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.
Of recent developments in the ufological sphere, two stand out to me: the release of a huge cache of CIA documents on UFOs and the prepublication promotion of astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book on Oumuamua and related matters. I was moved to address Loeb’s recent claims (you can hear him interviewed by Ryan Sprague here and hear him speak on the topic last spring here), but, since I have addressed the essential drift of Loeb’s speculations, however curtly, and I’m loathe to tax the patience of my readers or my own intellectual energies rehearsing the driving thesis here at Skunkworks yet again, I want to probe a not unrelated matter, an ingredient of the ufological mix since the earliest days of the modern era.
In 1954, I wrote an article in the Swiss weekly, Die Weltwoche, in which I expressed myself in a sceptical way, though I spoke with due respect of the serious opinion of a relatively large number of air specialists who believe in the reality of Ufos…. In 1958 this interview was suddenly discovered by the world press and the ‘news’ spread like wildfire from the far West round the Earth to the far East, but—alas—in distorted form. I was quoted as a saucer-believer. I issued a statement to the United Press and gave a true version of my opinion, but this time the wire went dead: nobody, so far as I know, took any notice of it, except one German newspaper.
The moral of this story is rather interesting. As the behaviour of the press is sort of a Gallup test with reference to world opinion, one must draw the conclusion that news affirming the existence of the Ufos is welcome, but that scepticism seems to be undesirable. To believe that Ufos are real suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged.
Loeb’s recent experience harmonizes with Jung’s. Loeb recounts around the 22:00′ mark in his interview with Sprague that when he and his collaborator published their paper arguing for the possible artificial origins of Oumuamua, they experienced a “most surprising thing”, that, despite not having arranged for any publicity for their paper, it provoked “a huge, viral response from the media…”
There are, of course, myriad reasons for the media phenomenon experienced by both Jung and Loeb. An important aspect of their shared historical horizon, however, suggests the ready, public fascination for the idea of extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations springs from an urgent source. Jung, famously, however correctly, argued that flying saucers’ appearing in the skies just at the moment the Iron Curtain came down had to do precisely with the new, mortal threat of atomic war, that, from his psychological perspective, flying saucers were collective, visionary mandalas, whose circular shape made whole, at least to the visionary imagination, what humankind had split asunder in fact. Though we live now after the Cold War, the cognoscenti are quick to remind us the threat of nuclear war remains, a threat along with increasingly acute environmental degradation and global warming. There’s a grim synchronicity in Loeb’s book’s appearing hot on the heels of the publication of a widely-publicized paper in the journal Frontiers of Conservation Science titled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.”
Just how do such anxieties arguably underwrite the desire to discover other “advanced” societies? Jung was right, I think, in seeing the appearance of “flying saucers from outer space” as compensating for the worries of his day. Rather than affirming the phenomenon’s dovetailing into his theory of archetypes, however, I would argue that the very idea of UFOs’ being from an advanced, technological civilization, an interpretation put forward spontaneously by the popular, scientific, and military understanding, is a response to the growing concern over the future of the earth’s so-called advanced societies. Such evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence seems to confirm that technology (as we know it) and the kind of intelligence that gives rise to it are not the result of a local, accidental coupling of natural history (evolution) and cultural change (history proper) but that of more universal regularities, echoing, perhaps, however faintly, those cosmically universal natural laws that govern physics and chemistry. That such intelligence and civilizations spring up throughout the stars suggests, furthermore, they all share the same developmental vector, from the primitive to the advanced, and that, if such regularities hold, then just as our visitors are more advanced than we are, then we, too, like them, might likewise negotiate the mortal threats that face our own civilization, enabling us to reach their heights of knowledge and technological prowess. That we might learn just such lessons from extraterrestrial civilizations we might contact has been one explicit argument for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The very idea, then, of a technologically-advanced civilization embodies a faith that technology can solve the problems technology produces, one whose creed might be said to reword Heidegger’s final, grave pronouncement that “Only a god can save us”, replacing ‘god’ with ‘technology’. What’s as remarkable as it is unremarked is how this tenet of faith is shared equally by relatively mainstream figures, such as Loeb, Diana W. Pasulka, and SETI researchers, and more outré folk, such as Jason Reza Jorjani, Steven Greer, and Raël/Claude Vorilhon.
