“Existence precedes essence”: culture, society, and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis

Among those who should know better, namely those engaged in the attempt to scientifically investigate UFOs or UAP, the idea that what they study represents spaceships from some extraterrestrial civilization is all too common. Regardless of whether this Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) turns out to be true or not, its central assumption, that there exist extraterrestrial civilizations of intelligent, technologically-advanced beings (whether organic or artifactual), is ideological, presupposing as natural the cultural formation of but one kind of society on earth, one which, should it continue on the way it has the past four centuries or so, threatens to perform a practical argumentum ad absurdum, demonstrating its falsity by bringing about its own catastrophic collapse and perhaps the extinction of Homo Sapiens in the bargain.

I have essayed the idea that this central presupposition is an unconcious Platonism, appearing to believe that essence precedes existence, that there is some inherent teleology in life that drives or leads it to “intelligence”, tool use and technology, and that technology, too, is governed by some essence that shapes and guides it along a more or less universal vector of progress, so that it is possible to speak intelligibly about civilizations’ being more or less “advanced”. One would have hoped it would have been enough to point out that this is precisely the view of Maitreya Raël whose Elohim are “25,000 years in advance” of contemporary terrestrial technology, but no such luck.

Putting aside the classical philosophical question as to why there is something rather than nothing, we have yet to determine how life appeared on earth and how this life came to be conscious (indeed, how consciousness might be said to evolve—an aspect of the “hard problem of consciousness“). Of course, it’s not giving too much away to grant that there is in fact sentient life of earth; it came to be and evolved to this point. “Evolved” is the key term here; however much we might observe examples of convergence and take into account recent research that seems to suggest a certain predictability to evolution, I wager your garden variety evolutionary biologist will maintain that evolution is a precariously aleatoric process.

If evolution is a pack of wild cards, how much more so is cultural change (n.b., not “development” let alone “progress”…)? The conjectures of sociobiologists notwithstanding, culture and the story of its change over time, history, argues not that essence precedes existence (beings aim at fulfilling some predetermined form or end) but that existence precedes essence. As Hegel, and, lately, Žižek, have observed: the apparent necessity of history (“It had to turn out that way!”) is a function of retrospection, not undetermined, among other things, by even the narratological rhetoric of articulating that retrospection, historiography; as history unfolds it is chaotic, aleatory.

Yet, for some reason, those given to entertaining the ETH seem to imagine that life gives rise to “intelligence”, which, of itself, gives rise to tool-use, of which technology is only an elaboration. However, only a slightly more fine-grained scrutiny reveals that technology as we know it is bound up with the natural sciences. The sciences in turn are grounded not only on observation but rely on mathematics, arithmetic and geometry, to express those relations and laws observation and experiment discover. But what of mathematics? In the case of both “pure” mathematics and geometry, praxis preceded theory. Arithmetic was first developed for use in taxation, trade, and astronomy (used, in turn, in the creation of calendars); likewise, geometry is developed to facilitate surveying, engineering, and, again, astronomy. It’s Pythagoras and Euclid, at least in the Mediterranean, who abstract pure mathematics from this practical know-how.

The way pure mathematics abstracts from the praxes of bureaucratic government, i.e. those of the social formation of its day, underlines that science is always a social endeavour, made possible (determined) by a social and cultural mileu always local in space and time. For example, arithmetic is a special instance of writing, a “technology” developed to facilitate trade (e.g., to keep inventories), a behaviour in turn made possible only due to surpluses the product of agricultural society and the division of labour that makes it possible, a society, in turn, whose condition of possibility most generally was the relatively stable, temperate climate of the Holocene, which, in turn was itself determined by all the features of earth’s geology and even its relation to the sun that have allowed life to appear and thrive on the planet so far.

A similar case can be made for the advent of Newtonian physics and the knowing subject of the natural sciences. The social matrix for Newton is no longer the polis of Pythagoras and Euclid but capitalism and the commodity form. It was Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) that brought my attention to the work of Alfred Sohn-Retel, especially his Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology, who makes the case. As Žižek so ably summarizes:

…The apparatus of categories presupposed, implied by the scientific procedure (that, of course, of the Newtonian science of nature), the network of notions by means of which it seizes nature, is already present in the social effectivity, already at work in the act of commodity exchange. Before thought could arrive at pure abstraction, the abstraction was already at work in the social effectivity of the market….

