Deep Roots of Post-Truth

When The Anomalist (3 May 2021) was kind enough to share my response to Chris Rutkowski’s “The Metamodern UFO (or UAP) (or USO) (or UAO) (or whatever)“, it hoped I might elucidate that “pressing concern” of post-truth populism that so gets Rutkowski’s goat and poses such a threat to the effective functioning of contemporary society.

Unhappily, I’m hardly sure what therapy to apply to this uneasiness if not “dis-ease” with epistemic authority if not truth itself, though if one googles “how to talk to a conspiracy theorist” one will find some proposals. I have, however, speculated as to the cultural conditions that might be said to underwrite if not cause this latter-day crisis of faith.

As I observed in my reflections prompted by Rutkowski’s complaint, ufologically speaking, the present tension between reason and irrationalism goes back to the mutual disdain between the earliest forensic, scientific ufologists and the Contactees and their followers. Not two years ago, concerning a recent replay of this division, I addressed a question raised by Håkan Blomqvist, “How to introduce esotericism as a profound philosophy and tenable worldview to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?”, in the course of which I sketched out some thoughts on modern-day post-truth populism. What I wrote then still strikes me as not unilluminating. In a word, the condition for the post-truth “metamodernity” Rutkowski so decries is precisely what he terms “modernism”: the more or less contemporaneous advent of the Scientific (and then the Industrial) Revolution, Capitalism, and liberal democracy (as well as the Reformation and Age of so-called Discovery…). As to what is to be done

Two years ago I wrote…underlying these differing approaches to the question of UFO reality is a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation.

A froth on the wave of political populism surging across the planet in recent years is a kind of epistemological populism afloat on the ocean of ready information, fake, partial, and otherwise available on-line. This “populist epistemology” expresses itself, most recently, in the voices of Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers, who find arguments and data in support of their “theories” primarily online. Like believers in alternative cancer cures Big Pharma keeps from the general public to generate profits, these graduates of Google U often cast a paranoid glance at the institutions of power, political, legal, and scientific. Thus, ranked on one side are those “intellectual, cultural and scientific” elites Blomqvist remarks and on the other mostly ordinary folk empowered and emboldened by their sudden access to sources of information they uncritically marshal and seem hardly able to logically deploy.

Ufologically, this conflict between elites (government, military, and scientific institutions) and ordinary citizens is a cliché, a most famous instance of which is the Swamp Gas fiasco when J. Allen Hynek in the employ of the United States Air Force was forced to debunk a remarkable series of sightings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, much to the understandable surprise, disappointment, and disgust of the many witnesses. The haughtiness of such elites goes back to those French scientists who dismissed peasants’ stories of stones falling from the skies (meteorites) up to Stephen Hawking’s statement (@5:00 in his Ted talk on YouTube) that he discounted “reports of UFOs” because the phenomena appeared “only to cranks and weirdos?” Hawking is, of course, mistaken about the social status of UFO witnesses, which famously includes everyone from US Presidents to shipyard workers with the unfortunate surname Hickson.

Thus, throughout the history of UFOs, and forteana in general, one can discern a kind of class struggle between the more-or-less uneducated general populace, whose members see ghosts or are abducted by aliens or faery folk, etc., and those authoritative institutions peopled by educated elites, governmental, scientific, or ecclesiastical, which dismiss the claims and stories of the uninformed and credulous. This conflict, though traceable at least back to the Roman elites’ dismissal of the new, barbaric cult their bored wives indulged, is imaginably not unrelated to more historically-recent developments, namely the Reformation, where the interpretation of the Bible was wrested from the monopoly of a learned priesthood and radically democratized.

Conflict over the reality of the UFO in general, then, is a site of more general social struggle whose deeper historical context is, first, the Reformation, which gave each believer warrant to interpret scripture individually, then the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, that replaced the authority of the church(es) with that of Reason and its new, elite representatives. Today’s vulgate, driven, perhaps, by a well-founded frustration with the impotence of its universal franchise (given a vote but no choice) and the illusion of its freedom (merely to consume), extends its otherwise unrealized democratic claim to the purely ideal realms of truth and knowledge, where the vehemence of its voice and convictions is enough to disperse what verbal tear gas or deflect what truncheons of argument might be deployed by the tribunal of reason to police it.