Conversely, discovering the traces of extraterrestrial civilizations that have failed to meet the challenges ours faces could prove no less significant, as Loeb himself has proposed: “…we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.” Aside from the weakness of this speculation, the idea of such failed civilizations is based on the same assumptions as the idea of successful ones, thereby revealing their being ideological (positing a social order as natural). Imagine all we ever were to discover were extraterrestrial societies that had succumbed to war, environmental destruction, or some other form of self-annihilation. Technological development would then seem to entail its own end. Indeed, that this might very well be the case has been proposed as one explanation for “The Great Silence”, why we have yet to encounter other, extraterrestrial civilizations. We might still cling to the hope that humankind might prove the exception, that it might learn from all these other failures (à la Loeb), or we might adopt a pessimistic fatalism, doing our best despite being convinced we are ultimately doomed. In either case, advanced technological society modelled after one form of society on earth is projected as unalterable, inescapable, and universal. The pessimistic conception of technological advancement, a blinkered reification of a moment in human cultural history, arguably expresses from a technoscientific angle the sentiment of Fredric Jameson’s famous observation: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
The consequences of this technofetishism are manifold. However much technology is not essentially bound up with capitalism, it is the case that technology as we know it developed under capitalism as a means to increase profit by eliminating labour, a development that has only picked up steam as it were with the drive to automation in our present moment. When this march of progress is imagined to be as natural as the precession of the equinoxes, it is uncoupled from the social (class) relations that determine it, reifying the status quo. In this way, popular or uncritical speculations about technologically advanced extraterrestrial societies are arguably politically reactionary. But they are culturally, spiritually impoverishing, too. This failure, willed or otherwise, to grasp our own worldview as contingent legitimates if not drives the liquidation of human cultural difference and of the natural world. Identifying intelligence with one kind of human intelligence, instrumental reason, and narrowing cultural change to technological development within the lines drawn by the self-regarding histories of the “advanced” societies, we murderously reduce the wild variety of intelligence (human and nonhuman alike) and past, present, and, most importantly, potentially future societies to a dreary “eternal recurrence of the same,” a world not unlike those “imagined” by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises wherein the supposed unimaginable variety of life in the cosmos is reduced to that of a foodcourt.
Again, the staff here at Skunkworks has received its writing assignment from the Office of Synchronicities.
In an article about the contributions of larvaceans to filtering carbon and plastic from the oceans, Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, makes an offhand observation :
“If an alien civilization from some other solar system were to send an expedition to Earth to look at the dominant life forms on this planet, they wouldn’t be up here walking around with us. They’d be exploring the deep ocean.”
Why would these aliens focus their attention on the deep oceans? Because, as the same article reminds us, “scientists estimate that more than 99 percent of the planet’s biosphere resides” there.
“First in, last out” solution to the Fermi Paradox: what if the first life that reaches interstellar travel capability necessarily eradicates all competition to fuel its own expansion?
I am not suggesting that a highly developed civilization would consciously wipe out other lifeforms. Most likely, they simply won’t notice, the same way a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate because they lack incentive to protect it….
Berezin’s argument is both sophisticated and nuanced (and couched in some assumptions that would normally call for closer scrutiny, here); nevertheless, Berezin and Robison make a similar point. Unlike the science fiction worlds of the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises (and, n.b., no less so in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Carl Sagan’s novel Contact) or the fantastical imaginings of those who believe earth is being visited by dozens of extraterrestrial civilizations, they posit that homo sapiens would not be immediately recognized as “the dominant life form” or, more substantially, the significantly analogous Other of extraterrestrial explorers. Ironically, it is precisely the Star Trek franchise itself that recognized this problem, in the motion picture Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the aliens are cetaceans, utterly oblivious to the human population on earth and its civilization their activities threaten.
