphors:  UFOs, New Existentialism and the Future Paradigm by David J, Moore). Many other approaches and examples are possible.

One might term such studies, variously, “Meta-ufology”, “cultural ufology”, or even “philosophical ufology” if it extends, in the manner of the philosophy of science, to the assumptions and implications in the self-understanding and methodology of Scientific Ufology in particular, and the concepts underwriting or implied by the UFO Effect, in general. Surely, those concerned especially or exclusively with the question of UFO Reality-as-such, as well as the majority of ufophiles or ufomaniacs, will be unmoved and uninterested by the bookshelf I haphazardly list above, but this judgement is hardly any evaluation of the worth of the work. Ironically, not only is Scientific Ufology an object for (let’s call it) Cultural Ufology, i.e., it is subsumed by it, but the cultural ufologist is closer in spirit to the believer, witness or experiencer, as for none of them is the reality of the UFO ever at stake(!).

But most importantly for myself, as any persistent reader of Skunkworks will grasp, it is precisely the teasing and evasive significance of the UFO no less alluring and ungraspable than the thing itself (whatever in fact that may turn out to be) that’s at issue here. Skunkworks is a workshop labouring to design a working version of The Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (or what the German Romantics called for as “a New Mythology”, or William Burroughs as “a mythology for the Space Age”). As a poet, I look to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, for inspiration, which did for classical mythology what might be accomplished for this one. In the meantime, one can only brainstorm, take notes, draw up blueprints and build working models in the hope that one day to get something off the ground.

You can read a copy of one of the prototypes for this project here, and hear it being performed by the author, here. Others I’ve posted here are readable under the “poems” tag.





Science Fiction, Folklore, Myth, the UFO, and Ufology: a note

Commenting on my review of Gerald Heard’s The Riddle of the Saucers: Is Another World Watching? (1950), part of an on-going series “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”, Martin S. Kottmeyer generously provides extensive cultural context to Heard’s speculation that the flying saucers were piloted by super bees from Mars. Kottmeyer concludes:  “Heard may seem prescient, but he was part of a tradition of science and science fiction speculations that was quite orthodox within the genre he was part of” (my emphasis). This sentence is curious:  what genre does Heard’s book belong to?

The beginnings of a rigorous answer would evoke genre theory and reception theory; a prima facie materialist answer would trace the way Heard’s book was marketed and  how librarians catalogued it over the nearly seven decades since it was published.

Kottmeyer seems to group Heard’s book, one of the first on flying saucers, with a  “tradition of science and science fiction speculations,” which seems paradoxical. Science writing, even when it is popular or speculative, makes a claim to being true, while science fiction, as a kind of fiction, does not (or, more accurately, it makes a claim to an artistic truth…). However much A Brief History of Time and The Time Machine might have the same word in their titles and be science writing and science fiction, respectively, they surely belong to two different genres.

Today, and surely for some decades before, ufology is a liminal, paradoxical genre. On the one hand, it makes claims to being true, but in a way that is difficult to pin down. Some ufological volumes, e.g. Jacques Vallée’s Anatomy of a Phenomenon (1965) would make a claim to being true, in a provisional sense, in the same way any other sufficiently speculative science book might. Others, such as Desmond Leslie’s Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953) stake a different truth claim, one more akin to that of a religious work.

However much the truth claim of that paraliterature ufology is oscillates between the natural and spiritual, it can’t quite claim to belong to the same genre as, e.g., Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What It Seems:  The Journey to Quantum Gravity (2017) regardless of how speculative the later chapters of Rovelli’s book might be. As many have pointed out, ufology is a pseudoscience (perhaps a genre all its own), though, as Vallée has cogently remarked, no problem is scientific in itself, only the approach to the problem can be properly called scientific.

For these reasons, perhaps, the literature about the UFO that is not explicitly fictional has been read as a kind of folklore in the making or mythology, not that either term in its  generality gets us much further. But this middle way has the advantage that it can make its truth claim and bracket it, too. However much folk wisdom might possess a merely heuristic truth, that truth is still practical and uncannily modern:  however much depression might be ultimately a result of brain chemistry, the folk psychology that underwrites meditative practice prescribes an effective therapy, and stories of faeries are as age old as they are contemporary (just ask highway builders in Iceland). A mythology, likewise, following Levi-Strauss, can claim an effective truth, just of a different kind than that of the natural sciences:  regardless of whether an axe is made of stone or steel, it’s still an axe. Myth, like folklore, in the case of the ufological literature, is possessed of a weird reality, as daemonic as those entities and situations it deals with.

For these reasons, I tend to take the pseudoscientific ufological paraliterature as belonging to a genre neither scientific nor science fictional, as its truth is neither one that is subject to experiment nor calculation nor one that invites us to only imagine the world as other than it is or was. Its truth, like the flying saucer, hovers between the two; like the UFO, it is both/neither material and/nor immaterial; nevertheless, like its namesake, it leaves traces, in the culture and its imaginary.

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What’s so compelling about ET, Cover-up and Disclosure?

A post of Robbie Graham‘s at Mysterious Universe coalesced with some of my recent, casual ufological reading (Jung’s Flying Saucers, Heard’s The Riddle of the Flying Saucers, Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers are Real, Vallee’s Revelations…) to prompt the question that titles this post.

