“Capitalist Realists Imagine Capitalist Aliens”

From the “great minds think alike” department comes this article, an expansion of an earlier version published on the website of the Italian art collective Wu Ming, which has published a new novel, UFO 78.

Aside from a lot of very wide-ranging and perceptive observations concerning recent events and UAP, the article has a section near the end, which shares the title of this blog post. Its theses warm our hearts:

As the best science fiction has shown for decades, whenever we wonder about intelligent life on other planets, we’re expressing some utopian impulse. The curiosity about the extraterrestrial hypothesis, the hope that there’s someone else “out there,” all of this is closely bound up with a longing for somewhere else, something other than this Capitalocene devouring our future.

Certainly The Economist, among the staunchest defenders of capitalist realism, can’t acknowledge this impulse while devoting an entire article to the new, increasingly sophisticated ways of searching the universe for extraterrestrial life. Both the article and some of the hypotheses it illustrates confirm that the capitalist imagination is gripped by a circular paranoia: it cannot imagine anything other than itself, i.e., vampirism, resource predation, exploitation, prevarication, war. After laying out the hypothesis that there may be “stellivorous civilizations,” that is, capable of using and consuming the energy of entire stars, the author of the piece concludes by warning us that making contact with alien civilizations in possession of technologies immensely more advanced than ours could be exciting, “but also very dangerous.”…

make no mistake, if other civilizations exist, they think just like we capitalists do. If we had the power to consume entire stars to draw energy from them, we’d do it, wouldn’t we? At least they admit that if elsewhere in the universe there were people like our rulers and exploiters here on Earth, well, they’d be people to stay away from.

We at the Skunkworks are thankful creative and perceptive minds such as those of the Wu Ming collective aren’t staying away from the UFO or the ways it illuminates our society’s (i.e., capitalism’s) unconscious!

Skunkworks on Anomaly—Now!: the link

Last evening, Wednesday 22 March, I enjoyed a first, pleasant conversation with SMiles Lewis about the Limina Inaugural Symposium from the beginning of February, branching out into our shared interests in UFOs, paranormal experiences and related matters. You can view the dialogue, here. My earlier interviews, referenced by Lewis, are viewable, here.

My five-part post on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read at the following links: the first is an overview of the event, the second concerns historian Greg Eghigian’s keynote address, the third a talk by religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal, the fourth the presentation from philosopher Babette Babich, and the fifth a summary of the more scientific presentations given during the remainder of the event and my reflections on the event’s virtues and limitations.

Skunkworks on Anomaly–Now!

Stephen Miles Lewis has graciously invited us to discuss the recent Limina Inaugural Symposium and related matters this coming Wednesday 22 March 7:00 CST.

You can catch the livestream…

on YouTube, here: https://www.youtube.com/live/fY7I1fJU2iI?feature=share

on Facebook livestream, here: https://www.facebook.com/events/606721267640234

on Twitch, here: https://www.twitch.tv/AnomalyArchives

and (probably) on Twitter, here: https://twitter.com/AnomalyArchives

I recently reported on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium in a five-part post. The first is an overview of the event, the second concerns historian Greg Eghigian’s keynote address, the third a talk by religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal, the fourth the presentation from philosopher Babette Babich, and the fifth a summary of the more scientific presentations given during the remainder of the event and my reflections on the event’s virtues and limitations.

Doubtless, our conversation will be archived on various platforms for later viewing. I’ll share the links when they become available.

Course Correction: On Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part III: Reflections

Here, I complete my extended report on Limina’s inaugural symposium. The first main division, an overview, can be read here. The second main division reports on and responds to presentations given by historian Greg Eghigian (here), religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal (here), and philosopher Babette Babich (here).

Anyone who has diligently (or, hopefully, curiously) read so far will note that I engage with only three of the symposium’s two dozen talks, presentations, and panels. Moreover, those three all occured on the event’s first day, devoted to the more-or-less humanistic aspect of UFO/UAP study. This focus will strike many “UFO people” as perverse, given that their overwhelming interest is in the mystery or question of the reality of the phenomenon (as Jung observed long ago, “news affirming the existence of the UFOs is welcome“). Their interest would be satisfied far more by the majority of the symposium’s presentations, which involved “scientific” approaches to the study of the phenomenon and, on the third day, specific cases. But, as I am neither a physicist nor astronomer, nor a researcher in the mold of Kevin Randle or Chris Rutkowski, for example, I’m in no position to engage with these presentations like I do those of Eghigian, Kripal, or Babich, whose talks addressed topics of interest to me here at the Skunkworks and that do fall within my wheelhouse if not expertise. That being said, I will sketch out the remainder of the participants’ contributions here for those disappointed (or frustrated…) by my treatment so far before reflecting on the symposium as a whole.

Of those presentations on the symposium’s first day, I have passed over four. That by Prof. Gabriel G. de la Torre, “Obsessed With UAPs [sic]: Psychological Aspects of the Phenomena”, though very germane to the remainder of the long weekend’s discussions, I did not attend as I had actually already written on its central thesis. That by Prof. Tim Murithi (“UAP, Truth Embargo and Amnesty Provisions: The Prospects for a Transitional Justice Approach”) I passed over due to its indulging the presuppositions of the Disclosure movement (interested parties can see him interviewed in the YouTube video linked in the post, here). Likewise, the presentation of Jinwoo Yu and Prof. Sunglyul Maeng, “A Silver Lining to Conservatism Towards Ufology”, despite the title, focussed primarily on UFO research in Korea and would have been as much at home on the symposium’s third day. Finally, as an organizer/participant, I’m not really in a position to remark on that day’s panel organized by myself and Michael Zimmerman, peopled by Prof. Babette Babich, Dr. Jacob Haqq-MisraAssoc. Prof. Stephen Finley, and Prof. Kevin H. Knuth, despite it lively and pertinent contribution to the symposium’s conversation.

As I remarked, the symposium’s second day focussed on questions of how to bring “hard” scientific research to bear on UAP. Prof. Dr. Hakan Kayal spoke on “UAP research at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität of Würzburg”, research both condoned and supported by the university institution and part of its curriculum. Philippe R. C. Ailleris, Prof. Matthew Szydagis, and Prof. Wesley Watters all reported on their research efforts. Of these, Szydagis, speaking on behalf of his UAPx team, was the most impressive (to me) by virtue of the energetic, self-critical vigilance of he and his team, which spoke both to their level-headed cautiousness and seriousness. Prof. Joaquim FernandesFrancisco Mourão Corrêa, and Prof. Raul Berenguel introduced the Portuguese research initiative STELLAR–International Observatory of Anomalous Phenomena and their research into the Fatima Event (more on that, later). Dr. Beatriz Villarroel brought astronomical research to bear, in the efforts of the VASCO project (“Searching for ET Probes with Vanishing & Appearing Sources (VASCO) During ‘A Century of Observations’ Project”). Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra returned to the topic of Carl Sagan, with what struck me as more a foray into establishment science’s responses to the topic of UFOs. Finally, Dr. Silvano Colombano explained “A Machine Learning Methodology for Filtering and Classifying Unformatted Natural Language Reports”. These presentations all explored the methodologies, logistics, and nuts-and-bolts of research conducted in the field rather than the library and study. Despite the recent upsurge in public interest; renewed, overt official investigation; and even institutional sanction (such as that at the University of Würzburg), all that day’s speakers, almost without exception, spoke of the struggle and need for funding, a situation that confirmed Babette Babich’s proposals concerning the way knowledge-as-such is legitimated as much through its institutional support as by any theory or evidence brought to the table.

Prof. Daniel Coumbe gave the third day’s keynote address, “Anomaly: Searching for a Black Swan Event”, wherein he presented in nuce his recently published Anomaly: A Scientific Exploration of the UFO Phenomenon (reviewed here and here)), which formulates a UAP case rating system and applies it to four paradigmatic cases: the Japanese Airlines Cargo Flight 1628 sighting; the Ubatuba, Brazil, UFO fragments; the Lonnie Zamora close encounter at Socorro, New Mexico; and the Aguadilla object observed at Rafael Hernandez International Airport, Puerto Rico. This latter incident was the showcase of the day, scrutinized (however differently) by  Mick West (“Extracting Lines of Sight and Reconstructing Object Motion from Noisy Video Data”) and Robert M. Powell (“An Analysis of the April 25, 2013 Aguadilla, Puerto Rico IR Video”). After a break, the day’s second session shifted focus to speculations concerning the nature of UAP themselves, first, with Prof. Dr. Karl Svozil posing the question “Is Revising Inertia The Key to Zigzag Motion and ‘Anti-Gravity’?” in his delightfully energetic if somewhat “rhizomatic” presentation that outran its allotted time. Dr. Massimo Teodorani (who will be giving a number of not unrelated lectures in the near future) then shared his research on the Hessdalen Lights, “Testing the Possible Propulsion Mechanism of UAPs [sic]”. The day ended with a third session, wherein Prof. Kevin H. Knuth examined “Evidence Suggesting that Some UAPs are Advanced Non-Human Craft” and an extended conversation between journalists Leslie KeanRalph BlumenthalAndreas MüllerRoss Coulthart, and George Knapp.

Limina’s inaugural symposium was an important event, both as a gathering of varied and disparate researchers, the majority of whom are academically credentialed (important in itself, as Babich would be the first observe) and as the launching point for that research that will be gathered and chronicled between the covers of Limina: the Journal of UAP Studies, the newest of those very few peer-reviewed journals devoted to the topic. Nevertheless, as an opening of the field, the thinking at the conference was determined in a number of ways by the horizon within which it appeared.

First, participants and attendees both were often given to a certain credulity when it comes to just what might be said to constitute the phenomenon in general. I’ve already remarked this tendency in Jeffrey Kripal’s talk and Tim Murithi’s presentation. More generally, the conference tended to orbit a more-or-less uncritical acceptance of the mythology’s latest episode, namely that set forth in the New York Times articles of 2017 and the attendant leak of the three famous U.S. Navy videos. This tendency was most (increasingly irritatingly to me) on display in the symposium’s final event, the panel of journalists Kean, Blumenthal, Müller, Coulthart, and Knapp. All, whether sincerely or out of self-interest or some mixture of both, enthusiastically endorsed the stories they had written in this respect (n.b. Knapp is a co-author of the self-published Skinwalkers at the Pentagon and likely more famous for his “breaking” the Bob Lazar story). But, worse, they no-less enthusiastically endorsed rumours of metamaterials and the retrieval of crashed UAP. The problem—aside from the belief system at work here–is that all these stories are based on hearsay, just as all the putative “evidence” set forth by the Disclosure Movement.

