UFOs. Seriously.

In the past weeks, an opinion column and an interview both appeared on-line calling for UFOs to be taken more seriously, a sentiment I surely share, just not in the same way the authors likely intend or their readers understand.

, a Bloomberg opinion columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University, urges his readers to “Take Those UFO Sightings More Seriously”. The UFOs Cowen has in mind specifically are those in “leaked…videos taken by U.S. navy pilots” recently released by the U.S. Department of Defense. Cowen’s column is not so much a proposal for why or how to take UFO reports seriously as much as a reflection on “the contrast between those who see this as an important question and those who think the whole thing will turn out to be an error or some kind of optical illusion.”

For Cowen, those acquaintances of his game to speculate on the matter are of three kinds:  readers of science-fiction, those “used to thinking probabilistically”, and those not put off by ufomaniacs, with their “cultish devotion to the topic.” Cowen’s second and third types are merely rational. As he puts it, that a claim “‘is almost certainly nonsense,’ [is] still a case for further investigation, as long as the word ‘almost’ remains”; by the same token, logically, no topic is invalid on grounds of guilt by association alone.

Cowen’s own interest in UFOs stems from time he spent among Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico populated by the descendants of the Aztec empire, which famously “met its doom” at the hands of the technologically-superior conquistadors, from which Cowen would draw an historical lesson (at least, that “all of a sudden you are not in charge, and that the future will be permanently different from the past, [and] … that there is more to the world than what is right before your eyes”). With this confession, and that, as a young teenager his favorite authors were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, the cat is out of the bag.

On the one hand, most charitably, we might take Cowen to be arguing for no more than intellectual humility, the admission that our knowledge of nature is limited and that what we have yet to discover might well lead to radical change. On the other, his  example of the fateful encounter between Europeans and Turtle Islanders in this context might well be taken to imply his views are skewed (if not skewered) by the very same anthropocentrism that possesses those with a cultish devotion to the topic of UFOs. For the cognoscenti, the comparison between the arrival of Europeans on the shores of Turtle Island and that of no less “technologically-superior” extraterrestrials on earth is a cliché. More seriously, it uncritically (and unimaginatively) projects patterns of human ingenuity, behaviour, and history on extraterrestrial life, as if the tenuously contingent, nearly aleatoric vector of human cultural history (let alone “technology”) were somehow a transcendent, eternal Platonic Form shaping the destiny of all life in the universe. That is, the comparison assumes that technology is somehow natural to intelligent life and that it develops along fairly universal lines, such that one culture can unproblematically be said to be more or less technologically advanced than another. The same kind of thinking is expressed by the Raëlians, whose extraterrestrial Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us.

Even more suggestive is Cowen’s invocation of science fiction. Readers, if not fans, of the genre are amenable to imagining UFOs are instances of advanced technology, terrestrial or otherwise, not only because such projections are the very stuff of much of the genre, but also (and more interestingly) because most speculations about the nature of UFOs are themselves a kind of spontaneous science-fiction, as proponents of the Psychosocial Hypothesis (perhaps most notably Martin Kottmeyer) have long maintained. For those  who pursue this line of thought, science fiction provides the manifest content of UFO sightings and close encounter experiences, which, in turn, provides more material for science fiction. In a word, in this regard, the UFO is hyperreal.

Cowen is not alone in wanting UFOs to be taken seriously nor in standing on the same ideological ground that roots his contention. Alexander Wendt, a professor of international relations at Ohio State University, already well-known for his co-authored academic paper “Sovereignty and the UFO” and his recent TEDx talk, “Wanted:  A Science of UFOs”, in an interview with Vox voices ideas very much in harmony both with those who call for serious research into UFOs and those with their cultish devotion to the topic.

