Piping in on Hanks and Bullard on the Myth and Mystery of UFOs

Micah Hanks talks with Thomas E. Bullard concerning the folklore and reality of the UFO phenomenon. Hanks and, surely, Bullard are two with whom I share much in common on this matter, but there are some directions their conversation takes that give me pause for thought.

Not unsurprisingly, the problem of the relation between a folkloric (or sociological) study of UFO and entity encounter reports and claims concerning their physical reality or nature comes up. I’ve addressed the matter at least twice, here and, at greater length, here. Briefly, the problem Hanks and Bullard address is in the final analysis a methodologically real one. Nevertheless, it is at the same time perfectly legitimate and in fact quite fruitful for scholars such as Bullard to merely hold the question of the physical reality or nature of the phenomenon in abeyance, to merely leave it unasked, so that the meaning of the phenomenon might be examined all the more attentively. Of course, at a point, that plethora of meaning bleeds and pools into ontological questions, as Bullard is the first to admit up front.

But this methodological consideration dovetails into a more troublesome area, that has as much to do with the prejudices of Anglo-American thought as the phenomenon itself. As the research of Bullard and others has been taken to suggest, the UFO phenomenon, or more properly the UFO mythology, considered as a body of stories, because of the parallels it shares with folklore around the world, e.g., those between alien abduction and what Bullard calls “supernatural kidnap”, arguably arises from some “universal framework”. At those words, Hanks immediately brings up Jung’s Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes. Invoking universals and, even more so, universals posited to arise from the age-old, collective experience of homo sapiens, is, to say the least, problematic. The rooting of archetypes in experience betrays a need or drive for reference, as if stories must ultimately spring from what Hanks calls “a physical instigator or agent.” The same thinking applies to discussions of the Vision of Ezekiel:  did he have a spontaneous religious vision, suffer some kind of psychotic break, sight a complex space ship he described the best he could, etc.? What’s passed over is that this vision is presented in a text, however strikingly original, in a recognized genre, i.e., Ezekiel’s vision does not demand any external stimulus, psychological or otherwise, but may just as easily, and more profitably I would argue, be understood as a work of prophetic literature, with no more external, real world reference than Dante’s Commedia.

More gravely is the way that such mythological thinking dissolves what is uniquely modern about the phenomenon as we experience and communicate it now into some vastly more general distillation of species-wide experience, occluding what light the present version of these stories might throw upon our present predicaments. On the one hand, Jung himself navigates the problem by attempting to explain how the anxieties unique and immediate to the postwar world evoke a response from the archetypal tailored to that world. However, on the other, I would offer, given that stories are narrated in languages in the contexts of cultures, what is most informative about the mythology is its pertinence to what is special to our present historical moment not general to the human condition as such.

Bullard himself, at the beginning and end of his conversation with Hanks, makes statements that imply this more historicist approach. Hanks quotes a passage from Bullard’s research into alien abductions, words to the effect that what is important about these stories is not so much their reference to real-world experiences as their “status as narratives.” Then, near the end of their talk (around 01:23) he pleas for an openness to novelty in thinking. I contend that what is most significant about the UFO mythology is its functioning as a manifest content of a kind of collective dream (what Jung termed a “visionary rumour”) that expresses and articulates the anxieties and aspirations unique to (our) modernity.

Nevertheless, at the same time, I’ll be the first to counter that, just as the relation between the meaning and being of UFO reports and other stories are complexly intertwined, in the same way, the mythological and historicist (ideological critical) interpretations of the mythology are both exclusive but no less mutually implicated.

At any rate, not that Hanks or Bullard need any of the infinitesimally small promotion Skunkworks might offer, I urge parties interested in their approach to the topic to listen in and let their own thoughts pipe in. Bullard begins speaking around the 00:48′ mark.

The Oceans, Anthills, and Elf Churches

Again, the staff here at Skunkworks has received its writing assignment from the Office of Synchronicities.

In an article about the contributions of larvaceans to filtering carbon and plastic from the oceans, Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, makes an offhand observation :

“If an alien civilization from some other solar system were to send an expedition to Earth to look at the dominant life forms on this planet, they wouldn’t be up here walking around with us. They’d be exploring the deep ocean.”

