Human, all-too-human, nonhuman species…

Regular visitors here may have been puzzled or concerned about this site’s recent silence. Matters on the domestic and poetic fronts have been more pressing of late, and the recent unfolding of the myth of things seen in the sky hasn’t been very inspiring. Luis Elizondo, Chris Mellon, & Co. continue to embarass themselves with their wince-inducing ignorance of UFO history, and the recent kerfuffle around the Calvine photograph raises the same old dust, nor does Jeffrey Kripal’s newest book touch any nerves of mine (though that may change on closer scrutiny…).

But, then, as chance would have it, a perennially-irritating confusion comes again into view. Greg Bishop, the admin for the Radio Misterioso FB page, shared an article from The Guardian via George Knapp, “Talking to whales: can AI bridge the chasm between our consciousness and other animals?”, with the comment “If this group is successful in achieving communication with whales, it may be wonderful, or frightening, or both. It may also teach us how to look for signatures of nonhuman life by using insights to an alien species that shares the same planet with us.”

It’s that second sentence that caught my attention. At first, even the grammar had me flummoxed. I take Bishop to mean that the work of the groups mentioned in The Guardian article “may also teach us how to look for signatures of nonhuman life by applying its insights to an alien species that shares the same planet with us.” And there’s the rub: the thinking seemingly at work here about “nonhuman life” and that “alien species that shares the same planet with us.”

That alien species is, I surmise (given George Knapp’s being in on the conversation), the one that pilots what today are termed Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). These are almost invariably humanoid, not just morphologically, but, to some extent, culturally (and arguably socially), being technological, even if that technology transcends our present understanding. Even if UAP and alien-encounter events are staged (a la Vallée), that staging is still imagined to be carried out technologically. My point here is that this putative alien species (Mac Tonnies’ Crytpoterrestrials?) is only marginally nonhuman. Not only its form but its “form of life” (a la Wittgenstein: ‘a background common to humankind, “shared human behavior” which is “the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language”’) are human, all-too-human.

One might justifiably ask by what warrant I venture to propose that these crypoterrestials might share a background of shared behaviour, a form of life close enough to that of some Homo Sapiens that would underwrite our more readily understanding these Others than those other, exoteric nonhuman species with which we cohabit the earth. What’s at work I argue in imagining that these terrestrial, alien species are both radically Other and technological is a conceptualization of technology that abstracts it from the social conditions of its actual coming-to-be. This impoverished notion of technology enables both its conflation with tool-use (so that even sharpened stones are “technology”) and its inflation to a kind of telos (essential goal) of intelligence that inspires fantasies about nonhuman, extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations, a hobby-horse (if not a bugbear) here at the Skunkworks. As I have explained (however cursorily) in an earlier post: “science and technology…are woven from the fabric of the society within which they appear and operate; they are cultural phenomena through and through.” Technology, thought concretely, is bound up with a form of life, such that, any other parahuman, technological species would already be close enough to technological Homo Sapiens that attempting to understand them would be more akin to that which occurs between different human groups than that between humans and other animals.

What’s at stake in these reflections is not so much the reality of these crypoterrestrial Others (attentive readers will have noticed nothing I have written denies outright their possible being) but how we understand and relate to those unquestionably real, nonhuman Others with whom we cohabit the earth. In seeing the promise for communicating with imagined creatures who mirror us in research into interspecies communication one oversells the strangeness of these putative Others and undersells the undeniable Otherness of really-existing animal (and plant) life. That more concerned parties are not struck by how much more alien actually-existing nonhuman life forms on earth are, compared to those “alien” beings that inhabit the ufological universe increasingly puzzles and saddens me. The fascination with crypto- or extraterrestrials betrays a narcissistic longing to encounter some version of ourselves instead of the unquestionable Otherness of our plant and animal kin whose profound difference provides a broader and deeper insight into the abyssal mystery of our creature-being.

