Some notes on A Conversation with Hussein Ali Agrama and Jeffrey J. Kripal

In the wake of the recent Archives of the Impossible conference, the organizers have released recordings of webinars aside from the plenary sessions that were publicly (if remotely) viewable during the conference itself. I’ve already shared my responses to Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address (here) and Whitley Strieber’s and Diana Pasulka’s plenary sessions (Strieber here and Pasulka here). In one of these webinars (here), as the conference YouTube channel puts it

Hussein Ali Agrama, associate professor of anthropology and social sciences at the University of Chicago, join[s] Jeffrey J. Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Graduate Studies in the Rice University School of Humanities, on Feb. 24, 2022, for the third of three webinars in advance of Archives of the Impossible conference…

Agrama’s and Kripal’s conversation is, by turns, compelling and exasperating, but particularly pertinent to one vector of thinking that goes on here at the Skunkworks (that Mike Cifone in a not dissimilar way questioned: see his comment to this post).

The conversation begins and ends with the academic response to the challenge presented by the UFO phenomenon. Agrama relates he is a ufological “newbie”, having begun researching the topic in 2015. Having concluded that “by all possible yardsticks of reality”, as they used to say, “Flying Saucers are real!”, he presented a conservative, probing talk on the topic at Berkeley, which was reacted to with overt anger and tactful, enthusiastic interest.

Aside from such social challenges to even fielding the question in academe is a methodological one. Along the lines of a fairly consistent sentiment expressed in all the publicly-viewable talks at the conference, Agrama remarks how the UFO phenomenon is mixed with what he terms “proximate enigmas”, implying that UFOs are an aspect of a more general problem calling for, what I’ve termed (though I hardly coined the expression), a Unified Field Theory of the Paranormal. The paranormal considered in this way exceeds the conceptual and investigatory tools of any one discipline, humanistic or natural scientific. Agrama and Kripal infer from this character of the problem that it demands we abandon these tools for, imaginably, new ones.

Here, the conversation touches on a proposal made here, that a phenomenon that does not fit existing categories calls forth new ones, along the lines Kant describes in his Critique of Judgement, i.e., a phenomenon that cannot be classified by means of what he termed determinative judgement demands it be grasped, like an aesthetic object, by means of our capacity to form reflective judgements. More radically, however, it strikes me Agrama and Kripal (due to a persistent historical shallowness) overlook the calls made by the Jena Romantics for an open-ended, experimental, encyclopedic interdisciplinarity, embodied after a fashion in the figure of Claude Levi-Strauss’ bricoleur and championed by Jacques Derrida and others of his moment.

Nevertheless, Agrama and Kripal probe deeper the “challenges to science” posed by the phenomenon. Agrama relates an anecdote from Jacques Vallée’s Messenger of Deception. Vallée and an intelligence agent are discussing the phenomenon; Vallée presses that it is a scientific problem, but the agent pushes back that it might be, instead, an intelligence problem. Agrama and Kripal focus on the difference between the two approaches but pass over a more essential one: however mysterious a matter, from a scientific point of view the matter lies open to inspection however much ingenuity and effort it might yet demand to be investigated, but from an intelligence point of view the matter is duplicitous, intentionally deceptive. One is tempted to observe at least that the sciences have in fact developed methods to observe and research intelligent beings, human and otherwise, eager to escape detection or dissimulate if observed, but the problem is deeper and arguably one of method. In the sciences, the object is in principle exoteric, open to investigation by anyone, provided they have access to the necessary training and instrumentation; the paranormal “object”, however, is esoteric, not given to being observed in controlled situations nor by just anyone; for whatever reasons only some human beings are given to observing the phenomena in question, whether by birth or fiat of the phenomenon itself. Alluding to the experience of one remote viewer and the way his training altered his quotidian perceptions, Agrama wonders whether one challenge to studying paranormal phenomena is not precisely a problem of perception. Whether or not an exoteric training might be developed to solve this problem remains an open question.

