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.

 

 

 

 

“The UFO Canon” and Other Embarrassments

A recent remark by UFO Conjectures‘ Rich Reynolds, a passage from Jacques Vallee’s Revelations, and my recent interventions with M. J. Banias’ thoughts on the UFO-community-as-counterculture all swirled together in this morning’s vortex and gave me pause for thought.

In the tempest-in-a-teacup (tsunami-in-a-saucer?) of reactions to History’s new series Project Blue Book, Rich Reynolds writes that he’s “ashamed” of “all UFO enthusiasts who accept this horrendous ‘entertainment’ as a worthy addition to the UFO canon.”

Just what might be said to constitute the ufological, if not the UFO, canon, was brought home to me as I was following up the topic of the sociopolitics of the UFO.

I find M. J. Banias’ approach not uncompelling, and I look forward to its book-length exposition, and I was not unpleased with the admittedly very provisional, preliminary notes I’d written on the question, until I reviewed some of the existing research. A foundational and still vitally pertinent book on the sociology of belief in UFOs is the 1995 volume The Gods Have Landed:  New Religions from Other Worlds (ed. James R. Lewis). One of the ten chapters is John A. Saliba‘s “UFO Contactee Phenomena from a Sociopsychological Perspective:  A Review,” forty-three pages, including seven-and-a-half of references, outlining sociological and psychological approaches to the phenomenon from 1948 to its present.

Despite its likely being somewhat dated after more than two decades, Saliba’s paper concretely maps the foundations for any subsequent sociology of the UFO community. In terms of sociological approaches, he provides an overview of the various ways of conceiving of the UFO mythology, the cultural context of the UFO, the social status of ufophiles, folkloric dimensions of UFO sighting and close encounter reports, and of the ways people group together to share their varying kinds and degrees of fascination with the phenomenon. In the course of this survey, I was reminded of G. E. Ashworth’s structuralist approach, of the important distinction to be drawn between sightings and reports, and research that had already been done on what Banias’ might call “the UFO subculture”. I was made aware, as well, to my shame, of the shallowness and fragility of the foundations of my own most recent reflections on these matters.

Whether one believes the phenomenon begins no earlier that 24 June 1947 or not, the phenomenon is one with a history. And with this history goes a parallel history of reflection, investigation, and research. And in this regard, writing about the UMMO affair around the same time Saliba is researching his survey, Vallee makes the following observation:

There are now three generations of UMMO ‘researchers’…

The third generation is young and naive. It has neither the long-term background in ufology of experienced researchers…nor the healthy scientific skepticism of the sociologists. They start from scratch and they believe anything that comes along. (125-6)

Surely, more senior members of “the UFO community” recognize in those who flock to websites devoted to Exopolitics or Disclosure, who comment feverishly on the universe of YouTube channels devoted to these topics or “the latest sighting” those who “start from scratch and [who] believe anything that comes along.” But, given the modern phenomenon goes back over seventy years, who can claim a complete knowledge of even the history of the phenomenon, of the “UFO canon”? On the one hand, anyone acquainted with it knows the phenomenon is global, but is it not the case (and I ask honestly not rhetorically) that ufology is still predominantly parochial, e.g., American ufology proceeding as if the land mass of the continental United States is the most important zone for sighting and encounter reports? And even if this is less the case within the context of the more generalized globalization of culture facilitated by the internet, has the whole story of the UFO up to, say, 2001 even been written (a review of Richard Dolan’s UFOs for the 21st Century Mind is in the works!)? And does not the same hold true for those who seek to “reframe the debate” (and, yes, a review of Robbie Graham et al.’s UFOs:  Reframing the Debate is also in the works) or those who would reflect on the phenomenon’s sociocultural (or, as they can say in German, geistig, “spiritual”) significance?

Given the perplexing nature of the phenomenon itself and the historical depth of our various relationships to it anyone tempted to tug at the veils of its mystery must at some point find themselves out of their depth, which is salutary, for it prompts us to find again our footing.

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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.