Facts, Truth, Meaning, and the “Metamodern” UFO

In a recent screed, Chris Rutkowski bemoans the fact that ‘”hard science” ufology has been relegated to the back seat, [replaced by a]…populist ufology [that] almost always has a core of mysticism and “New-Age” beliefs,’ beliefs that include, for example, that “the Galactic Federation [contacts people] personally, ” or that “thoughts can vector incoming spacecraft.”

Rutkowski blames the ascendancy of such irrationality, not only in ufology but in the general culture as well (witness the viral misinformation debunked daily by sites such as Lead Stories or Politifact), on what he terms “metamodernism”, what he describes as a kind of thinking that freely revises and reconfigures material with no regard to the original significance of these materials or their potential contradiction. Aside from the examples he cites (‘a “remix” in current music, “modding” a video game so it plays differently, and a “reboot” of a film’), what he describes also brings to mind the various ways quantum mechanics is brought to bear on matters of spirituality or consciousness. He links such thinking to the following consequence:

Nothing I can say or do can possibly shift you from any of those views or claims, regardless of any evidence that exists to show you are in error (“wrong”) or that your belief is false, even if your own evidence is disputable or comes from doubtful sources or it has alternative possible explanations.

See? Nothing is true, but conversely, nothing is false.

Anyone who’s engaged in even a patient, respectful dialogue with, e.g., an anti-vaxxer friend is likely to recognize what Rutkowski describes. On another hand, the kind of thinking he calls “metamodern” is arguably not as irredeemably irrational as he seems to believe.

Scholar of philosophy and religion, Jeffrey Kripal, addresses precisely that “metamodern” mashup of quantum physics and reflections on consciousness in a recent interview. Referring to a recent debate on the topic between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris, he remarks:

So, first of all, I don’t think Deepak is offering anything particularly dogmatic. I think he’s trying to bring worlds together. And why not? As for Sam’s reply, I think this is how this desperately needed synthesis is resisted, frankly. It’s as if he were saying: ‘Only quantum physicists should talk about quantum mechanics.’ But why? That assumption seems to me to lead to cultural disasters, if not to open cultural schizophrenia. Now, of course, people who are going to talk about the implications of quantum mechanics are going to make mistakes about what quantum mechanics is. That’s OK. So correct them and help them get in on the conversation. But don’t tell us that we can’t have this conversation. We’re made of quantum processes, too, you know. If we can let that conversation happen, I think it will eventually lead to a future answer, or set of answers, and in all kinds of genres, including and especially artistic and science fiction ones. We need a new imagination.

Aside from how high or low one holds Sam Harris or Deepak Chopra, Kripal (a thinker not above criticism, either) is, I think, arguing in favour of a kind of “metamodernism”, a thinking that will bring into conversation discourses hitherto seen as distant if not incompatible. Neither Kripal nor Rutkowski know, I think, that such recombinant, synthetic thinking can claim an older and more respectable ancestry in that foment of reflection, speculation, and creation following in the wake of Kant’s Critical Philosophy, namely Jena Romanticism and German Idealism.

The history of thought that leads from the cultural crisis attending the decline of Renaissance, Classical culture, the advent of the Scientific Revolution, Descartes’ response to these developments, to Kant’s Critical Philosophy is one hard to do justice in a short space. What’s important is that the questions and problems raised by Kant’s attempt to ground knowledge in the wake of the disappearance of a ready-made world reflected in true thoughts and judgements underwritten by a Creator God and in response to Humean skepticism result in an encyclopaedically synthetic thinking that finds its prime example in the German Romantic concept of the novel as the work that contains all genres and seeks to engage if not incorporate the wildly proliferating fields of knowledge being cleared by the nascent sciences. It is the same spirit in a different guise that inspires the various recent attempts at interdisciplinarity in the academy, both rigorous and less so, that are themselves a response to the drawing of rigid, well-guarded, not always purely rational, disciplinary borders (what Kripal calls above “cultural schizophrenia”) within the modern university, an institution invented by German Romanticism out of precisely that drive to inclusivity that underwrites the idea of the Roman (novel) and Novalis’ unfinished Das Allgemeine Brouillon (Notes for a Romantic Encyclopedia). The point is that such thinking, meta-, post-, or just plain modern, need not entail the absolute demise of truth Rutkowski sees in post-truth ufology or society in general, however much it might run the risk of falling into nonsense in its gamble for new insights. The “metamodern” is hardly alone in this regard: not even the natural sciences posit that they are subject to an underlying or overarching unity; a blithe acceptance of ultimate incoherence accompanies the undoubtedly valid successful practice of every science.