Why would these aliens focus their attention on the deep oceans? Because, as the same article reminds us, “scientists estimate that more than 99 percent of the planet’s biosphere resides” there.

The same day (9 June 2020), Chris Savia at The Anomalist linked to an at-the-time unpublished article “‘First in, last out’ solution to the Fermi Paradox” by Alexander Berezin. Berezin’s states his thesis as follows:

“First in, last out” solution to the Fermi Paradox:  what if the first life that reaches interstellar travel capability necessarily eradicates all competition to fuel its own expansion?

I am not suggesting that a highly developed civilization would consciously wipe out other lifeforms. Most likely, they simply won’t notice, the same way a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate because they lack incentive to protect it….

Berezin’s argument is both sophisticated and nuanced (and couched in some assumptions that would normally call for closer scrutiny, here); nevertheless, Berezin and Robison make a similar point. Unlike the science fiction worlds of the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises (and, n.b., no less so in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Carl Sagan’s novel Contact) or the fantastical imaginings of those who believe earth is being visited by dozens of extraterrestrial civilizations, they posit that homo sapiens would not be immediately recognized as “the dominant life form” or, more substantially, the significantly analogous Other of extraterrestrial explorers. Ironically, it is precisely the Star Trek franchise itself that recognized this problem, in the motion picture Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, where the aliens are cetaceans, utterly oblivious to the human population on earth and its civilization their activities threaten.

Berezin’s comparing such inadvertent destructiveness to how “a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate” is telling, as it dovetails from speculation about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to huldufolk, Real Politik and ufonauts. Famously, in some places on earth, such as Iceland, precisely such construction projects are halted because they threaten not the habitat of an endangered species, but the abode of a non-human if anthropomorphic Other with which we share this planet, as was the case just outside of Reykjavík in 2013.

rockgreen

Perhaps most famously the relation between the Little People and ufonauts was brought forward by Jacques Vallee in his (in some circles) classic Passport to Magonia. This identification is brought home all the more forcefully in a 1970 close encounter report from Finland, raised for renewed scrutiny just yesterday at UFO Conjectures. The two witnesses report encountering a small humanoid being descended from a classic flying saucer, which one illustrator depicts thusly:Imj9

A diminutive man, complete with pointy hat and funny nose. That the illustrator is Finnish (doubtless raised on tales of Finland’s own Fae Folk) likely influences his sketch, but the likeness of ufonauts to Little People is famously not restricted to this one, exemplary case.

As I have argued ad nauseum here, the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, that UFOs are spaceships piloted by extraterrestrial beings, is risibly anthropocentric, not least in its assumption of the immediate, mutual recognition of “intelligence” between ourselves and extraterrestrials, whether piloting flying saucers or signalling by some means from their own far-distant planet. Robison and Berezin both call this assumption into question forcefully.

At the same time, Berezin’s fateful example (of the construction crew and the anthill) also invokes both how humankind runs roughshod over nonhuman life and how such behaviour is called into question and curtailed by a respect if not reverence for nonhuman life when it is humanoid. This traditional (if unconscious) reverence finds its ufological expression in the admonitions concerning nuclear weapons and energy received by the early Contactees in the 1950s and the no-less apocalyptic visions of environmental catastrophe often shown to abductees some decades later. That the appearance of flying saucers as such, as circular signs in the heavens, was a compensatory psychological response to a planet divided during the Cold War was famously set forth by Carl Jung in the earliest years of the modern ufological era.

All this is to say that both the points of view of Robison and Berezin that decentre the human being and the reports of ufonauts and Little People that centre the humanoid both critique, each in their own way, that anthropocentric hubris that grasps all other beings (and other human beings, too) as raw material, as means to ends, as being, ironically, of no account. The former places homo sapiens among all the other species of life of which it is a part, not apart from, while the latter puts a human mask on the nonhuman, again, to put homo sapiens in its place, to better secure a livable home.

This line of argument finds its limit, however, in the cultures of Turtle Island. Generally, these non-European societies both perceived nonhuman creatures and even geographical features, such as mountains, lakes, and rivers, as “people” in their own right, while at the same time telling stories of diminutive Little People and Star People. This ethnological fact is cause to open another research department at the Skunkworks….

