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.

When Synchronicity Fails

In a recent podcast, Diane W. Pasulka and host Ezra Klein discuss UFOs in the context of both Pasulka’s book American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) and recent developments, mainly the U.S. Navy videos made (more) famous by To The Stars Academy and the History series Unidentified:  Inside America’s UFO Investigation.

Among the many topics they explore are “book events” and the UFO and technology-as-religion. A book event is a synchronicitious discovery of a book that uncannily answers a need or question of the reader; said need can be answered, too, by other artifacts, as well, and even, imaginably, by a person:  one thinks of the proverb, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.”

Around the 1:17 mark, Pasulka begins to expound on how technology might be thought of in religious terms. Her words leave me with the impression that in the research for her book a “book event” that failed to materialize was one that might have presented her with any number of versions of the paper on the Raelian Movement International my collaborator Susan Palmer and I presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Montreal in 1999, published in the journal Nova Religio the following year, then reprinted in the religious studies textbook edited by Diana Tumminia Alien Worlds (2007), and, finally, included in an updated version in Hammer’s and Rothstein’s The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements (2012).

Our paper concludes:

…the advent of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions ushers in today’s dominant discourse and practices within which religions orthodox and otherwise must define themselves. The present stands within the horizon of the death of God, understood as the domination of the assumption of the immanence of the world and the consequent disappearance of the meta-physical, the super-natural, and the supersensuous (at least overtly) or their fall into the merely paranormal. The paranormal or paraphysical is that realm of nature yet to be understood (and so ultimately controlled) by science. This assumption, that science will continue along the path of discovery, knowledge, and power, naturalizes or [reifies] science and technology. When our science and technology poison the biosphere, split the atom to release potentially species-suicidal energies, and manipulate the genetic code of living organisms, humanity has taken upon itself powers and potentialities hitherto exclusively the domain of superhuman deities. That science and technology, whose worldview determines how things are, bring us to an unprecedented impasse demands they must in some way be transcended (i.e., survived). The flying saucer appears within this horizon as a symbol of just such transcendence, promising that precisely the causes of our quandary will be our means of salvation.

Readers of the posts here at Skunkworks will recognize the nascent themes explored in that early paper cultured at this site from the start.

We find it gratifying our insights are making their way into the wider world, by whatever mysterious, obscure channels.

“UFO ‘Cults'”: Seriously? A Public Service Announcement

In various comment threads unwound from postings of M. J. Banias‘ article for Vice, “UFO Conspiracy Theorists Offer ‘Ascension’ From Our Hell World for $333“, I noticed a disturbing trend when it came to the matter of UFO New Religious Movements (NRMs). The only term used to refer to them was “cult”, and the only examples folks seem to have at their finger tips were Heaven’s Gate or the International Raëlian Movement.

As someone who came of age in a Roman Catholic school in the 1970s, “cults” (most notoriously “the Moonies” and sometimes the “Hare Krishna“) “brainwashing“, and “deprogramming” were very much front and centre, especially following the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. Popular thinking seems stalled in this era.

Anyone whose done more than cursory reading on the topic (a good starting point is the locus classicus anthology of scholarly papers, The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds) will quickly understand among UFO NRMs Heaven’s Gate, for example, is an outlier. The most well-known UFO NRMs (the Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, or the Raëlians) are benignly amusing if not uninteresting from a sociological perspective. Indeed, among those who study New Religious Movements, the expression ‘cult’ has been culled as vulgarly dismissive.

Interested (i.e. serious) parties are invited to listen to a recent interview with my friend and collaborator, Dr. Susan J. Palmer, “What’s the difference between a religion and a cult?”. Dr. Palmer is the author and editor of eight books on NRMs, including two book-length studies of UFO NRMs, The Nuwaubian Nation : Black Spirituality and State Control and Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion.

Thank you for your attention.

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.

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.