Berezin’s comparing such inadvertent destructiveness to how “a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate” is telling, as it dovetails from speculation about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to huldufolk,Real Politik and ufonauts. Famously, in some places on earth, such as Iceland, precisely such construction projects are halted because they threaten not the habitat of an endangered species, but the abode of a non-human if anthropomorphic Other with which we share this planet, as was the case just outside of Reykjavík in 2013.
Perhaps most famously the relation between the Little People and ufonauts was brought forward by Jacques Vallee in his (in some circles) classic Passport to Magonia. This identification is brought home all the more forcefully in a 1970 close encounter report from Finland, raised for renewed scrutiny just yesterday at UFO Conjectures. The two witnesses report encountering a small humanoid being descended from a classic flying saucer, which one illustrator depicts thusly:
A diminutive man, complete with pointy hat and funny nose. That the illustrator is Finnish (doubtless raised on tales of Finland’s own Fae Folk) likely influences his sketch, but the likeness of ufonauts to Little People is famously not restricted to this one, exemplary case.
As I have arguedad nauseum here, the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, that UFOs are spaceships piloted by extraterrestrial beings, is risibly anthropocentric, not least in its assumption of the immediate, mutual recognition of “intelligence” between ourselves and extraterrestrials, whether piloting flying saucers or signalling by some means from their own far-distant planet. Robison and Berezin both call this assumption into question forcefully.
At the same time, Berezin’s fateful example (of the construction crew and the anthill) also invokes both how humankind runs roughshod over nonhuman life and how such behaviour is called into question and curtailed by a respect if not reverence for nonhuman life when it is humanoid. This traditional (if unconscious) reverence finds its ufological expression in the admonitions concerning nuclear weapons and energy received by the early Contactees in the 1950s and the no-less apocalyptic visions of environmental catastrophe often shown to abductees some decades later. That the appearance of flying saucers as such, as circular signs in the heavens, was a compensatory psychological response to a planet divided during the Cold War was famously set forth by Carl Jung in the earliest years of the modern ufological era.
All this is to say that both the points of view of Robison and Berezin that decentre the human being and the reports of ufonauts and Little People that centre the humanoid both critique, each in their own way, that anthropocentric hubris that grasps all other beings (and other human beings, too) as raw material, as means to ends, as being, ironically, of no account. The former places homo sapiens among all the other species of life of which it is a part, not apart from, while the latter puts a human mask on the nonhuman, again, to put homo sapiens in its place, to better secure a livable home.
This line of argument finds its limit, however, in the cultures of Turtle Island. Generally, these non-European societies both perceived nonhuman creatures and even geographical features, such as mountains, lakes, and rivers, as “people” in their own right, while at the same time telling stories of diminutive Little People and Star People. This ethnological fact is cause to open another research department at the Skunkworks….
UFO believers and skeptics are both convinced that they know. Believers (extreme examples include devotees of the Sphere Being Alliance, the ECETI Ranch, and all those breathlessly waiting for Disclosure) know that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships piloted by a wide variety of alien races/species with equally various intentions for humankind; they, I would argue, are not skeptical enough. Skeptics, on the other hand, know that UFO sightings and encounters with their putatively extraterrestrial pilots are merely a mishmash of rumour, misperception, and pathology; they, it seems to me, are (for the most part) neither skeptical enough of their own sometimes strenuous explanations nor curious enough about the cultural, social, and psychological implications of the phenomenon in its multifarious guises even if their dismissals are all well-founded. The phenomenon, as is well-known, also exhibits features that elude both the believers’ beliefs and the skeptics’ debunkings. For my part, the UFO phenomenon remains, therefore, a mystery, whether one appends the adjective Fortean to it or not.