“UFO-themed poetry”: seriously

Over at Mysterious Universe, Nick Redfern essays a topic dear to Skunkworks (being the site’s raison d’être), UFO poetry. However, despite accessing Poets.org’s page devoted to the topic, he somehow gets sidetracked by Jack Spicer’s joking about how “Martians” dictated his poetry, passes over the poems actually linked, and somehow, like Curt Collins at The Saucers that Time Forgot, serves up laughable doggerel instead of the more, well, serious examples, both at Poets.org (which include American poetry eminences, such as Stanley Kunitz) and like those few I remark here.

Even searching the Poetry Foundation‘s website with the keyword ‘aliens’ turns up a number of poems, some dealing overtly with aliens (one by Bob Perelman, a widely-recognized postmodern American poet) and abduction. More meaty is the link to an article on the British “Martian poets”, a school that explicitly deployed the point-of-view of the alien to reveal just how strange modern life is.

nwgs

Not unlike his British counterparts, the late Missouri poet David Clewell probed well-known ufological topics, flying-saucers-as-such, Roswell, the Schirmer Encounter, and the Face on Mars. Clewell’s UFO poems are part of a more wide-ranging wander through the America of his time and place (Clewell was born in 1955), which includes drive-ins, B-movies, Cold War paranoia, and the Kennedy assassination, among more mundane matters.

Unsurprisingly, Roswell has been the focus of at least two poetry books. Rene Arroyo’s 2008 The Roswell Poems was the first to my knowledge to focus on this now-iconic incident; and I just found out about Judith Roitman’s 2018 Roswell doing my due diligence for this post.

One book-length poem that should be better known, given its author and thematic breadth and depth is Ernesto Cardenal’s Los Ovnis de Oro / Golden UFOs. Cardenal was a world-class poet, who died only this year; Golden UFOs (subtitled “The Indian Poems”) picks up on the story of the god Ibeorgun who “came in a cloud of gold / now in a flying saucer of gold” and goes on to

interweave myth, legend, history, and contemporary reality to speak to many subjects, including the assaults on the Iroquois Nation, the political and cultural life of ancient Mexico, the Ghost Dance movement, the disappearance of the buffalo, U.S. policy during the Vietnam War, and human rights in Central America.

With Cardenal’s book, the potential of the UFO as myth, as literary topic fit as any for serious, poetic treatment is established beyond a doubt.Finally (though the few examples above are hardly exhaustive) we come to Skunkworks, itself. Skunkworks functions as a kind of notebook, where I essay and develop ideas that contribute to the composition of a book-length poem with the the working title Orthoteny. This poem, parts of which are readable here under the category poetry, seeks to set forth UFO mythology as a mythology (in the words of William Burroughs) “for the Space Age.” In this regard, Orthoteny is more akin to Cardenal’s poems than the doggerel often offered up as examples of “UFO poems” or the single poems or books I describe, above. Just what that mythology is about or what it reveals about human being and the cosmos is discernible in what I’ve been posting here since the beginning. To say too much too quickly, the vast literature of ufology expresses the anxieties and aspirations of our modernity in a surreal manner that opens out onto imaginative spaces apart from and beyond the fetishization of humanity and technology that compose the manifest content of this, the nightmare of our history.

The Mindbending Singularity of the UFO Anomaly

UFO believers and skeptics are both convinced that they know. Believers (extreme examples include devotees of the Sphere Being Alliance, the ECETI Ranch, and all those breathlessly waiting for Disclosure) know that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships piloted by a wide variety of alien races/species with equally various intentions for humankind; they, I would argue, are not skeptical enough. Skeptics, on the other hand, know that UFO sightings and encounters with their putatively extraterrestrial pilots are merely a mishmash of rumour, misperception, and pathology; they, it seems to me, are (for the most part) neither skeptical enough of their own sometimes strenuous explanations nor curious enough about the cultural, social, and psychological implications of the phenomenon in its multifarious guises even if their dismissals are all well-founded. The phenomenon, as is well-known, also exhibits features that elude both the believers’ beliefs and the skeptics’ debunkings. For my part, the UFO phenomenon remains, therefore, a mystery, whether one appends the adjective Fortean to it or not.