That the panel’s journalists should hold forth what they did is not incomprehensible. In his book Revelations (1991 (!)), Jacques Vallée was curious “to find out what it was that had led so many of [his journalist] friends to believe such things… They were hardworking reporters who claimed to have solid, first-hand human sources. And some of their sources were said to be government agents and other officials who existed in the flesh.” In trying to satisfy his curiosity, Vallée observes that his friends depended on those sources for their stories, sources of “privileged information…[that] you are afraid to be cut off from… if you offend” them (emphasis in the original). I do not intend to impugn the professionalism of any member of the journalists’ panel, but I question the relatively unreserved acceptance of the stories they tell, especially in an academic forum, regardless of how methodologically agnostic.

Not unrelated to this reflexive set of beliefs is the all-too-ready acceptance of the more historically-sanctioned Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Throughout—from Babich’s immediate, untroubled association of UAP and ETs, to Murithi’s assumptions, to Svozil’s and Knuth’s explicit speculations—the ETH haunted the proceedings like an otherwise unremarked participant or attendee. It was only Greg Eghigian who ably parsed the two ideas, to the incomprehension of many in attendance (as evidenced by the chat stream). As usual, I do not call the “hypothesis” itself into question, but merely observe that de facto flying saucers and intelligent extraterrestrial beings came to be associated ufologically only after the fact however much they were already associated in the popular imagination long before June 1947, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the Psychosocial Hypothesis will know. Readers here will know, too, there are other grounds to question the ETH, more cultural critical, philosophical-conceptual grounds, but, be that as it may, it was striking how the ETH enjoyed an even deeper, more unconscious, ready acceptance than the more overt inflections of the UFO mythology I remark above.

These two features of the proceedings suggest what was lacking to correct or at least balance them. First, the only “skeptic” participant was Mick West, who handled himself ably and was well-received. The input of more such level-headed, respectful skeptics is needed to at least problematize those views and narratives that otherwise go insufficiently scrutinized. Skepticism of this sort is also rooted in an acquaintance with the history of the phenomenon. For example, Daniel Coumbe examines two cases—JAL 1628 and that of Lonnie Zamora—both possessed of a large body of commentary (of, admittedly, various quality) that considerably complicates the matter. When historical cases are presented, a literature review, however labour-intensive and downright tiresome, is called for. The presence of, e.g., researcher Kevin Randle would have been valuable in this regard, as the author of a fairly recent book on the Zamora case. The STELLAR team’s presentation on Fatima is another case in point.

This final contention underlines the importance (import) of the historicity of the phenomenon probed to some extent in Eghigian’s keynote address. That is to say, that contemporary research—humanistic, “scientific”, or journalistic—neither falls immaculate from heaven nor starts from a blank slate (experience always falls upon a “never barren imagination”, as Greg Eghigian observed) but is possessed of an “historical-conceptual unconcious” that determines its thinking and questions abyssally, i.e. to a depth that can never finally be plumbed or brought to light (consciousness). What is needed then is a persistent, scrupulous “desedimentation”, Destruktion, or “deconstruction” (in these rigorous senses), conceptual-philosophical, historiographical, and historical-materialist / ideological-critical at least. Such labour might well serve to undermine our existing schemes of knowledge and methodology and enable them to uproot themselves from the ground that keeps them from ascending to those new heights of understanding where they might meet UAP in their own element.

Course Correction: On Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part II (iii)

The first main division of my extended report on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read here. The previous posts Part II: Engaging with… (i) Greg Eghigian can be read here and Part II: Engaging with… (ii) Jeffrey Kripal, here.

Part II: Engaging with… (iii) Babette Babich

Where Jeffrey Kripal’s talk challenged the understanding because of its being, strictly, an essay (as an attempt, an experiment, an exploration…), Babette Babich’s presentation “Towards A Philosophy of Science of Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena” presented a different kind of difficulty. Babich, by her own admission, is a Nietzschean, and anyone acquainted with the German philosopher’s style and, even more pertinently, Babich’s own Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Science (SUNY, 1994) can well imagine the concinnity her lecture demanded. That is to say, Babich’s discourse, like Nietzsche’s writing, keeps readers on their toes, requiring they dance along with her elusive, litotic irony that ensures we’re never sure if the various proposals and positions she puts forth should or can be taken as her own, or just how they might be taken to relate to some thesis whose “truth” she seeks to explain and defend. Thus, as in Kripal’s paper, we cannot “fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics.” Regrettably, for all its erudition, insight, provocation, and dazzle, Babich’s presentation, like a number during the symposium, was too long for its allotted time, so that she was able to get through only about half of what she had prepared.

With my characterization of Babich’s rhetoric firmly in mind, let’s essay some reconstruction of her presentation. In her Introduction, she says (to paraphrase) that a philosophy of a science of UAP is no more likely than a philosophy of the science of acupuncture, however much acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, and even homeopathy are “sciences”, homeopathy having a longer pedigree than the concept of the virus. In making such a claim, Babich appears to adopt a cultural relativist, anthropologically-informed philosophy of science, invoking as she does Bruno Latour and Paul Feyerabend, whose work underlined the social-embeddedness of science, a critique that was answered not in the forum of reasoned, academic debate but by their work’s being institutionally “ghosted” after their deaths (or such is Babich’s claim…), ironically lending credence to their theses. The kind of philosophy of science informing Babich’s perspective(s) is discerned in her observing that it is having a theory, a scheme of explanation, and funding that make astronomy a science vs astrology. In the same vein, Pluto’s status as a planet is merely a question of convention, not of some “real” property of the heavenly body. A possible science of UAP therefore depends upon the interest (in several senses) of the existing scientific establishment for it to be recognized as a science. However, science concerns itself with phenomena deemed legitimate by their being in certain regards always-already explained; unexplained phenomena (UAP) are therefore by definition “damned” and not a possible object for scientific investigation.

The Nietzschean logic of Babich’s talk is brought into stark relief by the title of her talk’s first section, proper: Philosophy of Science and the Proposition, If the Moon is Made of ‘Green Cheese’ What Follows? What follows and how to follow her thinking here, indeed. The point of this brief disquistion on logical entailment was, to my understanding, left hanging. It introduced or at the very least preceded a discussion of Analytic Philosopher T. Patrick Rardan’s article “A Rational Approach to the UFO Problem”, which postulates a nearby solar system and assumes that technology improves linearly as opposed to via scientific revolutions or leaps, that ETs need travel to us as we might travel to them, which is implausible, given present technology. For Babich, if ETs travel to earth, they would not do so using “technology”, especially ironically aerodynamic craft, such as those often reported (saucer, cigar, and triangle shaped). Rather, Babich imagines as a thought experiment UAP and their pilots as belonging to “the invisible realm”, transcending the visible EM spectrum consistent with observations of orbs, such as those mentioned in Kripal’s talk in his allusions to Skinwalkers at the Pentagon.

Babich’s seemingly unreflected association of UAP with “intelligent” extraterrestrial life was representative of a fairly universal inclination of the symposium’s participants and attendees. As the designated responder to Eghigian’s keynote address, she objected to his dating the advent of the phenomenon in 1947 as both classical writers and Enlightenment philosophers had all explicitly speculated about life on other worlds, but by what warrant do UAP necessarily imply extraterrestrial life? This association of ideas ran as a red thread through her presentation.

Picking up a thread in Kripal’s talk, the next section of Babich’s presentation addressed the topic of the Philosophy of Science and UAPs [sic] as a Subset of Occult Phenomena. Here, in harmony with Kripal and a number of participants and attendees, Babich stated that UAPhenomena have been documented “for centuries or millennia”. She played on the phenomenality of UAP, how phenomena as mere appearances have “weak ontological credentials” when it comes to philosophy and science. UAP, she says, are a matter of belief, though it was unclear to me how this proposition followed. The Platonic (as opposed to the Kantian, let alone the Phenomenological) distinction between appearance and true being was invoked, Plato famously rejecting the empirical as a means of gaining access to knowledge, this Platonic position contrasting with the epistemology that greeted the leaked Navy videos, which appeared as empirical confirmation of UAP, however much their acceptance as such is more an assent to an argument from authority. For her part, Babich posits that the belief in UAP is justified because of the long pedigree of their being reported (“for centuries and millennia”). However, despite our being in possession of data and hypotheses, UAP still stand in need of a scientific revolution as a condition for their finding a place in our knowledge as something that can be known.

Regrettably, as I note, around this point, Babich ran out of the allotted time for her presentation and had to cursorily summarize her remaining points. If there was any conclusion to be drawn from her performance, the sophisticated virtuosity of which my presentation here hardly does justice, it was that a philosophy of science of UAP is not forthcoming

Course Correction: on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part II (ii)

The first main division of my extended report on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read here. The previous post, Part II: Engaging with… (i) Greg Eghigian, can be read here.

Part II: Engaging with… (ii) Jeffrey Kripal

The next talk of interest to me was Prof. Jeffrey Kripal‘s “Why We Will Never Explain the UFO: The History of Apophatic Mystical Literature as Guide”. Kripal’s style of address, and often that of his writing, leans more to the personal and casual than the impersonal and formal characteristic of most academic language. This manner has its rhetorical advantages, claims hover between theses and opinions, and drawbacks, as the line of argument meanders and spirals in a way that evades summation and, to a point, analysis (however much Babette Babich might disagree). Kripal’s discourse finds a precursor and perhaps some legitimation in Heidegger’s later writings. For example, Heidegger opens “The Question Concerning Technology” thusly: “In what follows we shall be questioning… Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is a way of thinking.” Adorno and Lukács might be said to have expressed a similar sentiment when they observed echoing Hegel that “the truth is in the process.”

That being said, it wouldn’t be unfair to summarize and further reflect on the salient themes of Kripal’s talk. His (a?) central thesis seems to be that the UFO phenomenon transcends the disciplinary organization of knowledge into the natural sciences and the humanities, their presuppositions and methodologies at present being inappropriate to grasping the nature of the phenomenon. This point is made in several ways. If we oversimplify and peg the natural sciences as being concerned with objectivity and the humanities with human subjectivity then UFOs “violate, offend, or transcend the very divisions we make between subject and object.” The phenomenon is objective (e.g., “fighter jet videos, photographs, alleged metamaterials, apparent advanced propulsion methods, and landing marks”) and subjective (“close encounters, multiple and coordinated visual sightings, altered states of consciousness, visionary displays, and experienced traumatic or transcendent abductions”). As Kripal at another point says, “one can slice up the UFO phenomenon into the scientific, the humanistic, or even the historical, but one will never understand it by doing so [as] it bears a particular power to challenge or just abolish our present order of knowledge and its arbitrary divisions.” The UFO, then, is both/neither objective and subjective. To paraphrase, the UFO is not a simple object subject to explanation with dualistic logic, grammar, or science, but lies outside the present order of knowledge, whose secular and scientistic categories are insufficient. The UFO will never be explained, because “the UFO is not something that can be explained in our human, cognitive, sense-based ways of knowing. [It is possessed of] an ontology that is neither mental nor material but both at the same time.” As Kripal gnomically sums up his argument: “the radar is real, so is the revelation.”

