What we don’t talk about when we talk about History’s Project Blue Book

As he wraps up his bracingly well-informed commentary on the season finale of History’s Project Blue Book, Kevin Randle remarks the vocal loathing some ufophiles have expressed for the series, confessing that he doesn’t “understand their hostility. Project Blue Book is not a documentary but a drama that has a historical background and a loose, very loose, interpretation of some of the sightings that are found in the Blue Book files.” For my part, I’ve made clear I find the series a lost opportunity, either to accurately represent (if dramatize) the story of Project Bluebook, which if done well would surely be engaging enough (if UFOs have any real and enduring mystery), or to create a radically novel twist on the mythology if not the phenomenon, whose merits could aspire to rank (as the show’s promotional material promises) with those of The X-Files. And, however much, as Randle cannily points out, History’s Project Blue Book is an overt fiction while the mainstay of many UFO websites and YouTube channels is to “put up UFO information that is totally bogus with no disclaimers whatsoever,” there are good grounds to be critical of how the series depicts the phenomenon, which, on closer inspection, entail even more curious and grave implications.

Randle is perhaps a little too sanguine about the solidity of the line that divides fact from fiction. As Robbie Graham and D. W. Pasulka have both recently argued, the fictional, televisual representation of the phenomenon insinuates itself in the memory in such a way that the fictional images replace factual reality. Though I find their arguments less than persuasive, it is the case that for “the general public” whose curiosity is not as invested as that of the researcher’s such a confusion arguably obtains. A mainstay example in discussions about false memories is an experiment

wherein participants viewed an ad for Disney that suggested that they shook hands with an impossible character (e.g., Bugs Bunny). Again, relative to controls, the ad increased confidence that they personally had shaken hands with the impossible character as a child at a Disney resort.

It is precisely through the lack of interest in a subject matter that errors and confusions of this sort filter in. More seriously, though, how events are represented is no small matter for concern. The resistance to the Vietnam War has been attributed in part to how footage of its violence appeared in an unprecedented way on national television. The lesson learned from the influence of this relatively new medium led to such a tightly-controlled, sanitized spin on reporting the First Gulf War that it inspired French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to pen several articles collected in a hyperbolically titled volume The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991). Such anxious considerations are now de rigueur in the age of social media and their volatile, political exploitation.

While Randle is nonplussed over the misrepresentation of the phenomenon, he has expressed in a number of posts reviewing the series, as a veteran and so as someone who knows, his dissatisfaction with how “military customs and courtesies” and procedures are mishandled. What goes unremarked, however, both by Randle and critics of the series, are the intertwined threads of experimentation on military personnel and what Donald Keyhoe called “the flying saucer conspiracy”, official secrecy around and the dispersal of a misinformation screen about the phenomenon. Both themes are arguably more serious in their implications than the question as to whether “the flying saucers are real.”

To take up the latter topic first: it is perhaps sychronicitious that the CIA and the flying saucer both make their respective official appearances in 1947. Since, the American national security state has only grown (some would say “metastasized”). By 1964, Wise and Ross coin the term “the invisible government,” an idea since expanded if not always refined into “the shadow government” and most recently “the deep state.” Parallel to and sometimes twisted into such official state secrecy are accusations of an official cover-up of what military and government officials know to be true about the UFO, beginning with Keyhoe’s books in the 1950s and becoming especially gnarled and knotted in the 1980s and 90s with the appearance of the MJ-12 documents and the confluence of ufology with New World Order conspiracism, most notably in Bill Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse (1991). One might say the relation was made canonical, for the ufophilic at least, by Richard Dolan in his two-volume study UFOs and the National Security State 1941-1973 and 1973-1991, published in 2002 and 2009 respectively, and officially certified with the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure at the National Press Club in April, 2013.