As I’ve ventured on a couple of occasions, the UFO is as much an aesthetic object as a possible object for the physical sciences. By “aesthetic object” I do not mean one that is merely or exclusively “beautiful” (though UFOs themselves and related experiences can possess this quality) but that, following Immanuel Kant’s line of thought, the UFO requires we create a concept for it rather than subsuming it under one ready-to-hand (if we could do that it would hardly be the persistent anomaly it has proven to be). It’s precisely this characteristic I want to touch on here, that the conceptual demands the UFO phenomenon places on our attempts to conceptualize it suggest it is at present a kind of epistemic singularity.
Just as a gravitational singularity (a black hole) suspends the normal laws of spacetime, the UFO warps our thinking about it. The irrationality displayed by both believers and skeptics is a case in point. But even those who have attempted to grapple with the mystery with method, reason, imagination, or speculation find their investigations quickly complicated if not frustrated by the equally wily and protean evasiveness of the phenomenon, aptly characterized with reference to the Trickster of various folklores. Paradoxically (go figger) this denial of understanding and comprehension is at the same time an open invitation to imagine and think in a non-linear, alogical way, “outside the box” of the rules of method, with an impish playfulness of mind equal to that displayed by the phenomenon itself. From this perspective, two, more “out-of-this-world” (how apt) speculations take on a certain appeal.
Since the dawn of the modern era, Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting, analogues between the UFO and more mythic or religious manifestations have been noted. Adamski’s circle identified the flying discs of the time, inspired by their Theosophically-tinged grasp of Hindu and Vendantic lore, as vimanas, the aerial chariots of the gods of ancient India. More recently, similarities between alien abductions and shamanic initiation and practice have been noted. Even more recently, psychonauts for whom dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has been the preferred vehicle for exploring what appear as alternate dimensions have reported encounters with beings markedly similar to entities associated with UFOs and alien abductions. In an attempt to probe this experience more thoroughly, Dr Andrew Gallimore is attempting to develop the means to allow psychonautical explorers to reside in these unusual realms longer than the relatively more transient states of DMT intoxication afforded by smoking it or even drinking ayahuasca, by means of medical technology. Such efforts put the mainstream Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the so-called Secret Space Program in a new light!
No less imaginative is the hypothesis of Trevor James Constable , that UFOs are in fact plasmatic life forms native to earth’s atmosphere. What makes Constable’s theory all the more provocative is how it is couched in Wilhelm Reich’s orgone theory and as of 2003 given more mainstream as well as fringe scientific support. Mircea Sanduloviciu and his colleagues at Cuza University in Romania have created plasma phenomena that can grow, replicate, and communicate just like living cells, while Nik Hayes and Leon Southgate have managed to photograph Constable’s orgonotic bio-forms. Just as psychonautical exploration expands our notions of reality, so the investigations of Constable et al. widen our ideas of what might constitute life on (and off) earth.
Such wild research suggests another feature of the phenomenon closer to the heart of the mythopoeic work undertaken here in the Skunkworks: it inspires equally a rational, scientific and poetic response. That is, just as some ufologists tackle the enigma with forensic and natural scientific methods, its irrational dimension demands a playfulness of mind no less nimble and agile. To paraphrase the idea of Aimé Michel quoted above, the phenomenon puts into question both the laws of our physics and the structure of our societies. In line with Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ argument (in his four-volume Mythologiques) that mythological thinking is no less rigorous or practical than that of our natural sciences, the phenomenon inspires a response from the whole of the human being, as if as a kind of “compensatory mechanism” (Jung) it seeks to balance the deepening perversity of our present technocapitalistic moment and the ecological crises that it engenders. To heal is to make whole, and the spiritual stresses the black (rabbit) hole of the UFO phenomenon places on human understanding might play just that role.