Peripheral but not unrelated to Kripal’s main point are others by turns germane and troubling. After a fashion, Kripal localizes the phenomenon and his own relation to it. He engaged the topic first as a religious studies scholar in 2004, a perspective that catches sight of the topic first in the context of West Coast New Age culture. Indeed, Kripal makes the cryptic if suggestive remark that Kenneth Arnold’s “family history sounds very theosophical [Theosophical?].” He then observes the continental presence of the phenomenon—the cases of Betty and Barney Hill (in New England), UFOs over nuclear missile silos (in North Dakota), and the Chicago O’Hare Airport sighting—before underlining the importance of the American Southwest (with a special nod to Jacques Vallée’s recent research into the Trinity case), and affirming that “Indigenous communities are filled with UFO lore”. The more skeptically-minded will have their worst fears confirmed when Kripal speaks about the “stunning accounts” related in Hunt for the Skinwalker (or Skinwalkers at the Pentagon?), as he seems to accept all these reports and stories at face value.

And it’s at just this point (or what I’m tempted to term a brisure) that Kripal’s position becomes troubling. Referring to Hunt for the Skinwalker or Skinwalkers at the Pentagon, Kripal quotes one of its authors, Colm Kelleher, as theorizing that “the human witness [is] a kind of biochemical readout instrument,” which Kripal restates: “the most sophisticated piece of technology on the planet to detect nonhuman or superhuman presences…is the human body, brain, and being.” To position the human body in this way is both promising and problematic, as the body is the site where object and subject intersect. Considered as a “biochemical readout instrument” or “sophisticated piece of technology” the body is a being among other beings, an object, subject to natural scientific and forensic investigation; as a source of experience and subsequent testimony (“anecdotes”), the body is a subject. Kripal is at pains to defend the value of the subjective, experience and anecdote, over against its dismissal by the natural sciences. He protests that “every human experience after all is technically anecdotal…There is no science or mathematics, no literature, language, art, or religion, and there is certainly no UFO without that human subject… Why are we not talking about the experiences of those human witnesses?”

The obvious answer to Kripal’s rhetorical (?) question is given by Kripal himself: “the UFO is not something that can be explained in our human, cognitive, sense-based ways of knowing,” i.e., by means of the natural sciences and their physicalist or positivist presuppositions. In the absence of indisputable or at least sufficient objective physical or forensic confirmation (and the cases, “accounts”, and “lore” Kripal submits are all questionable in this respect), reports of experiences can be taken as only reports of experiences. From the subject-centred, humanistic side, such data is legitimate and significant as sites of meaning, a meaning whose truth-value is shielded from the dubitable or ungraspable (to be charitable) physical evidence, because it is methodologically bracketed from the question of the cause of the experience so that that meaning might be studied for its own sake. This methodological move, however, seems itself to be suspended by Kripal in his taking the cases he submits at face value as factually true.

And it is here that Kripal’s avowed agnosticism (the explicit “first thesis” of his talk is that “No one is expert here;” no one can claim to know) begs for a more explicit conceptual elucidation. The contradiction I outline above (the UFO is objectively dubitable, but subjects’ experiences can claim according to Kripal more than strictly subjective, anecdotal truth) is a contradiction only within disciplinary or epistemological terms that Kripal would suspend (the UFO phenomenon challenges or abolishes “our present order of knowledge and its arbitrary divisions”). However, in one regard, his thinking here is caught in the aporia of the deconstructive logic (in the rigorous sense) of the violent hierarchy that determines his discourse. The natural sciences with their knowledge of objects is set over against the humanistic disciplines and their grasp of the meaning of experience for human subjects; the present order of knowledge privileges the former term, epistemically, institutionally, etc.; Kripal, however, would at least seek to elevate the latter term: the knowledge of the object is itself grounded on the subject: ”There is no science or mathematics, no literature, language, art, or religion, and there is certainly no UFO without that human subject.” But, at the same time, attempting to legitimize the subject-as-body, as “biochemical readout instrument” or “sophisticated piece of technology”, the human subject as a legitimate source of data is grounded on the physical, medical and forensic, sciences. Kripal perhaps intuits this double-bind when he says, “Whatever [the phenomenon] is it simply does not behave according to our rules or philosophical assumptions—any of them.” But even this thesis itself needs be defended and demonstrated, a legitimation that itself can only occur within the context of the assumptions Kripal would suspend. More charitably, Kripal might be said to be positing that the UFO phenomenon negates our present order of knowlege. In the first place, the phenomenon as such is possessed of an indubitable positivity; it is objective and subjective, as Kripal says. However, as a mystery that resists being understood, explained, or “explained away” (at least for the moment), either by, e.g., some version of the Psychosocial Hypothesis or as eventually some new, e.g., plasma, phenomenonon, the UFO resists being known. This negation of our philosophical and epistemic assumptions demands in turn a “negation of the negation”, a reordering of our knowledge that would prove sufficient to give us some knowledge of the phenomenon, a reordering presumably the other side of what Kripal takes to be the categories of “objective” and “subjective”.

But what persistently bothers me about Kripal’s positions is their apparently shallow philosophical foundations. To transcend the “arbitrary” disciplinary articulation of “our present order of knowledge” demands more than merely leaving that knowledge formation behind. On the one hand, the rhizomatic dispersal of the modes of “scientific” knowing (and here I include all “sciences”, natural, social, and humanistic) isn’t “arbitrary” (however concretely dogmatic it might become…): the division of investigative labour is precisely the practice that has underwritten the expansion of knowledge since the Scientific Revolution. On the other, the countermovement to both this dispersal and the ascendancy of the natural sciences is one long underway. The modern (Humboldtian) university originates in the attempt to unify this dissolution of the unity of knowledge. Moreover, “interdisciplinarity” has been at the heart of those projects—from Jena Romanticism and German Idealism to Deconstruction and the present-day academy—that take up the self-critical spirit of the Enlightenment. The defense of “experience” finds its first hero in Wilhelm Dilthey at the end of the Nineteenth Century and an ally in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and latter- and present-day phenomenologists, and the philosophical and sociological project to unify what the university departments have sundered is undertaken by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jürgen Habermas, respectively. This is all to say that, in one regard (and this point was made in one of the responses to Kripal’s talk), all objects, not just unidentified flying ones, are dissolved into their various possible aspects by the sciences. At the same time, the problem of how to negotiate this dissolution and to recover a unity that is assumed by the sciences and experience is one that has been worked on for centuries and must be worked through. Kripal’s point that the UFO demands novel thought and investigation is therefore well-taken, but knowledge demands a reflexive and transcendent moment, a self-critical reflection that opens a way beyond the aporiae of the incongruity between modes of knowledge and their object that block progress. It is my thesis that there exist not inconsiderable philosophical resources, conceptual and argumentative, that have yet to be investigated and exploited.

Course Correction: on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium Part II (i)

The first main division of my extended report on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read here.

Part II: Engaging with… (i) Greg Eghigian

As remarked above, the symposium opened with a bang, historian Greg Eghigian’s keynote address, “The Flying Saucer Chronicles: Reflections on the History of Our Fascination with UFOs and Alien Contact”. I can’t hope to do justice to Eghigian’s sustantive and eloquent discourse, but I can cobble together some its striking, salient points from my excitedly scribbled notes.

As a historian, Eghegian is concerned not so much with the being or nature of whatever might be said to be the cause of witness reports but the entire Flying Saucer/UFO/UAP phenomenon considered culturally: in his words, society’s “collective response makes up the phenomenon.” From this point of view, a history of the UFO is “the [hi]story of the story of the phenomenon,” the phenomenon, “a mirror to society” (however much it is itself part of that society…). As long recognized, flying saucers appear first in the context of the Cold War, the earliest reports of meeting their pilots relate they had come to warn humankind of the dangers of nuclear energy and atomic war, and, later, anxieties about developments in reproductive technology find expression in the abduction reports of the 1980s, an historical inflection probed in detail in Eghigian’s address.

A contentious if germane consequence of Eghegian’s self-consciously historiographical stance is that the phenomenon begins strictly in 1947 with Kenneth Arnold’s sighting report and the journalistic coinage of ‘flying saucers’. This thesis caused no little chatter in the margins, a running conversation that consistently failed to grasp that understanding is radically temporal, historical. That is, Arnold’s report is a Ground Zero for the phenomenon, whose shock waves extend into the past and future. The flash of interest ignited by Arnold’s report and its journalistic and social echoes illuminates those earlier tales—about Ghost Rockets, Foo Fighters, Phantom Airships, or all that “damned data” recounted by Charles Fort—such that only then in retrospect do they come to be taken up into the phenomenon in general, as part of its [hi]story. This historiographical sophistication of Eghigian’s discourse was refreshing. The implied insight that, as Eghegian put it, experience always falls upon a “never barren imagination” enabled him to nimbly explain and dismantle the on-going facination for “ancient astronauts”.

Not only is the phenomenon historical but it is discursive, textual, so much so, part of its enduring appeal can be interpreted with concepts borrowed from literary criticism, a thesis dear to our hearts here at the Skunkworks. The drama of Disclosure is a melodrama, pitting heroic, selfless truthseekers and -tellers against evil manipulators intent on hiding the Truth, terrible or wonderful as it is. Moreover, its open-endedness gestures to its episodic seriality. Like any beloved television series, it has no preordained series finale, but the latest instalment can always end with the tantalizing words “Stay tuned for the next episode!”.

Finally, the phenomenon has always been political. Not in the facile party-political sense, but in the more radical way its being disputed cuts to the quick of questions of legitimacy, the ways that what counts as knowledge are constructed and defended in society, a topic taken up by Prof. Babette Babich. This is a matter that has been taken up here, too, and, of course, broadened and radicalized in ways passed over, if at least for the moment, by Eghigian’s address.

The next part (ii) of this second main division of my report can be read here.

Course Correction: on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium

The Inaugural Symposium for Limina, The Journal of UAP Studies was held virtually Friday 2 February through Sunday 4 February, a momentous occasion for the study of Unidentified Aerial (or Aerospace (or Anomalous)) Phenomena (UAP), not only as a very preliminary step for ufology’s moving from a nascent (if not pseudo) science to its becoming a legitimate field of investigation (and even “field” and “legitimacy”—of “ufology” or of any science—were at stake in the proceedings…) but perhaps even moreso as an opportunity for some fifty researchers, academic and otherwise, from a wide range of disciplines and specialties, to approach the question of UAP from many angles.

My own perspective on the event (as regular readers here will well imagine) is complex. In the first place, I was one of those participants, moderating with Michael Zimmerman a panel on the intersection of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the humanities, and UAP. Moreover, I am, along with all the other participants, engaged with the question or problem of UAP (or “the phenomenon”) in general. Finally, as a poet-philosopher, the event of the symposium as such is an object for reflection, apart from the content of any of its presentations.

I organize this post according to these three perspectives. First, as a participant, I seek to share my experience of the symposium and outline its structure and map the talks give over its three days. Then, I engage with some of those presentations that prompt response. Finally, I offer some final, preliminary reflections on the significance of the event, itself.

