What we don’t talk about when we talk about History’s Project Blue Book

As he wraps up his bracingly well-informed commentary on the season finale of History’s Project Blue Book, Kevin Randle remarks the vocal loathing some ufophiles have expressed for the series, confessing that he doesn’t “understand their hostility. Project Blue Book is not a documentary but a drama that has a historical background and a loose, very loose, interpretation of some of the sightings that are found in the Blue Book files.” For my part, I’ve made clear I find the series a lost opportunity, either to accurately represent (if dramatize) the story of Project Bluebook, which if done well would surely be engaging enough (if UFOs have any real and enduring mystery), or to create a radically novel twist on the mythology if not the phenomenon, whose merits could aspire to rank (as the show’s promotional material promises) with those of The X-Files. And, however much, as Randle cannily points out, History’s Project Blue Book is an overt fiction while the mainstay of many UFO websites and YouTube channels is to “put up UFO information that is totally bogus with no disclaimers whatsoever,” there are good grounds to be critical of how the series depicts the phenomenon, which, on closer inspection, entail even more curious and grave implications.

Randle is perhaps a little too sanguine about the solidity of the line that divides fact from fiction. As Robbie Graham and D. W. Pasulka have both recently argued, the fictional, televisual representation of the phenomenon insinuates itself in the memory in such a way that the fictional images replace factual reality. Though I find their arguments less than persuasive, it is the case that for “the general public” whose curiosity is not as invested as that of the researcher’s such a confusion arguably obtains. A mainstay example in discussions about false memories is an experiment

wherein participants viewed an ad for Disney that suggested that they shook hands with an impossible character (e.g., Bugs Bunny). Again, relative to controls, the ad increased confidence that they personally had shaken hands with the impossible character as a child at a Disney resort.

It is precisely through the lack of interest in a subject matter that errors and confusions of this sort filter in. More seriously, though, how events are represented is no small matter for concern. The resistance to the Vietnam War has been attributed in part to how footage of its violence appeared in an unprecedented way on national television. The lesson learned from the influence of this relatively new medium led to such a tightly-controlled, sanitized spin on reporting the First Gulf War that it inspired French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to pen several articles collected in a hyperbolically titled volume The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991). Such anxious considerations are now de rigueur in the age of social media and their volatile, political exploitation.

While Randle is nonplussed over the misrepresentation of the phenomenon, he has expressed in a number of posts reviewing the series, as a veteran and so as someone who knows, his dissatisfaction with how “military customs and courtesies” and procedures are mishandled. What goes unremarked, however, both by Randle and critics of the series, are the intertwined threads of experimentation on military personnel and what Donald Keyhoe called “the flying saucer conspiracy”, official secrecy around and the dispersal of a misinformation screen about the phenomenon. Both themes are arguably more serious in their implications than the question as to whether “the flying saucers are real.”

To take up the latter topic first: it is perhaps sychronicitious that the CIA and the flying saucer both make their respective official appearances in 1947. Since, the American national security state has only grown (some would say “metastasized”). By 1964, Wise and Ross coin the term “the invisible government,” an idea since expanded if not always refined into “the shadow government” and most recently “the deep state.” Parallel to and sometimes twisted into such official state secrecy are accusations of an official cover-up of what military and government officials know to be true about the UFO, beginning with Keyhoe’s books in the 1950s and becoming especially gnarled and knotted in the 1980s and 90s with the appearance of the MJ-12 documents and the confluence of ufology with New World Order conspiracism, most notably in Bill Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse (1991). One might say the relation was made canonical, for the ufophilic at least, by Richard Dolan in his two-volume study UFOs and the National Security State 1941-1973 and 1973-1991, published in 2002 and 2009 respectively, and officially certified with the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure at the National Press Club in April, 2013.

That the conspiracist aspect of the series is passed over in silence in 2019 is itself remarkable. First, this silence is an index of how normalized, how unremarkable, the very idea has become, not only for the ufophilic (long aware of the idea) but for the general public, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and 9/11. Second, the unconscious acceptance of the motif is curious at a time when conspiracism has returned with a vengeance in the form of the Q Anon conspiracy theory. Credence in the “theory” has only grown and spread since its appearance, with vocal supporters making themselves visible at Trump rallies. Others have committed crimes inspired by Q’s “drops.” Since, the theory has infiltrated the EU and is a source of misinformation and weapon for creating dissent in its populist-beset democracies. The series repeats and so reinforces the idea of a not necessarily benevolent “deep state”, echoing sentiments with the potential to inspire grave actions outside its merely dramatic, fictional world

An even graver motif in the series is that concerning human experimentation, for the moment at least, on military personnel. In Episode 4, “Operation Paperclip”, a hapless if resisting test pilot is strapped into the cockpit of a flying saucer prototype developed by Werner von Braun, which promptly disappears, taking the pilot to who-knows-where or when. In Episode 9, “War Games”, soldiers are unknowingly exposed to a chemical agent that causes irrational violence among them, and it is revealed that Generals Valentine and Harding have subjected pilots who’ve encountered Foo Fighters or UFOs to a kind of psychic driving procedure that echoes the infamous MK-Ultra program. This latter episode, especially, echoes the real-world cases where American military personnel have been exposed to chemical agents and psychoactive drugs. The public awareness of such practices underwrote anxieties about Gulf War Syndrome, conspiracy theories about Timothy McVeigh, and a central motif of The X-Files.