As I’ve ventured on a couple of occasions, the UFO is as much an aesthetic object as a possible object for the physical sciences. By “aesthetic object” I do not mean one that is merely or exclusively “beautiful” (though UFOs themselves and related experiences can possess this quality) but that, following Immanuel Kant’s line of thought, the UFO requires we create a concept for it rather than subsuming it under one ready-to-hand (if we could do that it would hardly be the persistent anomaly it has proven to be). It’s precisely this characteristic I want to touch on here, that the conceptual demands the UFO phenomenon places on our attempts to conceptualize it suggest it is at present a kind of epistemic singularity.

Just as a gravitational singularity (a black hole) suspends the normal laws of spacetime, the UFO warps our thinking about it. The irrationality displayed by both believers and skeptics is a case in point. But even those who have attempted to grapple with the mystery with method, reason, imagination, or speculation find their investigations quickly complicated if not frustrated by the equally wily and protean evasiveness of the phenomenon, aptly characterized with reference to the Trickster of various folklores. Paradoxically (go figger) this denial of understanding and comprehension is at the same time an open invitation to imagine and think in a non-linear, alogical way, “outside the box” of the rules of method, with an impish playfulness of mind equal to that displayed by the phenomenon itself. From this perspective, two, more “out-of-this-world” (how apt) speculations take on a certain appeal.

Since the dawn of the modern era, Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting, analogues between the UFO and more mythic or religious manifestations have been noted. Adamski’s circle identified the flying discs of the time, inspired by their Theosophically-tinged grasp of Hindu and Vendantic lore, as vimanas, the aerial chariots of the gods of ancient India. More recently, similarities between alien abductions and shamanic initiation and practice have been noted. Even more recently, psychonauts for whom dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has been the preferred vehicle for exploring what appear as 3.-Mantis-280x420alternate dimensions have reported encounters with beings markedly similar to entities associated with UFOs and alien abductions. In an attempt to probe this experience more thoroughly, Dr Andrew Gallimore is attempting to develop the means to allow psychonautical explorers to reside in these unusual realms longer than the relatively more transient states of DMT intoxication afforded by smoking it or even drinking ayahuasca, by means of medical technology. Such efforts put the mainstream Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the so-called Secret Space Program in a new light!

No less imaginative is the hypothesis of Trevor James Constable , that UFOs are in fact plasmatic life forms native to earth’s atmosphere. What makes Constable’s theory all the more provocative is how it is couched in Wilhelm Reich’s orgone theory and as of 2003 given more mainstream as well as fringe scientific support. Mircea Sanduloviciu and his colleagues at Cuza University in Romania have created plasma phenomena that can grow, replicate, and communicate just like living cells, while Nik Hayes and Leon Southgate have managed to photograph Constable’s orgonotic bio-forms. Just as psychonautical exploration expands our notions of reality, so the investigations of Constable et al. widen our ideas of what might constitute life on (and off) earth.

AFRA09

Such wild research suggests another feature of the phenomenon closer to the heart of the mythopoeic work undertaken here in the Skunkworks:  it inspires equally a rational, scientific and poetic response. That is, just as some ufologists tackle the enigma with forensic and natural scientific methods, its irrational dimension demands a playfulness of mind no less nimble and agile. To paraphrase the idea of Aimé Michel quoted above, the phenomenon puts into question both the laws of our physics and the structure of our societies. In line with Claude Lévi-Strauss‘ argument (in his four-volume Mythologiques) that mythological thinking is no less rigorous or practical than that of our natural sciences, the phenomenon inspires a response from the whole of the human being, as if as a kind of “compensatory mechanism” (Jung) it seeks to balance the deepening perversity of our present technocapitalistic moment and the ecological crises that it engenders. To heal is to make whole, and the spiritual stresses the black (rabbit) hole of the UFO phenomenon places on human understanding might play just that role.

More from Orthoteny (w.i.p.): Magonian Latitudes

Last week, I shared one section from a long poem, “Magonian Latitudes” (from my second trade edition, Ladonian Magnitudes), that rimes with another section from my treatment of the Phantom Airship Mystery of 1896/7.

Here, I share the entirety of the poetic sequence, an attempt to wind together the notion of the myth-as-myth and allusions to ancient (and medieval) aliens. It has six sections, the beginning of each indicated by the bolded, upper-case first letter of the section’s first line.