As my report on the symposium is a long one, I have opted to break it into parts that will be posted as they are composed. Here, you can read the first main division, my report as a participant. You can skip ahead to the first of my engagements, with historian Greg Eghigian’s opening keynote address, here.

Part I: A long weekend at a virtual conference…

I had never attended a virtual conference, so Limina’s Inaugural Symposium was an experience in this regard in its own right. For readers like me, let me describe that experience a little…

On logging in, one was greeted by the view of a virtual convention hall, a large rotating sign on its roof, “Limina” on one side and “Society for UAP Studies” on the other, signs arrayed along the front of the building advertising the journal, the society, and one of the conference’s main sponsors, Enigma labs, and virtual attendees milling and wandering about the front steps.

Upon zooming through the front doors of the hall, one entered a large mezzanine, the site’s virtual “lobby”, a front end for the conference’s website, from where one could enter the auditorium where the lectures and panels were held, the conversation lounges, or the exhibitors’ hall, whose dozen virtual booths were also accessible via this front end. Across the top of the browser window, a navigation panel enabled participants other means of access to the virtual booths via the Exhibit Hall, as well as to the Auditorium. One could navigate to a welcome video, a schedule of events (“What’s Happening?”), and even a virtual Information Desk along with some other features I remark below.

In the Exhibit Hall, one could access virtual booths for a range of international UAP research organizations, each of which, when entered, included a short introduction to the group and further access to materials, the organization’s website, and a chat room to meet representatives or other attendees. The groups represented were Enigma Labs, the GermanGesellschaft zur Erforschung des UFO-Phänomens (Society for the Study of the UFO Phenomenon), the John E. Mack Institute, the National UFO Historical Records Center, Project Hessdalen, The Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, The STELLAR Project – International Observatory of Anomalous Phenomena (Portugal), The UAP Tracker Citizen Science Project, UAPx, UFODAP (The UFO Data Acquisition Project), and UFODATA. One could, as well, access the more than twenty videos each of these booths presented in the Video Vault, their print materials (“Resources”) (nearly two-dozen documents), and stash those one wanted to keep in a virtual “Swag Bag”.

Finally, apart from interacting with participants and attendees in the lectures and panels (generally very well-attended, often with over 100 virtual attendees), each accompanied by a chat stream and more formal commentary and Q&A, one could interact in various virtual “Lounges”, whether in the more “General Jam” lounge or those dedicated to more specific topics:  Interdisciplinary Dialogues; Government v. Civilian Research & Investigation of the Phenomenon; Evidence, Methods, Explanation and Anomaly; UAP and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH); and UAP and Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI). For my part, I only once poked my sole head into the General Jam lounge, and was just too shy to visit any of the others. Each were open until 11:00 p.m. each day of the conference to facilitate even further commiseration.

The only flaw in this otherwise impressive and (I found) very user-friendly interface was the inability to easily access the schedule of the weekend’s proceedings, which, as far as I found, were available only through the main conference website before one logged in. I describe this virtual dimension of the symposium in such detail to underline the industry and professionalism that underwrote the polished, user-friendly experience it was.

As to the three days’ program of talks: interested parties can refer to the symposium’s “Agenda“, which also allows access to the talks’ abstracts. However, as I am unsure how long the symposium’s site will remain up, I will briefly rehearse each day’s program before digging in to those presentations I attended and am moved to remark.

DAY ONE: Friday 2 February was devoted to the more humanistic dimension of inquiry into UAP. Dr. Michael C. Cifone Editor-In-Chief of Limina: The Journal of UAP Studies, Founder and President of the Society for UAP Studies, opened the proceedings with some introductory remarks that emphasized the foundational moment and intent of the symposium, its tentative, provisional, reflective, initial surveying of possible grounds for eventual foundations for “scientific” (perhaps, more properly, wissenschaftlich) research into the phenomenon. Cifone was followed by historian Prof. Greg Eghigian who delivered a bracing keynote address, “The Flying Saucer Chronicles: Reflections on the History of Our Fascination with UFOs and Alien Contact”. Prof. Gabriel G. de la Torre followed, exploring the psychological dimension of UAP research, with his talk “Obsessed With UAPs: Psychological Aspects of the Phenomena” (I have posted on de la Torre’s earlier, not unrelated but less developed research, here). Then, Prof. Jeffrey Kripal addressed the matter from the perspective of religious studies and the “superhumanities” in his presentation, “Why We Will Never Explain the UFO: The History of Apophatic Mystical Literature as Guide”. The second session for the day was opened by Prof. Tim Murithi, who brought political science and law into play, with his talk (which I missed), “UAP, Truth Embargo and Amnesty Provisions: The Prospects for a Transitional Justice Approach”. Murithi was followed by Prof. Babette Babich, who brought the philosophy of science to bear, in her lecture “Towards A Philosophy of Science of Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena”. Jinwoo Yu and Prof. Sunglyul Maeng opened the day’s third session with their presentation on Carl Sagan and Korean ufology, “A Silver Lining to Conservatism Towards Ufology” (which I unfortunately missed). The first day was crowned by my and Michael Zimmerman‘s panel, peopled by Prof. Babette Babich, Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, Assoc. Prof. Stephen Finley, and Prof. Kevin H. Knuth.

DAY TWO: The symposium’s second day focussed on “hard” scientific approaches to the phenomenon. Prof. Dr. Hakan Kayal opened the proceedings, describing “UAP research at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität of Würzburg”. He was followed by Philippe R. C. Ailleris, who spoke on “Studying Anomalous Aerospace Phenomena in the Field: The History, Lessons and Future Prospects of Instrumented Projects”. Dr. Beatriz Villarroel described the efforts of the VASCO project in her presentation, “Searching for ET Probes with Vanishing & Appearing Sources (VASCO) During ‘A Century of Observations’ Project”. The day’s second session was opened by a report from STELLAR – International Observatory of Anomalous Phenomena by Prof. Joaquim Fernandes, Francisco Mourão Corrêa, and Prof. Raul Berenguel, with focus on their research into the Fatima event. Prof. Matthew Szydagis reported on “The Preliminary/Initial Results from The First Expedition of UAPx” and Prof. Wesley Watters on “The Galileo Project’s Investigation of UAP using Ground-based Observatories and Satellite Data”. The third session of the day began with Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra returning to the topic of Carl Sagan, speaking on how “Popular Conceptions of Unidentified Flying Objects Can Undermine Scientific Inquiry”. Finally, Dr. Silvano Colombano explained “A Machine Learning Methodology for Filtering and Classifying Unformatted Natural Language Reports”.

DAY THREE focussed on research into particular cases. Prof. Daniel Coumbe (author of the recently published Anomaly: A Scientific Exploration of the UFO Phenomenon (reviewed here and here)) gave the day’s keynote address, “Anomaly: Searching for a Black Swan Event”. He was followed Mick West (“Extracting Lines of Sight and Reconstructing Object Motion from Noisy Video Data”) and Robert M. Powell who both examined the case named in the title of Powell’s talk “An Analysis of the April 25, 2013 Aguadilla, Puerto Rico IR Video”. After a break, the second session of the day shifted the conversation to speculations concerning the nature of UAP themselves, with Prof. Dr. Karl Svozil posing the question “Is Revising Inertia The Key to Zigzag Motion and ‘Anti-Gravity’?” and Dr. Massimo Teodorani‘s “Testing the Possible Propulsion Mechanism of UAPs [sic]”. The day ended with a third session, with Prof. Kevin H. Knuth probing “Evidence Suggesting that Some UAPs are Advanced Non-Human Craft” and a conversation between journalists Leslie Kean, Ralph Blumenthal, Andreas Müller, Ross Coulthart, and George Knapp capping the weekend’s proceedings.

The first part of the second main division is readable here.

First Rumour of Limina’s Inaugural Symposium

While readers here breathlessly wait for my forthcoming post on the Inaugural Symposium for Limina: The Journal of UAP Studies, they might be interested in this interview with some of the participants conducted by German journalist Robert Fleischer, viewable here.

I observe in passing Fleischer’s guests might skew a viewer’s impression of the orientation of the symposium and Limina with regard to the matter if not problem or question of UAP, given that three of Fleischer’s guests and Fleischer himself are all members of ICER, the International Coalition for Extraterrestrial Research, whose official position on “contact” is that “Contact and interaction between humans and extraterrestrial/non-human intelligences (NHIs) on a global scale, [sic] is a reality.” Francisco Mourão Corrêa, for example, is the founder of Exopolitics Portugal. Prof. Tim Murithi’s proposals align themselves with those of Stephen Bassett’s Paradigm Research Group whose stated objective is “to advocate in all ways possible for an end to a government imposed truth embargo of the facts surrounding an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race – Disclosure.” Fleischer’s two other guests, Prof. Erling Strand from Project Hessdalen in Norway and Dr. Beatriz Villaroel from the Nordic Institute of Theoretical Physics in Sweden, represent less-invested perspectives, focussed on empirical research that has yet to come to any conclusions regarding the nature of UAP let alone their relation to NHIs, despite Strand’s being a member and representative of ICER.

That being said (or remarked), Corrêa does make clear that part of his team’s presentation at the symposium concerned Project Stellar, an inter- or multidisciplinary research initiative that marshals both the hard (natural) and social sciences (including some humanistic disciplines, e.g. philosophy) to study UAP, a project whose putative approach suggests a less invested stance to the phenomenon. Likewise, Dr. Beatriz Villaroel’s Vasco Project searches for potential evidence of probes of extraterrestrial origin, somewhat along the lines of the likely better-known Galileo Project. Which is all to say that the general tenor of the symposium was more akin to the tentative approach articulated in this interview by Prof. Strand than the persuaded if not convinced stance adopted here by his interlocutors. More, forthcoming!

Calendar year in review

These past twelve months have been in retrospect surprisingly remarkable at these Skunkworks. Though it felt like production had slowed, thirty-four posts were published, which is more than one a fortnight(!). More interestingly, I managed to eschew the UFO/UAP stories that made the biggest splash, namely those involving the U.S. government’s renewed overt interest in the matter. The only more mainstream topic I did address was that of Avi Loeb, a topic I finally put to sleep.

The year really began in the spring, with the conference proceedings held to inaugurate the Archives of the Impossible at Rice University. I viewed and commented on all the plenary talks—by Jeffrey Kripal and Jacques Vallée, Whitley Strieber, and Diana Pasulka (Heath).

These plenary talks, and other discussions held around the inaugural conference, raised a persistent and increasingly acute topic of reflection here, the relation between the being and nature of the phenomenon and its meaning. Three posts essay this question: ‘“The theme has vista”: the question of UFO reality and the Myth of Things seen in the Sky’, ‘Getting to a root of the matter: a “radical” “theory” of the UFO Phenomenon if not the UFO-in-itself‘, and “A Note on Cultural Seismology…”.