With regard to those recently-released U.S. Navy videos that prompt Cowen’s thoughts, Wendt’s probabilistic thinking is that odds are “51 to 49 in favor” of the videos’ picturing extraterrestrial craft; indeed, Wendt goes so far as to claim that “the Occam’s razor explanation is ETs.” Nor is Wendt shy about speculating about the visitors’ possible intentions (though it is surely uncertain just how serious to take his words, here): “They could just be intergalactic tourists. Maybe they’re looking for certain minerals. It could just be scientific curiosity.” A number of times in the interview, Wendt proposes that the visitors have been on earth a long time, as “there are medieval woodcuts that seem to show UFOs. There are UFO stories in the Bible, apparently, or at least stories that are interpreted that way.” Given they have been visible throughout human history, the question naturally arises as to why the aliens have neither kept their presence secret nor have made open contact: Wendt guesses “they have had a lot of experience with this in the past with civilizations at our stage.” The interview understandably explores the imaginable consequences of open contact, which, for Wendt, would be “the most important event in human history,” and culturally catastrophic, a scenario that, again, as with Cowen (and Stephen Hawking, who is remarked), is compared to the encounter of Europeans and Turtle Islanders, in Wendt’s case, the meeting of Montezuma and Cortes. Such a meeeting with our extraterrestrial visitors would be so destabilizing, because, for Wendt, “there’s a hubris in the scientific community, a belief that human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet, and it’s very hard to come to grips with the idea that if there are aliens here, they’re obviously much smarter than we are.”

Clearly, Wendt’s speculations are governed by the same set of assumptions about life, intelligence, and technology as Cowen’s and the ufomaniac’s. Wendt seems to take for granted that intelligence is unproblematically measurable and comparable, especially as it is expressed in technological terms (the aliens are “obviously much smarter than we are”); that technology, likewise, is measurable on a universally-applicable, sliding scale (the aliens have encountered “civilizations at our stage”); that even the intentions and values of intelligent, technological species are akin to our own (the aliens are tourists, or prospectors, or scientists). These hardly unproblematic assumptions are all the more ironic given that, for Wendt, the institution of the state is markedly “anthropocentric” and the scientific community is guilty of the hubris of believing “human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet.”

Wendt’s assumptions about technology and culture are strikingly ideological, projecting not only the narcissistic history of one culture on earth (the one that tells the story of the so-called “developed world”) onto that of all imaginable others, but going so far as to imagine prospecting and tourism as no less possibly “natural” to intelligent life. And his assumptions about intelligence are no less blinkered than those of the scientists he criticizes, for it is precisely some of those self-same scientists, whose research into animal and even plant consciousness, cognition, and intelligence, who have shattered the concept and scale of “intelligence” that allows Wendt to so casually utter judgements about human and alien intelligence. Indeed, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its relation to environmental degradation, arguably a more important event in human history then encountering some version of our First World selves (however much more “advanced”) would be the dethroning and decentering of human intelligence, ingenuity, and interests and the advent of a more sane, just, and sustainable biocentric culture and civilization, one capable of recognizing, yes, the intelligence (let alone intrinsic value) of the myriad of “alien”, i.e. nonhuman, forms of life with which we share this planet.

This critique should not be mistaken for a dismissal. Wendt is to be applauded at least for, as he says, having a plan, the project for “a ground-based network of surveillance stations” under the aegis of his nonprofit UFODATA. Indeed, almost since the advent of the modern era of the phenomenon, motivated by both concerns over national security and scientific curiosity, the reality and nature of the UFO has been subject to study with tools and methods both forensic and natural scientific. I would think any projected research along these lines would begin with a review of the available literature to discover just what had been attempted, what had been discovered (if anything), how or why not. In this regard, it strikes me as curious how efforts such as UFODATA never seem to remark these previous attempts, e.g., those of Harvey D. Rutledge’s Project Identification carried out in the early 1970s or the ongoing research into the Hessdalen Lights. In any event, such a “scientific ufology” is likely to remain with us as long as the enigma of the phenomenon and is hardly to be dismissed outright.

