“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.