Sighting: Sunday 25 April 2021: Justin E. Smith’s “Against Intelligence”

I don’t know how he does it. Philosopher Justin E. Smith, very much my contemporary, and even once a faculty member of my alma mater here in Montreal, not only functions as an academic in a French university, teaching, researching, and writing articles and books, but he maintains a Substack account where he posts juicy essays weekly. With regards just to that writing, he tells us

In case you’re curious, I spend roughly six hours writing each week’s Substack post, taking the better part of each Saturday to do it. This follows a week of reflection, of jotting notes about points I would like to include, and of course it follows many years of reading a million books, allowing them to go to work on me and colonize my inner life nearly totally.

At any rate, his latest offering harmonizes sweetly with our own obsessive critique of anthropocentric conceptions of intelligence. You can read his thoughts on the matter, here.

“…news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome…”

Of recent developments in the ufological sphere, two stand out to me: the release of a huge cache of CIA documents on UFOs and the prepublication promotion of astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book on Oumuamua and related matters. I was moved to address Loeb’s recent claims (you can hear him interviewed by Ryan Sprague here and hear him speak on the topic last spring here), but, since I have addressed the essential drift of Loeb’s speculations, however curtly, and I’m loathe to tax the patience of my readers or my own intellectual energies rehearsing the driving thesis here at Skunkworks yet again, I want to probe a not unrelated matter, an ingredient of the ufological mix since the earliest days of the modern era.

This post’s title is taken from a longer passage from Carl Jung’s ufological classic Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. In the preface, Jung observes:

In 1954, I wrote an article in the Swiss weekly, Die Weltwoche, in which I expressed myself in a sceptical way, though I spoke with due respect of the serious opinion of a relatively large number of air specialists who believe in the reality of Ufos…. In 1958 this interview was suddenly discovered by the world press and the ‘news’ spread like wildfire from the far West round the Earth to the far East, but—alas—in distorted form. I was quoted as a saucer-believer. I issued a statement to the United Press and gave a true version of my opinion, but this time the wire went dead:  nobody, so far as I know, took any notice of it, except one German newspaper.

The moral of this story is rather interesting. As the behaviour of the press is sort of a Gallup test with reference to world opinion, one must draw the conclusion that news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome, but that scepticism seems to be undesirable. To believe that Ufos are real suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged.

Loeb’s recent experience harmonizes with Jung’s. Loeb recounts around the 22:00′ mark in his interview with Sprague that when he and his collaborator published their paper arguing for the possible artificial origins of Oumuamua, they experienced a “most surprising thing”, that, despite not having arranged for any publicity for their paper, it provoked “a huge, viral response from the media…”

There are, of course, myriad reasons for the media phenomenon experienced by both Jung and Loeb. An important aspect of their shared historical horizon, however, suggests the ready, public fascination for the idea of extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations springs from an urgent source. Jung, famously, however correctly, argued that flying saucers’ appearing in the skies just at the moment the Iron Curtain came down had to do precisely with the new, mortal threat of atomic war, that, from his psychological perspective, flying saucers were collective, visionary mandalas, whose circular shape made whole, at least to the visionary imagination, what humankind had split asunder in fact. Though we live now after the Cold War, the cognoscenti are quick to remind us the threat of nuclear war remains, a threat along with increasingly acute environmental degradation and global warming. There’s a grim synchronicity in Loeb’s book’s appearing hot on the heels of the publication of a widely-publicized paper in the journal Frontiers of Conservation Science titled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.”