Before thought could arrive at the idea of a purely quantitative determination, a sine qua non of the modern science of nature, pure quantity was already at work in money, that commodity which renders possible the commensurability of the value of all other commodities notwithstanding their particular qualitative determination. Before physics could articulate the notion of a purely abstract movement going on in a geometric space, independently of all qualitative determinations of the moving objects, the social act of exchange had already realized the ‘pure’, abstract movement which leaves totally intact the concrete-sensual properties of the object caught in movement: the transference of property. And Sohn-Rethel demonstrated the same about the relationship of substance and its accidents, about the notion of causality operative in Newtonian science—in short, about the whole network of categories of pure reason. (10-11)

Regardless if one is persuaded by Sohn-Rethel’s argument, the point is that science and technology, including the ways they feed into each other, are woven from the fabric of the society within which they appear and operate; they are cultural phenomena through and through. As such, they cannot be subsumed under universal, natural laws that would enable us to predict their appearance and development under any other circumstances, on or off the earth. The ETH grows from a rootless abstraction (about science and technology), unaware of the profound, contingent determinations of our own situation, how one civilization on earth arrived at its present moment, a moment that scrupulous examination suggests is singular.

Reflections on two variants of Vallée’s Control System Hypothesis

My last post argues that the UFO phenomenon, including the Unidentified Flying Object itself, is given to us as a text. This position segues nicely into (at least) Jacques Vallée’s thinking in at least two respects. Since coming to know Jeffrey Kripal, Vallée has become interested in Kripal’s approach to the paranormal that grasps it as hermeneutical (hermeneutics, the discipline or art of interpretation), or so Kripal relates in his Authors of the Impossible (2010). Moreover, Vallée himself, beginning with The Invisible College (1975), has speculated that UFO events are not what they seem but are, rather, if not attempted communications exactly, staged dramas intended to influence human culture if not “consciousness”. I have reflected on the implications of this proposal here a number of times, most recently, here.

A prompt to pursue this matter further presented itself a while back. I came across the meme that serves as this post’s featured image when it was generously shared as a comment on the announcement of a recent Fireside Chat podcast. I’d read Vallée’s valuable and, in a sense, canonical paper mentioned in the meme a number of times, but had forgotten the addenda the meme cites. To venture a “doubling” of Vallée’s text (to paraphrase it): some Other (a terrestrial nonhuman intelligence, either another species (?) or the planet itself (Gaia), or the Jungian Collective Unconscious) by means of symbolically-charged interventions (variously ufological or more recognizably religious, e.g., visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary) is either “training us to a new kind of [unspecified] behaviour” or “projecting…the imagery which is necessary for our own long-term survival beyond the unprecedented crisis of the Twentieth century.”

Vallée’s Control System Hypothesis has recently come under what to me seems relatively cogent criticism. Nevertheless, any considerations as to the meaning or meaningfulness of the phenomenon is welcome here. That being said, Vallée’s Others who address us range from the speculative to the not-so-hard science fictional: Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Gaia, and Strieber’s visitors (or Tonnies’ Cryptoterrestrials?). Rather than probe these posited sources for the phenomenon’s communication or manipulation, thereby avoiding having to reflect on the hermeneutics let alone semiotics of their respective communications, I’d like to, all too quickly, consider Vallée’s variants from the perspective of their social effects.

Passport to Magonia (1969) presents a telling narrative. In Chapter Five, Vallée relates the story of Singing Eagle / Juan Diego, who in 1531 encountered what appeared to be a supernatural “young Mexican girl” who came to be known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is said to have performed both a miraculous healing and the no less miraculous creation of the holy relic of a tilma adorned with a representation of the Lady herself. Aside from “the magnificent symbolism” of the story Vallée hones in on is the fact that “[i]n the six years that followed the incident, over eight million Indians were baptized.” In Chapter Seven of The Invisible College Vallée presents the story of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, who, too, after (as Smith claims) a number of visionary experiences, he is given a supernatural artifact, a chest of gold plates upon which, written in a strange language, is the text of what will become The Book of Mormon. This newest testament, among much else, states, “the Indians are the remnant of an Israelite tribe…” The social effects of both these (in Vallée’s view) symbolic interventions by some Other are well-known—and utterly unremarked in either book. The vision and attendant stories around the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe served to colonize the indigenous population, supplanting its spirituality with Roman Catholicism. In a similar fashion, Smith’s revelation effaces the unique difference of the First Nations of Turtle Island, ideologically smoothing the way for the “settlement” of the Utah Basin by the Mormons under the racist Brigham Young, dispossessing an estimated population of 20,000 Indigenous inhabitants.With respect to these two stories and their effects, Vallée’s Control System seems on the side of settler colonialism…