At this point the conversation becomes problematic. Kripal addresses a number of questions to Agrama, the first that of whether any research had been done into a causal relation between UFOs and religion. The matter of the stigmata of St. Francis is raised, but the best Agrama can do is point to Diana Pasulka’s American Cosmic. To any scholar however casually acquainted with the topic, Agrama’s answer is astonishing. Scholars of religion have researched the religious dimension of the phenomenon for decades. One can point to the classic study When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter (first issued by the University of Minnesota Press, 1956), the 1995 anthology The Gods Have Landed, published by the State University of New York Press and edited by James R. Lewis (whose contributions to the field cannot be praised enough), Susan Palmer’s Aliens Adored: Raël’s UFO Religion (Rutger’s University Press, 2004), or Stephen C. Finley’s In and Out of this World: Material and Extraterrestrial Bodies in the Nation of Islam, forthcoming from Duke University Press, among many, many others. Moreover, the Christian reaction to the phenomenon is voluminous and the cognoscenti know the phenomenon emerged from a vaguely Theosophical matrix, e.g., in the books of George Adamski. Agrama somehow manages to pass over seventy-five years of relevant literature, primary and secondary.

More foundationally, Agrama and Kripal readily agree with the contention voiced during the conference itself that “the ground of being is not just the social”. This statement is deployed to at least two ends: first, as a criticism of dogmatic social constructivism in the social sciences and the humanities and, second, to open an ontological space for the paranormal. However, are our interlocutors ignorant of the more recent tradition that stems from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1926) that takes as its theme the question of the meaning of Being and the path Heidegger’s ontology was to take, let alone the older trajectory of thought that springs from Friedrich Jacobi and the Pantheism Controversy of the 1780s in Germany? If they weren’t, they’d know Jacobi had already pointed out the essential difference between nature as explicable by reason and science and the sheer, brute, opaque fact that there is anything at all to be explained, a matter pursued by others down to Heidegger, for whom Being denotes at least Jacobi’s “existence” as well as the fact that the world is intelligible at all, a spontaneous understandability grounded only in part by “society”.

Finally, it’s as if Agrama and Kripal had clairvoyantly read one of the more recent posts here Just what’s up at the Skunkworks (Skunkworksblog, that is)? for they explicitly attack those who would bracket the question of the being or nature of the phenomenon from its meanings. They say that such an approach would be laughable were it applied to, for example, radiation, that such a methodological strategy is “a cop out” to avoid the challenge to official ontology posed by the phenomenon. There are any number of responses. It is incumbent upon such believers to demonstrate the unquestionable reality of the phenomenon (which is hardly of the same status as “radiation”). As I observe in the post above, this is a debate that is exhausting as it is endless and irresolvable. Moreover, I state

anyone who has taken the lessons of deconstruction (namely those of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man) to heart will understand, maintaining an airtight opposition between strictly “negative” critique (that is, it does not posit any theses of its own about the facts of the world in opposition to the positions it scrutinizes) and the demand to take some position with regard to the truth of things is ultimately unsupportable.

In all fairness, this is a response I don’t expect Jeffrey Kripal, at least, to appreciate, if his very tenuous grasp of Derrida as evidenced in The Flip (see Chapter 4. The Symbols in Between) is anything to go by. Finally, I have and will argue at length that the reception of the phenomenon as “a visionary rumour” or “modern myth of things seen the sky” is compellingly revelatory of that collective unconscious called by historical materialists ideology, which arguably smooths the way for so-called “advanced society” to continue upon its eco- if not sui-cidal way. And concerning that reality I wager Agrama, Kripal, and I would hardly disagree.

Addendum: As readers might imagine, the matter of bracketing the meaning of the phenomenon from the question of its being, reality or nature is hardly a new one here. Related posts that develop the question at greater length if not depth are, the earliest and longest (Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO), a slightly abbreviated version of this first (On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”), and the most compressed version (Notes towards a prolegomenon to a future ufology…).

Concerning traces, metamaterials and relics…

In the wake of the recently widely-publicized U.S. Navy encounters with Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) and History’s Unidentified:  Inside America’s UFO Investigation, comes the claim that To The Stars Academy (TTSA) has acquired samples of “metamaterials” “reported to have come from an advanced aerospace vehicle of unknown origin.”