That the conspiracist aspect of the series is passed over in silence in 2019 is itself remarkable. First, this silence is an index of how normalized, how unremarkable, the very idea has become, not only for the ufophilic (long aware of the idea) but for the general public, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and 9/11. Second, the unconscious acceptance of the motif is curious at a time when conspiracism has returned with a vengeance in the form of the Q Anon conspiracy theory. Credence in the “theory” has only grown and spread since its appearance, with vocal supporters making themselves visible at Trump rallies. Others have committed crimes inspired by Q’s “drops.” Since, the theory has infiltrated the EU and is a source of misinformation and weapon for creating dissent in its populist-beset democracies. The series repeats and so reinforces the idea of a not necessarily benevolent “deep state”, echoing sentiments with the potential to inspire grave actions outside its merely dramatic, fictional world

An even graver motif in the series is that concerning human experimentation, for the moment at least, on military personnel. In Episode 4, “Operation Paperclip”, a hapless if resisting test pilot is strapped into the cockpit of a flying saucer prototype developed by Werner von Braun, which promptly disappears, taking the pilot to who-knows-where or when. In Episode 9, “War Games”, soldiers are unknowingly exposed to a chemical agent that causes irrational violence among them, and it is revealed that Generals Valentine and Harding have subjected pilots who’ve encountered Foo Fighters or UFOs to a kind of psychic driving procedure that echoes the infamous MK-Ultra program. This latter episode, especially, echoes the real-world cases where American military personnel have been exposed to chemical agents and psychoactive drugs. The public awareness of such practices underwrote anxieties about Gulf War Syndrome, conspiracy theories about Timothy McVeigh, and a central motif of The X-Files.

Experimentation on unwitting or unwilling human subjects touches on something essential to modernity, the perversion of rationality to identity thinking and instrumental reason. This latter is characteristic of both technology and capitalism, for whom the world is reduced to a warehouse of resources for exploitation and profit. Such a reduction is especially egregious in the case of living systems and organisms. Most immediately, such thinking is an important cause of the environmental crisis. In the case of human beings, if not nonhuman animals, instrumental thinking is essentially immoral, as it treats others as means rather than ends in themselves. When the Hynek and Quinn characters meet von Braun in Episode 4, they do not hesitate to openly express their disgust, an ironic reaction for viewers aware of Nazi human experimentation (among other atrocities, e.g., using the remains of concentration camp victims as raw materials) who can connect these scenes to the motif of human experimentation that has run through the series from almost its beginning if not to the very character of capitalist-technological society at large.

Critics of how History’s Project Blue Book depicts the history of the phenomenon have more warrant for their dissatisfaction than a mere judgement of taste, as its dramatizations potentially become the history of the UFO for the casually (un)concerned viewer and, worse, to my mind, reinforce clichés about the phenomenon that strip it of its real, unnerving mystery and keep it from being taken seriously. More curiously though is the way its reception reveals what its viewers and critics if not society at large take for granted, namely a byzantine, uncontrollable, and potentially malevolent national security apparatus and, worse, a blasé acceptance of the reduction of everything to a means to an end as business as usual.

 

 

 

 

QAnon as (post)modern art

The conspiratorial mindset likely goes back at least as far as the paranoid cosmologies of who-runs-the-world-1the Gnostics two millennia ago. One of its latest iterations is Q or QAnon, a conspiracy theory that in its manner of dissemination, the style of its expression, and the wildness of its content makes it more impressive as an instance of modern art than a revelation of the secret order of the world it pretends to be.

Q appears first 28 October 2017 on /pol/, a sub-board of 4-chan, unwinding a thread titled “Calm Before the Storm” alluding, supposedly, to a remark made by President Trump early that month. The thread’s author claimed to have Q-level security clearance, having access to highly-classified information he then prolifically released in idiosyncratically worded “crumbs” that outlined an increasingly complex and bizarre vision of contemporary world politics, focused on Trump’s battle with the Deep State. Anyone familiar with the Exopolitics and Disclosure movements will also know UFOs and ETs have also been woven into the Q narrative.

Why anyone would take the incoherent and madly speculative worldview Q lays out for the way things really are is as much a psychological or sociological as an epistemic question. However, if one brackets the question of the truth of Q’s revelations, then the trail of crumbs Q has left his public appear as a work of fiction or poetry that meets Rimbaud’s famous demand that “we must be absolutely modern” in remarkable ways.

