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.

Bryan Sentes and Luis Cayetano in conversation

Luis Cayetano (“Ufology” is corrupt) kindly conducted a wide-ranging, freewheeling chat with me about UFOs, ufology, and the UFO mythology, among many, many other things.

Cayetano’s questions, prompts, and curtness allowed me free reign to opine and reflect on topics usually passed over or still to be addressed here at the Skunkworks. This format sometimes saw (heard?) my verbal energies outrun my reflective faculties, but I’m grateful to Luis for the opportunity to explore the field in this way. I may not have been my most eloquent or pithy at all points, but I was, at least, I think, coherent.

Because of technological limitations, viewers/listeners will be treated not to two hours of looking at us yack but to a montage-commentary, often funny and wittily commenting on what’s being said. Thanks to Cayetano for going through the trouble.

You can see the interview, here.

The Superhumanities Avant le Lettre and other Observations: Notes on the Introduction to Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College

Robert Sheaffer’s recently posting his 1977 review of The Invisible College prompted me to “text-check” (if not fact-check) some of his claims. This exercise prompted me to read, at least, the nearly fifty-year-old book’s introduction, which remains strikingly contemporary.

Vallée’s book is remarkable, first, because of its then-novel approach to the question of the UFO, one with analogues, here. Where, in his first three books (the first two co-authored with his wife, Janine)—Anatomy of a Phenomenon (1965), Challenge to Science (1966), and Passport to Magonia (1969)—his focus was the Unidentified Flying Object, in The Invisible College he examines “the role of this phenomenon and its impact on each of us.” That is, to speak philosophically, he shifts attention from the object to the subject. Vallée clarifies this switch involves setting aside both the strictly scientific, “nuts-and-bolts” approach (which he terms the “technological”) usually associated with the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (that UFOs are alien spaceships) as well as the “psychological”, that “UFO reports [are] archetypes or…the fulfillment of a psychological need”; and, by the same token, he also rejects the sceptical explanation, that UFOs are nothing more than “the result of misidentifications and hoaxes”.

Rather bracingly (and I had forgotten this) he claims to “approach this inquiry within the framework of descriptive phenomenology,” which his model, social scientist Cynthia Nelson, defines as the attempt “to communicate the quality and structure…of any concrete phenomenon in experience.” Vallée quite correctly in our view observes that Nelson asks “the question of the meaning” of religious phenomena “in a way that is directly applicable” to UFOs, quoting her important point concerning the consequences of this approach for the question of the reality of the phenomenon: “As phenomenologists we suspend judgement as to whether the apparition is really real (a question for scientific naturalism) and attempt rather to understand what people do when confronting stress. If [human beings] define situations as real they are real in their consequences.” In this spirit, Vallée lays out a threefold task for himself: to “review what is experienced by the witnesses; …observe what they do as a result of these experiences; and …attempt to correlate them within a total framework.”

Vallée’s distinctions here are much finer than one usually finds made among the ufophilic or ufomaniacal. Those convinced of UFO reality will dismiss Vallée’s whole enterprise, here, while the sceptical, I imagine, would all-too-quickly point out that the psychological explanations for the UFO are already oriented to the subject (i.e., the witness). But such criticisms miss the mark, for, at least in his espousing “descriptive phenomenology”, Vallée sidesteps the debate between the believer and sceptic, taking neither side for the sake of attending the effects of a UFO experience on the witness in particular and society at large in general. As Nelson observes, if a phenomenon is experienced as real it is real in its consequences, which Vallée affirms: “In this sense the UFO phenomenon is undoubtedly real.”

Vallée’s approach itself, however, calls for some scrutiny as a particular confusion, evident and consequent to this day, deflects the promise of his adopting a phenomenological framework. After distinguishing the “technological” and “psychological” approaches, he continues:

Modern science developed on the premise that these two domains of the physical and psychological must always be carefully separated. In my view this distinction, although convenient, has been arbitrary. The UFO phenomenon is a direct challenge to this arbitrary dichotomy between physical reality and spiritual reality.

Attentive readers, along with those not unacquainted with the history of science, will likely balk at the semantic drift from “physical/psychological” to “physical/spiritual”. The division Vallée refers to is, more strictly, that between, as Descartes expressed it, the res extensa and the res cogitans: roughly, “things” or “stuff” with spatial dimensions and cognizant or conscious “things” or “stuff”. The former is amenable to observation and experimentation in ways the latter is not. This division, hardly “arbitrary”, bred the Mind-Body Problem (how do two such radically different substances interact?), its physicalist, materialist solution (conscious states are brain states), resistance to such reductionism (whether “the hard problem of consciousness” or Bernardo Kastrup’s Analytic Idealism, for example), and, most pertinently, those who see in the UFO phenomenon a solution to what they call the mystery of “consciousness”. Vallée, arguably, fails to escape certain consequences of such dualistic thinking to this very day, due, here, to his conflating the post-Cartesian res cogitans with the more rigorously thought-out and markedly non-substantial concept of consciousness as developed in the phenomenological tradition.

Turning to Vallée’s tripartite approach brings into view how groundbreaking The Invisible College was and, to some extent, remains, for what is experienced by the witness is often parapsychological phenomena: spacetime distortions (“missing time”), materializations, telepathy, poltergeist phenomena, and Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs) among them. The case of an unnamed engineer Vallée recounts includes, too, physical changes: hyper- and hyposomnia, quickened mental capacities (e.g., comprehension and retention), hyperimmunity to infectious diseases, and changes in eyesight. Vallée, of course, widens this focus on UFO reports to include those stories of miracles and apparitions studied and catalogued in Passport to Magonia. When he demands ufology expand its field to include both such psychical effects and premodern cases he inaugurates “a Unified Theory of Apparitions” or what I have come to call a Unified Field Theory of the Paranormal (doubtless hardly the first), an important theme given expression most recently in the various talks delivered at Rice University’s Archives of the Impossible Conference.

It’s this dilation of the field of investigation that is one connection of Vallée’s argument here to what Jeffrey Kripal has recently termed the “superhumanities“. There are, however, other points of contact between what Vallée envisioned nearly five decades ago and these superhumanities. As an argument to link the humanities to the paranormal, Kripal notes the hermeneutic dimension of these disciplines, that they deal essentially with understanding and meaning. In this regard, he notes how paranormal experiences often seem hypercharged with meaning; the experiencer often speaks as if they were in a story or movie. It’s a curious (at least) coincidence that Vallée describes his anonymous engineer’s experience in the same terms: “As in a dream or a movie” he is transported from his friends to an indeterminate locale where he is faced by huge, computer-like machine. At present, we must wait for a fuller articulation of just what exactly Kripal has in mind by the “superhumanities”, which we trust will be spelled out in his forthcoming book from University of Chicago Press, but it seems an educated guess that, since the paranormal occupies an ontological space both/neither matter and/nor mind, its investigation demands a super-interdisciplinarity, drawing on both the natural and human sciences, a sentiment echoed by Vallée, when he observes, concerning the witness effects addressed in his book, “It is not possible to study such data with techniques of statistics or physics alone. The cooperation of a much larger group is needed…”.

There is, however, a more fateful and problematic shared feature of Vallée’s and Kripal’s thinking, their position that “The UFO phenomenon [and the paranormal in general] is a direct challenge to [the]… dichotomy between physical reality and spiritual reality,” or matter and mind. Kripal, like Vallée, arguably thinks in Cartesian terms, that being is made up of two kinds of substance, material and mental, a presupposition whose remaining unthought and unreflected constitutes a fatal flaw in the foundations of much of the discourse about the paranormal. As I’ve observed in coming to terms with Kripal’s proposals concerning the superhumanities, there’s “material” (both as classical materialist philosophies (e.g., that of Epicurus) and contemporary natural sciences conceive of it) and “material” (as in the expression “historical materialist”), “meaning” (in the object of the hermeneutic disciplines) and “meaning” (as in that profound meaningfulness of a mystical or entheogenic experience). As well, there is “consciousness” (as in “consciousness studies”, which seems a synonym for “mind” or the res cogitans) and “consciousness” (the investigation, structure, and problem of which is a vital problem for philosophy, from Kant on down to Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank, among others). The failure to distinguish (at least!) these senses of concepts basic to the discourse, it seems to me, undermines its potential, future success.

Finally, I was struck by a dimension of Vallée’s thinking that should have been obvious but, because it might be said to inform his approach in general, had gone unnoticed by me. Vallée begins the introduction to his book by referring to “the statistical facts”, that the patterns of UFO reports “follow definite laws for which no explanation has been found.” These “statistical facts” are those reported in the Vallée’s first two books, whose laws were arrived at by the compilation of data bases and their being subject to various algorithmic investigation or computation. Given Vallée’s background in what in French is termed informatique, we should not be too surprised to find a cybernetic systems-oriented thinking underwriting his work. Indeed, the central thesis of The Invisible College, that the UFO phenomenon “constitutes a control system” like a thermostat, that is, a reflexive, self-regulating system, is cybernetic through and through. In 2022, we are so immersed in digital technology and media it is difficult even to perceive them and their effects on us; “That which is nearest is farthest away” to paraphrase Heraclitus. It would be an interesting exercise to review Vallée’s corpus to date with an eye for the presence and function of the cybernetic. One wonders just what meaningful patterns might not be brought to light.

Many readers might at this point be thinking that this blog post, if not as long as the introduction to The Invisible College itself, is longer than most reviews of the entire book! But what I’m up to here is only a preliminary (!) taking stock of a work that, on review, has proven prescient and influential, a fact that can only come into view in hindsight, an exercise that demands to be periodically performed. Or one could attribute these findings to the synchronicity of Robert Scheaffer’s posting a review from 1977. In either case, Vallée’s writing has shown itself to be saying more than was originally heard or than is understood by his readers even today.

Point of order: meta-logic in Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College

Robert Sheaffer recently reshared his review of Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College. As one might well imagine, Sheaffer is not very impressed by Vallée’s book. Sheaffer’s review is titled “Jacques Vallée’s Invisible College Teaches ‘Meta-logic'”. As student of philosophy and logic, the expression “metalogic” twigged my interest: Vallée’s being a programmer, I imagined he might well understand the expression in its mathematical or logical sense, and he recently spoke of the UFO phenomenon as a “metasystem”, so I was moved to look into just what he had written concerning the metalogical in the pages of his book.