March was also the month that began the publicity for Jeffrey Kripal’s new book, The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, and New Realities. Kripal gave a remote lecture on the topic, to which I reacted at length. I was also prompted, in part by having to object to some criticisms of Jacques Vallée’s The Invisible College levelled by Robert Sheaffer, to relate some of those earlier ideas of Vallée’s to Kripal’s project.

Vallée’s earlier work, Passport to Magonia, also gave me the opportunity to extend, broaden, and deepen my forays into the social significance of the UFO myth, in this instance, its colonialist unconscious. Not unrelated were the posts devoted to nonhuman life, the abstract concept of technology at work in ufology, and the textuality of the phenomenon itself.

Spring and Summer saw me in conversation with Luis Cayetano, a conversation that expanded to include the faculty of The Invisible Night School.

Indeed, The Invisible Night School was one of several new research initiatives that caught our attention this past year, including Mike Cifone’s hard-headed Entaus blog (resolutely bent on wringing some coherence out of ufology), Limina: The Journal of UAP Studies, news of the journal’s inaugural symposium this coming February, and the first university-level UAP studies program, at the Julius Maximilian University in Würzburg, Germany.

This coming year, we’d surely like to write more posts! These may include a weekly or fortnightly notice of more mainstream UFO/AUP stories (tentatively titled “What’s Up” or “In the Air”). I hope, too, to return to more fundamental research: continuing to review and study those volumes on Jung’s Ufological bookshelf along with those recently added to the evergrowing research library here at the Skunkworks, more attention to the poetic handling of the myth and more new contributions of my own, and an ever more refined handling of the notion of technology. Likely, the proceedings of Limina‘s inaugural symposium will provide grist for the mill, and the phenomenon itself, in its protean development and our attendant reactions, will doubtless provide some prompts to furrow the brows and click the keys…

Limina’s Inaugural Symposium 2023

Limina Journal of UAP Studies will be having its inaugural symposium in cyberspace February 3rd, 4th, and 5th 2023 9am – 5pm EST.

This virtual-only symposium brings together an international array of key thinkers in the fledgling academic study of unidentified aerospace phenomena (UAP) to discuss fundamental methodological, epistemological, and ontological questions surrounding the UAP phenomenon.

It will include an exploration and critical assessment of crucial social, political and cultural issues connected with this elusive phenomenon. In addition to talks presented by a subset of our distinguished participants, there will be several panel discussions on a variety of impactful UAP-related topics.

Major UAP research organizations and data-gathering teams will be hosting virtual booths in the exhibition hall, giving attendees a chance to directly connect with the exhibitors. In doing so, Limina hopes to encourage a cross-fertilization of ideas and an ecosystem of exchange among groups dedicated to the empirical study of UAP.

A quick glance at the three-dozen participants will likely raise a few delighted eyebrows among the congnoscenti, a wide-ranging group sure to tackle the phenomenon in the serious, multidisciplinary manner it demands. Even my humble self will be moderating a panel (with the esteemed Michael Zimmerman) on the knotty interface of STEM and the Humanities with regard to the UAP question(s).

Read all about the conference here. Register (!) here.

A Note on Cultural Seismology…

Pretty much from the start, an essential distinction here at the Skunkworks, and one given to increasingly acute reflection, has been that between the being and the meaning of the UFO phenomenon, that is, between a concern with identifying and explaining the nature or cause of UFOs (answering the question, “What are they?”) on the one hand and an exploration of the infinite stories about UFOs in various media, including the original sighting reports themselves, and their meaning for culture and society at large on the other. The earliest articulation of our position on the question was the post “Concerning the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO”. Persistent if impertinent prodding from Rich Reynolds necessitated further clarification with “On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…”. And, most recently, positions taken by Jeffrey Kripal and Hussein Ali Agrama and trenchant criticisms levelled by Mike Cifone inspired “’The theme has vista’: the question of UFO reality and the Myth of Things seen in the Sky” and “Getting to a root of the matter: a ‘radical’ ‘theory’ of the UFO Phenomenon if not the UFO-in-itself”.

I’ve been the first to admit that too rigidly-drawn a distinction is de jure subject to deconstruction in the rigorous sense. I have, at the same time, argued that textuality determines the phenomenon as a condition of possibility for its being experienced at all, (and text is, in the restricted sense, after all, the object of hermeneutics par excellence). But this argument is neither here nor there in this regard, for what’s at stake is whether and, if so, to what extent and by what warrant the question of the cause of the experience can be “bracketed” from its textual, artefactual effects (sighting reports and subsequent articles, books, documentaries and films, nonfictional and fictional, etc.). Such bracketing (even if practiced in his own way by Jacques Vallée in one study) arguably precisely by its foregoing the question answers the question of the being of the phenomenon—in the negative, whether tactfully, in not stating so outright, or in treating the question, whether methodologically or in fact, as being of no account. Kripal and Agrama have found such bracketing “a cop out” to avoid the challenge to official ontology apparently posed by the phenomenon.

Into this dispute drops a new book, Andy Bruno’s Tunguska: A Siberian Mystery and Its Environmental Legacy. Ethan Pollock in his recent review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement makes clear its pertinence to the problem addressed here:

In Tunguska: A Siberian mystery and its environmental legacy, Andy Bruno explores what happened [after the event] with remarkable drive, energy and what he calls ‘strategic agnosticism’: a skilful weaving together of Russian and Soviet history, modern science and environmental studies that gives no approach the upper hand. Other scholars have written about Tunguska from various perspectives, but almost always in order to try to explain what happened that day in 1908. Bruno focuses instead on how specific genres of storytelling and scientific argumentation created and sustained popular and professional curiosity over the ensuing century. (my emphasis)

Here, we have an example of a study that manages unproblematically to bracket an undoubtedly real event (whose ontological status contrasts sharply with that much more dubitable one of UAP) from its textual wake, those stories and arguments “created and sustained [by] popular and professional curiosity over the ensuing century.”

Bruno’s work is especially relevant, as it addresses directly the half-humorous line of attack on bracketing launched by Kripal and Agrama, who compare bracketing the question of the being of the phenomenon from its meaning as is customary in the social sciences to adopting the same approach with regards to radiation. On the one hand, the analogy is questionable if not specious, given the marked difference in ontological status between radiation and UAP; on the other, however, Bruno’s study demonstrates both the ease and promise of shifting perspective from engaging in the attempt to resolve the controversies about the nature of even an undoubtedly real event and its cultural shock waves.

But the whole matter admits of a finer-grained analysis. In our classic study of the Raëlian Movement, Susan Palmer and I, like good religious studies scholars, bracket the question of whether Claude Vorilhon in fact experienced what he claims to have; rather we expose the ideological underpinnings of the Message to account for the success of Vorilhon’s New Religious Movement. In the strictly poetic work one can find here (the work toward the epic Orthoteny), the “reality” of the UFO is as irrelevant as that of the gods of Homer and Hesiod to their respective poems or that of the saints and angels in Dante’s Commedia to his. In the more cultural critical essays that make up most of the posts here at the Skunkworks, the problem is more complex. In some regards, the focus is precisely and exclusively on what I’ve termed here “cultural shockwaves” along the lines pursued by Bruno, UFO books, movies, and other media and the thinking that goes into and on around them. Here, I read (i.e., attend hemeneutically) to “the UFO mythology”, which, as a mythology, is grasped in the same way a reader approaches the Iliad and Odyssey, the Theogeny, or the Commedia. In these instances it might be argued that I adopt a tacit acceptance of some version of the Psychosocial Hypothesis, for, as I ponder in a more recent, more cautious post: “the significance of what [I call] ‘the UFO mythology’ will have a different significance, culturally (won’t it?) if the root ’cause’ is itself not merely ‘subjective’ (misperceptions or deceptions on the part of the witness, as per the Psychosocial Hypothesis) but ‘objective’ (whatever the nature of that objectivity might finally be).” In this latter regard, it seems to me, Bruno’s work legitimates, to a point (always relative to the particular questions motivating the research), bracketing the question of the reality (if not the nature) of the phenomenon from its meaning effects. So, regardless of whether there is a physically real, genuine mystery to UAP, the work here and in sociology departments can proceed for the time being in good conscience—at least until Disclosure (and even then!).

New Site on the Block

Hot on the heels of my shrugging my shoulders about there being little new in the ufological sphere, I recieved notice that a post at a new website The Invisible Night School had linked to an early post of mine at Skunkworks.

The site, the brainchild of Luis Cayetano, Nick Coffin-Callis, Leah Prime, Campbell Moreira, and Sparks, describes itself as follows:

The Invisible Night School is a consortium of lay-researchers and scholars analytically exploring UFOs and UAPs, high strangeness, and the cultural and social implications of the phenomenon.

The Invisible Night School (aka #TINS) is a cross-platform, multi-media initiative: we regularly host Twitter Spaces for informal salon-style discussion, livestreams on YouTube with special guests, and “blackboard” sessions for individual- and small-group projects.

Sure to disappoint those whose sole concern is solving the UFO Mystery, The Invisible Night School at least piques my interest, maybe yours, too. Checkitout.

That doesn’t necessarily mean studying aliens…

Aside from the Disclosure fever the American government’s most recent, public interest in Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) has fired up, noticeable is bolder curiousity in the phenomenon expressed by members of the scientific community. Two examples are astrobiologists Jacob Haqq Misra and Ravi Kopparapu, recently interviewed by ScienceNews.

Such strictly physical investigations fall outside the purview of Skunkworks (however problematically...). Nevertheless, this recent conversation with Haqq Misra is timely, as he is a member of the editorial board of the most recent, scholarly foray into the field, Limina: the Journal of UAP Studies, whose founder and editor-in-chief is one of our most recent and forceful interlocutors here, Mike Cifone, the author of the no less-philosophically-oriented ufological blog, Entaus.

Since his early interventions here, Cifone and I have pursued a very energetic and dizzying correspondence sub rosa, as it were, a conversation that persuades me of the not inconsiderable promise of this new venture. I encourage readers here, whose interests extend to those outlined in Limina‘s mission statement and focus, to attend and follow this latest attempt to investigate UAP with scientific rigor and scholarly gravity.

Bryan Sentes and Luis Cayetano in conversation

Luis Cayetano (“Ufology” is corrupt) kindly conducted a wide-ranging, freewheeling chat with me about UFOs, ufology, and the UFO mythology, among many, many other things.

Cayetano’s questions, prompts, and curtness allowed me free reign to opine and reflect on topics usually passed over or still to be addressed here at the Skunkworks. This format sometimes saw (heard?) my verbal energies outrun my reflective faculties, but I’m grateful to Luis for the opportunity to explore the field in this way. I may not have been my most eloquent or pithy at all points, but I was, at least, I think, coherent.

Because of technological limitations, viewers/listeners will be treated not to two hours of looking at us yack but to a montage-commentary, often funny and wittily commenting on what’s being said. Thanks to Cayetano for going through the trouble.