Of course, research of the kind Wendt proposes is hardly the only way to take UFOs seriously. The UFO undoubtedly holds a cultural place, one much more amenable to investigation. However, some more recent, humanistic approaches to the UFO have not proven as serious as they could or should be, either, given their authors’ scholarly background or the prestigious academic presses that issued their work. David J. Halperin’s Intimate Alien came out with Stanford University Press this year (2020) and D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic appeared with Oxford University Press the year before. Both Halperin and Pasulka are religious studies scholars, Halperin retired from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Pasulka at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Both works (pretty much) bracket the question of the reality and nature of the UFO and their putative pilots, focussing more on the religious significance of the phenomenon and the stories about it. Both works absolutely warrant a more sustained and scrupulous reading than I venture here, but their curious lack of scholarly heft in essential respects can be sketched out briefly along with some speculations as to the editorial and cultural pressures I imagine that are to blame.

Halperin’s Intimate Alien (“The Hidden Story of the UFO”) takes up the countless stories about UFOs explicitly as a mythology, not in the sense of a system of outmoded, unfounded false beliefs, but in the sense of Carl Jung’s “modern myth of things seen in the sky”. UFOs and the reports of and rumours about them spring ultimately from the Collective Unconscious, the wellspring of all dream, myth, and art, and express something profoundly meaningful about the human condition. Indeed, Jung’s analytic psychology, with its ideas of the Collective Unconscious and Archetypes, is the theoretical foundation of Halperin’s book, yet nowhere does Halperin make anything more than the most passing, casual explanation of Jung’s theories or ideas nor a single reflection on let alone defense of their veracity.

American Cosmic, though more far-ranging in both its subject matter and field of scholarly reference, goes awry from the get-go. In the book’s preface, Pasulka brings to bear Martin Heidegger’s reflections on technology. Her presentation of the German philosopher’s admittedly challenging (if not “impenetrable”) views on the topic are so truncated they seem to me to approach the perverse. She writes: “Heidegger suggested that the human relationship with technology is religiouslike, that it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology and engage fully with what it really is:  a saving power” (xii). I am uncertain what textual warrant she might have for her first claim (that Heidegger characterizes “the human relationship to technology as religiouslike”, an idea fundamental to her book’s approach to the matter). It is surely the case, however, in my understanding, that Heidegger maintains “it is possible for us to have a noninstrumental relationship with technology”, such a relationship being the condition for thinking to grasp the essence of technology itself. However, it’s hard to read the claim that Heidegger saw technology as “a saving power” as anything other than only half the story, if that. Technology and the manner in which it frames all beings as “standing reserve” (very roughly, as raw material) is precisely the gravest danger to human being and its relation to the question of the meaning of Being that technology utterly obscures. Our technological epoch is the very nadir of Being, wherein technology renders human beings unaware of both the very questionableness of Being (“What does ‘being’ mean?” the question that motivated Plato and Aristotle and whose answers to that question governed philosophy and ultimately science and technology down to the present day) and grasps every being, even human beings, as a means to an end. The perception of this grave danger posed by the way technology alienates human beings from Being, themselves, other beings, and even the essence of technology itself, a threat from which “only a god can save us”, is what moves Heidegger to recall the poetic word of Hölderlin:  “But where danger is, grows / the saving power also.” That is, it’s only once we have gained access to the essence of technology as framing beings as standing reserve that that “saving power” can come to light. The reason I lay so much emphasis on this single sentence from the book’s preface is because the relation between technology and the sacred, how technology becomes an object revered and adored (if not fetishized) and the consequences of this relation for the significance of the UFO, is the red thread that runs through the argument of the entire book, arguably suturing its disparate chapters together. Thus, in both Intimate Alien and American Cosmic, essential, foundational concepts are presented in passing, as if self-evident, needing no explanation, analysis, reflection, or defense, which is neither serious in a scholarly sense nor ultimately intellectually satisfying.