Zooming in on the Archives of the Impossible Conference: Day Two (4 March 2022): Whitley Strieber, “Them”

Here, I continue my commentary on the plenary sessions of Rice University’s Archives of the Impossible conference. My notes on Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address can be read, here, while those on Diana Pasulka’s plenary address are viewable, here.

Friday, I missed Leslie Kean’s plenary talk, “Physical Impossibilities: From UFOs to Materializations”, but I was eager to catch Whitley Strieber’s, not only because of his reputation, but moreso because he has co-authored a book with Jeffrey Kripal, The Super Natural.

Strieber, being a writer, delivered a relatively eloquent talk, in a mellifluous, cadenced voice. He began, after a series of gracious, thoughtful acknowledgements, confirming the notion Jeffrey Kripal laid out yesterday, that the paranormal is a unified field, underlining the unity of the Visitor experience and the mystery of death, stressing the phenomenon demands to be approached “holistically” and interdisciplinarily.

The body of his discourse was the presentation and analysis of one of the many letters he and his wife received in the wake of Strieber’s publishing Communion, a large number of which are now housed in the Archives of the Impossible. Strieber proposed to read the story the letter related according to the myth of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur: the role of Theseus is played by the family who experience an encounter with the Visitors; the Labyrinth is our dark, confused world; the Minotaur is fear and anger; Ariadne is the consciousness behind and controlling the Visitor experience; and the thread, the process of human perception, the way it domesticates the wildly strange, tempering fear with curiosity. He managed to unfold the letter’s account according to his proposed schema in an easy to follow manner, however unconvincing….

What struck me was Strieber’s stressing how the Visitor experience “is a communication of a kind”, related to the myths of all cultures. Indeed, it’s because Strieber perceives this link between the experience and myths that he ventures to read the letter the way he does, going as far as to claim that an acquaintance with myth is necessary to understand Contact and “the grammar of Communion.” In this regard, Strieber seems to echo Vallée’s contention in his keynote address, that the phenomenon “is not a system but a metasystem”. Someone not unfamiliar with the developments of last century’s literary theory might say it is a language (myth).

Ironically, however much Strieber is at pains to stress the pertinence of our mythological inheritance in understanding Contact, his own acquaintance with the myth he deploys is weak. It’s not the case that Ariadne saves Theseus from the Minotaur by guiding him out of the Labyrinth with her thread, but that her thread enables him to navigate the Labyrinth in order to slay the Minotaur and emerge again. Strieber is correct that Theseus abandons Ariadne after his exploit, but says that she weds Dionysus “the god of joy” and thereby becomes holy, a becoming holy (whole, complete), Strieber maintains, being the “inner aim of Contact”. But by what warrant does Strieber identify Dionysus/Bacchus with “joy”?…

Not only does he betray only a loose acquaintance with the myth he would employ, but, I would argue, he confuses myth with myths. That is, if the Visitor/Contact phenomenon operates at a mythological level, from the point of view of structural mythology, it is not because of how its various narratives might echo other narratives, but because of its structure, which is that of myth. Myth, like language, is a form not a substance. He does seem to unconsciously grasp this approach, when he draws attention to various actions in the letter he analyzes (and, no!, he does not “deconstruct” it!) when he remarks various actions that occur along the vertical axis: one Visitor leaps from a water silo, they appear in the trees, the family ascends to the second story of their home to get a better view of the beings, etc., an observation typical of a structural analysis of myth or narrative. Strieber’s exegesis of the letter is illuminating but, ironically, despite the allegorical machinery he brings to bear….

One must wonder, too, if he were present during Vallée’s presentation and his warnings concerning the truths intelligence agencies relate, as Strieber at one point emphasized how the U.S. government recently admitted that the leaked Tic-Tac and Gimbal videos depicted vehicles of unknown origin….

So, like Jacques Vallée’s keynote address, Whitley Strieber’s contribution, though smoothly delivered and containing some provocative insights, fails to persuade because of, ironically, its weak grasp of essential aspects of its own argument, here the very myth he would use to construct his discourse, if not mythology as such itself….

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

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

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

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