You can see the interview, here.

“The theme has vista”: the question of UFO reality and the Myth of Things seen in the Sky

When I announced the launch of Mike Cifone’s Entaus blog (that, since, has been going “like ten bear” as we say), I noted

Cifone’s approach is complementary to and marginally overlaps that pursued here. Where I bracket the question of the reality, nature, or being of the UFO to focus on its meaning, Cifone has resolutely set his sights on thinking through just what a knowledge or science of that reality might be. Of course, the line that divides the being from the meaning of the phenomenon touches both…

Cifone has probed and questioned that “meaning / being” distinction (as has Jeffrey Kripal), interrogations that prompt me, here, to reflect on the field or space wherein that line is drawn.

Anyone acquainted with the topic of UFOs will quickly be struck by its division into Believers and Skeptics or Debunkers if not moved or forced to take a side themselves. The interminable strife between the two sides is fought, more or less, over the question of “the reality” of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). Generally, Believers believe that UAP are more properly UFOs, not so much phenomena (or mere “appearances”) but real, anomalous, unidentified objects (however much many of them insist on going one step further and identifying them as, e.g., alien spaceships…), while Debunkers maintain that there is in fact nothing behind the phenomena, which are merely misidentifications, illusions, hoaxes, and rumour. UFOs are either some thing or nothing.

When the UFO curious turn their attention from the unidentified flying object to the subject of the witness or experiencer, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) take long to discover the phenomenon can inspire a religious or spiritual response. The cognoscenti will know that this dimension of the phenomenon has long been a subject of study among scholars of religion. Part of the methodology of such research is “to bracket” questions of the truth of witness testimony or that of whatever reality might lie behind it all the better to focus on the character of the experience and its effects, changes in beliefs and behaviour. Kripal, for his reasons, is impatient with the assumptions and implications of this practice, and Cifone (in comments here at Skunkworksblog and in private communication with our team) has more rigorously argued, at least, that the border between these two focii may be blurrier than the practicing sociologist is aware or willing to admit. As much as I agree with Cifone’s criticisms (which echo some of Hegel’s criticisms of Kant, that to draw a limit is to think both sides of the limit), it seemed to me that where that limit is drawn is itself only one border of a much larger field.

What first inspired my adult interest in the matter were the abduction accounts increasingly in the air in the early Nineties. My reflexive response was skeptical: no one is really being abducted by aliens. Because I rejected out of hand a literal interpretation of these accounts, a space was opened to understand these stories in another way. Being a poet and literary scholar and therefore not unacquainted with Surrealism and its inspiration in Freud’s Traumdeutung, a view into the matter that hinged on the notions of manifest and latent content opened up before me. Because these accounts were retrieved under hypnosis, it seemed to me they were more like dreams than memories, significant more for their meaning (latent content) than for the story they told (their manifest content). Given the foment in reproductive technology at the time—the Human Genome Project, cloning, and In Vitro Fertilization—should it have come as a surprise that women would have nightmares about being subject to gynecological experiments carried out by impersonal, cold-blooded aliens? (Bridget Brown probes the matter in greater depth and breadth in her They Know Us Better Than We Know Ourselves: The History and Politics of Alien Abduction). It was this initial intuition that quickly dilated to encompass the countless stories about the UFO, to grasp them as a kind of collective dream expressing the anxieties and aspirations of late Twentieth-Century technological society.

What first caught (and continues to keep) my attention, then, was and is not “the UFO itself” but the stories about it, its culturally “virtual” dimension. On this side of whatever experience might motivate sighting reports, there is a vast, practically infinite cultural field, non-fictional and fictional: the reports themselves, articles, books, documentaries, films and television series, graphic novels, on and on. Of course, to those enamoured or otherwise obsessed with the matter of the UFO’s ultimate reality, my interest must seem a wayward dalliance (though I imagine proponents of the Psychosocial Hypothesis might disagree), but there’s little denying that this cultural aspect of the UFO is as “real” a reality for human consciousness in general as whatever experiences are associated with sightings or encounters. It’s in the form of some representation, image or story, that most people know about UFOs as opposed to the relatively small number who claim to have seen or otherwise experienced something. Indeed, that this “spiritual” (German: geistig) aspect is in some ways even more real than whatever physical reality UFOs might in fact possess is a case I have made here, before.

At the level of getting the creative and critical work done and evading the black hole of “the UFO controversy”, the approach I outline does the trick. The aesthetic value of a cinematic work of art, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, does not depend upon whether UFOs are “real”, and my collaborator and I can quite successfully study the worldview and values and other features of the Raëlian Movement International without having to determine the veracity of Claude Vorilhon’s first witness report. However, from a more philosophical or, strictly, epistemological point of view, Cifone’s and Kripal’s interventions demand attention and even, in the grand(er) scheme of things, threaten to destabilize at least the strictly humanistic study of the UFO phenomenon thought as a “myth of things seen in the sky.”

In the first place, the spatial metaphor that would draw a line between the countless representations of the the UFO (the myth or mythology) and whatever phenomenon or phenomena that in fact stimulate witness reports and the placing of this stimulus in a small corner of the field is misleading, as it effaces the temporal, historical dimension of the whole matter. From the point of view of the Believer, the mythology is continually maintained by ever new reports and revelations (disclosures if not Disclosure). The “space” here is like that of a night sky: however much we might only ever be able to observe the light from distant stars (the mythology), real objects (Unidentified Flying Objects) are the source of this information in however a variously refracted or diffused form it reaches us. For the Skeptic, however, the total phenomenon (mythology and stimuli) is essentially temporal. No observation is ever “naive”. Seeing something as a UFO is an interpretation guided if not governed by pre-existing images and stories already “in the air”, the cultural horizon of the witness. For the skeptic, the UFO is essentially hyperreal; that what one is seeing is a “UFO” is confirmed by representations of UFOs already familiar to the witness. The relation between the mythology and whatever inspires witness reports is distorted by attempting to map them onto some space (aside from the very question of dividing the field into these two spaces in the first place).

Vigilant readers will notice I have, 1) overturned the metaphor of a field or space whereby I first thought to respond to Cifone’s and Kripal’s objections and, 2) skirted the still pertinent question of how the nature of the UFO phenomenon might in fact relate to the mythology that radiates from it (if not maintain it). Not that I imagine to resolve so complex and recalcitrant an issue, but, in my next post, I propose a “radical” “theory” of the UFO (which I doubt today’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon hearing before the House Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation Subcommittee is likely to derail)…

Entaus: Notes Towards A Ufological Science of the Future

Sometime interlocutor here at the Skunkworks, Mike Cifone, a philosopher of science among other things, has launched a new blog as a space to work out his thoughts on and more importantly towards the possibility of a science of UFOs.

Cifone’s approach is complementary to and marginally overlaps that pursued here. Where I bracket the question of the reality, nature, or being of the UFO to focus on its meaning, Cifone has resolutely set his sights on thinking through just what a knowledge or science of that reality might be. Of course, the line that divides the being from the meaning of the phenomenon touches both, and in drawing that line, as I’ve had to do to make my own position clear, I have had to venture some thoughts that Cifone has found germane.

Cifone, in a radically philosophical move, begins from a point of radical ignorance of the nature of the phenomenon he would see illuminated. As he writes, “we are trying to establish our definitive ignorance, our definite lack of knowledge about something that has, frustratingly, entered into the purview of our otherwise ordinary experience.” It is from just such a standpoint, as Socrates and Husserl would agree, that the first, tentative steps toward knowledge begin.

Cifone’s notes toward a “liminal epistemology” are a breath of fresh air, sure to ruffle the feathers of both believers and skeptics.

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…).

Just what’s up at the Skunkworks (Skunkworksblog, that is)?

The fourth anniversary of this blog came and went last 22 February. I can, I think, be forgiven for not marking the occasion: here, in Montreal, the pandemic dragged on; the nation’s capital was occupied by a Canadian version of insurrectionists (so Canadian, in fact, they couldn’t recognize themselves as insurrectionists); and Russia was gearing up for that invasion of Ukraine it launched before the end of the month.

What prompts today’s clarifications, though, is the surprising and not unwelcome interest in my recent commentaries on some of the plenary sessions delivered at the recent Archives of the Impossible conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas: Jeffrey Kripal’s opening remarks and Jacques Vallée’s keynote address (here) and those of Whitley Strieber and Diana Pasulka.

On the one hand, sckepticks (my coinage) of the UFO phenomenon take quickly and enthusiastically to those remarks of mine that appear to harmonize with their dismissal of the whole matter: my notice of Vallée’s and Harris’ Trinity: The Best Kept Secret or my criticisms of aspects of the talks, above, usually their philological and scholarly lapses. Believers in the reality of the phenomenon, on the other hand, see me as a skeptic, too. Both, I claim, are mistaken, as would any believer who therefore takes it I side with them. Indeed, I would be especially disappointed if Kripal, Vallée, Strieber, or Pasulka reading my remarks (not for a moment that I imagine they have or do) took it I was crankily trolling them. And I am the first to admit that such confusion is a fault both the way my own interests wander and the relative subtlety of the more general stance I take here.

I started this blog in 2018 as a way of keeping myself honest. Since 1994 I’d been at work on an impossibly unwieldy project, an epic-length, poetic treatment of the UFO as, in Jung’s words, “a modern myth of things seen in the skies.” (Interested parties need only click on the ‘poems’ category to see some of the tentative results of this project). I had seen in a flash that year how the countless stories of UFOs and their pilots and their interactions with human beings composed a repressed critique of the technoscientific culture of the so-called advanced societies of the earth, a culture that at one and the same time served to revolutionize (scientifically and industrially…) human societies and has brought them to the brink of dissolution if not extinction. Here was a ready-made, generally familiar body of stories (contrast the recognizability of ‘UFO’ with “Prometheus’…) ready for the artist’s use.

In 1999 (I think it was) I presented this insight in the discourse of the sociology of religion at that year’s Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Montreal in the form of a paper co-authored with a friend, Dr Susan Palmer, “Presumed Immanent: The Raëlians, UFO Religions, and the Postmodern Condition.” Jaws dropped, the editor of Nova Religio buttonholed me immediately after the session, and the paper has since appeared, first, in that academic journal, then, in university syllabi, textbooks, and most recently The Cambridge Guide to New Religious Movements. Though unposed as such, the question that motivated that paper’s argument was that of the appeal of Raël’s message. The answer is that Raël’s “religion of science” is in its essential presuppositions perfectly harmonious with the ideology of technoscience that governs the world’s advanced societies and inspires the imagination of technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial societies among “UFO people” and SETI scientists, alike.