Sheaffer represents what Vallée in fact writes on pp. 26-28 of the Dutton Paperback edition (1975) as follows:

Monsieur Vallee, computer scientist, astrophysicist, and member or the scientific board of Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies, has a unique way of looking at the universe. It’s called “metalogic.” For those or us not familiar with that term, he explains that it means quite the same thing as “absurd.” So should we protest that Vallee’s theories are “absurd,” he will correct our usage: they are merely “metalogical.” That’s the next level above common sense, just beyond the “edge of reality.” …

Sheaffer’s review continues in this vein, governed by this initial reading. However, Vallée seems to mean something quite other by the term in question. He writes: “What do we know of the nature of the communication that is reported to occur between human witnesses and the UFOs they perceive? I have earlier commented that, on the surface, such communication appears to be simply absurd. The word ‘absurd’, however, is misleading; I prefer the expression ‘meta-logical'” (26). “Metalogical” therefore is clearly not “a unique way of looking at the universe [my emphasis]” but a way of understanding what witnesses report experiencing or having communicated to them by the occupants of UFOs. Nor does Vallée write that “metalogical” “means quite the same thing as ‘absurd'”: in fact, he claims the experiences and communications are not properly or most illuminatingly described as absurd (“The word ‘absurd’, however, is misleading…”), but, better, as metalogical. Moreover, if we actually read Vallée’s words, nor does “metalogical” describe his own theories or speculations.

So, just how, then, might we understand Vallée’s use of “metalogical”? He provides a number of examples, but explains their significance in the following terms:

Situations such as these often have the deep poetic and paradoxical quality [my emphasis] of Eastern religious tales [Vallée means koans] (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) and the mystical expressions of the Cabala, such as references to a “dark flame”. If you strive to convey a truth that lies beyond the semantic level made possible by your audience’s language, you must construct apparent contradictions in terms of ordinary meaning. (27)

Now, I’ll be the first to observe Vallée’s expression does him no favours in getting what I take to be his point across. I take him to mean, first, that, just like a koan or oxymoron, the UFO event deflects attention from its obscure, puzzling surface to something beyond itself: Vallée seems to be saying that, like these forms of expression, the UFO event is, in a sense, ironic or metaphorical: the UFO is not an extraterrestrial spaceship, but its appearing so is, to some extent, merely (ironically!) a vehicle (the metaphorical, figurative aspect of a metaphor) whose meaning is something other (what rhetoricians term the metaphor’s tenor); but more to the point, like a paradox, the event is in some respect reflexive or “meta”, at the very least in the way the metaphor’s vehicle must be grasped as a vehicle in order for it to be negated or transcended to some tenor.

The French critic Roland Barthes, in his aptly titled Mythologies, provides an apt example:

I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.

Following, I take it, the mathematical or logical sense of ‘metalogical’, Vallée is attempting to explain—and not for the only time in his writings—that the UFO event is not what it seems; its “high strangeness” (nonsensical conversations with the ufonauts or clocks without hands in their apparent spaceship) is the absurd, paradoxical content that puzzles and frustrates a literal-minded interpretation of the event in order to shift reflection to another level. Like the exemplary sentence in Barthes’ example, its significance is not its meaning; it operates at two levels. Whether or not we are persuaded by this view of the phenomenon is another matter, but at least we have arrived at a textually-warranted understanding of Vallée’s position.

Anyone acquainted with what I have written on Vallée, especially his last book and his keynote address at the recent Archives of the Impossible conference, will know I’m hardly uncritical, but, at the same time, criticisms that fail to hit their mark do justice neither to themselves nor what they aim to skewer.

More on Vallée’s The Invisible College (its introduction, anyway) can be read, here.

Zooming in on the Archives of the Impossible Conference: Day One (3 March 2022): Jeffrey Kripal and Jacques Vallée

This weekend, March 3-6, Rice University is hosting a conference to inaugurate its Archives of the Impossible. Like hundreds of others, I have Zoomed and will Zoom in to catch some of the plenary sessions held during the event. What follows, here, are my impressions of and thoughts on Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address. (You can read my notes on Whitley Strieber’s talk, here, and Diana Pasulka’s, here). As my response is drawn from what I noted down during their talks, what I remember, and what I’ve slept on, it will be schematic and idiosyncratic but, hopefully, no less substantive for all that…

Opening Remarks: Jeffrey Kripal, “On Radar and Revelation: Connecting the Dots (and One Another)”

For all its humble brevity, Kripal’s address commencing the conference’s proceedings didn’t lack in insight or imagination.

Connecting the dots in his talk’s title, he observed “It’s all connected”, namely all those phenomena generally collected under the concept of the paranormal: UFOs, Near Death Experience, Psi phenomena, ghosts and hauntings, cryptids, etc. With this idea, by pleasing synchronicity, Kripal addressed some recent thoughts ventured here with regard to UFOs and ghosts and the essential, perhaps irresolvable, mystery of Fortean phenomena. This idea of a “Unified Field Theory of Paranormal Phenomena” is hardly new, but it seems somehow noteworthy Kripal opens with this idea…

In my reflections on the social significance of the Fortean, I propose that “the Fortean realm functions as a critique, a marking of limits or boundaries, to a form of knowledge whose demonstrable power at the same time puffs it with a monomania that causes it to claim a monopoly on knowledge.” Kripal, too, with reference to the scholarship of Stephen Finley, observes all too quickly that the paranormal plays a role in society. I’ve touched on this very compelling topic, how, on the one hand, the paranormal reveals “a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation,” while, on another, the UFO mythology is appropriated by more reactionary forces in society. The place or function of the paranormal in “Western” society, at least, is, as I write above, a most compelling topic, not without pertinence to the social phenomena of populism and the loss of faith in scientific and cultural institutions….

Kripal also touched on our shared reality, as a “story” or “myth” of “secularism”, that unreflected, unquestioned, average-everyday “real” where most of us live our lives, what some historical materialists term “ideology”. For him, the paranormal throws that assumed reality into radical question, a feature not unrelated to the epistemic social struggles mentioned, above. Kripal’s notion, here, strikes me as a little belated; I’d be surprised if he were unacquainted with the scholarship around post-secularism, a concept coined by Jürgen Habermas and developed by Jacques Derrida (however much it was first articulated by ex-pat poet and scholar Peter Dale Scott…), the thesis that, counter to the “Secularization thesis” (that in the face of ever more powerful natural scientific explanations for phenomena and the concomitant growth in technological power over nature religion would of itself wither away…), religion has seen a resurgence due, in part, to its answering personal and social needs scientific institutions and secular society cannot….

With regard to this real, the cosmos articulated by the natural sciences, Kripal presents a startling image, that of Day and Night, how the light of science (if not reason) illuminates one aspect of reality, the other being obscured by that same light, whose relative absence is the condition for this other aspect to come into view…. I think Kripal makes a very important point here, whose implications are both far-reaching and profound, as much as those concerning the social role of the paranormal. Kripal’s analogy has further implications than those he draws out. On the one hand, it reminds us the matrix of the natural sciences is unreason or the irrational, religion in ancient Greece and magic in the European Renaissance (readers of F. M. Cornford and Frances Yates will know what I’m talking about, here), and, on the other, the way the irrational shadows rationality. At the same time, especially with regard to the social significance of the paranormal, this line of thought leads to the atrocity museum of unreason, whether the dismemberment of Orpheus or Cadmus by the followers of Bacchus or the enthusiasm of the Thirty Years War or the witch trial…

It is most fitting, therefore, in view of the challenge to science and consensus reality posed by the paranormal that Kripal should finish his talk with a nod to his forthcoming book on the “superhumanities“. When he first mentioned this idea, in the context of his talk, I imagined he referred to a renewed interdisciplinarity, of the the kind that inspired the modern university and much-resisted efforts in the 1970s (resistance coming from what Jacques Derrida termed “academic apartheid”…). On the one hand, he does seem to propose at least a dilation and reconfiguration of the humanistic disciplines, while, on the other, he explores “a long repressed or forgotten history of the humanities that orbits around the experience and theorization of the superhuman.” In this latter regard, along with his invocation of the knowledge of the “night”, and the attention he has given to Nietzsche and his Übermensch, I must wonder if Kripal isn’t playing with fire. We’ll have to wait until his book appears in July…

Jacques Vallée, “The Four Garments of Aletheia: Reality Management and the Challenge of Truth”

It is always a pleasure to hear Jacques Vallée speak; despite the protestations of certain sckepticks and the catastrophes of his recent collaborative books (Wonders in the Sky, with Chris Aubeck, and especially Trinity: The Best Kept Secret, with Paola Leopizzi Harris), Vallée is no woo-meister. His keynote address, aside from a slow start, was eloquent, learned (in its way), and impassioned, however many grave reservations I have about details of its argument…

Vallée organizes his discourse around the four “garments” or guises of Aletheia, the Greek goddess of truth. (I was relieved he, under the influence of Diana Walsh Pasulka, hadn’t attempted to deploy philosopher Martin Heidegger’s famous treatment of truth-as-aletheia…). The four guises of Aletheia are religious tradition, the historical record, “intelligence” (as in “intelligence agency”, e.g. the CIA), and mathematics.

He points to the world’s religious traditions and the historical record to evidence interactions with nonhuman intelligences (e.g., gods, angels, djinn, etc.) are nothing new, contextualizing modern UFO and encounter reports, a thesis well-known from his Passport to Magonia. However (and this is puzzling, given his hobnobbing with scholars of religion Pasulka and Kripal, among others), his understanding of scriptural hermeneutics is impoverished and his notion of history is ahistorical (i.e., it does not include temporally-inflected cultural difference).

His primary example from religious tradition is the Epiphany, the visit of the three magi to the baby Jesus. He raises the question of just what heavenly body the magi followed, a matter investigated by, among others, Carl Sagan. In a way, he resolves the issue with reference to an obscure text that describes the luminous body that guided the magi as a globe containing an infant. He posits this latter version as evidence for premodern encounters analogous to close encounters reported since 1947. But to ask after the physical identity of the Star of Bethlehem is akin to asking for a meteorological or other explanation for the colour of the sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Neither the biblical tale nor the painting are in the first instance representations. The “truth” of the tale of the Magi is that the Christ child is destined to be the saviour of Jew and Gentile alike; the Magi are led to the manger by a star, because they were, among other things, astrologers; their gifts are likewise symbolic: gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity, and myrrh for mortality. To take the biblical story as a literal, historical account is to completely misread it….