Because the UFO phenomenon is anomalous, it is a site of mere speculation until it is definitively identified. Speculation is a curious activity, melding conjecture, contemplation, and mirroring (‘speculum‘ being Latin for ‘mirror’). Thus, our more or less informed guesses about the nature of the UFO reflect our assumptions about ourselves and the world.
As I’ve often held forth at length here, thoughts about the UFO reveal how we think about ourselves. Talk about the UFO as being an artifact produced by the advanced technology of an extraterrestrial intelligence gives away how we conceive of technology and intelligence in general.
In the first instance, intelligence is reduced to instrumental reason, solving problems to achieve certain ends; technology is understood to progress, to develop along a linear vector toward ever greater efficiency and power. In thinking as close or disparate as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or variations on the ufological Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), this restricted sense of intelligence is assumed to be a universal product (if not goal) of evolution, technology, in turn, the inevitable fruit of this intelligence, invariably progressing along the same trajectory.
More gravely however is the (ironic) theological underpinning of these notions of science and technology. The ultimate end of science is the philosopher’s God, an omniscient, omnipotent being. The omnipotence of technology’s god is underwritten by its omniscience (how fateful that knowledge is here expressed by the Latinate ‘science’!). Philosophy might begin in wonder (as Aristotle had it), but science does not spring from the desire to understand nature but to dominate it (as Francis Bacon proposed).
The head-spinning progress made in this project has inspired as much techno-pessimism as -optimism. The figure of Elon Musk combines these tendencies: on the one hand, he seems persuaded that technological ingenuity might extricate humanity from the dire problems development has engendered, as indicated by his investments in batteries and electric cars; on the other hand, he has equally pushed space exploration and colonization and expressed grave concerns about the potential threats posed by Artificial Intelligence. But in either case, Musk et al. are technofetishists: like those who cast the Golden Calf then prostrate themselves before what they themselves have made, the technofetishist places human technological activity and achievement on a pedestal, as if it were a self-causing, self-sustaining phenomenon, independent of society, its actors and their interests, i.e., as if it were natural. Masking contingent human activity as if it were necessary and natural is the very definition of reification. Such reification is all-too-evident in ufological discourse that orbits ideas of advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations.
At this point I want to introduce a no less bold, complementary speculation: what if technology, despite its historically very recent acceleration, is already nearing its terminus?
This thought is inspired by recent on-line backs-and-forths I’ve had with various embodiments of the technofetishist zeitgeist. Among those heavily invested, monetarily and otherwise, in information technology (I.T.) is the belief that artificial intelligence underwritten by quantum computing is a done deal, just waiting around the next historical corner. Aside from the thorny issues around just what concept of intelligence is assumed here (though I touch on that matter, above), is the status of quantum computing. There is good reason, both physical and mathematical, that quantum computing is in principle impossible. (Interested parties are urged to consult these brief articles by Moshe Y. Vardi, Mikhail Dyakonov, and on Gil Kalai).
What if, then, the I.T. revolution will soon run into the limits stated by Moore’s Law, the paradoxes of the quantum world prove ultimately unsolvable to human intelligence (instrumental reason in its speculative guise), and relativistic spacetime restrict space exploration to subluminal speeds? It hardly follows that science and technology will come to an end, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that human intelligence (instrumental reason) and ingenuity will reach ultimate limits, as some argue they have in the realm of physics.
The flabbergasted and violent reactions this suggestion might inspire among the technorati and ufophilic alike speaks not to so much to its potential truth-value as to the (unconscious) ideological and no-less theological character of technofetishism and its ufological variations, SETI and the ETH.
In his recent conversation with Bryce Zabel, M. J. Banias makes a telling analogy, between the moon landing whose anniversary is presently being marked and another hypothetical world media event, the announcement (@ 56″) that “humanity is not alone and there is some other intelligence and it’s active with us and it’s trying to engage with us in some way.”
At this point in the interview, Banias and Zabel are caught up in their conversation, and their enthusiasm gets the better of their reflective faculties. For, if there is a heartbreakingly unacknowledged fact about life on earth it is precisely that “humanity is not alone,” that there are other intelligences living here, active with us, which cannot help but interact if not engage with us.