The tendency of this blog has been to articulate that original insight in an ever more varied and hopefully more profound and thorough-going a manner. The vector of thought here has been critique (as opposed to criticism, fault-finding, mockery, or dismissal, the mode of many UFO skeptics…). ‘Critique’ hearkens back to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant that sought not to answer the metaphysical questions of his day (Does the world have a beginning or is it eternal? Does the soul survive death?, etc.) but to query how it is possible we have the knowledge of nature, morals, and beauty we do. After Kant, especially with the advent and development of historical materialism down to this day, ‘critique’ has come to sometimes denote that analysis of the presuppositions and implications of some position or body of belief or knowledge, in a word, a critique of ideology, here, precisely, that one Jürgen Habermas posited as that of our modern European or Western society, technoscience.

So, for example, my unrelenting critique of the various pronouncements of Avi Loeb should not be taken as claiming these are in any way false, but as attempts to reveal what goes unthought and uninterrogated in these positions. Of course, imaginably, an argument might be made from these critiques about the tenability of his claims, but this is an avenue my thinking does not go down. In the same breath, however, as 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. Still, one, in all intellectual honesty and self-surveillance, can try….

In a more general sense, the project here, aside from publicizing the essential poetic project, is to bracket the question of the being (nature or reality) of the phenomenon to better bring into view its meaning. In this regard, the general stance most often taken here is phenomenological, in the sense first given that expression by Edmund Husserl and those who went on to develop his method of “philosophy as a rigorous science”. The dispute over the reality and nature of the phenomenon has proven exhausting and fruitless since 1947, and it’s one I consistently eschew. However, the significance or meaning of the phenomenon is an infinitely rich field of research for the more sociologically-minded, an argument I have made with greater force and at greater length, here.

For all that, I do sometimes criticize, but let it be noted not in the spirit of mere negation or dismissal, but precisely because I take the criticized and the matter under consideration seriously. This ethic is especially so in the case of more scholarly discourses, like those, for example, of Jeffrey Kripal or Diana Pasulka. I don’t demand a cold-blooded, heavy, Nineteenth century Teutonic demeanor (as doubtless some readers here hear me assuming) but I do have certain standards of precision, exactitude, and scholarship I can’t bear to see unfulfilled. Because what’s at stake is a grasp of the character and destiny of techno-industrial society, it is arguable that any lapse in such standards is understandably, at least, irritating. And let’s remember that “irritability” (“Does it react if you poke it with a stick?”) is a sign of life.

So, however gratifying it is to be read and, after a fashion, appreciated, I beg readers to remember that if they think the posts here are engaging in the never-ending for-and-against concerning the reality or nature of UFOs or UAP, likely something subtler and, hopefully, more profound is at work.

Sightings: Monday 1 November 2021: Plus ça change…

As I observed in the last Sightings post, ufology as that myth-of-things-seen-in the-skies, despite apparent, dramatic developments (novelties), seems to orbit in an eternal-recurrence-of-the-same, which is characteristic of myth as such; myth posits an eternal (ever recurring) order…. That being said, some recent developments caught my attention.

The Galileo Project for the Systematic Scientific Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Technological Artifacts (headed by Avi Loeb) recently named Christopher Mellon and Luis Elizondo as Research Affiliates. (I assume these two names and their respective place in recent ufology are not unfamiliar.) I’ve elaborated a number of critiques of the thinking underwriting Loeb’s views concerning extraterrestrial technological artifacts (the most developed can be read here). However ideologically invested Loeb’s ideas, their scientific value remains an open question, depending on Project Galileo’s ultimate—empirical—findings. But it’s precisely the project’s scientific reputation that is thrown into question by its affiliation with Mellon and Elizondo, given their respective backgrounds in intelligence and their overt statements and innuendos concerning UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). Given Mellon’s and Elizondo’s enthusiastic participation in the drama of “Disclosure”, the scientifically-minded might be excused for wondering just how much of value the two can bring to, e.g., “assessing the societal implications of the data, if any extraterrestrial technological signatures or artifacts are discovered.” One’s tempted to imagine that once History’s The Secret of Skin Walker Ranch has run its inevitable course it might not be replaced by a new reality series, The Galileo Project….

The appointment of Mellon and Elizondo to a research project searching for artifacts of extraterrestrial technology underlines, again, the near hegemony a certain thinking about extraterrestrial life (and, by extension and most importantly, life on earth) holds in both the popular and more specialized imaginations, e.g., that of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers. Corey S. Powell’s Aeon article “The search for alien tech” reveals both in how SETI research has recently expanded in the wake of the discovery of exoplanets and most acutely in his own reflexive (unconscious) rhetoric just how strong the grip of this thinking is.

Powell describes how “each age has featured its own version [of] yearning for contact with life from beyond, always anchored to the technological themes of the day”. Roughly in the latter half of last century SETI was essentially the search for a demonstrably alien, artificial signal somewhere in the electromagnetic spectrum, whether visible (e.g., laser) or invisible (e.g., radio). However, with the discovery of how to detect and study exoplanets, the search was able to broaden its horizon to include the chemical fingerprints of life and technology, bio- and technosignatures. These latter include, for example, the specific light reflected from solar panels, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, “highly versatile compounds that are used as solvents, refrigerants, foaming agents and aerosol propellants”), or “nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of combustion or high-temperature manufacturing,” namely, the kinds of technosignatures human activity leaves in earth’s atmosphere. However, as Powell remarks “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all.” The search for technosignatures, therefore, expands to include “mechanical technosignatures”, such as a Dyson Sphere, or the kinds of artifacts The Galileo Project is on the hunt for.

There is an irony, however, in, on the one hand, admitting that “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all” and, on the other, the tellingly offhand comparison Powell makes discussing technosignatures:

We spew pollutants, belch factory heat during the day, and light up our cities at night. We can’t help it, any more than bacteria can help emitting methane. By extension, any advanced aliens could be expected to visibly alter their planet as an inevitable byproduct of creating a manufactured, industrial civilization.

Powell’s comparison levels the difference between the waste products of an organism’s metabolism and those of social, techno-industrial processes, human or alien, whose societies are thereby (if not therefore) imagined (if not thought) to be organisms writ large. Powell’s rhetoric here (con)fuses the natural and the social, natural history and history proper (Adorno’s critique of the distinction notwithstanding).

Powell’s rhetoric is part-and-parcel with that thinking that governs SETI in general and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs, the (Platonic) idea that life is not shaped only by biology but by some teleology that launches it on a vector to develop the kind of intelligence homo sapiens imagines it possesses, which, in turn, necessarily expresses itself as tool-use and technological development along the lines laid out by “First World” historians (who imagine that the world’s present-day “advanced” societies represent a goal or end of history…). Astrobiologist Jason Wright et al. keep strange company when they imagine alien technology millions or billions of years old (and presumably as much in advance of our own); Maitreya Raël tells us, too, that his Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us….

More gravely is how this confusion of natural history and history proper evacuates the possibility of even thinking of self-directed social change (societies are ultimately as mindlessly instinctual as colonies of bacteria) and thereby serves a politically “conservative”, reactionary function. David Wengrow makes a not unrelated point with regard to how reigning, inherited narratives of cultural development work as myths (there’s that word again) to drain away the potential for even imagining alternate futures or change. Wengrow rehearses this restraining view of human history as follows:

We could live in societies of equals, this story goes, when we were few, our lives and needs simple. In this view, small means egalitarian, in balance with each other and with nature. Big means complex, which involves hierarchy, exploitation and the competitive extraction of the Earth’s resources. Now, as the human population approaches eight billion, we are left to draw the obvious dismal conclusions. There is no sense fighting the inevitable. Between entrenched neoliberalism and the pressures of our grow-or-die economy, what hope do we really have of making progress? [my emphasis]

Or, as Fredric Jameson so memorably put it: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Happily, as Wengrow points out and explains “nothing about this familiar conception of human history is actually true.”

The myth that possesses the imagination of believers in or speculators about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations is as scientifically and philosophically problematic as it is socially consequential. On the one hand, we don’t even know how life appeared on earth, but what we do know, however, is that its evolution has been a precarious, chance-ridden, unpredictable process. On the other, the story of human culture and society is even more aleatoric and varied, underwritten by what Wengrow terms “the spark of political creativity” or philosophers, more generally, “freedom”. Accounts of life, “intelligence”, “development”, or “progress” that merely posit the (self-serving) self-understanding of one culture on earth as the outcome of some natural, necessary, universal process serve to only reify, naturalize and entrench, the social relations of that culture, now at a moment when its unnaturalness, borne out by the daily mounting evidence of its unsustainability (to put it in the most “objective” terms), is most in need of unmasking.

Sightings: Sunday 4 July 2021: The Great Divide, the Climate Emergency, and UFOs/UAP

One fairly consistent observation among American UFO people in the frothing wake of media attention to the recently released Preliminary Assessment on UAP is how the topic is now not only taken relatively seriously but how this interest is shared across the Great Divide in American politics and culture (Republican vs. Democrat, Conservative vs. Liberal), both among politicians (e.g., Marco Rubio (R) and Harry Reid (D)) and television networks (Fox and CNN). Now, Marik von Rennenkampff, an opinion columnist for The Hill, proposes an even stronger possible role for the topic in his piece How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation.

Von Rennenkampff argues that “the UFO mystery could ultimately transcend the deep polarization of the post-Trump era,” regardless of what Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) ultimately turn out to be. On one reading, the Preliminary Assessment leaves it open that, as President Trump’s final director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe claims, “there are technologies that we don’t have and frankly that we are not capable of defending against” or, that as Chris Mellon, et al. maintain, these technologies may be extraterrestrial. “If Ratcliffe is correct and analysts ruled out mundane explanations or advanced U.S. and adversarial technology, the government’s high-level assessments would fuel a remarkable discussion, drawing in Americans from across the political divide,” thinks von Rennenkampff. Alternatively, “if a thorough investigation, driven by intense bipartisan interest, ultimately determines that balloons, drones, birds or plastic bags explain the most extraordinary UFO encounters, the upshot is that America will [still] be less politically and culturally fractured,” precisely because of “the intense bipartisan interest” this latest iteration of “the UFO mystery” will have inspired.

Von Rennenkampff seems caught up by an enthusiasm for the phenomenon that has clouded his reasoning. On the one hand, one has to wonder how serious the public interest in “the UFO mystery” is. Surely, some believe UAP are “real” as fervently as they do the earth revolves around the sun or the earth is flat, but many, imaginably, even among the roughly half the American public who will say “that UFOs reported by people in the military are likely evidence of intelligent life outside Earth” do so because there is nothing at stake in entertaining the idea. On the other, Rennenkampff is correct to posit that should a large majority of the American populace get taken by the question of the nature of UAP America will be less culturally fractured…on precisely this one point, but it hardly follows that the country will be less politically divided on questions of, e.g., reproductive or labour rights, race relations, gun control, the division of church and state, the environment, taxation, or foreign policy.