Experimentation on unwitting or unwilling human subjects touches on something essential to modernity, the perversion of rationality to identity thinking and instrumental reason. This latter is characteristic of both technology and capitalism, for whom the world is reduced to a warehouse of resources for exploitation and profit. Such a reduction is especially egregious in the case of living systems and organisms. Most immediately, such thinking is an important cause of the environmental crisis. In the case of human beings, if not nonhuman animals, instrumental thinking is essentially immoral, as it treats others as means rather than ends in themselves. When the Hynek and Quinn characters meet von Braun in Episode 4, they do not hesitate to openly express their disgust, an ironic reaction for viewers aware of Nazi human experimentation (among other atrocities, e.g., using the remains of concentration camp victims as raw materials) who can connect these scenes to the motif of human experimentation that has run through the series from almost its beginning if not to the very character of capitalist-technological society at large.

Critics of how History’s Project Blue Book depicts the history of the phenomenon have more warrant for their dissatisfaction than a mere judgement of taste, as its dramatizations potentially become the history of the UFO for the casually (un)concerned viewer and, worse, to my mind, reinforce clichés about the phenomenon that strip it of its real, unnerving mystery and keep it from being taken seriously. More curiously though is the way its reception reveals what its viewers and critics if not society at large take for granted, namely a byzantine, uncontrollable, and potentially malevolent national security apparatus and, worse, a blasé acceptance of the reduction of everything to a means to an end as business as usual.

 

 

 

 

Skunkworks: First Orbit

Skunkworks has been at it a year now.

The initial impulse behind this blog was to keep me honest. I’ve been at work  (mainly on various drawing boards) on a long poem, whose working title is Orthoteny, that aspires to do for the UFO mythology what Ovid’s Metamorphoses did for classical mythology. And though I’ve test-flown various prototypes—poems such as “Flying Saucers”, “Will o’ the Wisp”, “Q’ Reveals the Real Secret Space Program”, and “Magonian Latitudes” and the sequence On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery—the work on Orthoteny had stalled, and when UFO Conjectures publicized my chapbook on the Phantom Airship Mystery, I imagined that developing the work in public would be a way of holding myself accountable.

One way of getting toward the poem is to imagine the countless stories around the UFO as constituting a “modern myth of things seen in the sky” and to read it as such. Many of the posts at Skunkworks have been just that, interpretations of various aspects of the myth as it has been developed since 1947. Complementing this hermeneutic labour has been reading classics of the canon to grasp their respective contributions to the myth and the poetic resonances within and between them.

But flying a parallel path to my poetic endeavors has been a cultural critical approach to the phenomenon. Already in 2000 with my collaborator Susan Palmer I published a study of the Raelian Movement International “Presumed Immanent” that argued that the UFO mythology was intimately bound up with and revelatory of the technoscientific spirit of modernity; that, like a collective dream, it expressed the anxieties and aspirations of the “advanced” societies and, at the same time, provided leverage for an ideological critique of that spirit; that, the UFO, like a funhouse mirror, reflected the truth of modernity back to it, but in a distorted form. Many of the posts here this past year have explored this thesis from various angles and in greater detail.

And despite being avowedly concerned exclusively with the meaning rather than the being, nature or truth of the phenomenon, with what I have called “the UFO Effect”, as any assiduous student of deconstruction will know, such distinctions, by their very separating two fields, unify as much as divide. For this reason, I have, at times, touched on matters more properly ufological, despite always attempting to steer back into the phenomenological lane.

On the immediate horizon is an omnibus review of three books that seek to bring ufology into the Twenty-first century, reviews of two books by religious studies scholars that touch on two different aspects of the phenomenon (one of which is D.W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic), and further entries in the series “Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf”. On the drawing board are more than a dozen other posts-in-the-working on the weaponization of the myth, various aspects of its sociopolitical implications, as well as some others on the peculiar logic of ufology. I hope too to address some English-language poetry about UFOs as a way of mapping what in fact has been accomplished in this direction. And of course given the nature of the phenomenon and the mill of rumour and speculation it drives I’ll be always on the lookout for synchronicitious inspirations for developments unimagined by my present philosophy to address.

To this first year’s readers: thank you for your interest and your occasional interventions. And special gratitude is extended on this occasion to Rich Reynolds for outing my ufological predilections a year ago.

Back to the Skunkworks!