What of Vallée’s second variant, that in the UFO, at least, the Collective Unconscious is “projecting…the imagery which is necessary for our own long-term survival beyond the unprecedented crisis of the Twentieth century”? The imagery and its effects are ambivalent in this regard at best. Jung himself posits that the circularity of the flying saucer is an archetypical mandala, an image of wholeness and unity, that psychologically compensated for the anxiety brought about by a world split into two, murderously-adversarial camps. However, however dramatic, such a visionary intervention is hardly an answer to the mortal problem it emotionally assuages. Indeed, it fits almost perfectly one definition of ideology: an imaginary solution to a real problem. But more disturbingly are the ideological implications of the UFO mythology as it by and large came to be developed since 1947. The flying saucers were taken to be extraterrestrial spaceships possessed of a technology vastly in advance of our own. As such, the flying saucer functions, again, ideologically, reifying—making seem natural and universal—the reigning character of the so-called First World. If the growing menace of climate change and the ecological crisis are anything to go by, the imagery of the UFO mythology seems at odds with our long-term survival, entrenching a kind of techno-optimism that serves not so much to suggest a way beyond the urgent environmental crises of the moment as to stabilize the present social order enriching Silicon Valley and capitalists such as Elon Musk.

Admittedly, the interpretation of those interventions Vallée’s work presents is far from so cut-and-dried. The matter demands difficult work on presenting the mythology in its wild variety, and reflecting long and hard on the semiotics and hermeneutics proper and sufficient to this mythology considered as a communication or intervention from or by a nonhuman other. That being said, anyone undertaking this task needs muster an ideologically-sensitive vigilance to the ways the myth works and more importantly for whom regardless of its ultimate source.

Sightings: Sunday 5 December 2021: Why it matters how we think about intelligence and technology

Watching a certain kind of article turn up on my news feeds gets a little like binge-watching The Walking Dead or one of its numerous spinoffs: how many times can one watch another zombie shamble into view to be dispatched? Surely, some readers here might justifiably feel the same when the topic of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) or the very notion of an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization is raised and cut down.

Until such time as I can win a forum for my arguments as public as that of a certain Harvard professor of astrophysics I can’t help but persist in the exercise, at least to keep my brain fibres warmed up and limber and my critical machete honed. On (in?) the other hand, it might be time to clarify what my reflections on this topic intend…

Two articles that caught my attention this week and that provide good opportunities in this regard are Joelle Renstrom’s from Wired “Looking for Alien Life? Seek Out Alien Tech” and another from FuturismScientists Say There May Be ‘Humans’ All Over the Universe“.

Nanosats

Renstrom’s article collates ideas already addressed here (that SETI might prove more fruitful were it to search for technosignatures rather than signals from extraterrestrial civilizations) along with remarks and reflections from Seth Shostak and Susan Schneider that speculate about the implications for SETI of an extraterrestrial species’ having become post-biological: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens—the merging of biological beings and machines. Maybe they’ve become nanosats. Maybe they’re data or are part of a digital network that functions like a collective consciousness….”

The critical fissure, however, is right there in that first sentence: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens”, and even more in the article’s subtitle: “Shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs could break us out of anthropocentrism and help guide humanity’s future.” Ironically, the “paradigm shift” Renstrom outlines (“shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs”) is itself anthropocentric, modeled as it is on the self-understanding of one, very recent and by-no-means global, culture of Homo Sapiens. The unconscious narcissism (anthropocentrism) is evident in the way Renstrom outlines his argument:

If we assume that biological life of some sort emerged on other planets, then we can also make some educated assumptions about how that life evolved—namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers. Maybe those species invented artificial intelligence (AI) or virtual worlds. Advanced ET may have reached the “technological singularity,” the point at which AI exceeds human or biological intelligence. Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…

Despite the fact we have yet to determine how life arose on earth and have yet to detect it off-world (provided we could even recognize it when we encountered it…), one would have to be perversely stubborn not to be moved if not convinced by the sheer number of even earth-like planets so far discovered not to grant the assumption that life-as-we-know-it has emerged elsewhere in the cosmos. But note the leap Renstrom makes: “namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers.” Aside from the far-from-unquestionable concept of technology at work here, that equates technology with (or reduces it to) tool-use, how is it an “educated assumption” that life gives rise to technology, especially that exemplified by factories and computers not to mention the complex society and culture that underwrite them? It is, from the available evidence, not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology (in a more educated sense), but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model. The critical move occurs when a vector of “development” is projected from the present into an imagined future (“what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…”). If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.