Just how do such anxieties arguably underwrite the desire to discover other “advanced” societies? Jung was right, I think, in seeing the appearance of “flying saucers from outer space” as compensating for the worries of his day. Rather than affirming the phenomenon’s dovetailing into his theory of archetypes, however, I would argue that the very idea of UFOs’ being from an advanced, technological civilization, an interpretation put forward spontaneously by the popular, scientific, and military understanding, is a response to the growing concern over the future of the earth’s so-called advanced societies. Such evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence seems to confirm that technology (as we know it) and the kind of intelligence that gives rise to it are not the result of a local, accidental coupling of natural history (evolution) and cultural change (history proper) but that of more universal regularities, echoing, perhaps, however faintly, those cosmically universal natural laws that govern physics and chemistry. That such intelligence and civilizations spring up throughout the stars suggests, furthermore, they all share the same developmental vector, from the primitive to the advanced, and that, if such regularities hold, then just as our visitors are more advanced than we are, then we, too, like them, might likewise negotiate the mortal threats that face our own civilization, enabling us to reach their heights of knowledge and technological prowess. That we might learn just such lessons from extraterrestrial civilizations we might contact has been one explicit argument for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The very idea, then, of a technologically-advanced civilization embodies a faith that technology can solve the problems technology produces, one whose creed might be said to reword Heidegger’s final, grave pronouncement that “Only a god can save us”, replacing ‘god’ with ‘technology’. What’s as remarkable as it is unremarked is how this tenet of faith is shared equally by relatively mainstream figures, such as Loeb, Diana W. Pasulka, and SETI researchers, and more outré folk, such as Jason Reza Jorjani, Steven Greer, and Raël/Claude Vorilhon.

Conversely, discovering the traces of extraterrestrial civilizations that have failed to meet the challenges ours faces could prove no less significant, as Loeb himself has proposed: “…we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.” Aside from the weakness of this speculation, the idea of such failed civilizations is based on the same assumptions as the idea of successful ones, thereby revealing their being ideological (positing a social order as natural). Imagine all we ever were to discover were extraterrestrial societies that had succumbed to war, environmental destruction, or some other form of self-annihilation. Technological development would then seem to entail its own end. Indeed, that this might very well be the case has been proposed as one explanation for “The Great Silence”, why we have yet to encounter other, extraterrestrial civilizations. We might still cling to the hope that humankind might prove the exception, that it might learn from all these other failures (à la Loeb), or we might adopt a pessimistic fatalism, doing our best despite being convinced we are ultimately doomed. In either case, advanced technological society modelled after one form of society on earth is projected as unalterable, inescapable, and universal. The pessimistic conception of technological advancement, a blinkered reification of a moment in human cultural history, arguably expresses from a technoscientific angle the sentiment of Fredric Jameson’s famous observation: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

The consequences of this technofetishism are manifold. However much technology is not essentially bound up with capitalism, it is the case that technology as we know it developed under capitalism as a means to increase profit by eliminating labour, a development that has only picked up steam as it were with the drive to automation in our present moment. When this march of progress is imagined to be as natural as the precession of the equinoxes, it is uncoupled from the social (class) relations that determine it, reifying the status quo. In this way, popular or uncritical speculations about technologically advanced extraterrestrial societies are arguably politically reactionary. But they are culturally, spiritually impoverishing, too. This failure, willed or otherwise, to grasp our own worldview as contingent legitimates if not drives the liquidation of human cultural difference and of the natural world. Identifying intelligence with one kind of human intelligence, instrumental reason, and narrowing cultural change to technological development within the lines drawn by the self-regarding histories of the “advanced” societies, we murderously reduce the wild variety of intelligence (human and nonhuman alike) and past, present, and, most importantly, potentially future societies to a dreary “eternal recurrence of the same,” a world not unlike those “imagined” by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises wherein the supposed unimaginable variety of life in the cosmos is reduced to that of a foodcourt.

The Promethean Lure

As Kevin Randle and others have remarked, recent U.S. Navy pilots’ encounters with UFOs are nothing we haven’t seen before. Since the Second World War, air force pilots have observed, pursued, and even fired on what appear to be aeroforms capable of instantaneously accelerating to hypersonic speeds, making impossible forty-five degree angle turns, and stopping, all performance features that outstrip the aircraft of the day. And then just as now it was speculated whether or not these aeroforms were domestic or foreign (not necessarily extraterrestrial) experimental aircraft. But beneath these analogues, a deeper pattern is discernible.

It’s an old chestnut of the Ancient Astronaut / Alien line of thinking that the culture heroes of world mythology, those deities that gifted humankind with fire (Prometheus) or writing (Thoth) for example, were in truth extraterrestrials leading homo sapiens down the path of technological development. A not unrelated story concerns the back-engineering of extraterrestrial technology recovered either from crashed saucers or intact ones secured through agreements with their pilots’ civilizations. On our own or under the guidance of ET advisors, the study of ET-tech has given us the transistor and fibre-optics (as Philip J. Corso contends in his 1998 book The Day After Roswell) and promises free-energy technology, and, with it, the advanced aeroform of the flying saucer, which, some believe, the American military or some break-away civilization has already developed.