As I have arguedad nauseum here and will continue to do so the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence both suffer from an anthropocentric hyperopia that overlooks the wildly varied forms of intelligent life with which homo sapiens shares the planet in a squinting search for ourselves offworld.
As is well-acknowledged by naturalists, many species are self-conscious, from elephants, to great apes, all the way to corvids and even ants. Moreover, these and other species exhibit both intelligence (even fruit flies and jumping spiders weigh and decide between alternative courses of action) and culture (whales and elephants, for example, can be shown to possess natural languages). The capacity for numeracy is evident in bees, and, most compellingly, increasingly so even in plants. How much more mindblowing is the possibility plants on earth exhibit a radically nonhuman consciousness than that some humanoid, technological race (species?) inhabits an impossibly distant exoplanet? And how much more urgent is the need to reflect on the implications, moral and material, of how we engage with the alien (nonhuman) forms of life around us (to wit), let alone what the character of that interaction entails for how we might treat extraterrestrial life if and when we discover it, or how it might treat us if it discovers us first?
‘Creation’ is humanity’s ‘raison d’etre’ and is ultimately what distinguishes us from other sentient creatures, including other intelligent ‘higher primates’.
Ok, apes, crows & other species make tools &/or elaborate constructions to attract potential mates but there’s no orang-utan ‘Art’ or chimp ‘Science’ (beyond figuring out how best to access food).
My first impulse was to question this claim factually, with a quick internet search, which revealed, among other things, the arfulness of Amblyornis inornatus (Vogelkop Bowerbird). I was also reminded of a remembered passage from Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology describing a circular dance by, I think, chimpanzees. But then on some reflection I realized I’d fallen for the particularly insidious assumptions that underwrite the claim for humankind’s special, creative status.
The bias of the thinking is revealed by analogy with the comparison of “advanced” to “primitive” cultures, by and to the advantage of the former. As Jerome Rothenberg observes in the Pre-face to his groundbreaking assemblage, Technicians of the Sacred (1967):
“Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time of their hands.”
In the same way, measure everything by the Sistine Chapel or Quantum Mechanics, and the world is full of uninspired, dim nonhuman animals, but once change the unit (or focal species) of measurement, and the world thrives with not only creativity and intelligence, but nonhuman powers and virtues, as well. The young William Butler Yeats mocks anthropocentric pretense with an eloquent simplicity in his poem “The Indian Upon God”.
There’s a reason philosophers in the Twentieth century coined the expression ‘ontotheology’: for the fateful confluence of Judeaochristianity (in which Man is created in God’s own image) and Platonism (and, with it, the inheritance of Hellenic thought) shores up an anthropocentrism that has reigned from then until now. It was most famously Protagoras of Abdera who is said to have stated that “Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not,” usually rendered as “Man is the measure of all things.”
The identification of “creativity” with human creativity is part and parcel of the identification of “intelligence” with human intelligence that roots and orients the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis about the origin of UFOs. It is also, arguably, this anthropocentricism that justifies the ways of Man to himself in his exploitation of every being on (and, in the planning stages) off the earth as either raw material or commodity, a mode of behaviour that has resulted, most poetically, in mussels being cooked alive at low tide in the superheated waters off the coast of California.
Avi Loeb, the Harvard Professor of Astronomy is at it again. Professor Loeb is most famous of late for his conjectures that the interstellar object Oumuamua might be an alien spaceship. Most recently remarks he made at The Humans to Mars Summit (14-16 May 2019) concerning the value of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have stirred some interest.
I haven’t had the time to fast forward through the three days’ live streaming to find Professor Loeb’s talk, but the idea of his that caught the attention of at least two journalists (here and here) is that discovering extraterrestrial civilizations that have self-destructed, as ours threatens to do, might help us learn to avoid their fatal mistakes: “The idea is we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.”
