“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.

Frederic_Church_Meteor_of_1860

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A speculation on the making of a modern myth

Decades before our era of fake news and the bots who disseminate it, I once half-jokingly pitched a book idea to an old English teacher and friend. I imagined writing a tell-all exposé by a creative writer who had been drafted on graduation into a secret government project whose purpose was to produce cultural materials, novels, television and movie scripts, and so forth, with the intent of tweaking and guiding the culture at large. The UFO mythology, of course, played a central role. But recently having had the opportunity to view Corbell’s Bob Lazar:  Area 51 & Flying Saucers, it strikes me I may well have been beaten to the punch.

Corbell’s documentary omits some very telling details of Lazar’s story, but includes one I hadn’t known, that early in his tenure at Area 51, Lazar was shown a number of briefing documents concerning UFOs and their extraterrestrial pilots. To the cognoscenti, Lazar’s experience is not unique:  Bill Cooper and Bob Dean both tell similar stories of being given materials that deal with crashed saucers, recovered and back-engineered technology, and captured and autopsied ETs. What Lazar, Cooper, and Dean claim to have read seems pulled from the same filing cabinet as the MJ-12 documents. If we refuse to take these at face value, then we need to imagine their possible significance and purpose.

There are a number of potential uses. One not too out-of-this-world is as a kind of test. Given that since the postwar advent of the phenomenon roughly half the general population believes that “flying saucers are real”, it follows roughly half of military personnel will hold similar beliefs. Imagine a junior intelligence officer is up for promotion. You present them with materials like those shown to Lazar and ask them to prepare a brief for a superior. A candidate whose critical faculties fail to filter such material as highly questionable if not outright disinformation is surely unreliable. The all-too-credulous might even be tempted to leak the world-shattering information they’ve been shown, and, when they are, understandably, demoted or dismissed, they can point to their discharge as proof of their claims and start a new career as a ufological whistleblower….

An important inspiration for my unwritten novel was the speculations of William Burroughs’ lifelong experiments on how to destabilize and destroy the reigning control system of image and association. Since, I’ve read Frances Stonor Saunders on how during the Cold War the CIA sought to weaponize the arts and learned about the related, farther-reaching Operation Mockingbird. Robbie Graham has explored ways the cinematic presentation of flying saucers and ETs was possibly spun in similar ways. Given the persistence of reports of the kinds of documents Lazar claims to have read, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some version of the stable of writers I imagined actually exists.

This Gnostic-paranoid speculation concerning the manipulation if not outright fabrication of our collective imaginarium also brings to mind Jacques Vallée’s proposal that the UFO phenomenon itself might operate as a kind of control system, inspiring and guiding belief. If we combine these ideas, a compelling if somewhat giddy vision suggests itself,  that collective consciousness is a battlefield fought over by human and nonhuman players. In this context, the thought, whether Elon Musk’s or Nik Bostrom’s, that we might be living in a computer simulation appears a cheap rip off of The Matrix.

MMDTHLI_EC010_H

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…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.

 

The Promethean Lure

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

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

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

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

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

originsofman

Synchronicitious Confirmation

If the UFO is a mandala (as Jung proposed) then by synchronicity (again) I’ve come full circle.

Though I’d been fascinated by the ufological as a boy, that interest faded sometime before high school. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that, like Saul on the road to Damascus, I was struck by my own private revelation of the phenomenon’s meaningfulness. At the time, alien abductions were in the air, or at least on the airwaves. Many if not most of the abductees were women, and their stories were retrieved for the most part by means of hypnotic regression. By that time, I’d read enough Freud to guess that what these women recalled was as much a kind of manifest dream material as memory, and, as a dream, their stories must be expressions of certain desires or fears. This insight dovetailed into other matters being mulled by the zeitgeist at the time, the Human Genome Project, cloning, and developments in reproductive technology, such as In Vitro Fertilization. It seemed clear at that moment that alien abductee narratives were surreal expressions whose latent content was the understandable concern women might suffer whose bodies were the subject of such probing investigations and manipulations. What struck me in a flash with this understanding was how the infinite stories about UFOs and their ET pilots were a kind of collective dream expressing the anxieties and aspirations of technological civilization in general, an idea I articulated a few years later just before one of the last End Times dates, the turn of the Millennium, in the following way:

The present stands within the horizon of the death of God, understood as the domination of the assumption of the immanence of the world and the consequent disappearance of the meta-physical, the super-natural, and the supersensuous (at least overtly) or their fall into the merely paranormal. The paranormal or paraphysical is that realm of nature yet to be understood (and so ultimately controlled) by science. This assumption that science will continue along the path of discovery, knowledge, and power naturalizes or reifies science and technology. When our science and technology poison the biosphere, split the atom to release potentially species-suicidal energies and manipulate the genetic code of living organisms, humanity has taken upon itself powers and potentialities hitherto exclusively the domain of superhuman deities. That science and technology, whose worldview determines how things are, brings us to an unprecedented impasse demands they must in some way be transcended (i.e., survived). The flying saucer appears within this horizon as a symbol of just such transcendence, promising that precisely the causes of our quandary will be our means of salvation.

By chance, meaningful or otherwise, following up on the reading around conspiracy theories I did for my conversation with M. J. Banias and the post clarifying and expanding on its ideas, I came to the following passage in Peter Knight’s Conspiracy Culture: from Kennedy to the X-Files (2000) uncannily setting forth those same ideas that had caught me up in that blinding vision of what the UFO mythology illuminates:

…the prevalence of alien abduction stories which feature invasive gynecological procedures speaks to concerns about rapidly changing reproductive technologies, in a decade whose political terrain has been scarred by battles over abortion, and fertility treatments such as surrogacy and cloning….alien abduction narratives in the 1990s express fears about medical science’s invasion of the body as the source of danger. It comes as little surprise, moreover, that the most frequent visitor, the so-called small gray alien, is typically represented in both personal accounts and Hollywood film as a creature with a disproportionately large head, huge enigmatic eyes, a tiny body and delicate hands. It forms an icon which recalls pictures of fetuses in the womb, a striking and uncanny image of the “alien within” that has only become available through new imaging technology in the last quarter century. The conspiracy-inflected dramas of alien experimentation thus say less about the particular makeup of the individuals telling the stories than they do about a society in which people’s (and especially women’s) relationships to their own body is so often mediated through technical expertise, be it medical, judicial, or ethical. (171-2)

 

Skunkworks: First Orbit

Skunkworks has been at it a year now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Skunkworks!