Poetically, this sketch for a part of Orthoteny (my work-in-progress dealing with the myth of things seen in the sky in its totality as explored here at Skunkworks) draws on a catholic sampling of the poetics of international, Twentieth-century poetry. It ain’t no doggerel!

Magonian Latitudes

…there is a certain region, which they call Magonia, whence ships sail in the clouds…

 

A change of dimension

            not just locale

Like lungs for gills

            or water to air

 

Horses, bison, mammoth, ibex,

            numberless others unheard of

Rendered on cave-walls

            palimpsest thick

Yet on the ceiling alone

            in threes and fours

Flying Saucers hover

            over their occupants

 

The Cabalist Zedechias

            in Pepin’s reign

Sought to convince the world

            Daimonas Sadaim

Neither angelic nor human in kind

            inhabit the Elements

Required the Sylphs show themselves

            in the Air for everyone

Which they did sumptuously

            in the Air in human form

In battle array marching in good order

            halting under arms or magnificent tents

Or the full sails of ships

            riding clouds

 

When winds rose and blew

            black clouds overhead

The peasants ran to the fields

            to lift tall poles

To stay the ships

            from carrying off

What rain or hail

            culled from the crops

Called up by a tempestaire

            for a tithe

Which practice persisted despite

            the Capitularies of Charlemagne

 

The Sylphs saw alarm

            from peasant to crown

Determined to dissipate their terror

            by carrying off men

To show them their women

            and republic

Then set them down

            again on earth

Those who saw these as they descended

            came from every direction

Carried away by the frenzy

            hurried off to torture

Over all the lands countless tested

            by fire or water

 

A marvel in Cloera County

            interrupted Sunday Mass

It befell an anchor on a rope

            caught in Saint Kinarus’ door-arch

Where the line ended in clouds

            the congregation saw some kind of ship

One crewman dove and swam down

            as if to free the flukes from the keystone

But they seized and would hold him

            but that the Bishop

On grounds terrestrial air

            may well drown one celestial

Forbade it

            and freed

Quick as limbs can swim he rose

            to hands on ropes and ladders

The anchor rang and cut

            the line coiled down about them

 

The cave is a long way in from the mouth open to the sky

Generations there stare straight ahead on haunches

Higher up behind a fire burns

A wall before those hurrying past between

Both ways up and down the track there

Their burdens their shadows

 

One over her share

            the water over the earth

The other in the firmament

            the water over the earth

The air a mirror

Whose face is an ocean

            waves electro-magnetic

There they stare dreaming

A quiet blue eye flickers

“What IS that?!”–Notes on perceiving the anomalous

Sequoyah Kennedy over at Mysterious Universe brings to our attention a sighting of a “dancing fireball” over Northhampton, England. Aside from the startling strangeness of the sighting itself, the reaction of one witness, Luke Pawsey, 20, is no less thought-provoking:

I genuinely believe there’s extraterrestrial life out there but we’re just not aware of it or we’re too naive to think there isn’t anything out there. I think it’s an unidentified flying object (UFO) but when people imagine that they think of a spaceship which I don’t think it was. But how do we know what’s out there, especially if it doesn’t exist to us? It could be aliens but I don’t want to say for certain as I don’t know.

Pawsey is clear-headed enough not to identify “UFO” with “alien spaceship”, but it’s telling the way his quoted words here leap immediately to that all-too-common reflexive theory and orbit the constellation of related ideas:  “extraterrestrial life”, “UFO”, “spaceship”, and “aliens”.

Had this fireball been witnessed in 1019 rather than 2019, a chronicler of the time might have recorded it as a dragon or sign from heaven, as either a natural or supernatural occurrence, rather than extraterrestrial or unknown. This speculation prompts at least two questions:  first, why doesn’t the modern witness imagine he has seen, say, some natural, albeit strange, phenomenon, or something man-made, such as some unusual fireworks, and, second, if the category “unknown” was even available to our imagined, medieval scribe, given the closed world he lived in, in contrast to the one opened to scientific investigation by the withdrawal or death of God (here, the theological interpretation of the world). (Curious, how a world with little knowledge of nature might at the same time also lack the unknown, while one in which such knowledge becomes possible and actual simultaneously allows the admission of ignorance).  Also significant is how both posit a potentially extramundane origin, but, for the premodern, “out-of-this-world” means outside of nature, time and space, whereas for the modern it means within the cosmos, from however exotic a locale (e.g., another dimension). At any rate, what is true for both is that the witness to an anomalous experience seeks to make sense of it in the first instance according to an existing set of categories, a set that varies over time and place.