Vallée’s historical evidence fares no better and for the same reason. Following the lead of Diana Pasulka this time, he offers the story of Saint Francis’ receiving the stigmata as a narrative with modern analogues, namely, luminous phenomena, nonhuman entities, paralysis and other physical effects, and telepathic communication. Vallée cribs his version from the account of Brother Leo, an eyewitness to the event. Vallée relates that before a luminous phenomenon, Francis is stricken prostrate, muttering in conversation with an unseen interlocutor, before receiving the famous stigmata from beams of light projected from the luminous phenomenon. However, Vallée also relates how Leo tells us Francis raised his hand three times. That (according to Vallée) Leo records so symbolic a detail (“three” being a charged number in Catholicism…) should be taken as a sign that, like the biblical story of the magi, Leo’s “report” of Francis’ vision needs be read for its rhetorical before its literal import. Again, Vallée has fallen prey to failing to grasp how narratives from distant times and cultures demand a philological and hermeneutic labour as a propadeutic to their interpretation. Ironically, Vallée seems to have failed to apply the observations he makes at the beginning of his address that “there is no absolute truth”, i.e., in the language of information theory, no truth is context independent.

Vallée’s discussion of the remaining two guises of Aletheia are, to an extent, less controversial. Under the rubric of “intelligence” he warns us that no UFO report after 1975, and certainly not after 1985, can be taken at face value, given the way the phenomenon has been exploited by national security agencies of various countries for various ends. In this regard, he makes a tactful nod to much of the material in his Revelations. His discussion of Aletheia-as-mathematics is a mix of the (relatively) well-known and the iconoclastic if not idiosyncratic. He seeks to disabuse us of the concept of mathematics as a field of indisputable knowledge and truth, reminding us, first, of the crises and controversies in the philosophy of mathematics and logic at the beginning of the Twentieth century, especially Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Any student of philosophy in the English-speaking world will likely already be well-apprised of this history. He goes on, however, to cite the research of an information scientist whose name eluded me, who has argued somewhat paradoxically that, on the one hand, because of these and subsequent developments in the discipline, mathematics is now an empirical, experimental science, rather than an a priori one, while, on the other, that the future of mathematics-as-information-theory promises to illuminate the nature of mind, intelligence, consciousness, the origin of life on earth and its evolution (!).

But putting aside these problematic arguments, Vallée did make one remarkable claim, though he did not explain or develop it, namely, that “the phenomenon is not a system but a metasystem.” If he is using the prefix “meta-” in the same sense as “metalanguage” (a language about language) rather than “metaphysics” (“after” physics), then he is taking a position I have touched on, namely that the phenomenon might not be approached as it presents itself but as a sign system. That is, just like the pictographs that compose hieroglyphics are not pictures of objects but symbols that function as parts of a system, so too the drama of the UFO or entity encounter event is not what it appears to be but points beyond itself to some other significance. Perhaps this is what the aliens famously encountered by Herbert Schirmer meant when they told him they wanted human beings to believe in them, but not too much, a case remarked by Vallée himself in his address.

There remains one ironic omission that haunts Vallée’s presentation. Each time he introduced a new guise of Aletheia, he did so in the manner of a film director: “Cue Aletheia, dressed in the tricolor…”. Unconsciously, Vallée is gesturing to another, unremarked guise of truth, truth as art. It’s this mode of truth that undermines his examples of truth-as-religion and truth-as-history, as his reading of the tale of the magi and the story of Francis’ stigmata overlooks the art of rhetoric and narrative that articulate these stories. That the phenomenon is both played with (by Aletheia-as-intelligence) and plays with us (“The phenomenon has a sense of humour”), the UFO or anomalous phenomenon might fruitfully be thought as an aesthetic phenomenon as much as a trans- if not metaphysical one. In any event, the paranormal demands, as Vallée exhorts his audience at the end of his address, bold theorizing and a capacity to dream….

Il n’y a pas de hors-texte? Reading Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret Against the Grain

My earlier notice (if not review) of Jacques Vallée’s and Paola Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret has two parts: the first, critical; the second, recuperative. In this second part, I try to salvage some significance from a book that, taken at face value, fails (the evidence is pure hearsay, presented in a barely coherent and, hence, unpersuasive manner, a presentation undermined further by a lack of sharp focus aggravated by frequent digressions, etc.). This salvage attempt is premissed on the insight I express in the notice: Trinity seems to grasp, “in however a tentative, repressed (unconscious) manner” the symbolic (mythological) significance of the story it reconstitutes and relates.

Here, I want to dilate and clarify that insight, venturing a reading of the text unanchored from the intentions of its authors (that it is an investigation of a real event, an early UFO crash/retrieval). The reading I essay here is an exercise or experiment, whose working assumption is that the authors know but repress there is nothing to the story and that its significance is not factual but symbolic. I most emphatically do not pretend to “put the authors on the analyst’s couch” to thereby reveal some obscured fact of the text, but, instead, put into play this faux “psychoanalytic” approach heuristically to account for both how the book is composed and to secure the symbolic truth that Vallée intuits but is unable to grasp as such (It’s as if Vallée “knows not what he writes”).

Perhaps the most immediately striking feature of the book is how it approaches the topic of the crash, retrieval, and debris in an often indirect manner, a lack of focus aggravated by apparently unmotivated digressions (i.e., their pertinence is not immediately clear). Roughly one third of the book is composed of interviews conducted by Harris with the three primary witnesses, “lightly edited… for clarity” (16) by Vallée who also interjects passages of commentary. These interviews are neither the focussed, dogged interrogations that would have dug into the case in the depth needed to make it even initially persuasive, nor have they been pruned down to all the better frame the details pertinent to the book’s argument.What possible relevance, for example, can Paola Harris’ and (the relative of one of the primary witnesses) Sabrina Padilla’s being afraid of snakes have (256)? The same can be asked of many pages, e.g., in the Foreword, the first chapter (that concerns the development and detonation of the first atom bombs), or Chapter Thirteen, the story of a visit to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1964. Were Trinity a work of literature, these formal features (the interviews and digressions) might be said to be mirrored at the level of content in the “poisonous” plants (Cocklebur and Nightshade) that suddenly one year are found to cover “the initial oval landing site” (78), supposedly sown by the Bureau of Land Management, and the intentional and natural changes to the landscape that buried what debris might remain “twenty feet down” (79). That is to say that the diffuse interviews obscure the matter while the digressions bury it under ever more text. It’s as if the authors seek to avoid the void at the core of the book,—the absence of the crashed craft, its pilots, the four different kinds of debris the witnesses describe, etc.—the dearth of hard evidence that becomes, as it were, a bottomless pit around which a screen of distraction must be erected and ever more text shoveled in to fill. I do not mean to suggest that the authors are trying to deceive the reader; rather that, following the heuristic premise that governs my reading, the stylistic features I remark appear as ways of concealing the poverty of their case from themselves and to compensate for this lack.

Aside from these positive features, there are, as it were, negative ones, which appear to function in the same, symptomatic ways. In my notice, I remark the persistent orthographic lapses, the typos that riddle the text, a most striking one, the spelling of a book’s title two different ways on facing pages (134-5). Such overt errors are of a piece with the poor organization of the text and its digressions. The way the accused will hem and haw and stumble over their words as they dissemble to conceal their guilt from their interrogators, the text’s lapses are a kind of nervous tic, indicative of graver problems.They are, as it were, a veiled confession, hairline fractures in the surface of the argument’s edifice that hint at the gaping, fatal cracks in its foundation. In addition, both how the book supports and fails to support its claims is suggestive. The first endnote, on the Plains of Saint Augustin or Agustin, is cribbed from Wikipedia, a not-even tertiary source that would fail to pass muster in a college-level research paper. In the footnote on page 33, the authors note that they were put on the trail to William Brothy, an Army Air Force pilot who is said to have seen both the smoke from the crash and the two primary witnesses (307), via the Amazon website. Moreover, many claims are left simply hanging. For example, Vallée states in many of the interviews conducted after the book’s release that the primary witnesses had binoculars as good as those possessed by the army. What binoculars, specifically, did the witnesses have? How does one know? What was the standard set of field glasses issued to the army in the American Southwest at the time? Most importantly, what are the optical specifications of these binoculars and what light can these specifications shed on the testimony of the witnesses concerning what they saw? Many such basic forensic considerations are passed over in silence. Such shoddy, negligent research both reveals and conceals the vacuity of the book’s case. Citing Wikipedia and the Amazon website, for instance, seems an admission that the matter is unworthy of more authoritative legitimation, while omitting or refusing to cite supporting evidence for the most basic yet essential claims ironically “covers up” the baselessness of the book’s argument. It’s as if the authors could not bear to look too closely into the matter for fear of revealing to themselves the absolute poverty of the case they seek to make. I am not claiming in fact that the authors are incompetent or fraudulent, only that the flaws in the text can be read as so many “returns of the repressed”.

One could analyze, as well, the way the authors “protest too much”, e.g., with regards to the reliability of the witnesses (seven and nine years old at the time of the incident), but I would turn now to how the unconscious awareness of the physical, factual vacuity of the case precipitates an awareness, in however no less repressed a manner, of the rich symbolic content of the story the authors tell. Ironically, the francophone Vallée will be the first to understand that the French word histoire (like the German Geschichte) denotes both ‘history’ (a chronicle of factual events) and ‘story’ (a fictional narrative). It is no less the case that contes and récits (roughly, tales) are histoires. Vallée and Harris purport to be relating an histoire but in truth they tell an histoire. Perhaps it’s this brisure (hinge) in the polysemy of ‘histoire‘ that swings Vallée’s thinking (however consciously) from informational patterns to literary texture or folkloric motifs:

Everything, in this story, appears to be going in threes…Three atomic bombs were exploded in the summer of 1945…There were three live Campamochas aboard the crashed craft…there were three ‘short ugly guys’ who ‘started to put things into the mind‘ of the sheepherder…Also, at least three metallic artifacts were recovered… (149)

Vallée remarks, too, “three objects of interest”: Fat Man (the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki), the “avocado” UFO observed by the witnesses, and the Jumbo test enclosure on display at the Trinity site (150), to which one could add the number of direct and indirect witnesses and the three peaks that give the Trinity site its name and the book its title. He collates, as well, an additional trio, comparing the San Antonio crash with the Socorro and Valensole landing cases (pp. 183 ff.).

