The first main division of my extended report on Limina’s Inaugural Symposium can be read here.
Part II: Engaging with… (i) Greg Eghigian
As remarked above, the symposium opened with a bang, historian Greg Eghigian’s keynote address, “The Flying Saucer Chronicles: Reflections on the History of Our Fascination with UFOs and Alien Contact”. I can’t hope to do justice to Eghigian’s sustantive and eloquent discourse, but I can cobble together some its striking, salient points from my excitedly scribbled notes.
As a historian, Eghegian is concerned not so much with the being or nature of whatever might be said to be the cause of witness reports but the entire Flying Saucer/UFO/UAP phenomenon considered culturally: in his words, society’s “collective response makes up the phenomenon.” From this point of view, a history of the UFO is “the [hi]story of the story of the phenomenon,” the phenomenon, “a mirror to society” (however much it is itself part of that society…). As long recognized, flying saucers appear first in the context of the Cold War, the earliest reports of meeting their pilots relate they had come to warn humankind of the dangers of nuclear energy and atomic war, and, later, anxieties about developments in reproductive technology find expression in the abduction reports of the 1980s, an historical inflection probed in detail in Eghigian’s address.
A contentious if germane consequence of Eghegian’s self-consciously historiographical stance is that the phenomenon begins strictly in 1947 with Kenneth Arnold’s sighting report and the journalistic coinage of ‘flying saucers’. This thesis caused no little chatter in the margins, a running conversation that consistently failed to grasp that understanding is radically temporal, historical. That is, Arnold’s report is a Ground Zero for the phenomenon, whose shock waves extend into the past and future. The flash of interest ignited by Arnold’s report and its journalistic and social echoes illuminates those earlier tales—about Ghost Rockets, Foo Fighters, Phantom Airships, or all that “damned data” recounted by Charles Fort—such that only then in retrospect do they come to be taken up into the phenomenon in general, as part of its [hi]story. This historiographical sophistication of Eghigian’s discourse was refreshing. The implied insight that, as Eghegian put it, experience always falls upon a “never barren imagination” enabled him to nimbly explain and dismantle the on-going facination for “ancient astronauts”.
Not only is the phenomenon historical but it is discursive, textual, so much so, part of its enduring appeal can be interpreted with concepts borrowed from literary criticism, a thesis dear to our hearts here at the Skunkworks. The drama of Disclosure is a melodrama, pitting heroic, selfless truthseekers and -tellers against evil manipulators intent on hiding the Truth, terrible or wonderful as it is. Moreover, its open-endedness gestures to its episodic seriality. Like any beloved television series, it has no preordained series finale, but the latest instalment can always end with the tantalizing words “Stay tuned for the next episode!”.
Finally, the phenomenon has always been political. Not in the facile party-political sense, but in the more radical way its being disputed cuts to the quick of questions of legitimacy, the ways that what counts as knowledge are constructed and defended in society, a topic taken up by Prof. Babette Babich. This is a matter that has been taken up here, too, and, of course, broadened and radicalized in ways passed over, if at least for the moment, by Eghigian’s address.
The next part (ii) of this second main division of my report can be read here.