Frederic_Church_Meteor_of_1860

If the Northhamptom fireball had not behaved in so puzzling a way, but had traced a more-or-less straight, regular vector, an astronomer, for example, would have readily identified it as a meteor. The difference between the astronomer’s perception and the mystified one of Pawsey and our fictional scribe can be illuminated by a rough-and-ready reference to a distinction made by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He distinguishes between two kinds of “judgement” (Urteilen, in German), two ways the subject and predicate of a thought or statement might be joined (e.g., “The fireball [subject] is luminous [predicate]”). A determinative judgement brings a particular intuition (e.g., the luminous body depicted above) under a general rule (the features of a meteor), while a reflective judgement, lacking a general rule for a particular intuition (e.g., the unusual fireball seen by Pawsey), needs to either discover, find or invent, a general rule. The mystified reaction to an anomalous experience is in a sense the bewilderment brought about by the lack of concept that would categorize the experience or otherwise make sense of it, which inspires the imagination’s excited search over a chain of possibilities:  “What is that? This or this or this or this…?”

This approximate application of Kant’s distinction is not especially illuminating, as far as it goes, until we introduce what motivates it. Kant brings the notion of the reflective judgement to bear (in a much more nuanced and complex way than I do here) in his Critique of Judgement, his discussion of the perception of the beautiful in art and nature. Neither the work of art, the sublime landscape, or even an organism in its purposiveness (the way it seems designed for its place in nature) are objects of knowledge the way the instantiation of a natural law is (the subject of a determinative judgement), rather each needs be grasped in their respective singularity. The work of art’s demanding an active engagement for its understanding and appreciation (especially since the advent of artistic Modernism in more or less the Nineteenth century), that we discover, find or invent new concepts proper to it, gives art the purchase to reconfigure or re-articulate the concepts we use to understand the world in general, whereby art can be said to provide a kind of knowledge or truth, reminding us that seeing as is at least as important as the is of identification of the sciences, if not at its foundation. The implication for anomalous experience is obvious:  like the work of art the anomalous experience demands at least a reconfiguration of existing knowledge if not the development of new concepts and hypotheses.

Admittedly, not much has been said here that would essentially differentiate Pawsey’s experience from that of the first European to encounter a platypus. In both cases, something that fails to fit our existing scheme of things demands that scheme be revised, expanded and rearticulated. Kant develops the notion of the reflective judgement not only to make sense of the beautiful but of induction, too. It thus has a function both in our knowledge of nature (where it leads to determinative judgements) and culture, which argues for the thesis that the anomalous UFO phenomenon, specifically and especially, be tackled not only as a challenge to (natural) science or to the social sciences (what the French term les sciences humaines et sociales) but both. That is, it is both a potential object of knowledge and understanding and that the collaboration if not synthesis of what we might term the Symbolic orders of the natural and human sciences is demanded of the phenomenon itself. That is, a key to understanding the UFO phenomenon might be to approach it as much as an aesthetic object as an object to be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method.

We have arrived, therefore, at the same point, though via a different route, as my reflections about the implications of thinking the UFO as “postmodern”. The proposal that the UFO phenomenon in general might usefully be approached in a radically interdisciplinary manner dovetails into more-or-less explicit positions taken in the 2003 paper co-authored between Jacques Vallée and Eric Davis “Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”. There Vallée and Davis call for both physics, experimental and theoretical, and semiotics to be be brought to bear on the manifold strangeness of the phenomenon. An implication of Vallée’s repeated idea that the phenomenon of the UFO and related entities is in a sense staged to achieve a subliminal, long-term cultural change is that it need be analyzed semiotically, i.e., with a view to grasping it in the first place as a system of meanings, with a syntax and lexicon, i.e., following that pioneer of semiology, Roland Barthes, as a “mythology”.