A more circumspect version of such reflections was recently expressed by Dr Garry Nolan, who, thinking out loud, imagines the possibility that metamaterials left as physical traces of UFO sightings may be a gift, a kind of clue, so that their unusual characteristics might prompt us not only to develop ways to reproduce them but to imagine uses for them. The 2018 film UFO presents a similar scenario, where the mathematics needed to understand the ETs’ communications becomes increasingly complex, leading researchers along a line of mathematical and physical speculation toward the understanding of nature that enabled the ETs to overcome precisely the same threats to the survival of civilization we now face. In the same way such metamaterials function as hints to lines of inquiry, the aerial antics of the UFO become (in the words of Tyler Rogoway) a kind of “Holy Grail of aerospace engineering.”

Extraterrestrial technology becomes, then, either retro- or prospectively, a projection of next generation human technology. On the one (sociopolitical) hand, this projection is an expression of the ideology of the so-called advanced societies:  one haphazard inflection of human civilization imagines itself to be in line with a pattern of technological development characteristic of intelligent life universally, the kind of thinking that underwrites Maitreya Raël’s claim that his extraterrestrial teachers, the Elohim, are “25,000 years ahead” of us. On the other (more mythological) hand, the extraterrestrial symbolizes the alpha and omega, the arche and telos, of technological humanity: ET either gifts us technology or teaches us by means of teasing puzzles; more radically, in other speculations, ET interbreeds with us or biotechnologically “makes us in His own image” to raise us to its own level.

The Extra-Terrestrial, then, can be understood as an eminently mythological figure, “mythological” in the sense of making universal and necessary an historical contingency (reifying this moment of technological civilization) and, in a more compelling sense, an emblem of that reification, an idol embodying “the essence of technology”, simultaneously a transformation of the Promethean culture hero and a radical revision that remakes the mythic past in the image of now or what we thereby imagine tomorrow to be.

originsofman

A Lone Voice in the Wilderness No More!

It’s been a morning rich in synchronicities.

I was working on a forthcoming review of D W Pasulka’s American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, and Technology, wherein I had bookmarked the section concerning synchronicities and religion, as I had planned to integrate some of her reflections in my previous post. I had already read (synchronicitiously!) during my morning coffee-and-surf session an article about synchronicities and “information-ontology” (an article that calls for a response in itself!) that remarked Pasulka’s reflections, and my Facebook feed served up an article critical of the upcoming Peterson / Zizek debate, which, in turn, linked me to How Capitalism Can Explain Why an Encounter with Aliens Is Highly Unlikely by Charles Tonderai Medede.

Anyone familiar with Skunkworks will know a long-standing and oft-repeated thesis of mine is that the thought of technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is merely an anthropocentric projection of one civilization on earth whose appearance has more to do with a tenuous thread of accidents than the triumphal march of a necessary (let alone a universal) Progress. And though I’ve been making this argument in various media since the mid-Nineties, never had I heard an echo (never mind glimpsed an affirmative nod) until I read Medede’s article.

Medede’s argument is similar to mine:  technoscientic civilization as is familiar to those of us living in the so-called “advanced” societies is the result not of some transhistorical cultural necessity but is the result of cultural and even climactic accidents, e.g., the advent of capitalism in the Sixteenth century or that of the Holocene whose temperate climate allowed for the development of agriculture and settled society. Medede’s account has the added virtue of weaving Capitalism into that history of contingencies that lead to the present precarious moment of modernity. Interested parties will read (if they have not already read) his article, linked above.

My most serious disagreement with Medede is that the question “Why should aliens be technologically advanced?” “has never been properly considered”!

 

 

 

 

 

Skunkworks: First Orbit

Skunkworks has been at it a year now.

The initial impulse behind this blog was to keep me honest. I’ve been at work  (mainly on various drawing boards) on a long poem, whose working title is Orthoteny, that aspires to do for the UFO mythology what Ovid’s Metamorphoses did for classical mythology. And though I’ve test-flown various prototypes—poems such as “Flying Saucers”, “Will o’ the Wisp”, “Q’ Reveals the Real Secret Space Program”, and “Magonian Latitudes” and the sequence On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery—the work on Orthoteny had stalled, and when UFO Conjectures publicized my chapbook on the Phantom Airship Mystery, I imagined that developing the work in public would be a way of holding myself accountable.