Of course, it shouldn’t take too much reflection to see that I am demanding too much of these two books, because neither are, in a sense, serious, scholarly works, certainly not in the manner of Jung’s or Heidegger’s. Their style, biographical and conversational in the case of Intimate Alien, narrative and easy-going in that of American Cosmic, mark them as works by academics whose argument and presentation have been debased and polished respectively in equal measure for the sake of broader appeal (read: sales). Especially given that the genre of “UFO books” is a popular, not a specialized, one (in the way that Religious Studies books are), it’s not difficult to imagine the pressures increasingly cash-starved academic presses face (Stanford University Press recently barely avoided being shuttered altogether) to increase revenues, pressures passed on down to editors and their authors. These straits, combined with certain fashions coming to the fore in the 1980s, discernible in the light-hearted styles of literary theorist Terry Eagleton or, closer to home, Jodi Dean in Aliens in America, motivated, at the time, by the sense that academics might and should culture a readership wider than that of their specialized peers, along with a parallel loss of “deep literacy“, combine to shape Halperin’s and Pasulka’s books into what they are.

UFOs, whether as a maddeningly elusive physical phenomenon or a richly-suggestive sociocultural one, call to be taken seriously, more seriously than a for-profit intellectual marketplace in our increasingly semiliterate time allows. Regarded as a cultural phenomenon, as my ideological critiques of Cowen and Wendt suggest and as Pasulka intuits, the UFO is revelatory in its own, weird way, of the gravest problems facing human civilization and the obscured disorientiation at their root, disorentiations and confusions whose names are legion, not to be dispersed without an investment in an ascetic, grave intellectual labour equal to the challenge and even that meagre flicker of insight to be won.

[By curious synchronicity, the day I was finally able to get these thoughts more or less down, Scientific American posted an interview with Leslie Kean, “Should Scientists Take UFOs and Ghosts More Seriously?”. For the interviewer (John Horgan), the only worthwhile concern was whether UFOs are extraterrestrial. “What is the best single piece of evidence that UFOs have an extraterrestrial origin?” he asks. Seriously?]

No Singularity but Technological Terminus?

Because the UFO phenomenon is anomalous, it is a site of mere speculation until it is definitively identified. Speculation is a curious activity, melding conjecture, contemplation, and mirroring (‘speculum‘ being Latin for ‘mirror’). Thus, our more or less informed guesses about the nature of the UFO reflect our assumptions about ourselves and the world.

As I’ve often held forth at length here, thoughts about the UFO reveal how we think about ourselves. Talk about the UFO as being an artifact produced by the advanced technology of an extraterrestrial intelligence gives away how we conceive of technology and intelligence in general.

In the first instance, intelligence is reduced to instrumental reason, solving problems to achieve certain ends; technology is understood to progress, to develop along a linear vector toward ever greater efficiency and power. In thinking as close or disparate as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or variations on the ufological Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), this restricted sense of intelligence is assumed to be a universal product (if not goal) of evolution, technology, in turn, the inevitable fruit of this intelligence, invariably progressing along the same trajectory.

More gravely however is the (ironic) theological underpinning of these notions of science and technology. The ultimate end of science is the philosopher’s God, an omniscient, omnipotent being. The omnipotence of technology’s god is underwritten by its omniscience (how fateful that knowledge is here expressed by the Latinate ‘science’!). Philosophy might begin in wonder (as Aristotle had it), but science does not spring from the desire to understand nature but to dominate it (as Francis Bacon proposed).

The head-spinning progress made in this project has inspired as much techno-pessimism as -optimism. The figure of Elon Musk combines these tendencies:  on the one hand, he seems persuaded that technological ingenuity might extricate humanity from the dire problems development has engendered, as indicated by his investments in batteries and electric cars; on the other hand, he has equally pushed space exploration and colonization and expressed grave concerns about the potential threats posed by Artificial Intelligence. But in either case, Musk et al. are technofetishists:  like those who cast the Golden Calf then prostrate themselves before what they themselves have made, the technofetishist places human technological activity and achievement on a pedestal, as if it were a self-causing, self-sustaining phenomenon, independent of society, its actors and their interests, i.e., as if it were natural. Masking contingent human activity as if it were necessary and natural is the very definition of reification. Such reification is all-too-evident in ufological discourse that orbits ideas of advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations.