An Important Consequence of the “Postmodern” Reality of the UFO

[“Trigger Warning”:  I explore here one implication of the reality, Reality, hyperreality, and hyporeality of the UFO phenomenon sketched here. I refer to this reality of the UFO as “postmodern”, because the discussion takes its initial impulse and orientation from the notion of hyperreality, first developed by that premiere postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Readers triggered by the expression “postmodern” are urged to read the initial post linked above, before going off half-cocked, like a Jordan-Peterson-with-his-head-cut-off…]

In his discussion of 9/11 and related matters, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Žižek characteristically unfolds one dialectical implication of the attack. On one hand, it represents an intrusion of “the Real” into “everyday social reality”:  the shock of the Event reorients and reconfigures the settled world we thought we knew and assumed to be fundamentally unchanging. In this assumed stability, “average everydayness” represents a kind of spontaneous, perennial “End of History“. However, on the other, despite all the very real destruction and death (which continues to this day in the various health problems suffered by first responders and others), the perpetrators never believed that felling the Twin Towers or even the Pentagon or White House would bring down America’s economy, military, or government. The attacks were primarily symbolic, intended, in part, to disabuse continental Americans forever of an assumed, invulnerable security, hence comparisons of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. Moreover, for most of the world, the event was purely mediated:  in most minds, the attacks now are, in a sense, those obsessively repeated images of the planes hitting the towers or their collapse. In the theatricality and profound mediation of the attacks the effect of the Real becomes hyperreal, a representation, a sign, a meaning, endlessly repeated, echoing out into the future (though hardly without its real world effects).

The UFO phenomenon (including entity encounters) is curious, because it arguably inhabits not only the real (as ubiquitous pop culture meme), but the Real (as a startling and disturbing experience that upsets settled, assumed notions of reality), the hyperreal (as an existing representation whereby an anomalous experience is identified and confirmed as a UFO experience), and the hyporeal (the highly strange that simultaneously outstrips and potentially expands the existing hyperreal repertoire of recognizable UFO phenomena). But what’s salient here is how the dialectic between the UFO’s Reality and hyperreality might parallel the dialectic Žižek unfolds with regard to 9/11.

Jacques Vallée has over decades consistently argued that the provocative irrationality of persistent features of the phenomenon mitigates against the theory that we are dealing with visitors, explorers, or invaders from other planets, dimensions, or times. Such high strangeness, more a characteristic feature of the phenomenon than a site of hyporeal difference, is a mark of its Reality, its dramatic demand we reorient or reconfigure the categories by which we make sense of the world in order to integrate and assimilate the phenomenon’s bizarre behaviour. However, it’s precisely how destructive (if not deconstructive) the phenomenon is of our existing worldview in just this way that stages the phenomenon’s theatricality:  the phenomenon is no longer what it appears to be (an alien spaceship surrounded by its crew collecting soil and plant samples, for example) but enacts a meaning beyond itself, i.e., it becomes a sign.

Roland Barthes, in his significantly titled work Mythologies, elucidates just this situation with an example drawn from his “everyday social reality”:

I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stop and think. There is something ambiguous about this statement: on the one hand, the words in it do have a simple meaning: because my name is lion. And on the other hand, the sentence is evidently there in order to signify something else to me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupil in the second form, it tells me clearly: I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. I am even forced to realize that the sentence in no way signifies its meaning to me, that it tries very little to tell me something about the lion and what sort of name he has; its true and fundamental signification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.

In the same way that the significance of the sample Latin clause is not the meaning of its constituent words, so the significance of the UFO phenomenon is not its apparent behaviour but what this behaviour might be understood to point to.