Further, ufology, from the start, has been interdisciplinary: “‘hard science’ ufology’ draws on forensics, psychology, physics, meteorology, and a small library of other disciplines. The contemporary study of UFO culture is also undertaken by the human and social sciences, as well, social psychology, religious studies, and philosophy among them. The stubborn recalcitrance of what might be termed “the Hard Problem of UFO reality” has persuaded no few researchers that a more promising line of research lies in opening the problem to modes of inquiry aside from the strictly physical sciences. Here, ironically, the significance of Jung’s Flying-Saucer-as-mandala appears again, the archetype that invokes an encompassing unity of the kind posited by the Romantic novel and housed in the idea of the university.

The attentive reader will have noticed, I wager, that it’s not so much the recombinatory, synthetic character of what Rutkowski calls “metamodern” thinking that necessarily leads to post-truth so much as whatever might underwrite the post-truth mind itself and its departure from the more generally accepted canons of reason and logic. Some few distinctions might lead us to an understanding of the post-truth ufophile. We can distinguish, after a fashion, facts from truth. For example, it may not be a fact that when told the poor had no bread Marie-Antoinette answered, “Let them eat cake!”, but the anecdote no less reveals a truth about the ruling class of the day for all that. We can distinguish, further, between fact, truth, and meaning. Regarding the search for truth, the facts of nature, in his own day, whether philosophical or scientific, the German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel observed, “In truth you would be distressed if the whole world, as you demand, were for once seriously to become completely comprehensible.” Schlegel is very much our contemporary here, for his point is that even if physics attained a final, unified theory and all the sciences arrived at a correct and complete description of how the world is such knowledge would still fail to illuminate the fact that the world is, that is, the question of the meaning of what is would stubbornly remain.

In this light, if we return to Rutkowski’s beef that ‘”hard science” ufology has been relegated to the back seat, [replaced by a]…populist ufology [that] almost always has a core of mysticism and “New-Age” beliefs,’ another dimension of the UFO phenomenon might appear. The “metamodern” “ufologist” is less moved by the factual truth than the meaningful truth of the worldview they conjure in so freeform a way. Indeed, from the very beginning, the UFO has inspired religious sentiments and the kind of thinking Rutkowski so deplores, as any reader of Desmond Leslie’s introduction to George Adamski’s first book will know. Rutkowski’s feelings echo the disdain “serious” investigators of the phenomenon in those early years felt for the Contactees. But scholars of religion and other sociologists will be quick to point out that the Flying Saucer and, later, the UFO have always been a phenomenon of meaning apart from the undetermined facts of their physical reality. That scientific ufologists come to compete with their post-truth counterparts springs from the same fatefully confused cultural context that leads to evolutionary biologists debating believers in Intelligent Design. They may seem to debate a shared matter, but the fact of their stalled, pointless dialogue reveals otherwise.

“I’m not interested in ufos, I’m interested in what’s inside, by the message they gave me” declares a recent meme from the Raelian Movement, quoting its founder. If only those who claim that “the Galactic Federation [contacts people] personally, ” or that “thoughts can vector incoming spacecraft” were as self-aware. I agree with Rutkowski that the post-truth “ufologist” is of another order than the scientific one, that the two simply cannot enter into a mutually informative dialogue, and that any confusion between the former and the latter is lamentable, but so it has always been. What’s important, I think, is how post-truth ufologists embody a more general, no less concerning social development in their adhering to a post-truth irrationality, whose diagnosis and cure are a pressing concern, within and beyond ufology. And that’s a problem that demands a multipronged approach.

Sighting: Sunday 25 April 2021: Justin E. Smith’s “Against Intelligence”

I don’t know how he does it. Philosopher Justin E. Smith, very much my contemporary, and even once a faculty member of my alma mater here in Montreal, not only functions as an academic in a French university, teaching, researching, and writing articles and books, but he maintains a Substack account where he posts juicy essays weekly. With regards just to that writing, he tells us

In case you’re curious, I spend roughly six hours writing each week’s Substack post, taking the better part of each Saturday to do it. This follows a week of reflection, of jotting notes about points I would like to include, and of course it follows many years of reading a million books, allowing them to go to work on me and colonize my inner life nearly totally.

At any rate, his latest offering harmonizes sweetly with our own obsessive critique of anthropocentric conceptions of intelligence. You can read his thoughts on the matter, here.