At this point I want to introduce a no less bold, complementary speculation: what if technology, despite its historically very recent acceleration, is already nearing its terminus?

This thought is inspired by recent on-line backs-and-forths I’ve had with various embodiments of the technofetishist zeitgeist. Among those heavily invested, monetarily and otherwise, in information technology (I.T.) is the belief that artificial intelligence underwritten by quantum computing is a done deal, just waiting around the next historical corner. Aside from the thorny issues around just what concept of intelligence is assumed here (though I touch on that matter, above), is the status of quantum computing. There is good reason, both physical and mathematical, that quantum computing is in principle impossible. (Interested parties are urged to consult these brief articles by Moshe Y. Vardi, Mikhail Dyakonov, and on Gil Kalai).

What if, then, the I.T. revolution will soon run into the limits stated by Moore’s Law, the paradoxes of the quantum world prove ultimately unsolvable to human intelligence (instrumental reason in its speculative guise), and relativistic spacetime restrict space exploration to subluminal speeds? It hardly follows that science and technology will come to an end, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that human intelligence (instrumental reason) and ingenuity will reach ultimate limits, as some argue they have in the realm of physics.

The flabbergasted and violent reactions this suggestion might inspire among the technorati and ufophilic alike speaks not to so much to its potential truth-value as to the (unconscious) ideological and no-less theological character of technofetishism and its ufological variations, SETI and the ETH.

 

The Dialectic is a Trickster, or the Trickster is a Dialectician

If William Murphy over at The Anomalist found my post on Robbie Graham’s take on the hyperreality of the UFO “brainy”, I can only shake my head over what he or the like-minded will make of this one…

A central line of argument I’ve been developing here at Skunkworks concerns how the imagination of the Alien Other relates to society at large. The UFO as a piece of “advanced technology” is merely (“mirrorly”) a reification of the recent history of one society on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world. That is, when the science-fiction script writer, the UFO believer, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher all imagine extraterrestrial, technologically advanced societies, they are only projecting the “First” world onto other worlds, as if instrumental reason were identical with human intelligence in general, as if anthropomorphic cognition were the universal goal of evolution, and as if the destiny of such intelligence was tool-use and an inevitable development of what we recognize as technology, which progresses along a linear scale, such that some is more or less advanced than others.

Such speculations about UFOs are a kind of manifest content of an unconscious dream logic, whose latent content concerns how we understand our own intelligence and that of other forms of life, whether those real ones with whom we in fact share the planet, or the Alien Other. Understood as belonging to an alien race, the humanoid or anthropomorphic Alien Other is a projection of our singular selves; understood as a member of an alien species, the Alien Other is a surreal reminder of our belonging as an equal member to the family of all living things, simultaneously raising other organisms to our pretended level.

The Abrahamic apotheosis of humankind that sets it above all other creatures (Man being made in the image of God and being granted sovereignty over creation) I among many other ecological or ecosophical thinkers take to underwrite the capitalist exploitation of the natural world, animal, vegetable, and mineral, as sheer raw material. For this reason, I have argued that the intrinsic value of animals and plants need be recognized (rather than their value as means to our ends let alone their exchange value under the commodity form), marshaling the findings of research into animal and plant intelligence to undermine the Abrahamic singling out of homo sapiens and to culture greater humility on our part and deeper empathy toward all the other children of Gaia with whom we share the planet.

The foundation of my argument—that recognizing the personhood of nonhuman nature might halt their commodification—is overturned, however, by the sharp insight of philosopher Michael Marder. Marder is most famous for thinking about plants, though his philosophical work is both more wide-ranging and radical. By chance, I was led to his Los Angeles Review of Books Channel, The Philosopher’s Plant, and thereby to his post “A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity”. There, he makes the argument that

…To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital….