Vallée wrestles with the idea that the details of the story he and Harris investigate are in some profound way meaningful: “Jose and Reme were witnesses to an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols between the brightest scientists in the world and something else, undoubtedly the product of another mind…” [my emphasis] (282). Regarding the stories of UFO crashes and retrievals, in part or in whole, he wonders

What if those UFO devices had been designed so they could not be reverse-engineered by people with our current level of knowledge and social development? What if their target was at a different level? At a symbolic level, about our relationship to life? At a psychic level, about our relationship to the universe? What if they contained an existential warning? [my emphasis] (287)

At one level, we witness here Vallée speculating about the crash, its spatiotemporal proximity to the detonation of the first atom bomb, the puzzling earthliness of the crashed object, the irrationality of its colliding with a radio tower, etc., ultimately imagining the whole event to be possibly an attempted communication from a nonhuman intelligence. Vallée’s struggle, however, in light of the reading I pursue here, is a process of realization, as if he were waking from a dream whose manifest content is the “literal” understanding of the story of the crash and whose latent content occurs precisely at a “symbolic level.” The story of the crash is “an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols“, between the witnesses and researchers and “another mind”, just not a nonhuman, extraterrestrial, ultratraterrestrial, interdimensional, or transtemporal mind, but that of the inhuman Other (following Lacan), the Unconscious, Creative, Collective, or otherwise, a dialogue that only becomes audible and one we can take part in only once we suspend our belief in the factual truth of the story Trinity tells, i.e., along the lines of the heuristic (“as if”) reading I here propose and sketch out.

This is perhaps “the best kept secret” of Trinity , that it is best understood not as a true histoire (and Kevin Randle, among others, has given us good reason not take it so) but as an uncannily unconscious fiction (histoire), a book that the science-fiction novelist Jacques Vallée failed to write. (And I am hardly alone in remarking the book’s possessing “all the hallmarks of a fictive account.”) As such, it can enter the engagement with “the myth of things seen in the skies” that extends from Jung to Lynch and beyond, into both the conscious and unconscious elaboration of the myth and the unending Traumwerk of understanding what it is we are trying to tell ourselves that we cannot otherwise face in the light of day and reason.

“In the beginning was the Word”: Concerning Jacques Vallée’s Stratagem and the Wilson/Davis document and related matters

In the wake of my notice of Jacques Vallée’s and Paola Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret, Drew Williamson drew my attention to Giuliano Marinkovic’s contention that passages of Vallée’s 2006/7 novel Stratagem were based on his acquaintance with the Wilson/Davis documents that came to light mid-2019.

Regarding these documents, John Greenewald writes:

Allegedly, [the Wilson/Davis documents] contain the notes of Dr. Eric Davis, Chief Science Officer at EarthTech International, founded by Dr. Hal Puthoff. They outline a 2002 meeting between Dr. Davis, and Admiral Thomas Ray Wilson, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. During this meeting, many things were discussed including Admiral Wilson stating he was denied access to UFO related information.

Marinkovic makes the case, based on close textual scrutiny, that the scenario described in the ninth chapter of Vallée’s novel echoes details in the Wilson/Davis documents, from which Marinkovic infers that these “similarities from Stratagem go beyond accidental chance, [which] could indicate that Vallée probably had his own copy of the Wilson leak at least from 2005, and probably before.”

Marinkovic’s suspicion is premissed on the notion that “Fictional work is always a great platform to combine reality, knowledge and imagination,” by which I take him to mean that, especially in this case, art imitates life, such that Vallée’s fiction is an artful reworking and veiled revelation of facts that pre-exist its composition, thereby indirectly confirming the authenticity of the documents in question.

Greenewald, however, proposes a richly consequential alternative reading of the Wilson/Davis documents, namely, that they are a draft of a movie or television script, both in their formatting and textual features, prompted by the demand for such material with the recent ending of the X-Files. I don’t mean to imply that Vallée plagiarizes Davis, but that they were each working up the same ufological material, each to their own creative ends.

Indeed, as Greenewald points out, “this particular story involving Admiral Wilson has been around since at least 2001… It first made an appearance in a lecture by Dr. Steven Greer, given in Portland, Oregon on September 12, 2001.” Anyone familiar with the UFO mythology will recognize in the scenario variously developed by Greer, Davis, and Vallée a well-known theme or motif, that of a secretive group with access to debris or other materials (if not Extraterrestrial Biological Entities) retrieved from crashed flying saucers working to reverse engineer this recovered technology for various, often nefarious, ends. That the United States Air Force, government, or other entity knows more than it’s telling is a suspicion that goes back to the books of Donald Keyhoe and was or remains the basis for the believability of the MJ-12 documents. (We imagine Kevin Randle’s recently-published UFOs and the Deep State might shed some light on the matter, but the Research Library here at these Skunkworks has yet to secure its copy…).

What follows from these reflections is that what Marinkovic is dealing with is a purely textual phenomenon, ironically demonstrated by his method of argument: close textual analysis. What leads Marinkovic to the suspicions he voices (that Vallée’s novel is a fictional confirmation of the truth of the Wilson/Davis documents) is, I propose, the assumption that language need ultimately refer to some extralinguistic reality that anchors its truth. That the two texts he analyzes might be one moment of “intertextuality” or “dissemination” (text referring not outside itself but to another text…), this instance but one in an endless chain of such intratextual reference, doesn’t seem to occur to him.

A giddily dizzying twist is Vallée’s discussion of the Wilson/Davis documents in Trinity (pp. 280 ff., and notes (49), (50), and (51)). He prefaces his presentation of the matter with the words, “According to various reports…” Note (50) describes the provenance of the documents: “A copy of Eric Davis’ 15-page notes from the meeting [with Wilson] was among the private papers of astronaut Edgar Mitchell. After the information [the notes?] was acquired by Australian researcher James Rigney, it evidently ended up on the web following Captain Mitchell’s death…” (312). Despite the tentativeness of how he introduces the matter (“According to various reports…”), Vallée tellingly concludes: “…while the situation seems absurdly beyond everything we have been taught about the workings of our government, the fact is that we don’t know the nature of what is being hidden” (my emphasis) (281). Here, that Vallée believes some matter is indeed “being hidden” suggests he seems to take the documents at face value.

One need note how Vallée begins ambiguously (neither confirming nor denying the authenticity of the notes, leaving the question open) but ends (arguably) affirming the notes’ truth. That Vallée himself seems to accept the documents as authentic hardly confirms, however, their authenticity. What’s curious is that Vallée nowhere asserts he had had access to the notes via Davis, as Marinkovic suggests, rather that he (Vallée) had to learn of them and their contents like everyone else, via their acquisition and release by Rigney. We are left with several, incompatible possibilities. It may be that Vallée, for some reason, is dissembling in Trinity, that he in fact had access to the Wilson/Davis notes (regardless of their authenticity), imaginably via Davis himself, which would confirm Marinkovic’s close reading. Alternatively, Vallée is being truthful, in which case the textual parallels Marinkovic so persuasively lays out are a startling coincidence. Or it may be Davis was himself inspired by Vallée’s fictional treatment of the ufological motif in question to compose his own, fictional televisual treatment of a well-known scenario (which, of course, assumes Davis is indeed the author of the documents…). There are, doubtless, other possibilities I overlook here, but imagining and examining each it turn remains in the realm of speculation.

However much “the situation seems absurdly beyond everything we have been taught about the workings of our government”, it hardly seems beyond the absurdity the cognoscenti have learned to expect to find in the workings of ufology. And however much a truth might be said to remain hidden, to quote the all-too-often misconstrued words of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in the case of the Wilson/Davis documents it seems that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”.

A Note on Twin Peaks Season 3 and Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret

I ended my review of Jacques Vallée’s and Paolo Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret noting that the book, because of its suggesting a connection between the detonation of the first atomic bomb and the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP!) crash it investigates, finds “its place between the covert fictions of George Adamski (whose Venusians came to warn us of the dangers of atomic energy) and the overt fiction of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.” Since, I’ve become aware of certain uncanny motifs Trinity and Twin Peaks share.

Vallée has made no secret of his intuiting a connection between the Trinity “test”, “the emergence of our civilization into, essentially, the nuclear age,” and the San Antonio crash. What crashed was said to be egg-shaped (like an avocado). From a damaged side of the ship, diminutive pilots were said to have emerged, who were compared to Praying Mantises, Fire Ants, or Jerusalem Crickets.

It’s hardly unique to perceive the advent of atomic weapons as a fateful development in human history. For Vallée, evidence of our having entered the Atomic Age precipitated a non-human intervention, however ambiguous. In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Season 3, Episode 8, the Trinity test, too, disturbs a barrier between our world and some other, opening the way for no less mysterious, inhuman agents (the “Woodsmen”) and unnatural evil. The otherworldly origin of these beings and others is tied into the UFO mythology by Lynch’s recasting Project Blue Book (that thematically rimes with the series’ motif of “the Blue Rose”) as an investigation into just these beings and their nature.

In Episode 8, the Trinity test is followed in the next scene by the arrival of the Woodsmen through a weird portal in an abandoned convenience store somewhere in the American Southwest. The action shifts to an otherworldly void, where an amorphous if feminine figure emits an ectoplasmic vomit.

This extrusion seems a stream of unnatural evil that will manifest itself in our mundane reality in various ways. One of these is the landing of an egg (some visible in the still, above) in the general vicinity of the Trinity test and the convenience store, which will hatch a weird frog-moth hybrid that eventually makes its way into the mouth and down the throat of a hapless young woman, to possess or impregnate her.