Stories of such materials are, however, old news. Keith Basterfield has compiled A Preliminary  Catalogue of Alleged ‘Fragments’ Reportedly Associated with Sightings of  Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Where Analysis(es) was/were Conducted” of cases from 1897 to 2014. Reports of such fragments followed quickly on the heels of Kenneth Arnold’s eponymous sighting of “flying saucers” in 1947:  as will be well-known to the cognoscenti, Fred Crisman and Harold Dahl claimed to have witnessed six doughnut-shaped craft near Maury Island, Washington, three days before Arnold’s sighting, one of which ejected what appeared to be a white-hot, liquid metal. Since, witnesses have reported, for example, oily residues and powders and sometimes metal fragments, which were either ejected from the UFO or all that remained of it after it was seen to explode in midair. Traces of this sort were seized on for their forensic significance, as evidence of the sighting or landing and perhaps of some clue as to its nature.

The most famous of such cases, however, is doubtless Roswell, which, in this regard, added a layer to the merely forensic. Philip J. Corso’s The Day After Roswell sets out how materials recovered from the flying saucer that putatively crashed in July 1947 were studied and reverse-engineered into the components that made the modern, digital world possible, such as transistors and fibre-optic cables. TTSA’s ADAM Research Project (Acquisition and Data Analysis of Materials) was founded precisely to focus “on the exploitation of exotic materials for technological innovation”, namely those metamaterials TTSA has secured, “reported to have come from an advanced aerospace vehicle of unknown origin.”

It’s not my purpose here to judge the authenticity of TTSA’s claims (though they don’t look very compelling, if Robert Sheaffer’s points are valid…). Rather, I propose to reflect on the meaning such traces and fragments hold for the ufophilic. Diane Pasulka, in her American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology, argues UFO phenomena bear a strong resemblance to traditional religious experience, likening the Ecstasy of Teresa of Avila to an encounter experience and the fragment she, James, and Tyler find in the American southwest to “an artifact of hierophany” (50), “a manifestation of the sacred.” Of course, such analogies are hardly new. Jacques Vallee, more for stylistic effect than analysis, writes in the opening pages of his Revelations (1997):

Like any emerging movement, this one has its shrines. Examples include Kirtland Air Force Base, with its crypts of mystery, and Dulce, New Mexico, with its great temples to which spiritual energy can be directed by the faithful. Because this is a technocratic movement, its capitals are not called Saint Peter’s, Mecca, Jerusalem, or Salt Lake City. Their designations are code names, words of power:  Hangar 18, Majestic 12, and Area 51. (19)

And, from a less religious but no less metaphysical perspective, Rich Reynolds speculates “if we get our hands on a UFO – really get hold of one – I think that we could find out what our reality consists of, what actually our existence’s sine qua non may be.”

However, as I have argued since my earliest theoretical (as opposed to poetical) interventions into the ufulogical, theses such as Pasulka’s are misguided because ahistorical, as they ignore the radical break between premodern and modern culture:  the modern, if not postmodern, era is, in part, characterized by a loss of the metaphysical or supernatural. Where, for Catholics, for example, the Shroud of Turin is evidence of a supernatural intervention in human affairs, any part of a UFO, whether Extraterrestrial, Extradimensional, or Extratemporal (from another time if not place), let alone merely exotic and all-too-earthly, would evidence only another, however novel, phenomenon immanent to nature and its laws.

The advent of the Scientific Revolution, along with Kant’s Critical Philosophy, is a dimension of a process wherein and whereby any possible object, however strange or uncanny, is never more than natural. This development is evident, too, even in the ways that religion itself is studied, as a sociocultural phenomenon, as possessing some conceivable evolutionary advantage, as rooted in the human nervous system, or being an a priori potential for numinous experience, and so on, that is, as something merely human, all-too-human, no longer as evidence of  supernatural, miraculous incursions into our mundane realm. TTSA’s metamaterials, regardless of the wonder and awe they might inspire, are no sacred relics, as should be acutely apparent in how they are acquired only for the sake of their potential technological exploitation and attendant profits.





