Deep Roots of Post-Truth

When The Anomalist (3 May 2021) was kind enough to share my response to Chris Rutkowski’s “The Metamodern UFO (or UAP) (or USO) (or UAO) (or whatever)“, it hoped I might elucidate that “pressing concern” of post-truth populism that so gets Rutkowski’s goat and poses such a threat to the effective functioning of contemporary society.

Unhappily, I’m hardly sure what therapy to apply to this uneasiness if not “dis-ease” with epistemic authority if not truth itself, though if one googles “how to talk to a conspiracy theorist” one will find some proposals. I have, however, speculated as to the cultural conditions that might be said to underwrite if not cause this latter-day crisis of faith.

As I observed in my reflections prompted by Rutkowski’s complaint, ufologically speaking, the present tension between reason and irrationalism goes back to the mutual disdain between the earliest forensic, scientific ufologists and the Contactees and their followers. Not two years ago, concerning a recent replay of this division, I addressed a question raised by Håkan Blomqvist, “How to introduce esotericism as a profound philosophy and tenable worldview to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?”, in the course of which I sketched out some thoughts on modern-day post-truth populism. What I wrote then still strikes me as not unilluminating. In a word, the condition for the post-truth “metamodernity” Rutkowski so decries is precisely what he terms “modernism”: the more or less contemporaneous advent of the Scientific (and then the Industrial) Revolution, Capitalism, and liberal democracy (as well as the Reformation and Age of so-called Discovery…). As to what is to be done

Two years ago I wrote…underlying these differing approaches to the question of UFO reality is a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation.

A froth on the wave of political populism surging across the planet in recent years is a kind of epistemological populism afloat on the ocean of ready information, fake, partial, and otherwise available on-line. This “populist epistemology” expresses itself, most recently, in the voices of Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers, who find arguments and data in support of their “theories” primarily online. Like believers in alternative cancer cures Big Pharma keeps from the general public to generate profits, these graduates of Google U often cast a paranoid glance at the institutions of power, political, legal, and scientific. Thus, ranked on one side are those “intellectual, cultural and scientific” elites Blomqvist remarks and on the other mostly ordinary folk empowered and emboldened by their sudden access to sources of information they uncritically marshal and seem hardly able to logically deploy.

Ufologically, this conflict between elites (government, military, and scientific institutions) and ordinary citizens is a cliché, a most famous instance of which is the Swamp Gas fiasco when J. Allen Hynek in the employ of the United States Air Force was forced to debunk a remarkable series of sightings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, much to the understandable surprise, disappointment, and disgust of the many witnesses. The haughtiness of such elites goes back to those French scientists who dismissed peasants’ stories of stones falling from the skies (meteorites) up to Stephen Hawking’s statement (@5:00 in his Ted talk on YouTube) that he discounted “reports of UFOs” because the phenomena appeared “only to cranks and weirdos?” Hawking is, of course, mistaken about the social status of UFO witnesses, which famously includes everyone from US Presidents to shipyard workers with the unfortunate surname Hickson.

Thus, throughout the history of UFOs, and forteana in general, one can discern a kind of class struggle between the more-or-less uneducated general populace, whose members see ghosts or are abducted by aliens or faery folk, etc., and those authoritative institutions peopled by educated elites, governmental, scientific, or ecclesiastical, which dismiss the claims and stories of the uninformed and credulous. This conflict, though traceable at least back to the Roman elites’ dismissal of the new, barbaric cult their bored wives indulged, is imaginably not unrelated to more historically-recent developments, namely the Reformation, where the interpretation of the Bible was wrested from the monopoly of a learned priesthood and radically democratized.

Conflict over the reality of the UFO in general, then, is a site of more general social struggle whose deeper historical context is, first, the Reformation, which gave each believer warrant to interpret scripture individually, then the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, that replaced the authority of the church(es) with that of Reason and its new, elite representatives. Today’s vulgate, driven, perhaps, by a well-founded frustration with the impotence of its universal franchise (given a vote but no choice) and the illusion of its freedom (merely to consume), extends its otherwise unrealized democratic claim to the purely ideal realms of truth and knowledge, where the vehemence of its voice and convictions is enough to disperse what verbal tear gas or deflect what truncheons of argument might be deployed by the tribunal of reason to police it.

The Radical Romanticism of the Anomalist

Regular visitors will doubtless have noticed Skunkworks has been on a bit of a hiatus lately. This is due to October’s having been devoted to packing and moving the physical facility and the days since working on unpacking and getting the new digs functional. As the library (sorry, Nick) is presently just piles and piles of books, it hasn’t been possible to maintain the level of erudition I’m uncomfortable without.

Some of the library
Part of the library, and not even the ufological part…

Nevertheless, one chance volume on the top of one those piles provides the impetus for today’s reflection.

In a recent brief back and forth concerning how to take if not explain Deep Prasad’s recently famous experience, Rich Reynolds expressed discontent with understanding it as a variety of religious experience. He writes:

It seems to me that a Shamanic interpretation is the least interesting, not worthy of the discussion we’ve given it here.

It leads us away from a truly imaginative and possibly insightful determination that Deep’s experience invites.

I had remarked Prasad’s experience bore certain resemblances to a shamanic initiation (an insight whose grounds and implications await a functional library here in the Skunkworks…). Reynolds, however, finds my conjecture lacking interest, imagination, and insight, which is curious. Why should a variety of religious experience, archaic, perhaps contemporary, and doubtlessly global and transcultural, and, most importantly, which eludes explanation, be deemed uninteresting?

What’s thought-provoking is how an undoubtedly real anomaly (the nature and significance shamanic initiation and experience) fails to inspire, while far more tenuous possibilities (that Prasad had communicated with extra- or ultraterrestrials or interdimensional intelligences) or downright dismissive psychological explanations (e.g., temporal lobe epilepsy or “a waking dream”) are ready grist for the mill.

The German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known as “Novalis” (pictured above)) writes in one famous fragment:

By endowing the commonplace with a higher meaning, the ordinary with mysterious aspect, the known with the dignity of the unknown, the finite with the appearance of the infinite, I am making it Romantic.

The Fortean or anomalist, it seems to me, is somewhat of a Romantic in this regard. The opposite of the debunker or skeptic who would reduce every anomaly to the commonplace, ordinary, or known, the anomalist is equally dissatisfied with phenomena that are in fact already mysterious, dissatisfied with something both provocative and amenable to investigation, needing an extra aura of “the unexplained” to fire the imagination and maintain interest. One need only think of those who quite understandably wonder about the engineering that went into constructing archaic monuments but dismiss explanations that are human, all-too-human, instead, finding it better to invoke “the gods”, extraterrestrial or otherwise.

Aristotle writes in the opening of the Metaphysics that “philosophy begins in wonder.” This wonder at the phenomena of the world incites investigation. It’s just such wonder that, in the best of circumstances, drives the sciences, and it is likewise such wonder that inspires the proto-Romantic poet William Blake to urge us

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

A kind of wonder, it seems, just not enough for whom the world and its mysteries need an added, however artificial and flimsy, glamour.