The parallels are as striking as they are mystifying: the Trinity test is supernaturally momentous, triggering an opening between worlds and the intrusion into ours of the denizens of that other. In both imaginings (and Vallée’s and Harris’ is an imagining, being a reconstruction from hearsay), this intrusion manifests as an egg out of which emerge unnatural (however animal-like) beings. Here, I only register these shared motifs and venture no further speculations (though some suggest themselves: the oval shape of the first A-bombs and the connotations of the egg in general, the unnaturalness of mutated creatures, etc.), other than to note that the source of “the myth of things seen in the skies” works in mysterious ways!

“…they know not what they do”: What to Make of Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret by Jacques F. Vallée and Paola Leopizzi Harris

On finishing Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity, the reader would be forgiven if they wondered if the “Jacques Vallée” who co-authored this book were the same “Jacques Vallée” credited with writing Revelations or the recently re-issued Passport to Magonia. Where the last volume is, at least in certain circles, highly-prized for being inventive and groundbreaking and Revelations is a focussed, critical examination of the stories about alien abduction, crashed flying saucers and dead aliens, secret alien bases and cattle mutilation, Trinity is an unfocussed, raggedly-composed, eye-rollingly credulous mess of a book.

It would be a tedious exercise to catalogue its manifold failings. While Vallée speaks of himself as a scientist and even imagines scientists reading the book (286), Trinity is no work of science, scholarship, or even investigative journalism. Indeed, it reads like a first draft, in sore need of a thorough editing for content and structure, let alone a proof-reading. The main body of the book is composed of transcripts of interviews conducted by Harris (silently edited by Vallée “for clarity” (16)) with the three witnesses to a “UFO crash” avant le lettre and subsequent matters: Jose Padilla; Jose’s friend, Remigio Baca; and Sabrina Padilla, Jose’s niece. These interviews are interspersed by commentaries by Vallée to highlight their salient points and interlarded with chapters, often mystifyingly digressive, about matters historical and ufological: the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, the history of the American Southwest, the Socorro and Valensole landings, etc. Although the book contains footnotes, endnotes, a bibliography, and index, this scholarly apparatus is erratic and brow-furrowing. It’s too often unclear why well-known figures, such as Robert Oppenheimer, require an endnote and how the data related is pertinent to the book’s argument. Factual claims essential to the case that Vallée and Harris want to make far more often than not are left unsupported, rendering much of the book so much hearsay. An added insult are the typos that pepper the text. Important place names can’t even be spelled consistently: The Plains of San Augustin are the “Plains of San Agustin” (299) in the footnote explaining the location, the San Antonio crash site is as often “San Antonito”—even in the title of the book’s second chapter—, and Ryan Wood’s book Majic Eyes Only (134) becomes Magic Eyes Only on the facing page.

Flaws in organization, scholarly apparatus, and orthography could be forgiven if the book’s content were so earth-shatteringly urgent its hasty composition and issue were justified by the need to make its matter known. But rumours of the crash the book investigates at length if not in depth are hardly new to ufological ears: among others, Timothy Good, “a careful chronicler of modern ufology” (15), remarks the story in his 2007 book Need to Know. The case the authors want to make for the veracity if not significance of the event is buried under page after page of leisurely digressions (as noted above) and undermined by their credulity. Among too many examples, one can point to the seemingly uncritical acceptance of the testimony of Philip Corso (of which Vallée has been critical in the past) and the apparent belief in the authenticity of the Wilson / Davis document (that John Greenewald has explained in far more down-to-earth and persuasive terms).

Were Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret a serious work, it might have begun with a brief introduction as to how the case in question caught the attention of the authors and why they thought it worth their and the reader’s time to investigate (i.e., the book’s eleven-page foreword would be reduced to a few sentences). A survey of the literature might have been followed by a clear, focussed description and narration of the case, rigorously supported by citations to the research that substantiates it, with references where applicable to the complete, unedited transcripts, perhaps contained in an appendix. (The work of Kevin Randle and Joshua Cutchin are exemplary in this regard). An analysis and conclusion would have ended the book. Had Trinity been so researched and organized, and written with a sharp focus and scientific / scholarly objectivity, then we’d have a book that could claim more serious attention.

So, if Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret really can’t be counted as a scientific, scholarly, or journalistic work, to what genre does it belong? The answer is that it is a work of ufology. As unsurprising as such a categorization is, it implies more than, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson might imagine. The genre cuts a wide swath, from contactee George Adamski‘s Flying Saucers Have Landed to the more serious attempts at scientific ufology of Harley D. Rutledge and Peter A. Sturrock. It is possible, however, as I have argued at length here at the Skunkworks, to bracket the truth-claims of ufological media (and it is clearly a multimedia, cultural phenomenon) and study it as a kind of folklore or mythology-in-the-making, what Jung called “a visionary rumour”.

From this point of view Trinity is singular, for it is, to my knowledge, the first work of ufology to grasp, in however a tentative, repressed (unconscious) manner, this folkloric, textual dimension. In Chapter Twelve, “A Trinity of Secrets”, Vallée perceives a numerical, if not numerological, pattern:

Everything, in this story, appears to be going in threes…Three atomic bombs were exploded in the summer of 1945…There were three live Campamochas aboard the crashed craft…there were three ‘short ugly guys’ who ‘started to put things into the mind‘ of the sheepherder…Also, at least three metallic artifacts were recovered… (149)

Vallée also remarks the “three objects of interest”: Fat Man (the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki), the “avocado” UFO observed by the witnesses, and the Jumbo test enclosure on display at the Trinity site (150), to which one could add the number of direct and indirect witnesses and the three peaks that give the Trinity site its name and the book its title. Further, he collates an additional trio, comparing the San Antonio crash with the Socorro and Valensole landing cases (pp. 183 ff.). Vallée notices, too, that “the Aurora object [an airship said to have crashed in Aurora, Texas in 1897], like the oval craft seen by Padilla and Baca, hit a tower before it went crashing to the ground: two similar accidents, half a century apart…” (117). Often, Vallée refers to himself as an information scientist, interested in finding patterns in the data, signal in the noise. Philosophers would speak here of the play of identity and difference, literary and music critics of theme and variation, folklorists of motifs, and semioticians of the repetitions that constitute signs.

Vallée is clearly struck by the spatiotemporal proximity of the Trinity atom bomb test and the San Antonio crash and retrieval: the coincidence is significant, meaningful if not, strictly, synchronicitous. Indeed, in the conclusion, he grasps (at) the hermeneutic rather than the physical, scientific meaning of the event he and Harris have investigated: “Jose and Reme were witnesses to an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols between the brightest scientists in the world and something else, undoubtedly the product of another mind…” [my emphasis] (282). Reflecting on the stories of UFO crashes and retrievals, in part or in whole, he reflects

What if those UFO devices had been designed so they could not be reverse-engineered by people with our current level of knowledge and social development? What if their target was at a different level? At a symbolic level, about our relationship to life? At a psychic level, about our relationship to the universe? What if they contained an existential warning? [my emphasis]( 287)

He even attempts to divine the meaning of the event, interpreting it as “a signal, from the point of view of better scientists somewhere, that our survival may not be an inflexible requirement of the universe?” (288).

It’s as if Vallée “knows not what he writes”, his focus on investigating and explaining a physical event interferes with his understanding its symbolic cache, however much he does grasp the event possesses one. The thinker who first coined the expression ‘nihilism’ in the Eighteenth Century, Friedrich Jacobi, used it to refer to the implications of the worldview of Spinoza and the then-burgeoning natural sciences: a self-enclosed cosmos of cause-and-effect was without meaning; the sciences can describe and explain how the world is, but cannot account for the fact that it is. This nihilism, the natural sciences’ overlooking or bypassing the question of the meaning of what they study, blocks Vallée from being able to move into a purely semiotic, hermeneutic analysis of the matter. The crash can only be a signal, a communication of sorts, because the sciences can grasp language only in its communicative, informational function, not, ironically, in its mythopoetic, “symbolic” dimension. Events like that under investigation in his and Harris’ book do indeed bear witness to an “an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols“, between the witnesses and researchers and “another mind”, just not a nonhuman, extraterrestrial, ultratraterrestrial, interdimensional, or transtemporal mind, but that of the inhuman Other (following Lacan), the Unconscious, Creative, Collective, or otherwise.

As we have argued at length from the start, the “myth of things seen in the sky” can be grasped precisely as a spontaneously-generated, anonymous folklore that operates at “a symbolic level, about our relationship to life.” As a mythology or folklore, it operates in a semantic space that is both and neither true and false. That is, the countless stories about UFOs and their occupants, both direct (e.g, a sighting report) and indirect (e.g., the speculations Vallée himself indulges around the Wilson / Davis document (pp. 280 ff.)) are taken for fact by some and as a curious fiction by others. Vallée attempts to grasp the meaning of a physical event and finds himself caught between the Scylla of the fictive and the Charybdis of fact, unwilling or unable to be lifted by the former because of his investment in the latter.

As I remarked in my first, brief reflection on the announcement and eventual publication of Vallée’s and Harris’ book, in an interview with the authors, Jimmy Church’s stated belief, that the San Antonio crash “could be another Roswell”, is likely prophetic, not in foretelling the future (though that, too), but in its seeing into the truth of the matter. Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret, especially because of its failings, all the work it leaves to be done, might well spawn another shelf in the UFO crash retrieval library, like Stanton Friedman’s initial research did for the Roswell crash. And, as such, Trinity will take its place between the covert fictions of George Adamski (whose Venusians came to warn us of the dangers of atomic energy) and the overt fiction of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which ties the Trinity test to analogous and no less grave or eerily symbolic developments.

Anchored in philology: an addendum to “When a sighting report is not”

The latest example of Rich Reynolds’ irrational tenacity sent me to Aubeck’s and Vallée’s Wonders in the Sky. For all its failings, catalogued at length by at least two tenacious critics and admitted by no less than Vallée himself, the book is not without its saving graces.

I was recently moved by being shown John Carey’s study of sky ship tales from medieval Ireland to use his scholarship to make an argument about the interpretive dangers of reading narratives from distant times and cultures. At the time, I went to Wonders in the Sky and was surprised I could find no mention of these sky ships. It turns out Aubeck and Vallée were one step ahead of me in this regard, however.