Sightings: Saturday 8 November 2020

Production continues slow here at the Skunkworks, due to personal reasons, the fact that the facility is still in the process of settling in to the new digs (thanks to the way the pandemic slows everything down), and, most pointedly, that, despite a lot happening in the field, very little has in fact changed or developed (more on that, below). To remedy the relative dearth of postings, here, therefore, I’ve resolved to try to post, more-or-less regularly, short takes with little commentary, less demanding to write, of what’s caught my attention the past week or so.

What strikes me first is the aforementioned present steadystate of ufology or of the phenomenon and its mytho/sociological import in general. On the one hand, I’ve speculated that the UFO as a vehicle of meaning, a sign, is as endlessly suggestive as any work of art, or even, more extremely, essentially mysterious. But, for a sign whose signifier never lands on its signified, the UFO’s significance seems little changed since the advent of flying saucers more-or-less post-1947.

Ufologically, no developments I’m aware of present data that has not been on the record since the phenomenon’s earliest days. The recent furour around the topic’s appearing in the mainstream media and its being taken seriously by the American government that has given rise to excited rumours about “Disclosure” are hardly unfamiliar to the cognoscenti with Donald Keyhoe’s oeuvre (well-thumbed) on their bookshelves. Exemplary is the second season of History’s Unidentified, which, in terms of the topics it addresses–UFOs near nuclear and military facilities, black triangles, sightings by commercial airline pilots, etc.–is as eye-rollingly dull as Elizondo & Co.’s speculations are risible, e.g., that black triangles observed flying slowly back and forth over the American back country are conducting a mapping operation, when we, with our relatively primitive technology, have been using much less obtrusive spy satellites for decades. Even the suggestion that UFOs (now UAPs), whether foreign or extraterrestrial, may pose a threat to national security is hardly new and is all-too-easily understood as an expression of America’s anxiety over its waning influence in a world that has moved on from its brief moment of monopolar power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc, even if it’s more likely an unimaginative bid to inspire drama and interest in the series.

Even culturally there is little that strikes me of note. Reviews of the recent documentary The Phenomenon (for example, here and here) hardly move me to rent it, seeming as it does to be a somewhat introductory review of the well-known story pushing the “reality” of the titular phenomenon and (uncritically) its possible extraterrestrial origin. On the other hand, 2018’s The Witness of Another World at least focusses on a single, compelling close encounter case not within the border of the United States, probing more its meaning for the experiencer than seeking to uncover the material “truth” underwriting the experience. In this regard, the documentary is in line with two academic books of note, D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic and David Halperin’s Intimate Alien. Both develop lines of inquiry into the religious and collective psychological significance of the UFO, respectively, but neither in a way that introduces any new findings, none new to me, anyway. Pasulka’s work proposes to trace the links between religious sentiments, technology, and the UFO, but doesn’t add to or extend very far the existing literature. Likewise, Halperin develops Jung’s theses about the UFO’s expressing human, all-too-human anxieties and aspirations in a modern guise, but neither presents a reading of Jung’s views in this regard much less a grounding defense of why we should take his approach seriously, merely assuming its applicability. I have addressed these misgivings, in general and more specifically, here.

One development of especial interest here at Skunkworks has been the appearance of three ufologically-themed books of poetry (reviews forthcoming!). First is Judith Roitman’s 2018 Roswell rewardingly read in tandem with Rane Arroyo’s earlier (2010) The Roswell Poems. Though these works went under the literary radar, two more recent books have earned a higher profile. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise on Stars, framed in part by a New-Agey exploration of the imaginative implications of Star People was a finalist for 2020’s National Book Award, and Tony Trigilio’s treatment of the Hill abduction Proof Something Happened was chosen for publication by Marsh Hawk Press in 2021 by no less than the esteemed avant-garde American poet Susan Howe. UFO poetry, seriously!