I still maintain that the majority of ufological discourse is ideological, unconsciously reasserting certain views of human being and society that maintain a status quo; however, the hope that unmasking this function and balancing these views (that humankind is king of creation with which it can do as it will) with their dialectical Other (human beings are one creature among others in a symbiotic, ecological system) might somehow serve at the very least to call them into question, itself gets caught up in a larger process whereby anything that can possibly come into view, e.g., animal or even plant intelligence, is immediately potentially subject to being exploited for profit.

Surely, to the ufophilic or ufomaniacal, these thoughts are farther out than speculations about how ET gets here from Zeta Reticuli or how to decode crop circles, but for those who dare read the phenomenon in the context of the real conditions of the world that form the matrix for its appearance in the first place, they reveal how much more grave and consequential the UFO mythology is in its implications and the knotted ways it is woven into and out of what we might make out of being human in the early Twenty-first century.

 

What do UFOs have to do with it?

I’ve noticed recently how those sincerely interested in the UFO mystery can at the same time dismiss the idea that the phenomenon might possess a more general import. Here and elsewhere I’ve read comments such as, “the UFO culture is now purely entertainment,” “the number of people who actively engage with the UFO topic on a frequent and regular basis (go beyond merely occasionally watching a video clip, listening to a sound bite, or scanning an article) represents a small percentage of the US population,” and that the “real UFO conspiracy [is] why the UFOs have become a joke and such an embarrassing subject in ‘serious’ conversation,” all in stark contrast to the unabashed and breathless enthusiasm of those fascinated by the idea of  Disclosure (that at least one of the world’s governments has been in contact with extraterrestrials (ETs) for decades and has been gifted or back-engineered their technology).

“The UFO topic” that that “small percentage” of the population engages with is approximated by, for example, recent stories concerning U.S. Navy encounters with apparently anomalous aeroforms and History’s latest series Project Blue Book and Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation. As has been the case since Donald Keyhoe wrote his books, in this arena the UFO is invariably imagined to be either an extraterrestrial spaceship or maybe a domestic or foreign aeronautical breakthrough, even for those not unacquainted with Jacques Vallée’s Magonians, John Keel’s ultraterrestrials, or even Mac Tonnies’ crypoterrestrials, or more recent speculations concerning other dimensions and times. The demographic represented by this “small percentage” is imaginably very slight (though one does wonder just what empirical research would in fact show).

On the other hand, since 1947, consistently roughly half the population in North America and Europe believe “flying saucers are real” (however seriously), and, over the same time, the UFO and the ufonauts have invaded and colonized popular culture, so that the UFO as a cultural phenomenon now has a higher brand recognition than, say, Odysseus and Ulysses. It is precisely this liminal ubiquity—being both everywhere but hardly at the centre of attention—that empowers the UFO and ET to express something of, and thereby illuminate, if not overtly influence, the culture at large.

The UFO-as-sign (as a vehicle of meaning) functions both factually and fictionally, regardless of whatever reality the UFO might ultimately turn out to possess. As something taken as real, it has clearly reflected the anxieties of the times. Jung, as is well-known, argued the flying saucer functioned as a compensatory mechanism for the anxieties provoked by the Cold War. On one hand, its circular, mandala shape symbolized the unity absent from a sundered world, while, on another, its seeming a spaceship from a technically-advanced society made it a deus ex machina, an otherworldy, salvific intervention into what seemed a perilous, humanly insoluble crisis. His insight was confirmed by the pacifist messages delivered by the Space Brothers of Adamski and the other Contactees of the 1950s. Decades later, with advances in reproductive technologies, such as the Human Genome Project, the potential for human cloning, and in vitro fertilization, little wonder the hypnotically-induced fantasies of women who believed they’d been abducted by aliens should express the anxieties proper to their time and gender, or that abductees in general sometimes claimed they were shown images of global, often ecological, catastrophe by their abductors just at the time ecological consciousness was dawning toward the glaring near-noon zenith it has reached today.