One way of getting toward the poem is to imagine the countless stories around the UFO as constituting a “modern myth of things seen in the sky” and to read it as such. Many of the posts at Skunkworks have been just that, interpretations of various aspects of the myth as it has been developed since 1947. Complementing this hermeneutic labour has been reading classics of the canon to grasp their respective contributions to the myth and the poetic resonances within and between them.

But flying a parallel path to my poetic endeavors has been a cultural critical approach to the phenomenon. Already in 2000 with my collaborator Susan Palmer I published a study of the Raelian Movement International “Presumed Immanent” that argued that the UFO mythology was intimately bound up with and revelatory of the technoscientific spirit of modernity; that, like a collective dream, it expressed the anxieties and aspirations of the “advanced” societies and, at the same time, provided leverage for an ideological critique of that spirit; that, the UFO, like a funhouse mirror, reflected the truth of modernity back to it, but in a distorted form. Many of the posts here this past year have explored this thesis from various angles and in greater detail.

And despite being avowedly concerned exclusively with the meaning rather than the being, nature or truth of the phenomenon, with what I have called “the UFO Effect”, as any assiduous student of deconstruction will know, such distinctions, by their very separating two fields, unify as much as divide. For this reason, I have, at times, touched on matters more properly ufological, despite always attempting to steer back into the phenomenological lane.

On the immediate horizon is an omnibus review of three books that seek to bring ufology into the Twenty-first century, reviews of two books by religious studies scholars that touch on two different aspects of the phenomenon (one of which is D.W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic), and further entries in the series “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”. On the drawing board are more than a dozen other posts-in-the-working on the weaponization of the myth, various aspects of its sociopolitical implications, as well as some others on the peculiar logic of ufology. I hope too to address some English-language poetry about UFOs as a way of mapping what in fact has been accomplished in this direction. And of course given the nature of the phenomenon and the mill of rumour and speculation it drives I’ll be always on the lookout for synchronicitious inspirations for developments unimagined by my present philosophy to address.

To this first year’s readers: thank you for your interest and your occasional interventions. And special gratitude is extended on this occasion to Rich Reynolds for outing my ufological predilections a year ago.

Back to the Skunkworks!

 

The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis: Symptom or Pathology?

David Clarke in his How UFOs Conquered the World:  The History of a Modern Myth refers to the “UFO Syndrome”, “the entire human phenomenon of seeing UFOs, believing in them and communicating ideas about what they might be” (12), what I have called “ufophilia” (and am tempted to term, sometimes, “ufomania”). Even before George Adamski published his story of meeting a man from Venus, a latter-day Lord of the Flame, in 1953, and even before Project Sign’s famous Estimate of the Situation, desperate to explain the recalcitrant mystery of high-performing aeroforms intruding on American airspace, the public imagination had already ventured that Flying Saucers might be spaceships from another planet populated by Extraterrestrial Intelligences (ETIs), an explanation for UFO and close encounter reports that later came to be called the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Though the notion of ETI was already in the air, the most notorious example being Orson Welles’ 1938 The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, the idea as such runs much deeper, and, in its ufological guise as an element of the UFO Syndrome, possesses graver implications.

flying_saucers_are_real_cover_keyhoeAn important ufological popularizer of the ETH is Donald Keyhoe. In his first book, The Flying Saucers are Real (1950), he wrestles with the question of the origin of the flying discs. Having been pushed to the ETH by a process of elimination, he tries “to imagine how they [ETIs] might look” (136). Having read what he could of what we today call exobiology, he understands that there are “all kinds of possibilities.” Then, he makes a telling confession:

It was possible, I knew, that the spacemen might look grotesque to us. But I clung to the stubborn feeling that they would resemble man. That came, of course, from an inborn feeling of man’s superiority over all living things. It carried over into the feeling that any thinking, intelligent being, whether on Mars or Wolf 359’s planets, should have evolved in the same form.