The one other datum that caught my attention of late was an article from The Baffler shared by a member of the Radio Misterioso Facebook page, “Donald Trump, Trickster God”. For my part, I am unsure just how to take the author’s contention that Donald Trump is a “personification of psychic forces”, namely one of the faces of the Trickster archetype, Loki. The article’s tone, ironic and hyperbolic, suggests it’s as much a satire of the failure of the conventional wisdom to explain the rise and enduring popularity of Trump, or, at least of those who represent the failure of such wisdom (“political reporters, consultants and pundits”, “sober, prudent, smartphone-having people”) as an explanation of his demagogic power. Corey Pein, the author, marshals Jung’s explanation of Hitler’s rise to power (set forth in Jung’s essay, “Wotan”) to shore up his own analogous attempt to understand the advent of Trump. Jung famously essayed the UFO phenomenon using the same approach (and that Halperin and Eric Ouellet have since developed), a labour I find of creative if not explanatory value. On the one hand, one needn’t invoke myth, either in its inherited or newly-minted guise, to understand, e.g., the rise of Hitler: a passing acquaintance with German history and a viewing of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will should suffice. Where Germany suffered a humiliating defeat, the Nazis offered the Germans pride in their culture and new military might. Where the populace had suffered terrible unemployment and want due to the postwar hyperinflation and the Great Depression, the Nazi regime gave it work and food. Where the nation had drifted aimlessly in the rudderless chaos of the Weimar republic (Germany having been one country for less than a century and having had little to no acquaintance with democratic institutions), der Führer offered it leadership and focus. Finally, the distraught and desperate Germans did not side with the international Communists but with the nationalist socialism the Nazis represented because of the atavistic sentiments the Nazis revived and cultured, and, most importantly, because the German corporate class, fearing Communism, sided with the Nazis and bankrolled them. These conditions, combined with the Nazis’ still unrivalled evil genius for propaganda, offer a more down-to-earth, compelling, and useful illumination of a very dark moment in European history. Of course, such explanations go only so far; there remains an obscure, singular residue of irrationality that resists explanation, but, if one is seeking a theory that might offer some praxis, better to take a materialist rather than a metaphysical or mythological approach. Happily, as I write this, the day after Joe Biden seems to have won this year’s election, with luck, the joke is on the Trickster…

The Black Vault Shines a Brilliant Light on the Wilson Documents

The Black Vault’s John Greenewald sets out a delightfully compelling thesis concerning the Wilson Documents, widely taken to be notes of a 2002 meeting between Dr. Eric Davis and Admiral Thomas Wilson, wherein the latter (as usual) spills some juicy beans about reverse engineering of crashed alien spaceships…

Greenewald vectors in on these alleged notes from two directions:  their textual features (what the learned among us would term “the philological”) and the sociocultural context of their composition. Skunkworks readers will understand right away why we take such pleasure in Greenewald’s approach…

By turning his attention for a moment away from what the notes appear to relate to how they relate it (from their content to their form), Greenewald reveals that the “notes” are demonstrably written in the form of a movie or television script, both in their formatting and textual features. His thesis is bolstered by the time of the notes’ creation:  in 2002, there existed, especially in the wake of the ending of The X-Files, a demand for just such programming…

It’s pleasantly synchronicitious that Greenewald publish his views now, in light of the last post here pressing for closer attention to precisely the immediate context of any aspect of the UFO phenomenon / mythology, as well as the argument I’ve made consistently (most recently with regard to premodern “sighting reports”) concerning the cultural embeddedness of sighting reports, whether documents or pictures, and the need for the kind of attention to (historicultural) detail Greenewald demonstrates.

Until now, because of the hardcore, fact-based (and much admired, here in the Skunkworks) research engaged in over at The Black Vault, there has been little intersection or overlap of Greenewald’s concerns or approaches and my own; the coincidence here is therefore all the more happily noted!


In the Air: Problems with Jung, Archetypes, and Flying Saucers

Jung’s Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky is rightly famous for being probably the first book by a well-respected cultural figure to address the UFO mystery. Not unsurprisingly, Jung fit the phenomenon into his ideas of the Collective Unconscious, the Archetypes, and synchronicity to propose that the saucers’ circularity was a timely symbol of unity, one that compensated for the existential anxieties of a war-weary and war-fearing populace in the early days of the Cold War, which had split the globe in half.

As David Halperin reminds us in his recent book Intimate Alien:  the Hidden History of the UFO (pp. 42 ff.), Jung’s insight was later developed by Eric Ouellet to interpret the Belgian UFO Wave of 1989-90. The Belgian UFOs were characteristically large, silent, black triangles with white lights at the points and a red one in the centre. It is suggested, following Jung’s thoughts on flying saucers, that the pattern of three white lights and a fourth red were a manifestation of the archetype of the quaternity: the three white lights symbolizing NATO, at the time headquartered in Brussels, and the one red star, symbolizing the then-collapsing Soviet Union (the Berlin Wall fell 9 November 1989). Just as the conditions of the Cold War inspired people to see archetypal images symbolic of the then-absent unity, the surprise over this unforeseen resolution of the Cold War and resultant profound relief and euphoria evoked visions of a western Europe ascending in victory over its Communist rival.