Given the spontaneous significance attributed to “the visionary rumour” of the UFO and ET contact, it should come as little surprise, likewise, that the creative imagination should find in it an endlessly fecund figurative resonance. Cinema (as Robbie Graham would likely agree) and to a lesser extent television perhaps more than any other media have made the most of this material, as, for example, a metaphor for race (in the films The Brother from Another Planet, Alien Nation, or District 9), global warming (The Arrival), mass extinction (The X-Files episode “Fearful Symmetry”), and the insatiable rapaciousness of capitalism (Independence Day).

For example, the remake of the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still twists together the anxious and the hopeful. On the one hand, the alien Klaatu is sent to earth to oversee the destruction of every trace of humankind and its civilization that are rendering the planet uninhabitable for complex life; however, nonhuman, animal organisms are taken up by spherical craft that serve as arks to preserve them from the cleansing process so they may be reintroduced after its completion. Fortunately, Klaatu is persuaded to avert the eradication of human life and, instead, brings to a standstill the technology whose destructive effects brought about the crisis. (The credits roll too soon, though: the results of a global cessation of mechanical technology would doubtless prove catastrophic, resulting in, among other things, mass starvation, with the paralysis of transportation, food processing, and agriculture, a far more cruel, drawn-out process of eradication than the one initially proposed by Klaatu’s civilization!).

The ecological focus and critique of “development” are clear; the imagined solutions, however, are, ironically, hopeless:  humankind itself is incapable of collective action to avert ecological destruction; it, therefore, stands in need of an external, overpowering intervention, whose only proposed solutions are the elimination of homo sapiens (in line with the biocentric ideology of EarthFirst! or the more recent philosophy of anti-natalism) or of the technologies of the so-called developed world. The film’s solutions to our very real problem are less acceptable than the premise of the film as a whole, framing the urgent crisis at its heart as insoluble, inspiring either a resigned fatalism, or, more charitably, a reflective search for alternatives to the unacceptable dilemma posed by the film itself.

The cinematic versions of 2001:  A Space Odyssey and 2010:  The Year We Make Contact develop the theme of the deus ex machina, but along a slightly different trajectory. Both are stories about the guided development (mental or spiritual if not morphological) of anthropomorphic life, from the proto-, to the human, to the meta- or hyperhuman. The genius for tool-use, from a bone-as-club to interplanetary spacecraft and AI, is sparked in the genus Homo by an extraterrestrial agent, represented by an enigmatic, black monolith. One such monolith discovered on the moon, prompts an exploratory expedition to Jupiter, where astronaut Dave Bowman is “evolved” to a superhuman being. In the sequel, a subsequent expedition to discover what happened to the first sets in motion the transformation of Jupiter and its moons into a miniature solar system, a supplementary space for human habitation and resource extraction intended to ease tensions on an overcrowded earth that narrowly escapes nuclear war.

In this fictional universe, the Promethean spirit of technological ingenuity (and power) is posited as a kind of divine spark. Striking it in the protohuman creates a being in the image of the mysterious makers of the black monolith, who guide and shape humankind to ever higher technological achievement and biological/spiritual development ultimately, one might suppose, with the goal of having us attaining their level. It is difficult not to detect a value system underwriting this narrative. Ironically, technological sophistication (e.g., the capacity to invent and build weapons of mass destruction) is not accompanied by a moral or social sense equal to governing the species-suicidal potential of our technical know-how, so, otherworldly intervention is needed. Two problems present themselves. First, if technological savvy is not accompanied by the collective intelligence necessary to control it, then how did the makers of the black monoliths survive this impasse? Secondly, the solution they provide is stop-gap: the essential problem of infinite growth in a finite environment that characterizes the economic system of capitalism, whose advent underwrote the Industrial Revolution, is only temporarily solved by adding more Lebensraum and exploitable resources. The solution to earth’s problems in 2010 seem in hindsight a metaphor for the planned exploration and resource extraction within the solar system and the asteroid belt, the setting for the television series The Expanse and an important assumption in Aaron Bastani’s manifesto, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In this case, the imagined solutions to our real problems amount to either faith (indistinguishable from the Christian’s that all works out in God’s plan for humankind) and/or more of the (doomed) same.