Adopting a mask or persona, an identity other than the author’s, is an old literary device, intensified for various reasons in the Twentieth Century. Replacing one’s given name with one’s initials became a bit of a fashion among anglophone poets, T. S. Eliot or more radically H.D. being perhaps the best known. Postwar or postmodern poetry probing the implications of the death of the author have worked to compose works wherein the language rather than the author might be said to be what speaks. Q, too, in a not dissimilar manner, adopts a persona, a move with rhetorical affect. This pseudonym, evoking both James Bond and real-world security-clearance designations, lends Q an air of credibility that tellingly draws on both fictional and factual connotations. Moreover, his revelations are made to appear all the more true as their being shared in even such a piecemeal, obscure manner is made to seem to endanger his life. In the conspirosphere it’s an old trick of putative insiders to lend their leaks gravity by their being secret, to whatever degree.

Aside from developing and coining the expression “the death of the author” French critic Roland Barthes also articulated an important distinction, that between “work” and “text”, most fully explored in S/Z. All too simply put, the classical work stands over against the reader as a seamless, polished, finished monumental aesthetic object achieved by the labour of the genius of the author; the text, on the other hand demands as much engagement and work from the reader to complete the aesthetic object. Barthes describes a text as “a galaxy of signifiers” that need be “constellated” by the reader. (Admittedly, the distinction goes back to the Jena Romantics and is roundly deconstructed by Barthes himself in S/Z; nevertheless, it remains valuable in discussing modes of avant garde writing). In this light, QAnon’s conspiracy theory is a text, at both the micro and macro levels.

The theory is articulated by a thread spun of “crumbs”,  a series of short, telegraphic, sometimes encoded lines, that resemble, at least typographically, poems:

Q-Iran-Potus-in-Control

Some lines are complete sentences; others (e.g.,”Suicide watch” or “Bigger than people can imagine”) are more cryptic, demanding an active interpretation. Often, the reader is addressed in the imperative tense (“Ask yourself…”) or is posed questions (“Why is HRC in NZ?”) supposedly to push the reader in a particular, interpretive direction. The lines that make up each crumb are organized paratactically, demanding the reader supply the grammatical and logical  connections that would lend them even a linguistic coherence. These demands on the reader’s engagement reach a limit in encoded crumbs.

Q-Anon-Coded-message

Thus, at the lowest level of composition, the crumb and its components, the theory is very much a text, lent a significant amount of logic and significance by the reader.

At the next higher level of organization, that between crumbs, both consecutively and in general, the same demands are made. Just as each line of a crumb need be understood and each line connected with the other, the revelations of each crumb need be worked up into a coherent whole that is subject to subsequent modification by rereadings of already released crumbs and subject to revision with the release of each day’s new crumbs. The theory is thus in a state of constant flux, an instability exacerbated by the basic incoherence of the crumbs taken individually and as a totality, as well as the added complications added to the mix by contributions to the thread by its readers. The theory then is in a state of constant expansion and complication.

Another characteristic of avant garde art is its interest in exploring and exploiting the latest media technology makes available. In this light, QAnon is strikingly modern, availing itself of the possibilities of the digital medium:  being digital, appearing where it does to address a particular audience, being open-ended both in its own on-going composition and in its readers’ participation. In a more profound way, though, the theory depends on another dimension of our modernity born with digital culture, that of the demand for “transparency” and its consequences. As theorist Stanley Fish eloquently observes, the demand for equal access to data, free of the editorial manipulations of elites or other gatekeepers, produces precisely an informational galaxy of signifiers that are then open to an absolutely “democratic” or anarchic constellation by those with access to it. QAnon’s unwinding story is premissed on precisely this situation, made up as it is of just those bits of data that the thread’s readers in turn organize into a more or less coherent if incomplete picture.

QAnon, then, is a remarkable example of absolutely contemporary ((post)”modern”) art, in its adoption of a pseudonymous persona for rhetorical affect, in its inventing a new genre of linguistic expression (the crumb) that puts to use poetic and rhetorical devices, in its overall organization reminiscent of avant garde literature, and in its very medium and exploitation of various aesthetic possibilities of that medium, all premissed and arising from the media if not epistemic conditions of the age, the ascendancy of data over news and the increasing anarchy of world views and political polarization this shift enables and gives rise to.