At the end of his column, von Rennenkampff writes something that can be read as his dimly realizing the vacuousness of his own thesis: “As large swathes of the country face a drought of ‘biblical proportions’ and all-time temperature records are demolished, an unlikely shot at uncovering ‘breakthrough technology’ is worth eroding the deep fault lines dividing America.” Von Rennenkampff’s very rhetoric undermines his proposal. A drought of “biblical proportions” would, in a country with as many fundamentalist Christians as the U.S., make a profound, urgent impression on just that populace keyed to perceive it, a demographic more likely to respond to such a sign from heaven than lights in the sky. Furthermore, to “erode” a fault line would be to deepen it, unless the author has in mind some biblical deluge that would wash away the earth on either side. His very language testifies against the spuriousness of what he intends.

Moreover, the contrast between the gravity of undeniable, sustained drought and killer heat and the flight of fancy of that “unlikely shot” is stunning. Von Rennenkampff’s wager seems to be that UAP are “real”, that they represent either an earthly or unearthly “breakthrough technology” (at least aeronautically), a technology that can be harnessed to practically address the climate emergency, and that the public might be tricked into uniting to tackle this undeniable existential threat by the fascinating lure of a seemingly mysterious technology (ours or theirs or theirs) when it fails to acknowledge what in fact is right in front of its eyes wreaking death and havoc. And if he and we lose this wager, and “a thorough investigation, driven by intense bipartisan interest, ultimately determines that balloons, drones, birds or plastic bags explain the most extraordinary UFO encounters,” what then?

The bitter irony is that Americans are unable to come together in the face of a relatively concrete public health emergency, to agree on and follow the public health measures, e.g., masking and vaccination, to bring the present pandemic under control, much less to come to terms with the reality posed by drought, dangerously high temperatures, and increasingly powerful and destructive tropical storms and hurricanes. If Americans can’t unite in the face of such immediate, dire threats, the political potential of UAP is a will o’ the wisp.

In a not unrelated vein, some readers of last week’s Sightings may have been mystified or miffed by my linking and referring to a leaked draft of the latest IPCC report in the context of and in contrast to the big ufological news of that week, the release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP. The comments on a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, “Canada is a warning: more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans”, however, included some very telling and pertinent remarks that are more assured of the assessment’s implications: “We now know that humans or non-humans have objects that can move around at very high speeds without giving off a significant heat signature”, and

The US govt just confirmed the existence of UFOs. They are either human or non-human (i.e., not swamp gas, ‘system errors’ etc). These UFOs move in ways that defy currently known technology…. ‘States and businesses’ could get on with researching this now known direction of technological travel,

and most tellingly, in light of the “recent UFO disclosure…We now know for sure the technology exists [to mitigate green house gas emissions]—time to see what it can do and how it might reduce the environmental footprint of humanity”.

Here is a demographic convinced that humankind has either developed or encountered “a breakthrough technology” adaptable to solving its energy and environmental challenges. But its seeing this technology as a way to solving the climate emergency is as muddle-headed as von Rennenkampff’s wager. If the technology is nonhuman, then the possibilities of our exploiting it for our own ends are vanishingly small (the claims of Michael Salla and Steven Greer notwithstanding); if the technology is human (which the Assessment is far from affirming), it doesn’t follow it is even applicable or scalable to solving global warming. Both fanciful hopes are akin to the more mundane if speculative technofixes proposed by geoengineers: they all fixate on development’s solving the problems that attend development when the painful truth of the matter is that we already possess immediately deployable ways to reduce both green house gas emission and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (e.g., the hundred plus solutions set out by Project Drawdown) whose primary obstacle to being implemented is political, namely those parties with vested interests in maintaining an ecocidal status quo from which they profit (and who are among the first to promote technofixes that leave social relations favourable to their flourishing untouched): they are, in a word, ideological.

What’s remarkable about these two instances of “the UFO imaginary” is how their intended touching down on real world concerns is in actuality a flight into fantasy. The overwhelming, seeming intractability of urgent, real world problems makes some of us, understandably, avert our gaze heavenward, seeking answers that cost us nothing to these problems that seem to threaten everything.

Sightings: Monday 24 May 2021: Polarized Politics, Propaganda, and Post-Truth Populism

Sometimes bits of ufological and related news catch my attention. Either due to my time/energy or interests, these may not be provocative enough to inspire a whole post, so, on such occasions, under the category “Sightings”, I at least try to leave some trace of the thoughts these ephemera did in fact prompt. This week, there are three…

“…the issue is entirely political…”

That the topic of UFOs (UAP) is charged is surely an understatement. As an element of Twentieth and Twenty-first Century world culture, the UFO hovers over fields from science to religion, national security to science fiction, and even politics, in various senses both popular and more philosophical, gets caught up and drawn into its vortex.

Amid the increasingly bigger media splash UFOs are making since the breakout New York Times articles is the appearance of the topic on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time, where Sean Cahil and Christopher Mellon as well as Mick West were recently interviewed. Apart from the question of just what the videos in question actually show, that the so-called “mainstream media” is covering UAP (UFOs) prompted the following comment on a Facebook group I belong to: “this is no longer a scientific issue. Now that 60 Minutes has made UFOs mainstream the issue is entirely political. Already we have the left wing CNN vs. the right wing FOX News. Now Chris Cuomo vs. Tucker Carlson,” an angle on the politics of American media shared by Robert Sheaffer: “On the right, we have Tucker Carlson on Fox News, and the New York Post. On the left, we have the Washington Post and The New York Times.” (Though I’m unsure just how, e.g., Cuomo’s and Carlson’s views on the matter significantly differ …).

The commenter’s take is backed up by a relatively recent Gallup poll conducted in the first half of August 2019. published just this month (May 2021): “Which comes closer to your view: some UFOs have been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies, or all UFO sightings can be explained by human activity on Earth or natural phenomenon?” Again, apart from the unremarkable (if not problematic) question itself, what’s curious is the very first remark concerning the poll’s findings: “This is one topic on which Republicans and Democrats agree: 30% of the former and 32% of the latter describe UFOs as alien spacecraft from other planets. Belief is a bit higher among political independents, at 38%.”

That a topic, however “popular”, such as UFOs should get caught up in the cultural polarization that characterizes U.S. society presently in a social media comment is not too surprising, but when the question of an individual’s identifying as “Republican” or “Democrat” becomes a default question for, in this case, a Gallup poll, “politics” becomes an sign of a more grave, social malady. (With regard to the question of what someone believes about UFOs, why should party allegiance trump, e.g., education, religion, race, or income?). Clearly, UFOs are not political—a matter of social consequence—the way that gun, abortion, or voting rights are; it’s just that, in American media, any topic that catches its attention is immediately parsed in this all-too-familiar, polarized fashion.

There are, however, more profound senses in which the UFO is political, or, more properly, can be understood politically, i.e. ideologically. On the one hand, one can speak of Left or Right “ideologies”, the explicit set of beliefs and values adhered to by a group, the “everyday” (popular, vulgar) sense of the term. ‘Ideology’, however, denotes more usefully precisely those beliefs about society and its values that are unspoken and often shared across the (vulgar) political spectrum, assumptions that demarcate and maintain that social context within which differences, such as those between American Republicans and Democrats, play out…

On the one hand, Trotskyist Posadists and paranoid, right-wing reactionaries, such as Bill Cooper, both believe that UFOs are spaceships from a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial civilization, but their (vulgar) ideological differences obscure the radically ideological content of the belief that UFOs are advanced, unearthly technology. The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis as such is ideological. As I formulated this thesis most recently:

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.

Something’s going on, but we don’t know what it is…

The recent media attention being paid to UAP focusses on videos and photographs all leaked from the U.S. Navy, whether 2015’s “Gimbal” and “Go Fast” videos, 2004’s “FLIR1” or “Tic Tac” video, the more recent “Pyramid” footage, or the “Metal Blimp w/ payload”, “Sphere”, and “Acorn” photographs (the featured image for this post, above) or now a video of a USO or “transmedium” vehicle from the USS Omaha. All these are problematic in two, provocative ways. First, none, on close examination, very persuasively show anything unusual let alone unearthly. The three photographs arguably picture party balloons (the Metal Blimp, a shark, and the Acorn, a Batman balloon) or something just out of focus (the Sphere). The Pyramid appears to be nothing more than a camera artifact. And the Gimbal, Go Fast, Tic Tac, and USS Omaha videos have their proposed mundane explanations, too. More troubling is how this video/photographic evidence is simultaneously officially stamped as “authentic” (taken by military personnel) but their provenance remains in the dark. So, many have posed the question as to why such unimpressive, officially-sanctioned “evidence” is being released, disseminated, and spun the way it is (among them, most recently, Andrew Follett).

From the first ripples of this splash (that gave us History’s Unidentified) to the present waves (or foam) of interest and commentary, the purported Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) have been presented as potential threats. Setting aside the proposals of Steven Greer and Michael Salla (…), that this spin is part of the preparation for a false flag alien invasion, others propose that the threat narrative is a way for the military industrial complex to secure greater support or funding. But this proposal is unconvincing, given the famously bloated defense budget of the U.S. that withstands every attempt to deflate it even a little. There’s already a Space Force, and, given that the threats posed by Russia, China, and even global warming are all officially acknowledged and monitored, what need would the Pentagon have to resort to such easily-debunked evidence of UAP incursions to make a case for itself? It’s precisely the shoddiness of the proffered “evidence” that seems to persuade only hardcore believers, themselves only a fraction of that roughly a third of Americans who will entertain the idea that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, that gives me pause for thought. Even if these UAP are spun as earthly, foreign aerospace developments (as would seem to be suggested by the news about questionable patents for exotic propulsion systems, also part of the story), already-accepted real-world threats are hardly aggravated by unpersuasive video or photographic evidence, however “official”…

Time will tell, or, as is often the case when it comes to UFOs/UAP, it won’t, creating an abyss for neverending speculation to fill Google’s YouTube servers and swell the bookshelves of UFOphiles…

It’s just so much more complicated…

Finally, first in response to a blog post by Christ Rutkowski, then at the prompting of The Anomalist‘s Bill Murphy, I essayed some thoughts on the causes and character of the kind of thinking that goes into our post-truth iterations of New World Order, etc. conspiracy theorizing. I stand by the genealogy and the psychological and social aspects of the phenomenon I sketch, but, the matter being very complicated, I failed to remark two, essential dimensions. First, the disruption of our sensus communis has been undertaken by agents both domestic and foreign: there would be no “post-truth” crisis were it not for Trump and his ilk echoing, in their own farcical way, the Nazi rhetoric directed against die Lügenpresse and foreign (and now domestic) actors working to misinform and increasingly polarize the citizenry. More profoundly, the advent of digital and social media is overwhelmingly pertinent, both as a general condition governing the dissemination of information, both in terms of its content and velocity, and as the technology weaponized by the aforementioned actors. As well, I assumed anyone interested in the topic would be familiar with the ways that propaganda (from Operation Mockingbird to the Iraqi WMD scandal) and government secrecy (from Watergate to “deep events” such as the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11, among many other instances) had long tilled the soil for the crop we reap today.