I was unable to find such stories among the 500 they present in their “Chronology of Wonders”, because they include them in the second section of illustratively questionable tales, “Myths, Legends, and Chariots of the Gods”. The authors base their own analysis (pp. 405-11) on Carey’s, noting both the scant references to the sky ships in the annals and the increasing embellishment of the basic story line over time.

Most impressively (to me) they resolve the mystery of how the most famous (and fabulous) version of the story, wherein the sky ship’s anchor is caught in the church’s door arch, is repeated during the Phantom Airship flap of 1896/7:  according to Aubeck and Vallée, the Boston Post published an article “A Sea Above the Clouds:  Extraordinary Superstition Once Prevalent in England” that recounted two British folktales, one a version of the more famous Irish one. Two weeks later, the story was updated to the present and relocated to Merkel, Texas as reported the Houston Daily Post 28 April 1897, two days after the incident was said to have occurred (p. 409).

A (very) little more digging turns up that the article Aubeck and Vallée refer to also appeared (seemingly for the first time) in the 7 March 1897 edition of Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune and the next day in the Nebraska State Journal. It remains nevertheless no less astounding, however, that so recherché a philological tidbit should make the rounds as a syndicated article of all things in America’s newspapers at the time!

To paraphrase Chaucer:  The life so short, the bookshelf so long to read!

RE: UFO Realities

As a thought experiment, assume the truth of a version of what I’ll call here, however inexactly and for my own purposes, tha Psychosocial Hypothesis, that all UFO sightings and entity encounters are nothing more than misperceptions, reports, rumours, stories, hallucinations, hoaxes, everything that adds up to the UFO mythology, that UFOs are witnessed and reported, entities seen and encountered, the whole phenomenon taken seriously at times even by the world’s militaries, only because the ubiquitous “visionary rumour”, as Jung called it, is a self-sustaining process:  the rumour inspires misperceptions and fantasies, which maintain and propel the myth into the future. In this scenario, UFO reality turns out to be precisely and exclusively a spontaneous, collective, variegated (inconsistent) mythology, arguably an expression of the anxieties and compensatory fantasies (aspirations) of the present moment of our (capitalist) technological society and culture. In this case, is UFO reality nothing? Not at all.

The claim that the workings of the psyche and culture are nothing, subjective rather than objective and therefore unreal, of no account, makes the same error because it shares the same assumptions as those who dismiss the UFO as unreal because it is “only” a product of the individual or collective psyche.

Those who would suffer a loss of faith if they accepted what I call the Psychosocial Hypothesis above, if the UFO, like God, were to die, and those who express their skepticism regarding the reality of the UFO by affirming this theory are both, in a sense, positivists:  they believe consciously or otherwise that whatever is “subjective” is unreal, because it is ultimately explainable in “objective” terms from an impersonal, third-party point-of-view by those natural sciences whose epistemological and metaphysical commitments are some version of physicalism (that only what is grasped and articulated by physics is real) or scientific realism.

First, one needs disabuse oneself of the vulgar confusion of the subjective with the idiosyncrasies of the individual, personal soul or psyche. Though I’m the first to resist the recently fashionable talk of the Death of the Subject (roughly, that the subjective is nothing more than an effect of impersonal social forces, such as language), it remains the case the subject is no self-enclosed, immaculate, solipsistic space. If the reality of the UFO is not physical but cultural, it is hardly “only” subjective, hardly a creation ex nihilo by the artistic genius of a personal Unconscious singular as the Abrahamic God, but is rather a condensation, rearticulation, and transformation of existing cultural materials no less “real” (impersonal, public, objective) than the putative physical reality of the UFO.

Those who would lose interest in the whole issue were the physical reality of the UFO taken off the table suffer a kind of fetishism. They imbue a Golden Calf they themselves have cast with a deity (reality) and when this hypostasized power is revealed as illusory, their cosmos is desecrated and empty. What has captured the interest of thinkers and scholars from Carl Jung to Thomas Bullard and even those with some investment in some version of UFO reality, such as Jacques Vallée or Jeffrey Kripal, is that the UFO phenomenon from an “atheist” perspective, that of a non-believer, still presents us with the rare spectacle of a folklore, mythology, or religion in the making. Little wonder then some of those moved to devote their lives to the disciplined study of such things focus their attention on the “visionary rumour” that has infiltrated the world’s imagination over the decades following the the Second World War. Imagine being able to bring to bear all the refined methodologies of the human sciences in a first-hand manner to the emergence of Christianity from the foment of the Gnostic context in the Near East two thousand years ago (regardless of the historical reality of Jesus), or those innumerable Gnostic sects themselves, or to observe the process of the emergence of Buddhism (aside from the literal truth of the moment of enlightenment under the banyan tree or the Buddha’s suicide by mushroom). To discount or disparage curiosity over such things is simply coarse and narrow.

If we turn from the speculation that the UFO is strictly a psychosocial phenomenon, lacking physical objecthood to another, that the UFO is physically real, either in a way our physics can grasp or not, does the psychosociocultural reality examined above become of no account? Not at all.

Consider just two examples. Beginning with Passport to Magonia (1969) and more overtly in The Invisible College (1975) and Messengers of Deception (1979), Jacques Vallée’s conjectures moved away from the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis to a variety of more provocative possibilities. Aside from the exploitation of the mythology by the founders of New Religious Movements (such as the International Raelian Movement or, more notoriously, Heaven’s Gate), military and intelligence services (explored in his Revelations (1993)), and shadowier private groups, Vallée has maintained a belief in a reality to the phenomenon that, however, is not what it seems. One theme that runs through his reflections in this regard is that UFO sightings and related entity encounters are staged to effect human belief and culture. He evokes this scenario in the opening pages of his science-fiction novel Fastwalker (1996) where a military agency abducts a primitive from New Guinea and shows him Star Wars in a state of altered awareness. As I’ve been led to suggest elsewhere (here and here), if we accept Vallée’s theses concerning how both human and nonhuman agents manipulate the myth, then bringing the human sciences to bear on how the myth might function would reveal no less “real” effects than those physical ones listed in the 2003 paper Vallée co-authored with Eric Davis, “Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”.

If we turn to an even more orthodox if less compelling view, that espoused by agitators for Disclosure, that governments around the world make public all they know about the phenomenon and official contact and relations with extraterrestrials (ETs), then the reality of the psychosociocultural dimension is even more pronounced. In A.D.:  After Disclosure (2012), co-authored by Richard Dolan and Bryce Zabel, the authors speculate that revelations of both the physical reality of ETs and decades-long relations with them would shatter and remake every major social institution:  politics, economics, science, religion, and culture (a thesis that would have been lent some weight had they grounded their imaginings in at least some scholarship relevant to their claims or the institutions they see effected…).

I am not arguing here for an exclusively “psychosocial” approach to the UFO mystery, or even that such an angle of engagement might be sufficient in itself for resolving that mystery. What I do maintain is that the relation between the UFO phenomenon and the culture to which or within which it appears is a dialectical one:  no phenomenon without something “seen in the skies”, but nothing witnessed without a witness, always situated and oriented in a world always-already articulated, made sense of, by the matrix of culture out of which that witness comes to awareness of reality, of the world, the cosmos, and itself.




“What IS that?!”–Notes on perceiving the anomalous

Sequoyah Kennedy over at Mysterious Universe brings to our attention a sighting of a “dancing fireball” over Northhampton, England. Aside from the startling strangeness of the sighting itself, the reaction of one witness, Luke Pawsey, 20, is no less thought-provoking:

I genuinely believe there’s extraterrestrial life out there but we’re just not aware of it or we’re too naive to think there isn’t anything out there. I think it’s an unidentified flying object (UFO) but when people imagine that they think of a spaceship which I don’t think it was. But how do we know what’s out there, especially if it doesn’t exist to us? It could be aliens but I don’t want to say for certain as I don’t know.

Pawsey is clear-headed enough not to identify “UFO” with “alien spaceship”, but it’s telling the way his quoted words here leap immediately to that all-too-common reflexive theory and orbit the constellation of related ideas:  “extraterrestrial life”, “UFO”, “spaceship”, and “aliens”.

Had this fireball been witnessed in 1019 rather than 2019, a chronicler of the time might have recorded it as a dragon or sign from heaven, as either a natural or supernatural occurrence, rather than extraterrestrial or unknown. This speculation prompts at least two questions:  first, why doesn’t the modern witness imagine he has seen, say, some natural, albeit strange, phenomenon, or something man-made, such as some unusual fireworks, and, second, if the category “unknown” was even available to our imagined, medieval scribe, given the closed world he lived in, in contrast to the one opened to scientific investigation by the withdrawal or death of God (here, the theological interpretation of the world). (Curious, how a world with little knowledge of nature might at the same time also lack the unknown, while one in which such knowledge becomes possible and actual simultaneously allows the admission of ignorance).  Also significant is how both posit a potentially extramundane origin, but, for the premodern, “out-of-this-world” means outside of nature, time and space, whereas for the modern it means within the cosmos, from however exotic a locale (e.g., another dimension). At any rate, what is true for both is that the witness to an anomalous experience seeks to make sense of it in the first instance according to an existing set of categories, a set that varies over time and place.


If the Northhamptom fireball had not behaved in so puzzling a way, but had traced a more-or-less straight, regular vector, an astronomer, for example, would have readily identified it as a meteor. The difference between the astronomer’s perception and the mystified one of Pawsey and our fictional scribe can be illuminated by a rough-and-ready reference to a distinction made by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He distinguishes between two kinds of “judgement” (Urteilen, in German), two ways the subject and predicate of a thought or statement might be joined (e.g., “The fireball [subject] is luminous [predicate]”). A determinative judgement brings a particular intuition (e.g., the luminous body depicted above) under a general rule (the features of a meteor), while a reflective judgement, lacking a general rule for a particular intuition (e.g., the unusual fireball seen by Pawsey), needs to either discover, find or invent, a general rule. The mystified reaction to an anomalous experience is in a sense the bewilderment brought about by the lack of concept that would categorize the experience or otherwise make sense of it, which inspires the imagination’s excited search over a chain of possibilities:  “What is that? This or this or this or this…?”