As valuable as Jung’s proposal is, especially for a mythopoeic rendition of the UFO myth (such as that one underway here in various guises at Skunkworks), I have increasing reservations about its explanatory power. I’ve already voiced some of these in my notes on a recent podcast with Micah Hanks and Thomas E. Bullard. There, I observed that Jung’s kind of “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.”

Kenneth Arnold’s sketch of his “flying saucers”

If we return to the early days of the Cold War and Arnold’s inaugural sighting, we’re reminded that Arnold witnessed crescent, not disc, shaped craft, however prevalent the disc becomes in the following years. The manner in which Arnold’s story was modified by a journalist, the expression “flying saucer” coined and disseminated, and how those words seemed to guide and govern what people claim to have seen subsequently is a rich case history for sociology and communications studies, imaginably subject to an analytical psychological treatment as well:  the journalist’s pen (or typing fingers) were merely taking dictation from the Collective Unconscious, which was answering the psychic needs of the American population of the time, including those of the journalist.

Setting aside this famous, intriguing metamorphosis of what Arnold claims to have seen, what did witnesses describe? In his disputed memo of September 1947, General Nathan Twining summarized the discs’ appearance as follows:

(1) Metallic or light reflecting surface.
(2) Absence of trail, except in a few instances where the object apparently was operating under high performance conditions.
(3) Circular or elliptical in shape, flat on bottom and domed on top.
(4) Several reports of well kept formation flights varying from three to nine objects.
(5) Normally no associated sound, except in three instances a substantial rumbling roar was noted.
(6) Level flight speeds normally above 300 knots are estimated.

At least four explanations were offered at the time (if not in Twining’s memo) to make sense of these mystifying reports: misidentifications due to “war nerves”; domestic or foreign inventions, friendly or hostile; or extraterrestrial space ships. I contend that these hypotheses are sociopsychologically suggestive in their own right, capable of revealing a deeper meaning of the appearance of the saucers without needing recourse to concepts problematic as they are grand, such as the Collective Unconscious or its archetypes.

The immediate aeronautical context informs the proposal that the sighting of what will come to be known as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) could be accounted for as paranoid misperceptions. In 2020, it is perhaps difficult to imagine how novel the skies were in 1947. The recent war had seen the first, large-scale deployment of air forces and conflict between them, perhaps most famously in the Battle of Britain. Radar itself had been deployed only in the early days of that chapter of the war and was still a very new, unfamiliar technology. Air travel itself, taken for granted today (at least before the Covid-19 outbreak), was, as it were, first taking off. The skies were under constant, anxious scrutiny, by both professional military personnel and civilians. All in all, the skies and flight were new and fraught with threat. Little wonder both qualified and unqualified observers should file unnerved and unnerving reports of aerial anomalies. Indeed, this insight might well be applied to sightings of “foo fighters” in the war-torn skies of World War Two, as well. At any rate, the psychological implications of UFOs appearing to vigilant, anxious observers are two fold. On the one hand, this explanation eases the fear that gives rise to sightings:  the novelty of aerial phenomena and the heightened, wary awareness of the observer understandably lead to misidentifications; in this case, there is, in fact, no threat. On the other, that the skies are under such intense scrutiny is reassuring, as well, since, should an enemy attack, the threat will be quickly detected and answered; the nation’s skies are, in a sense, air tight.

A similar emotional logic is at work in the idea that the flying discs represented breakthrough aeronautical technology, whether ours or theirs. If they’re ours, then our technical and, by extension, military superiority is affirmed and our anxieties about a potential “hot” war with the Soviet Union are, to a degree, assuaged. If, on the other hand, the discs are evidence of an enemy nation’s technological leap, the heightened anxiety drives the fearful populace of the Free World that much more eagerly into the protective arms of the Military-Industrial Complex, steeling the public’s resolve and patriotism in the face of such a wily adversary. The same logic might have been at work in the Phantom Air Ship sightings of 1896-7, on the eve of the Spanish America War. Either the airships are examples of Yankee ingenuity, affirming American industrial and military superiority in the face of a looming conflict with a world power, or the airships are Spanish, with the same patriotic effect noted above.