Ufology’s Steadystate

Working randomly toward another review for Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf, I came across the following passage from Edward J. Ruppelt’s The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956):  the

“will to see” [UFOs] may have deeper roots, almost religious implications, for some people. Consciously or unconsciously, they want UFOs to be real and to come from outer space. These individuals, frightened perhaps by threats of atomic destruction, or less fears—who knows what—act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth. Instead, they seek salvation from outer space, on the forlorn premise that flying saucer men, by their very existence, are wiser and more advanced than we. Such people may reason that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival. (17)

Here, in a nutshell (as it were) Ruppelt plainly states many of the assumptions that guide beliefs about UFOs and extraterrestrials to this very day.

D. W. Pasulka’s recent American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) owes much of the splash it has made to her treating the fascination for the advanced technology the UFO-as-extraterrestrial-spacecraft represents as a religious phenomenon, yet, here, Ruppelt lays bare the “almost religious implications” the idea has. (And he is hardly the last:  Festinger et al. published their classic study of a flying saucer cult When Prophecy Fails the same year as Ruppelt’s no-less-classic Report, Jung published the first, German edition of his Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies in 1958, and anthologies of articles exploring the religious dimension of UFOs and contact with their pilots have appeared since (e.g., The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds (ed. James R. Lewis, 1995), UFO Religions (ed. Christopher Partridge, 2003), and Alien Worlds:  Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact (ed. Diana G. Tumminia, 2007)).

A famous (or infamous) intersection of American esoteric religious tendencies, the flying saucer, and anxiety over “threats of atomic destruction” are the Space Brothers of the Contactees. But Ruppelt’s point seems more complex. The Space Brothers, “wiser and more advanced than we”, land to warn us of the unknown dangers of atomic energy and weapons, yes. But, it is “by their very existence” that they “are wiser and more advanced than we” are. Here, he articulates a too-often unspoken assumption that “social and technical advancement” go hand in hand, a questionable thesis, as I’ve argued.

Even if we disentangle wisdom from technical ingenuity, Ruppelt observes a further belief, used today to justify the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and hopes that Disclosure will liberate world changing technologies, namely that “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival.” SETI researchers, like all who believe UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, project that trajectory of historical accidents that lead to the “advanced societies” of the earth onto the evolutionary vector of all life in the universe, as if all life universally follows a path from simplicity to complexity to human-like intelligence that as it grows in complexity necessarily develops a technology whose own development is always the same. That the hubristic anthropocentrism of this assumption persists unnoticed and unquestioned among so many of both casual and more dedicated or serious believers in extraterrestrial intelligence never ceases to appall me.

More gravely is how the UFO believers Ruppelt describes “act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth”, a sentiment echoed by German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words twenty years after Ruppelt’s  (quoted by Pasulka to end her book):  “Only a god can save us.” Not twenty years after Heidegger’s words were finally published, Jacques Vallée in the Conclusion to his Revelations (1991) remarks the same situation and despairing response:

…Technology offers us some breakthroughs the best scientists of thirty years ago could not imagine. Better health, plentiful leisure, longer life, more varied pleasures are beckoning.

Yet the hopeful vistas come with a darker, more disquieting side. There is more danger, crime, environmental damage, misery, and hunger around us than ever before. It will take a superhuman effort to reconcile the glittering promises of technology with the utterly disheartening dilemma, the wretched reality, of human despair.

But wait! Perhaps there is such a superhuman agency, a magical and easy solution to our problems:  those unidentified flying objects that people have glimpsed in increasing numbers since World War II may be ready to help…. (254)

The ironies of this despair are manifold. On the one hand, it is believed that technology alone can solve the problems its development has led to. On the other hand, these technological answers are not forthcoming from our technology. In either case, as Vallée worries, the desperate and credulous are subject to being manipulated by their belief that “only a god [or “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel”] can save us.”

What should be no less concerning for those interested in such matters is how these ideas Ruppelt describes over six decades ago persist in governing if not grounding what we imagine and think UFOs—and, more importantly, ourselves—to be.