This approximate application of Kant’s distinction is not especially illuminating, as far as it goes, until we introduce what motivates it. Kant brings the notion of the reflective judgement to bear (in a much more nuanced and complex way than I do here) in his Critique of Judgement, his discussion of the perception of the beautiful in art and nature. Neither the work of art, the sublime landscape, or even an organism in its purposiveness (the way it seems designed for its place in nature) are objects of knowledge the way the instantiation of a natural law is (the subject of a determinative judgement), rather each needs be grasped in their respective singularity. The work of art’s demanding an active engagement for its understanding and appreciation (especially since the advent of artistic Modernism in more or less the Nineteenth century), that we discover, find or invent new concepts proper to it, gives art the purchase to reconfigure or re-articulate the concepts we use to understand the world in general, whereby art can be said to provide a kind of knowledge or truth, reminding us that seeing as is at least as important as the is of identification of the sciences, if not at its foundation. The implication for anomalous experience is obvious:  like the work of art the anomalous experience demands at least a reconfiguration of existing knowledge if not the development of new concepts and hypotheses.

Admittedly, not much has been said here that would essentially differentiate Pawsey’s experience from that of the first European to encounter a platypus. In both cases, something that fails to fit our existing scheme of things demands that scheme be revised, expanded and rearticulated. Kant develops the notion of the reflective judgement not only to make sense of the beautiful but of induction, too. It thus has a function both in our knowledge of nature (where it leads to determinative judgements) and culture, which argues for the thesis that the anomalous UFO phenomenon, specifically and especially, be tackled not only as a challenge to (natural) science or to the social sciences (what the French term les sciences humaines et sociales) but both. That is, it is both a potential object of knowledge and understanding and that the collaboration if not synthesis of what we might term the Symbolic orders of the natural and human sciences is demanded of the phenomenon itself. That is, a key to understanding the UFO phenomenon might be to approach it as much as an aesthetic object as an object to be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method.

We have arrived, therefore, at the same point, though via a different route, as my reflections about the implications of thinking the UFO as “postmodern”. The proposal that the UFO phenomenon in general might usefully be approached in a radically interdisciplinary manner dovetails into more-or-less explicit positions taken in the 2003 paper co-authored between Jacques Vallée and Eric Davis “Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”. There Vallée and Davis call for both physics, experimental and theoretical, and semiotics to be be brought to bear on the manifold strangeness of the phenomenon. An implication of Vallée’s repeated idea that the phenomenon of the UFO and related entities is in a sense staged to achieve a subliminal, long-term cultural change is that it need be analyzed semiotically, i.e., with a view to grasping it in the first place as a system of meanings, with a syntax and lexicon, i.e., following that pioneer of semiology, Roland Barthes, as a “mythology”.

An Important Consequence of the “Postmodern” Reality of the UFO

[“Trigger Warning”:  I explore here one implication of the reality, Reality, hyperreality, and hyporeality of the UFO phenomenon sketched here. I refer to this reality of the UFO as “postmodern”, because the discussion takes its initial impulse and orientation from the notion of hyperreality, first developed by that premiere postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Readers triggered by the expression “postmodern” are urged to read the initial post linked above, before going off half-cocked, like a Jordan-Peterson-with-his-head-cut-off…]

In his discussion of 9/11 and related matters, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Žižek characteristically unfolds one dialectical implication of the attack. On one hand, it represents an intrusion of “the Real” into “everyday social reality”:  the shock of the Event reorients and reconfigures the settled world we thought we knew and assumed to be fundamentally unchanging. In this assumed stability, “average everydayness” represents a kind of spontaneous, perennial “End of History“. However, on the other, despite all the very real destruction and death (which continues to this day in the various health problems suffered by first responders and others), the perpetrators never believed that felling the Twin Towers or even the Pentagon or White House would bring down America’s economy, military, or government. The attacks were primarily symbolic, intended, in part, to disabuse continental Americans forever of an assumed, invulnerable security, hence comparisons of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. Moreover, for most of the world, the event was purely mediated:  in most minds, the attacks now are, in a sense, those obsessively repeated images of the planes hitting the towers or their collapse. In the theatricality and profound mediation of the attacks the effect of the Real becomes hyperreal, a representation, a sign, a meaning, endlessly repeated, echoing out into the future (though hardly without its real world effects).

The UFO phenomenon (including entity encounters) is curious, because it arguably inhabits not only the real (as ubiquitous pop culture meme), but the Real (as a startling and disturbing experience that upsets settled, assumed notions of reality), the hyperreal (as an existing representation whereby an anomalous experience is identified and confirmed as a UFO experience), and the hyporeal (the highly strange that simultaneously outstrips and potentially expands the existing hyperreal repertoire of recognizable UFO phenomena). But what’s salient here is how the dialectic between the UFO’s Reality and hyperreality might parallel the dialectic Žižek unfolds with regard to 9/11.

Jacques Vallée has over decades consistently argued that the provocative irrationality of persistent features of the phenomenon mitigates against the theory that we are dealing with visitors, explorers, or invaders from other planets, dimensions, or times. Such high strangeness, more a characteristic feature of the phenomenon than a site of hyporeal difference, is a mark of its Reality, its dramatic demand we reorient or reconfigure the categories by which we make sense of the world in order to integrate and assimilate the phenomenon’s bizarre behaviour. However, it’s precisely how destructive (if not deconstructive) the phenomenon is of our existing worldview in just this way that stages the phenomenon’s theatricality:  the phenomenon is no longer what it appears to be (an alien spaceship surrounded by its crew collecting soil and plant samples, for example) but enacts a meaning beyond itself, i.e., it becomes a sign.

Roland Barthes, in his significantly titled work Mythologies, elucidates just this situation with an example drawn from his “everyday social reality”:

I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.

In the same way that the significance of the sample Latin clause is not the meaning of its constituent words, so the significance of the UFO phenomenon is not its apparent behaviour but what this behaviour might be understood to point to.

To my knowledge the only time Vallée explicitly refers to the discipline of semiotics is in his 2003 paper co-authored with Eric Davis (“Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”). The rigorous implication of Vallée’s longheld thesis concerning the irrational character and behaviour of the phenomenon is that a true understanding is not to be won by the physical sciences but the human sciences, that what is demanded by the phenomenon itself is that it be approached not as an anomalous natural occurrence but a semiotic phenomenon. What is called for, therefore, is not primarily some supplement to or revision of our physics but a semiotics or, following Barthes’ early articulations, a semiology of the UFO mythology.








“…the Aliens gave us modern technology…”–a note to The Promethean Lure

Despite my critique of a certain tendency in Jacques Vallée’s thinking about the place of the UFO phenomenon in human history, I do find his work consistently compelling and an endless source of inspiration, if only for my more creative work, on Orthoteny.

Synchronicity has recently tossed my way a tidbit relevant to my all-too-brief reflection on the Promethean aspect of the Extraterrestrial. Reading the latest installment of his Forbidden Science:  Volume Four:  Journals 1990-1999, The Spring Hill Chronicles, I found a pertinent entry, from Sunday 6 April 1997:

The point that irks me most in the ufology dogma is the absurd idea that the Aliens gave us modern technology:  the often-heard notion that the transistor derived from Roswell is met with ridicule in Silicon Valley. Not only did the work of Bell Labs begin well before July 1947, but German inventor Oskar Heil had demonstrated a field-effect transistor on a lab bench in Germany in the early thirties. Heil is listed as owner of British patent 439-457, filed in 1934…. As early as June 1904 a device called the “Telemobiloskop” had been demonstrated.

It would, however, be an error to let the facts obscure the truth. The “UFO dogmatist” might reply that Heil was in communication with extraterrestrials through the Vril Society, or that the Telemobiloskop, too, was a crumb thrown us by the inventors of the Phantom Airships of 1896/7. More seriously, though, is the rich suggestiveness of the Promethean ET that runs throughout “the ufology dogma”, spontaneously generating a mythological image for the complex notion that German philosopher Martin Heidegger termed “the essence of technology” and that plays an important role in the religious reception of the UFO as D. W. Pasulka has tried to show in her American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, and Technology.


An Alien Abduction & a Fairy Tale: “Is that clear enough?”–A Note

In Forbidden Science:  Volume Four:  Journals 1990-1999, The Spring Hill Chronicles, Jacques Vallée writes in the entry for 1 January 1996:

In one recent case an abductee reports seeing human arms and legs piled up like firewood in a corner of a dark room, lit by a blue glow. Ufologists take it at face value. To me the scene has a stunning mythopoetic connection to Germanic fairy tales where a hero spends the night in a haunted castle; little men force him to play bowling games as they knock down bones using human heads that keep dropping down the chimney. In the tale a horrible being reassembles itself out of the members that have appeared chaotically. Is that clear enough?

With Passport to Magonia (1969), Vallée began to probe the relation between modern UFO sightings and entity encounters with premodern narratives, myths, legends, tales, and chronicles of aerial phenomena and meetings with nonhuman intelligences, arguing, at times, that their similarities suggest something about the mystery behind the UFO phenomenon. His approach, in general, has been richer and more sophisticated than the approach summed up in the name von Däniken, though not always. His journal entry (above) is hardly a summation of his own positions, but it is representative of certain pitfalls the line of inquiry can fall into.

As I have argued on a number of occasions, it’s not only the ufologists who take things at face value (as if “face value” were a simple, obvious notion…). All other provisos aside, a preliminary question is exactly how are an alien abduction narrative and a folk tale equivalent kinds of narrative? Before comparing these stories one need get clear on the narrative codes that govern or governed their composition and reception. For example, anyone who takes “at face value” the Hebrews’ forty years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt and Jesus’ forty days and forty nights retreat before beginning his ministry is simply ignorant of the rhetoric or hermeneutics at work in Biblical narrative.

But even before engaging such substantial and necessary matters, a number of other problems come to mind. Taken “at face value”, assuming that the abduction narrative was retrieved by means of hypnosis, a more parsimonious explanation is that the abductee had been exposed to the fairy tale Vallée has in mind in his or her childhood and the forgotten (i.e., unconscious) content has resurfaced in surreal fashion during the hypnotic regression. Or, if one wants to indulge a more Jungian than Freudian approach, one might posit that the dreamlike memories conjured up under hypnosis and the imagery of the fairy tale both spring from the same mental source, the creative or collective unconscious.