Finally, the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis plays into a similar, if more complex, pattern of reassurance and fear. That an extraterrestrial race is visiting earth with technology far in advance of our own suggests that they, too, at one time, faced the threat of nuclear self-annihilation (they must have at some time discovered nuclear energy in the course of their technological development) but came through; if they can, we can, and, maybe, they have come to show us the way, having witnessed, from their planets or distant stars, our detonating A-bombs. Little surprise, then, the earliest stories of landed saucers reported their pilots were peaceful, enlightened humanoid beings, come to warn us of the danger we found ourselves in. Or maybe, seeing our science and technology had split the atom, we were being observed as a preparatory step in being contacted and invited to join a larger, interplanetary if not interstellar community. Again, all would be well, better than we could have imagined. Alternatively, if the discs proved to be an extraterrestrial enemy’s scouts and probes, then, again, who better to defend us than the Cold War status quo of an America recently ascended to the status of a global power, allied with the Free World? Or, as Ronald Reagan so famously imagined, perhaps a threat to earth would unite her otherwise divided nations (again, mollifying the tensions underwriting the sightings in the first place). More cynically, one might suggest that being carried away by the mystery of the flying saucers served as an escape from more urgent, earthbound concerns.

In all these cases, the appearance of mysterious flying discs set in motion a process of thought and feeling that leads to either a relief of anxiety or a redoubled resolve in the face of it. In this light, one wonders how rational at base the three or four hypotheses cited above are, how much they are inspired or motivated by the anxieties of the time. Framing the advent of flying saucers and, later, UFOs, in the moment of their appearance in this way enables an understanding that does not stand in need of more general, and by extension more questionable, psychological theories. Indeed, the UFO becomes all the more revealing being related to its more specific spatiotemporal (historical) locality than if it is spun off to hover over all times and places, emerging from a region beyond space and time, the Collective Unconscious.

However tempting, it would be disingenuous to leave the matter here. In its own terms, the approach I venture here demands, too, that the phenomenon be examined with an eye to the local culture and what is “in the air” at the time, much the way Halperin and Ouellet reconfigure their account when they move it from the mainland United States to Belgium. This is to say, the phenomenon will always reveal something about the culture over which it appears, an insight not lost on those who mark the local inflections that differentiate North and South American ufology. The reflections, above, are, therefore, pertinent, strictly, to postwar North America. More interestingly, the canny reader will be quick to point out how the hypotheses offered above hover between three or four, a classic quaternity….


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.

“What we have here is a failure…” Wait. We’ve been here before…

It was just the end of last July that Rich Reynold’s over at UFO Conjectures took Skunkworks to task for not approaching “the UFO problem” as he understands it and demands everyone else, too. For my part, I thought I’d answered his concerns in a number of posts, but here we are again.

Reynolds is concerned with the question—exclusively—of the reality and nature of UFOs; Skunkworks ruminates over the meaning of the UFO mythology, if not the phenomenon. Why Reynolds insists that his is the only way or that what I’m up to here even intends to contribute to his efforts eludes me.

Rather than rehash this matter, I would direct interested parties to the following extant posts:

The post that directly answers Reynolds’ concerns is On the Unreal Reality and Real Unreality of the UFO: redux, or “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…” which itself links to the first, substantial post here that distinguishes the two approaches Reynolds insists on conflating or narrowing down.

My most direct rejoinder to the general question is RE: UFO Realities.

A pertinent but more tenuous probing of ufology as such can be read here:  Notes towards a prolegomena to a future ufology…

Some philosophical asides would include one post applying the Kantian distinction between determinative and reflective judgements (“What IS that?!”–Notes on perceiving the anomalous) and others bringing to bear Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality (Encounter in the Desert of the Real, An Important Consequence of the “Postmodern” Reality of the UFO, and RE: Robbie Graham on UFOs and Hyperreality: An Addendum and Excursis).



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.


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….

The UFO, Mystery, and Différance

David J. Halperin, in a chapter on Raymond Palmer and the Shaver Mystery in his Intimate Alien, recounts how in an interview Eugene Steinberg asked Palmer if he thought the UFO mystery would ever be solved. “No!” Palmer replied, “…I think the mystery is only going to deepen.” Halperin amplifies on Palmer’s line of thought: mystery “is a metaphysical state wherein lies the salvation of the human mind and soul.”

This sentiment echoes beyond the sphere of the UFO phenomenon and even Forteana in general, reflecting back to amplify a thought-provoking dimension of the UFO.

In the 1990 Pre-face to his assemblage of the Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, Shaking the Pumpkin, Jerome Rothenberg observes that

What the poetry transmits is not so much a sense of reverence or piety as of mystery and wonder….