Of the “10 Shocking Statements about UFOs by Scientists and Government Officials” Graham presents, eight have to do with official secrecy or dissimulation (that governments in fact know the nature of UFOs but suppress that knowledge), while four openly espouse the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), that UFOs are spacecraft piloted by intelligent, unearthly beings. What’s as curious (if not shocking) is that this coupling of the ETH with accusations of an official suppression of its supposed truth has been part of the fabric of the UFO myth from the very beginning:  Project Sign’s “Estimate of the Situation” proposed the ETH as a possible explanation for flying saucer sightings in late 1948, while Donald Keyhoe concludes the Author’s Note that begins his 1950 The Flying Saucers are Real

I believe that the Air Force statements, contradictory as they appear, are part of an intricate program to prepare America—and the world—for the secret of the discs[,]

namely, that they are extraterrestrial spaceships.

Given that flying saucers first appear as such within the horizon of the Cold War, it should come as little surprise that the USAF personnel tasked with identifying them had to come up with some positive answers. If the flying discs were in fact real objects (as observations seemed to imply) and that aeronautical technology, domestic or foreign, was incapable of manufacturing such aeroforms, some alternative explanation had to be supplied; the urgency of the times could not allow for a shrug of the shoulders and admission of ignorance. That the most persuasive alternative proposed was that the flying saucers were extraterrestrial artifacts produced by “civilizations far in advance of ours” is as curious as it proved to be fateful for the development of the myth….

This concatenation of the ETH and an early instance of conspiracy theory will develop over the coming decades into a complex tale of crashed saucers and the retrieval of their pilots living and dead, reverse-engineering of alien technology and secret treaties between governmental or even more shadowy organizations and an ever-growing number of ET races, alien abductions and ET-human hybridization programs, secret ET bases, Secret Space Programs and Breakaway Civilizations, the suppression of free energy and other technologies, and, hanging over all this, the ever-imminent official Disclosure of these matters engineered by government insiders, ever-growing numbers of whistleblowers, and even benevolent ETs. (One should not ignore that alongside this more secular development is an equally lively and creative religious one rooted in Theosophy, that extends through the early Contactees to channelers and the New Age and various New Religious Movements). As Jacques Vallee relentlessly discloses in his Revelations (1991), the genesis and on-going production of this “powerful new myth, perhaps even the emergence of a new religion” (18) has more to do with human machination and manipulation than any suppressed science-fictional reality. Nevertheless, as Jung himself discovered in the 1950s “news affirming the existence of UFOs [and ETs] is welcome, but…scepticism seems to be undesirable” (3). Why should this be?

One might venture the following. Since the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, humankind, especially in the West but increasingly globally, has found itself displaced. In the Christian cosmos, Man was the crown of creation, made in the image of God. With Copernicus, the earth ceased to be the centre of the universe; further discoveries in the Eighteenth century revealed the earth to be vastly older than 6,000 years; Darwin disabused homo sapiens of pretensions to any uniqueness in the animal kingdom; and cosmological discoveries since have revealed a God-less universe, if not multiverse, as vast in time and space as the earth and humankind upon it have become correspondingly tiny and insignificant. Add to this story the existential threats of nuclear war and ecological collapse and one will be unsurprised at attempts to imagine ways to alleviate the anxieties such a precarious situation inspires.

Enter one or more ET civilizations “far in advance” of our own or Space Brother incarnations of Ascended Masters to lead us on to a higher plane of spiritual evolution. In the first case, the history of one society on earth, that of the technologically advanced “First World”, becomes an instance of a universal tendency of life in the universe, to evolve towards intelligence, a sentience like our own, and evergrowing technoscientific knowledge and mastery of nature. In the latter case, again, the human being is understood as a stage on life’s way, from matter to spirit, from ignorance to enlightenment. In both cases, that dethroned, decentred, disoriented species finds a new orientation in a universal scheme, as either one species among a galaxy of others ranked according to their place on a  linear scale of intelligence and technoscientific development, or on an equally linear scheme of spiritual wisdom; humankind finds again a home in a cosmic order, a kind of Great Chain of Being, whether material or spiritual, except this time, humankind creates God in its own image. Even the paranoid and fearful version of the myth, that certain ET species and their human allies are evil, working toward conquest, colonization or domination, weaves itself on the loom that projects our kind of intelligence, the self-image of our present technoscientific culture, onto all forms of life, on and off the earth.

On Faery Lights here and there (for Neil Rushton)

Thanks to The Anomalist, I discovered this site administered by novelist Neil Rushton on Faerie lore. It resonates, as anyone familiar with the work of Jacques Vallee or Hilary Evans will know, with my concerns here.

One aspect of said folklore is the Faery Light, Ghost Light, or Will o’ the Wisp, the topic of a poem from my first trade edition, Grand Gnostic Central, that links a sighting of Yeats’ recounted in his autobiography with tales told me by my great Uncle Peter and Aunt Julia on my father’s (Hungarian) side of their experiences in Saskatchewan; it is also a phenomenon dealt with by a number of researchers, most importantly Paul Devereux, and touched on here under the rubric of the Electro-Magnetic Hypothesis.


Will of the Wisp


You say suddenly you saw

A light moving over the river

Just where the water rushes fastest

Brighter than any torch or lamp


Later a small light low down

Then over a slope seven miles off

You knew by hikes and your watch

No human pace could so quick


Here they trail wagons in blizzards

Swoop like owls to rap at windows

Come in view like oncoming engines

Over no tracks up to those waiting