Where to begin?…
In the best of all possible worlds, Loeb and I would have an intellectual cage match on this subject. I have consistently (and with increasing impatience, admittedly) taken to task the assumptions that underwrite Loeb’s views and SETI in general, on the grounds that they are anthropocentric in identifying “intelligence” with human intelligence (an identification with fatal consequences for all those other intelligent life forms with which we share the earth) and, worse, that they reify one civilization’s vector of technical development, namely that of “the West”, as being natural to all imaginable anthropomorphically intelligent life. The Enlightenment is sometimes taken to task for unconsciously restricting the human to white, ruling-class males; SETI’s assumptions seem equally, if not more, perverse.
But Loeb’s statement quoted above reveals the vacuity of his thesis. We don’t need to discover another civilization that ended itself through war, nuclear or otherwise, or by fouling its own nest. We already understand that we need avoid even a “limited” nuclear war and we already monitor the habitability of our planet, with increasing scrutiny and anxiety. The only virtue of this aspect of xenoarchaeology would be to discover a civilization that succumbed to an internal threat of which we are unaware. But even letting SETI’s frankly ideological assumptions off the hook, even such a discovery would be empty, since civilizations are each determined at each moment by a set of conditions that are in each instance radically local (historical).
My argument here cuts too against those who believe we can learn from history. Such thinking makes of human societies a kind of natural phenomenon subject to transtemporal laws. But human societies are not “natural” in the way the behaviour of the electron is natural, but historical, and, as such, admit to being not known but only understood within the context of a constellation of temporally local and ephemeral determinants. In a word, and to say too much too quickly, human societies operate within the realm of freedom not (natural) necessity. This is not to say humans beings in the aggregate escape or otherwise stand above nature, but only that it is illegitimate to seek to know them the same way we seek knowledge of nonhuman nature.
Nor am I arguing ultimately against the curiosity that drives SETI. What I am relentlessly and mercilessly critical of are the zombie ideas that make of the human being, and our present iteration of civilization, exemplars of all imaginable intelligence throughout the universe.
Most movies inspired by the UFO phenomenon have been and remain B-grade, generic science fiction or horror (not that such artefacts aren’t without their abyssal significance, either), but recently, at least in my media bubble, richer, more thoughtful films have appeared, among them some that have received publicity, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and others, less celebrated, that have slipped under the radar, namely Jason Stone’s At First Light and Ryan Eslinger’s UFO, which is understated, smart, and dramatically complex.
[I’m writing about Eslinger’s film from the point of view of someone who’s viewed it, so, if you haven’t and don’t want the whole plot revealed, read no further!]
The film begins with a UFO sighting over Cincinnati airport, inspired by the famous O’Hare International Airport sighting of 7 November 2006, which catches the attention of the film’s protagonist Derek (who witnessed a UFO as a small boy) and an FBI agent Franklin Ahls, who seems a one-man UFO investigations desk with the entire agency’s resources at his beck and call. The plot is driven, at the narrative level, by Derek’s (primarily mathematical) investigation into the sighting and the social fall-out of his actions and Ahls’ parallel investigation and suppression of the event, while, thematically, by the question (in its many senses) “Are we alone?”.
Despite the impression left by the trailer, the plot is much more cerebral than cloak-and-dagger, dealing for the most part with Dereck’s efforts to decode the message from the film’s titular UFO that he discovers in recordings of air traffic control communications during the sighting. One of the most delightful moments in this narrative arc is Dereck’s debunking of an official debunking of the sighting, which identifies the observed object as a small drone: the audience witnesses the process, diagrams, numbers and all, by which Dereck calculates the approximate diameter of an object “about the size of a dime held at arm’s length” hovering at about two hundred feet below that day’s cloud ceiling. The plot doesn’t have so much a heart as a brain, one cracking itself over the complex mathematics of the numerical message sent by the UFO’s pilots, the solution to which ultimately involves considerations drawn from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and physical constants of, e.g., hydrogen. This is a gambit as daring as satisfying, evoking as it does some of the real, hard problems of putative communications with a technically advanced, nonhuman species.