Keyhoe, here, is either ignorant (which he certainly seems to be concerning evolution) or disingenuous. The “stubborn feeling” that the ET pilots of the flying saucers “would resemble man” is hardly “inborn”. A longstanding thesis among thinkers concerned with the ecological crisis is that the thoughtless abuse of the natural world by, especially, Western industrial society is aided and abetted by its Judaeo-Christian heritage. Famously, in Genesis, man is made in God’s own image (I.26) and given dominion over creation (I.27) (an idea mocked with a theosophical flavour in Yeats’ early poem “The Indian Upon God”!). This (what a philosopher might term ontotheological) anthropocentrism is the source of Keyhoe’s feeling and more importantly it serves to reinforce capitalism’s assumption that anything and everything on (and off!) the earth is a potential resource to be exploited for profit.

There’s a strikingly illustrative scene in the film Clearcut (1991). The manager of a logging company is abducted by an ambivalent character, who is either a Native militant or, more interestingly, a nature spirit come to revenge the ruthless clearcutting of the forest. The manager is tortured in ways that mirror the loggers’ treatment of trees and, at one point, the militant holds the manager over a cliff overlooking a breathtaking natural vista, asking him, “What do you see? What do you see?” to which the manager answers, desperately mystified by the question, “Nothing!”. The fateful confluence of the Judaeo-Christian ontotheological anthropocentrism and the rapaciousness of capitalism blind humankind to both nonhuman intelligence and the innate value of nonhuman life. I have argued at length elsewhere that any unprejudiced reflection on and consequent non-anthropocentric conception of intelligence radically dethrones and decenters whatever human intelligence might believe itself to be. It might appear ironic, then, that The Anomalist can share links to UFOs and Contactees in the same space as others to new discoveries in the realm of plant and animal intelligence.

orthon
Orthon (l) and George Adamski (r)

Another irony is discernible in the concerns expressed by both the Space Brothers and other ETs. If the ETH is underwritten by a religiously-inspired anthropocentrism that in turn supports the economic system whose activity has in a matter of hardly two centuries resulted in the latest mass extinction, then the striking anthropomorphism of ETs might be said to be an imagination at the very least consistent with this catastrophically destructive social order. However, as is well-known, the Space Brothers of the Contactees landed to warn us of the dangers of atomic weapons, while abductees or Experiencers report being shown distressing images of nuclear war and environmental destruction; there has been from the start an environmental/ecological dimension to ET encounters, consistent with the view that the reports are inspired by the anxieties engendered by technoscientific development in so-called advanced societies.

As compelling is the case that the ETH is a symptom of a deeper, mortal malaise in Western society, the matter is, of course, more complex. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry Turtle Island (1974), Gary Snyder writes (47):

…Japan quibbles for words on

what kinds of whales they can kill?

 

A once-great Buddhist nation

dribbles methyl mercury

like gonorrhea

in the sea.

Here, Snyder reminds us that the relation between religion and economy is a complicated question; however much the Judaeo-Christian idolization of the “human form divine” is harmonious with the profit-driven and otherwise mindless exploitation of the natural world, religious views that, in this case, are overtly concerned with non-human life exist, however uneasily, alongside such insensitive destructiveness. There is, moreover, an analogous paradox in certain aboriginal worldviews, which, on the one hand, speak of “the flying people” (birds) and “the crawling people” (snakes) and that have been the inspiration for radical ecological initiatives, such as the push to give rivers and ecosystems rights under the law, while on the other, their understanding of the UFO phenomenon invokes stories of Star People, who, at first glance, seem to be as humanoid as any Venusian. These paradoxes pose new questions and open curious avenues of investigation regarding the globality of the UFO phenomenon and the equally global extent of the society whose technoscientific character the ETH might be said to reflect and affirm.

The theme, as poet Walt Whitman would say, has vista. The belief in ETI is itself paradoxical in character:  it is both widely-held (by more than half the population in the US, UK, and Germany) but thought unserious, fit only to inspire light entertainments or crackpot obsessions. Yet, as the psychoanalytic study of the trivial shows, the margin reflects the deepest concerns of the centre; indeed, that these concerns are exiled as flaky is precisely a sign of their gravity. The ETH symptomatically expresses profound aspects of human self-regard that have equally grave consequences for social behaviour.