 

Revelation, Enlightenment, and the Flying Saucer

Things at UFO Conjectures have taken a markedly spiritual turn. First, some thoughts on UFOs in the cosmos of Jesuit thinker Teihard de Chardin, then speculations about possible UFO sightings and extraterrestrial encounters in the Koran, and, finally, most interestingly, reflections on the failed promise of the flying saucers:  namely, that they have yet to prove to be spaceships piloted by highly advanced beings with answers to our pressing material, and, most importantly, spiritual questions, e.g., “Why do we exist; what is the meaning of life? Why does evil exist?” etc.

The spiritual significance of the UFO has long been with us and is well-studied (interested parties might consult The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds, ed. Lewis (1995)). The first contactee was arguably Emanuel Swedenborg, whose The Earths In Our Solar System:  Which Are Called Planets, And The Earths In The Starry Heavens, Their Inhabitants And The Spirits And Angels There From Things Heard And Seen (1758) recounts his astral travels and meetings with the inhabitants of other planets. Some of Madame Blavatsky’s Ascended Masters hailed from Venus, the same who met with Guy Ballard beneath Mount Shasta in 1930, one of whom, who called himself Orthon, stepped from a Venusian scout ship in 1952 and shook George Adamski’s hand. Since, numerous New Religious Movements (NRMs) have been founded whose gods are extraterrestrial rather than supernatural (among them, The Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, perhaps most famously the International Raelian Movement or most disturbingly Heaven’s Gate). Nevertheless, these NRMs seem only to pour old wine into new bottles, their gods the old deities in space suits instead of robes, at least as far as their revelatory function goes.

The more secular version of this sentiment is one as complex as it is occluded. In the first place, it blends technological with moral if not spiritual sophistication. Any creature capable of inventing ways to travel to earth from a distant planet (or dimension or time) is thought as having to possess a philosophical knowledge equal to its technical know-how. This technological optimism is offered as grounds for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI):  any more advanced civilization we might contact will have likely encountered and solved the dire threats to the continued existence of our civilization if not species that that technological development itself entailed. The same notion inspires the utopian future depicted in the Star Trek franchise, where technology has solved the problems it led to, science and technology advancing hand in hand with social and moral enlightenment. Just why being “advanced” in this way should also entail an even further philosophical or spiritual enlightenment, one capable of answering “The Big Questions” (Why do we exist? What is the meaning of life? Why does evil exist?, etc.), is an interesting question itself, but what is telling is how it seems to assume a concept of enlightenment that is all encompassing, failing to differentiate between the scientific, moral, philosophical, spiritual, and so on, and, most importantly, harnessing all development in the first place to the technoscientific.

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The history of the past century or so has disabused many of this idea of progress. The carnage of The Great War resulted from the collision of technical ingenuity and industry with quaintly outmoded ideas of how to conduct warfare. The resulting shock was in part expressed by Dadaism, which inferred that if what Progress had led to was the dead end of No Man’s Land, then radically other ways forward had to be found, ways which left behind the “Reason” or rationality that invented the machine-gun and poison gas and the values of the “West” that had inspired millions to march singing patriotic songs to their grisly mutilation and death. Such misgivings were only more gravely deepened by the use of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the revelations of the organized mass murder in Europe that led to the coining of the expression ‘genocide’ and the juridical concept of “crimes against humanity.” In this latter context, two anecdotes illuminate the relation of technology to culture and morality. One famous concentration camp commandant would retire home in the evenings to relish playing Schubert on the piano in the warm bosom of his family, while a German philosopher laconically but not less perceptively summed up the Holocaust as the application of industrial agriculture to mass murder. Even the realms of science fiction and ufology, despite their ideological commitments, betray an awareness of how technological power and morality are uncoupled. The “invasion from Mars” is an old cliché, wherein the ruthless rapaciousness of the extraterrestrial invader is made all the more threatening by its technological superiourity. Likewise, the experiences of alien abductees at the hands (or claws) of their vastly more advanced abductors are famously cruel, both physically and emotionally, lacking empathy and compassion.

In the Conclusion to his Revelations (1991), Jacques Vallée sums up the situation:

…Technology offers us some breakthroughs the best scientists of thirty years ago could not imagine. Better health, plentiful leisure, longer life, more varied pleasures are beckoning.

Yet the hopeful vistas come with a darker, more disquieting side. There is more danger, crime, environmental damage, misery, and hunger around us than ever before. It will take a superhuman effort to reconcile the glittering promises of technology with the utterly disheartening dilemma, the wretched reality, of human despair.

But wait! Perhaps there is such a superhuman agency, a magical and easy solution to our problems:  those unidentified flying objects that people have glimpsed in increasing numbers since World War II may be ready to help…. (254)

Even if UFOs are spaceships from more advanced civilizations, the technical prowess they evidence hardly entails high morality let alone philosophical insight into perennial, metaphysical questions. And even if they descended as teachers, rapt and pious acceptance of their revelations would be a kind of spiritual suicide. For, over against revelation is enlightenment, whose watch word is sapere aude, dare to think…for yourself.