The same phrase (Indian or not) turns up independently in the assertion by the surrealist master, André Breton, “that the mysteries which are not will give way some day to the great Mystery“: a reconciliation, as in the Indian instance, of dream & chance with the reality or our immediate lives.”

‘Mystery’ at root is that which remains tight-lipped. We might understand philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to be referring to Breton’s “great Mystery” when he writes in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” This is to say that the, if not an, answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is not forthcoming. Little wonder, at least as Wittgenstein’s contemporary Martin Heidegger had it, the question could be said to have motivated explicitly or tacitly the whole of Western philosophy.

More pertinently here is the way that mystery-as-such maintains itself as mystery. In the wake of Kant‘s Critical Philosophy, the question of the Absolute took on an urgency in German-language philosophy. As the poet and philosopher of the time Friedrich von Hardenberg (better know by his pen name Novalis) put it: “Everywhere we search for the Absolute but find only things.” The sense of Novalis’ fragment, however, is embedded in a German-language witticism, for Novalis writes for ‘absolute’ das Unbedingte (the undetermined) and for ‘things’ the very ordinary Dinge. That is, the Absolute is precisely that which depends upon, is related or relative to, nothing else; however, if the Absolute is to be known at all, it thereby becomes relative to or determined by the knower. For this reason, the mystical experience is the dissolution of the knower in the known. In one classical formulation, that of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite:

The Divinest knowledge of God, which is received through Unknowing, is obtained in that communion which transcends the mind, when the mind, turning away from all things and then leaving even itself behind, is united to the Dazzling Rays, being from them and in them, illumined by the unsearchable depth of wisdom.

Whatever his other predilections, with regard to the question of the Absolute, Novalis was a philosopher, no mystic. The answer he and his circle proposed to the problem was that of “endless approximation.” That is, since all knowledge is relative (in the context of Kant’s philosophy, to the knowing subject), knowledge never reaches an end, but endlessly orbits or pursues its object, always from some new perspective, some new “determination”.

Novalis’ coeval, the philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, sees the same dynamic at work in the interpretation of texts. Since every word finds its sense only in the sentence in which it is found, and each sentence only in the text of which it is a part, the sense of the text in question is oriented (or determined) by its place in the totality of the work of its author, which, in turn, is determined by its place in the literary production of the language it is written in, and so forth. Interpretation, then, is an infinite task. Students of literary criticism will be reminded of the much later formulation of Jacques Derrida‘s différance: because the significance of any sign is determined by its relation to all other signs in the language, that significance spatially differs from itself (i.e., it is determined diacritically by its difference from all other signs in the abstract, synchronous structure of the language), and, in the phonic or graphic chain of any concrete (diachronic) utterance, that significance is, likewise, temporally deferred, as each successive sign and utterance is determined by the next (hence Derrida’s witty conflation of ‘differ’ and ‘defer’ in his coinage ‘differance’).

When I first read about Project Lure, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s attempt to tease flying saucers to land at its Suffield airbase in Alberta, I was struck by the ambivalence of the name. UFOs, it seemed to me, are as much “lures” themselves, teasingly visible but always just out of reach. They escape not only our attempts to grasp them as physical phenomena, leaving only traces, as reports, blurry or questionable photographs, or radar traces, but they slip between the very concepts whereby we make sense of reality, neither material nor immaterial, real or subjective, but “imaginal” or “spectral” (as M. J. Banias was the first to point out). As such, the UFO-as-sign is, after a fashion, characterized by différance, always slipping just out of our grasp (spatially), protean and ever-changing in appearance (temporally), both over time and often within the context of single sighting; like the ever-elusive “final” significance of the sign, the truth of the UFO remains tantalizingly ever out of reach.

The UFO, then, in one regard, is essentially mysterious. That is, like the question of Being (what Wittgenstein called “the mystical”) that stirred the first philosophers, the “great Mystery” that inspired both the traditional singers of North and Central “America”, the Surrealists, and others, the UFO embodies that “metaphysical state wherein lies the salvation of the human mind soul.” But what “salvation” does this “state” promise? Halperin has his own answer, but, if we follow the insights of Novalis and his circle, the mystery of the UFO is a sign, endlessly proliferative of meanings, with any luck never, like Proteus, wrestled into submission and forced to give up its secret. In this respect, the UFO might be said to inspire what the poet John Keats articulated as the genius of Shakespeare, what he termed “Negative Capability”: “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”