Mathematics and physics do not lend themselves to the run-of-the-mill UFO cover-up movie, frustrating viewers with an insatiable appetite for that same old same old. Eslinger’s script is both more daring and more complex than that, delving into Dereck’s character as a way into even more profound thematic depths. Derek’s obsessiveness and mathematical genius render him a bit of a sociopath, causing him to betray his friends and inspiring his wearily understanding mathematics professor Dr. Hendricks to compare him to Thomas Edison at his worst. By the end of the film, the attentive, reflective viewer will likely be struck by the manifold irony in Dereck’s wondering if “we are alone.” At least twice, through brief flashbacks, Dereck’s lonely, if not traumatic, boyhood is revealed: his mother refused to believe him when he told her that he had witnessed strange lights in the sky, and it is suggested he was the only child of a single parent whose lives were materially precarious. He is able to attend university only because his high intelligence secured him a prestigious scholarship, but his selfish single-mindedness alienates him from those around him. Little wonder someone so isolated should wonder about being alone in the universe.
But the real thematic pay off of the film comes at the end, which has mystified or disappointed some reviewers. Franklin Ahl’s investigation into this and other UFO sightings is driven by a growing anxiety about the fate of humanity. Invoking a certain strain of SETI speculation about different levels of technical civilization, at one point during a meeting with a panel of scientists, he wonders out loud if “the eerie silence” SETI has met with is not caused by all civilizations’ self-destructing as they approach the threshold ours is. If, however, the UFOs he is chasing are indeed spacecraft from distant civilizations, then these have solved the problems that threaten to snuff ours out and learning to communicate with them might win us access to this direly needed information. When Dereck does decode the aliens’ message, which reveals the location of their next appearance, he witnesses the UFO and is immediately taken into custody by Ahls. The agent reveals that the aliens have been communicating in this way for some time and in increasingly complex ways, presenting problems whose solution seems to be leading along a path of research and discovery that imaginably leads to that know-how that saved them from the self-destruction that threatens us. Ahls recruits Dereck, who learns that we “are not alone”, in the literal sense that the universe is indeed (perhaps) inhabited by other technological intelligences, but also, unconsciously, that he is not alone in his obsessions, that finally he has found a place in this world.
But such an emotional resolution would be cheap if larger stakes were not in play. The Fine Structure Constant plays an important role throughout the film, right from its very beginning. At one point, discussing the constant with two scientists, it is suggested that the constant may in fact be the same throughout space, but not time. That the constant might be variable proves important to possibly solving the much more complex communications received from the aliens, which, in turn, suggests, though this is never spoken by any character, that the aliens are not from a distant point in space, but in time, namely our own future. Dereck, then, is representative of today’s youth whose ingenuity is required to solve the questions that lead to solving the problems that threaten our future. But not only that: that mathematicians make their breakthroughs only in their youth is a cliché invoked at least twice. However, when Dr. Hendricks gives him this spiel, he immediately contradicts her, supplying as many examples of older mathematicians who have made important contributions. Thus, the intelligence of all generations is presented as being up to the task of facing down the world-threatening problems that loom before us. None of us are “alone” in this world or what threatens it. Young, old(er), and even future generations have a stake in the game and a role to play.
Eslinger’s is a sly sleeper of a film because of how, like Villeneuve’s Arrival, it deploys the UFO as a material, weaving it together with emotional and social matters to address larger but no less related concerns. The result is, from this point of view, an original, refreshingly pleasant and emotionally satisfying movie. Within the larger context of the UFO phenomenon, however, it doesn’t quite escape one of the central and most compelling suppositions in the reception of the phenomenon, that our technical ingenuity, which got us into this perhaps suicidal mess, will be what gets us out. It does, nevertheless, leave one with a sense of hope.
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.