To my knowledge the only time Vallée explicitly refers to the discipline of semiotics is in his 2003 paper co-authored with Eric Davis (“Incommensurability, Orthodoxy and the Physics of High Strangeness:A 6-layer Model for Anomalous Phenomena”). The rigorous implication of Vallée’s longheld thesis concerning the irrational character and behaviour of the phenomenon is that a true understanding is not to be won by the physical sciences but the human sciences, that what is demanded by the phenomenon itself is that it be approached not as an anomalous natural occurrence but a semiotic phenomenon. What is called for, therefore, is not primarily some supplement to or revision of our physics but a semiotics or, following Barthes’ early articulations, a semiology of the UFO mythology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A speculation on the making of a modern myth

Decades before our era of fake news and the bots who disseminate it, I once half-jokingly pitched a book idea to an old English teacher and friend. I imagined writing a tell-all exposé by a creative writer who had been drafted on graduation into a secret government project whose purpose was to produce cultural materials, novels, television and movie scripts, and so forth, with the intent of tweaking and guiding the culture at large. The UFO mythology, of course, played a central role. But recently having had the opportunity to view Corbell’s Bob Lazar:  Area 51 & Flying Saucers, it strikes me I may well have been beaten to the punch.

Corbell’s documentary omits some very telling details of Lazar’s story, but includes one I hadn’t known, that early in his tenure at Area 51, Lazar was shown a number of briefing documents concerning UFOs and their extraterrestrial pilots. To the cognoscenti, Lazar’s experience is not unique:  Bill Cooper and Bob Dean both tell similar stories of being given materials that deal with crashed saucers, recovered and back-engineered technology, and captured and autopsied ETs. What Lazar, Cooper, and Dean claim to have read seems pulled from the same filing cabinet as the MJ-12 documents. If we refuse to take these at face value, then we need to imagine their possible significance and purpose.

There are a number of potential uses. One not too out-of-this-world is as a kind of test. Given that since the postwar advent of the phenomenon roughly half the general population believes that “flying saucers are real”, it follows roughly half of military personnel will hold similar beliefs. Imagine a junior intelligence officer is up for promotion. You present them with materials like those shown to Lazar and ask them to prepare a brief for a superior. A candidate whose critical faculties fail to filter such material as highly questionable if not outright disinformation is surely unreliable. The all-too-credulous might even be tempted to leak the world-shattering information they’ve been shown, and, when they are, understandably, demoted or dismissed, they can point to their discharge as proof of their claims and start a new career as a ufological whistleblower….

An important inspiration for my unwritten novel was the speculations of William Burroughs’ lifelong experiments on how to destabilize and destroy the reigning control system of image and association. Since, I’ve read Frances Stonor Saunders on how during the Cold War the CIA sought to weaponize the arts and learned about the related, farther-reaching Operation Mockingbird. Robbie Graham has explored ways the cinematic presentation of flying saucers and ETs was possibly spun in similar ways. Given the persistence of reports of the kinds of documents Lazar claims to have read, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that some version of the stable of writers I imagined actually exists.

This Gnostic-paranoid speculation concerning the manipulation if not outright fabrication of our collective imaginarium also brings to mind Jacques Vallée’s proposal that the UFO phenomenon itself might operate as a kind of control system, inspiring and guiding belief. If we combine these ideas, a compelling if somewhat giddy vision suggests itself,  that collective consciousness is a battlefield fought over by human and nonhuman players. In this context, the thought, whether Elon Musk’s or Nik Bostrom’s, that we might be living in a computer simulation appears a cheap rip off of The Matrix.

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Weaver Twining Curtain: you can’t make this stuff up

Working on a forthcoming review of David G. Robertson’s UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age (2016), I’m reading Mark Pilkington’s Mirage Men (2010), an important source for Robertson’s history of the phenomenon.

On the pages concerning the Roswell crash, one reads, first, in a passage from the famous FBI memo of 8 July 1947, that:  “Major Curtain further advised that the object found resembles a high altitude weather balloon…” (39).

Pilkington then draws our attention to USAF General Nathan Twining’s memo of 23 September 1947, to the effect that the USAF lacked “physical evidence in the shape of crash recovered exhibits…” (40).

Finally, there’s reference to the USAF’s official version of events The Roswell Report:  Fact Versus Fiction in the New Mexico Desert (1995), whose author is retired USAF Colonel Richard Weaver.

What must strike someone with a literary mind or training is how telling all these names are in the way they evoke textuality (Curtain, Twining, Weaver). One of the delights of reading the UFO myth is just how patterns of this sort present themselves, as if the myth itself were being written in a manner as self-reflexive as Homer’s Iliad or Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Here, the very names wink at us, suggesting an unsettling fabrication of the real itself….

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!