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, pubic 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.