“…human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the universe”.

But what if those natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology that govern evolution entailed that the morphology of life were more harmonious if not uniform, such that extraterrestrial, humanoid organisms were well within the realm of possibility? The theory of evolutionary convergence posits, roughly, that similar conditions can and will entail similar evolutionary developments. Mammals and cephalopods both possess eyes, though they do not share a common, eyed ancestor; likewise, birds, bats, insects and pterosaurs all developed flight independently. On these grounds, evolutionary biologists believe that “they can ‘say with reasonable confidence’ that human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the universe“.

But some evolutionary biologists cannot resist the temptation to take the next step. An example is Ari Kershenbaum, the author of The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy who conjectures:

Some planets are just going to have simple life on them. Many, maybe even most. But let’s assume that we found a planet with something we would call intelligent life. No one gets intelligence just because it would be a cool thing to have; their ancestors must have benefited from that intelligence. If they reached the stage where they can build a radio telescope, then they must have been through the stages where it was advantageous to be curious, where it was advantageous to communicate.

Kershenbaum’s speculation seems offered in a blithe spirit, but it’s precisely its light-heartedness that betrays the shallowness of the thinking at its foundations. First, there is the failure to reflect on “intelligence”; for Kershenbaum, it’s merely what “we would call intelligent life”, apparently an “intelligence” like our own, or, more precisely (and narrowly), like that ability to solve technical problems, instrumental reason, that leads to the construction of radio telescopes. It’s as if, e.g., David Stenhouse hadn’t published his Evolution of Intelligence in 1974 (!) that sought to articulate intelligence as “adaptively variable behavior,” a conception that recently has been applied to research into plant cognition. More gravely is the way Kershenbaum’s conjectures dovetail from evolution (natural selection) to culture, as if the latter were unproblematically reducible to and explainable by the former….

undermining a position…

For the most part, discussions around UFOs, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), and SETI are divided between “believers” (UFOs are manifestations of the technology of extra-, ultra, or cryptoterrestrials, interdimensionals, or time travelers…) and “skeptics” (UFOs are a purely social or psychological phenomenon). Many who have encountered what I write here at Skunkworks slot it into the latter category, but, in doing so, really misread me.

At the end of the day, the questions posed by, e.g., The Galileo Project, are to be answered empirically. It may be that someday unequivocal evidence of nonhuman technology will be secured. However, at the same time, it is a legitimate question to ask just how such technology will be recognized as technology in the first place, just as it’s a legitimate question how we might recognize intelligent life (let alone life) if and when we encounter it offworld, let alone be recognized by that intelligent Other as its Other. What’s at stake in these questions is not a matter that can be resolved empirically, through observation or experiment; such questions address the concepts that are at the very basis of thinking about extraterrestrial life: What is technology, life, intelligence? As such it falls to philosophy to reflect on the assumptions and implications of the unconscious (assumed) content of these concepts as it is at work in the discourse about UAP and SETI.

The implications of how life, intelligence, technology, and related matters are thought are not merely “academic”, but reveal how the society and culture that deploy these concepts thinks about itself and other forms of life, human and otherwise. Speculations about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations or the future of our own are more science-fictions than evidence-based predictions, and, as such, function as mirrors that show ourselves to ourselves but in an indirect, distorted or estranged, way; like dreams, they may be said to reveal the unconscious of how we think about the world, and, like the unconscious, such thinking is not, strictly, rational. Indeed, these ideas can be shown to function ideologically, making seem inevitable and natural (and thereby defending and entrenching) a way of life that in fact is contingent and that favours one species or social group. Perhaps in this light what I write above is now more understandable:

It is…not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model… If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.

Thus, speculations about extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and civilization are in fact inextricable from and revelatory of the most urgent crises facing life on earth, climate change, environmental degradation, extinction, and the role of humankind (or certain of its societies) in this crisis. How we imagine extraterrestrial life is how we think about life on earth, the other species with which we cohabit it, and the ways of living with them that Homo Sapiens has invented over the millennia.

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 Mudede.

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 Mudede’s article.

Mudede’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. Mudede’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 Mudede 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.