In both fact and fiction, then, the UFO and ET appear within the horizon of, and expressing, the existential crises of our time, solving by means of their superiour technology the dire problems the development and deployment of our own have brought to pass. The human being, moreover, plays a singular, special role:  the ufonauts spontaneously recognize homo sapiens as their earthly counterpart among all the other species of life on earth, because of a shared Promethean character, due either to their having implanted it in us or to its being natural to intelligent life:  intelligence implies tool-use, which is merely nascent technology. In the real world, even in arguments offered for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the mere fact of an existing, vastly more advanced technological civilization is evidence that ours can navigate the impasse that threatens to destroy our own, either by following their example or, as in the cinematic examples above, through their direct intervention.

It is precisely, however, the way ET mirrors ourselves, is a projection of ourselves, that gives the game away and reveals an important, if not the primary way, the UFO mythology works in society at large. As I have argued repeatedly and at length here and elsewhere, positing anthropomorphic intelligence, tool-use and technology as natural (universal) propensities to life-as-such is to treat as universal one very geographically and historically local and contingent social formation, namely that of the so-called “First” or “developed world”. This megalomaniacal projection of the aleatoric trajectory of one portion of the population of one form of life on earth finds a mythical legitimation in, for example, the book of Genesis wherein God creates Man in His own image and a science-fictional one in the universe of 2001 and 2010 wherein an extraterrestrial agent plays both a Promethean and parental role. In either case the destiny of humankind is imagined to be fated, necessary, and, divinely or otherwise, ordained.

The solutions to humanity’s problems proposed in both The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2010 drive this point home all the harder. Either humanity and all traces of it need disappear, or its technology must cease operating, or it must stay the course. None of these are workable. This apparent impasse however results from the assumed inalterability of the status quo:  the unspoken (because unspeakable) solution is social change. As Fredric Jameson put it so well:  “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In its affirmation of existing society, in both its factual and fictive forms the UFO-as-a-sign functions ideologically, maintaining the status quo by occluding the possibility of imagining that things might be otherwise.

Ironically, cinematic pop culture performed this ideology critique already in 1988, in John Carpenter’s They Live!. In this film, the earth has already been colonized by a malevolent alien race that maintains its power by means of a technology that creates an illusory world, that of North America in the late twentieth century. The protagonist has his eyes opened to this reality when he dons a pair of sun glasses with the power to reveal the subliminal messages of advertising and entertainment, etc. that keep humanity in its virtual chains. The deliciousness of this plot is double: the capitalist ruling class is shown “in reality” to be a repulsive, cowardly alien race, thereby inverting the motif of the ET-as-benevolent-saviour in Jung, the Contactees, and 2001 and 2010.

[Interested parties are invited to hear philosopher Slavoj Žižek present his reading of They Live! as ideology critique in his own, inimitable manner!]

Because the UFO mythology is both ubiquitous and liminal, the actual percentage of the population that might admit to consuming either documentary or fictional UFO material is beside the point. The myth is “in the air”, vaguely familiar to everyone, but hardly considered by anyone, a status that enables it to function just below and at the edges of conscious thought. When it does intrude on consciousness, as either fact or fiction, the UFO-as-sign mirrors back to us after its fashion not an Otherness but an insidious Identity. It signifies in this way through no fault of its own; a mirror can only reflect what is in front of it, and, in this case, that is the world capitalism and technology, industrial or otherwise, have made. That the UFO should appear in this way, enlisted in the maintenance of an ecocidal order, is a crime against humanity in particular and life in general, that something that should be out of this world and therefore throwing that world into relief, estranging it through difference, revealing it in all its contingency and alterability, becomes something pitifully, pathetically human, all-too-human.