But most tellingly is what’s revealed to be at work in Vallée’s own mind. The “Germanic fairy tale” is very likely the fourth in the Brothers Grimm’s collection, “Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen” (“The Tale of a Boy who Went Forth to Learn Fear”). In this tale,  there are no “little men” (that might count as analogues to the diminutive Greys presumably present in the abductee’s story), nor, strictly speaking,  does “a horrible being reassemble itself out of …members that have appeared chaotically”:  first one half, then another half of a man falls through the chimney; the two halves then reassemble themselves into a “hideous man.” Vallée has only dimly (mis)remembered the tale himself, fabulating a version as fictitious as the abductee’s hypnotically retrieved narrative in line with the point he desires both to perceive and make. Once we undertake the simplest philological labour, we see that the abductee’s story and the fairy tale as Vallée remembers it have next to nothing in common, other than, perhaps, certain psychological mechanisms that might be invoked to explain their respective creation.

Whatever what might finally be made of Vallée’s speculations concerning the sometimes very striking parallels between premodern and modern “UFO” narratives (as is the case with Faery and Alien Abductions), if his approach is to have more than a mythopoetic value (which I prize highly!), then a certain minimum of philological and hermeneutic reflection is called for. Is that clear enough?




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

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

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

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

namely, that they are extraterrestrial spaceships.

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

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

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

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

Michael Persinger R.I.P.

The one post at Skunkworks that has sparked the most interest was that concerning the Electromagnetic Hypothesis (EMH), that some UFO/UAP sightings and perhaps even encounter experiences could be accounted for by observed but unexplained naturally-occurring EM and plasma phenomena.

One of the major researchers to develop this idea was Michael Persinger, who has died at 73. The Daily Grail has posted an obituary and summary of Persinger’s research and the controversy and criticisms it inspired. Interested parties will be pleased to find at least two videos and links to ten blog posts Persinger wrote in reply to his critics.

As a partial explanation for sightings and encounters, Persinger’s work strictly falls outside the purview of Skunkworks, exploring, as his research does, the being rather than the meaning of the UFO phenomenon. What is compelling, though, is the way his research suggests that the Earth herself might be imagined to communicate with human beings via EM phenomena.

That Flying Saucers arguably reveal more about how we think and feel about technoscience and the fate of society than about extraterrestrial visitors has been a mainstay since Jung’s pioneering speculations. That Contactees and Abductees both have received warnings concerning environmental catastrophe segues nicely with the notion that the Earth articulates her concerns via tectonic energies and an available image reservoir, whether a Collective Unconscious or not. That Earth itself transmits EM energies at 30-33 Hz (an instance of a numerological pattern that runs through the whole mythos) and that these transmissions are called Extra-low Frequency (ELF) waves is also poetically suggestive, especially in view of the links made to Faery lore and the UFO mythology by, among others, Jacques Vallee….

Having recently secured a copy of Persinger’s and Lafrenière’s Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events (Chicago:  Nelson-Hall, 1977) I hope to share a review sometime in the future.

On Faery Lights here and there (for Neil Rushton)

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

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


Will of the Wisp


You say suddenly you saw

A light moving over the river

Just where the water rushes fastest

Brighter than any torch or lamp


Later a small light low down

Then over a slope seven miles off

You knew by hikes and your watch

No human pace could so quick


Here they trail wagons in blizzards

Swoop like owls to rap at windows

Come in view like oncoming engines

Over no tracks up to those waiting

On the Narcissism of Anthropos

Neuropsychologists Gabriel de la Torre and Manuel García, from the University of Cádiz, in an article recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica, set out to “explain how our own neurophysiology, psychology and consciousness… play a major role in [the] search [for] non-terrestrial civilizations … and how they have been neglected up to this date.” (How the researchers managed to neglect the not irrelevant work of Jacques Vallee (from 1990!) or that of Susan Palmer and myself (from nearly twenty years ago) is itself an interesting case of the phenomenon they are investigating….).

Their research concerns inattention blindness, like that demonstrated by the Invisible Gorilla Experiment of Chabris and Simons. Following their example, de la Torre and García had 137 subjects distinguish artificial structures from natural features in aerial photographs, one of which contained a tiny gorilla. The complement to attention blindness, the mind’s tendency to perceive pattern in chaos (pareidolia), was addressed as well. The implication of their research is that the SETI focus on electromagnetic signals, in either the visible or invisible spectrums, primes it to miss those evidential “gorillas” that would indicate non-terrestrial civilizations. The pair goes on to propose a tripartite classification of such civilizations, all of which, in general, are characterized by their varying degrees of mastery over forms of matter and energy, whether quantum, gravitational, or dark.

What is ironic is that de la Torre and García have fallen prey to the same prejudices that keep SETI researchers and proponents of the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs from perceiving the intelligent life that swarms around us. As I’ve written elsewhere these prejudices are that intelligent life is intelligent in the way we ourselves conceive ourselves to be, cultural, tool-using creatures capable of mathematical thought and cognizing natural laws that are then exploited technologically, and that such civilizations follow universal paths of linear development toward increasing sophistication, knowledge, and mastery over nature. These prejudices are, arguably, the reification and projection of the history of one culture on earth, namely the one that calls itself the developed world, a culture resulting hardly from a natural, cultural evolution (the pairing of which adjectives should be illuminating enough) but from a highly contingent history that could have as easily followed countless other paths.

In terms of “civilization”, the founder of ethnopoetics, Jerome Rothenberg, makes a pertinent observation in the Pre-face to the first edition of his epochal assemblage Technicians of the Sacred (1967):  “Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time of their hands.” When one considers that the oldest, continuous society on earth is not China but that of the Australian Aborigines, whose oral poetry sings of a ground sloth extinct 60, 000 years, the variability if not relativity of technical ingenuity becomes apparent.

Intelligence, as well, is neither a simple, nor exclusively technical, nor even human attribute. Some human beings are breath-taking coders, but their smarts are outwitted by the ability of a chickadee to remember where it’s stashed its seeds. Indeed, the attempt to imagine nonhuman intelligence, like the one Denise L. Herzing undertakes in her 2013 paperProfiling nonhuman intelligence: An exercise in developing unbiased tools for describing other ‘types’ of intelligence on earth” expands intelligent life to include dolphins, octopus, insects, and even some bacteria. Even fruit flies can be shown to make decisions.

If we extend our curiosity to sentience, self-awareness, then the standard mirror test shows that Asian elephants, all the great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orca whales, Eurasian magpies, and even ants possess self-consciousness. And as thought-provoking as it is controversial is the contention of plant neurobiologist Stefan Mancuso that plants possess intelligence and sentience, albeit in a radically nonhuman way. Little wonder then that on 7 July 2012, “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals” drafted and signed The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, that, based on four “unequivocal observations”

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

I leave it to interested parties to google “panpsychism”….

An aspect of the tale of Narcissus often forgotten or missed is that Narcissus failed to recognize himself in his own reflection. Like Narcissus, SETI researchers and their critics de la Torre and García and the proponents of the ETH fail to recognize that their speculations concerning intelligence and civilization are merely projections of humankind. Despite Darwin and the libraries of research conducted on nonhuman and even plant sentience and intelligence, the reigning prejudice still seems to be what philosophers would call that “ontotheological” one, that Man is made in God’s own image. Once we disabuse ourselves of this mere speciesism, then we see that SETI is merely (“mirrorly”) a search for ourselves and that this prejudice blinds us to the mind-boggling richness of nonhuman life, sentience, and intelligence already sharing this planet with us, at the same time it perhaps mercifully spares us realizing the heart-breaking suffering we impose on innumerable other forms of life. Perhaps it is precisely because of the latter realization we refuse to recognize a sentience like our own in other living beings and turn our gaze from the earth to the stars at our own and increasingly the biosphere’s peril.


UFOs, Borges, and the Limits of Reason

At the only “ufological” blog I visit, a complaint has been made that “the conflation of the paranormal with UFOlogy….alien abductions, crop circles, cryptozoology, and hordes of New Age fluff” makes it so ufology, as a serious concern if not nascent discipline, can’t, as it were, get off the ground. My, expanded and developed, response follows.

Methodical inquiry (“science”) only gets under way once its basic concepts are articulated, a workable object is obtained to study and methods of investigation proper to that object grasped and developed. Of course, existing science demonstrates that the same object can be studied by different disciplines, e.g., emotion by psychology, neuropsychology, and anthropology, among others, and that sometimes there is no object to study, as was the case with phlogiston.

In the case of the pseudoscience of ufology, at least three problems arise:

On the one hand, the community of ufophiles is hardly a homogeneous group of like-minded and like-educated persons; it is wildly heterogenous, so discussion goes off in all directions. From such disciples no discipline is likely to arise.

On the other hand, other phenomena get yoked in, because they appear at the same time: glowing balls of light are associated with the appearance of some crop circles; Big Foot sightings do accompany UFO sightings; nor does it take a scholar of New Religious Movements to hear the “New Age fluff” in the preachings of Orthon, Semjase, and their ilk (ignoring for the present that Flying Saucers have always been imagined in the context of occult thought: Guy Ballard met the prototypes of Adamski’s Orthon in the 1930s, for example).

On the third hand, at least three researchers in three different fields (Jacques Vallee (Dimensions), Hilary Evans (Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians:  Encounters with Non-Human Beings), and Terry Matheson (Alien Abductions: Creating a Modern Phenomenon)) have noted parallels between UFO sightings, visions of angels and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, hauntings, shamanic initiation experiences, Near Death Experiences, alien abductions, Fairy abductions, and so on, which would seem to suggest a general theory of apparitions, not without its natural scientific, psychological, and sociological anchors.

As usual, the UFO phenomenon (or not) illuminates, if not creates a vortex that whips together, all manner of material together, precisely in a way to frustrate our existing rational schemata and to suggest there is indeed more in Heaven and Hell than is dreamt of in our philosophies, natural and otherwise. It brings to mind the passage from Borges that so fascinated Foucault, who cites it at the beginning of his Preface to The Order of Things. (The original in English translation is found in “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” in Borges’ Other Inquisitions).

These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

(trans. Ruth L C Simms)