Anchored in philology: an addendum to “When a sighting report is not”

The latest example of Rich Reynolds’ irrational tenacity sent me to Aubeck’s and Vallée’s Wonders in the Sky. For all its failings, catalogued at length by at least two tenacious critics and admitted by no less than Vallée himself, the book is not without its saving graces.

I was recently moved by being shown John Carey’s study of sky ship tales from medieval Ireland to use his scholarship to make an argument about the interpretive dangers of reading narratives from distant times and cultures. At the time, I went to Wonders in the Sky and was surprised I could find no mention of these sky ships. It turns out Aubeck and Vallée were one step ahead of me in this regard, however.

I was unable to find such stories among the 500 they present in their “Chronology of Wonders”, because they include them in the second section of illustratively questionable tales, “Myths, Legends, and Chariots of the Gods”. The authors base their own analysis (pp. 405-11) on Carey’s, noting both the scant references to the sky ships in the annals and the increasing embellishment of the basic story line over time.

Most impressively (to me) they resolve the mystery of how the most famous (and fabulous) version of the story, wherein the sky ship’s anchor is caught in the church’s door arch, is repeated during the Phantom Airship flap of 1896/7:  according to Aubeck and Vallée, the Boston Post published an article “A Sea Above the Clouds:  Extraordinary Superstition Once Prevalent in England” that recounted two British folktales, one a version of the more famous Irish one. Two weeks later, the story was updated to the present and relocated to Merkel, Texas as reported the Houston Daily Post 28 April 1897, two days after the incident was said to have occurred (p. 409).

A (very) little more digging turns up that the article Aubeck and Vallée refer to also appeared (seemingly for the first time) in the 7 March 1897 edition of Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune and the next day in the Nebraska State Journal. It remains nevertheless no less astounding, however, that so recherché a philological tidbit should make the rounds as a syndicated article of all things in America’s newspapers at the time!

To paraphrase Chaucer:  The life so short, the bookshelf so long to read!

Correspondence from the Art History Department of the Invisible College concerning the Glaser and Coccius Broadsheets

During my recent debate concerning the sixteenth century broadsheets from Nuremberg and Basel made famous by Carl Jung in his Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (plates VI and V, respectively), I reached out to an art historian I know for whatever light they could shed on the question. I reproduce our short e-correspondence, below.

I was surprised they were more persuaded that the broadsheets reported on and depicted actual observations than I was. You can read my first essay on the matter and view the broadsheets here, and my second take, here.



I’m in a discussion with another ufophile concerning two 16th broadsheets, first noted by Jung in his book on Flying Saucers.

The first is from Nuremberg 1561 (an account of the story accompanying the illustration can be read, however rough and ready, here.)

The second is from Basel 1566, here.

Illustrations attached [viewable at the link, above].

My interlocutor insists the illustrations are merely and only allegories for the religious tensions of the day. I contend that, however stylized they in fact are, they are 1. Artist’s illustrations of the accompanying texts, which 2. Refer to events on specific dates, not to the general struggles of the day.

I readily grant both broadsheet pages are religiously informed (e.g., the crosses in the Nuremberg picture), but I am skeptical about their being merely allegorical pictures.

What illumination can you bring to the pictorial conventions at work in these pictures:  are they reducible in the way my interlocutor contends, or do they employ stylizations of the day to depict what they texts report?



Having looked at the illustrations and the accompanying texts, I am of the opinion that they are related to specific events. The texts sound quite precise and have a scientific tone, they don’t sound allegorical. They are news notices so the medium does have an impact on how the message would have been understood at the time. An allegorical text would refer to the Bible or the Old Testament. There are such images pertaining to the religious wars and they depict things like the Tower of Babel, the Ruins of Jericho or Sodom and Gomorrah. They show armies battling it out and good being triumphant or evil being punished. Many artists did biblical series using thinly veiled metaphors that their public would have understood as religious or political commentary of the events of the day. Your debate is complicated by the fact that there are two camps, the iconoclasts and the iconophiles.

Look at the works of Michelangelo, Titian, Dürer, Cranach. They all had to deal with the impact of these wars and the changes imposed on them by their Churches. The Catholics depended on the Church’s patronage to survive. The Church expected them to use the Bible as a point of departure for their work and their work was closely scrutinized during its production. If they strayed, they paid a heavy price. Catholic artists fared better than the Protestant artists who lost their patronage altogether. In addition, the Protestants had their works destroyed in the riots.

In the Coccius illustration, the onlookers seem surprised or in awe but not cowering in terror. The Nuremberg one actually has an explosion but I am not seeing the usual binary confrontation between two camps, which is typical–good confronting evil.

The artists of the time had to answer to their respective Churches. Coccius and Glaser both seem to have had much more leeway than other artists of their time. In Switzerland, where Coccius worked, there were Catholics and Protestants from one canton to the next. The illustration doesn’t seem to follow the edicts of the Catholic Church but it would not have pleased the other side either. Glaser was on the fence as well. From what I can tell, he lived in Catholic Bavaria but surrounded by Lutherans. I believe that Illustrations of specific non-religious events would not have been questioned in the same way as artworks with a religious theme.

Paolo Veronese had to go before the Inquisition because of heresy for irreverently painting “buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities” in a painting that could have initially been about the Last Supper. I am including Veronese’s responses to the Inquisition excerpted from H.W. Janson’s History of Art on Paolo Veronese’s “The Feast in the House of Levi” (1573, oil on canvas) [the featured image for this post]. It contains the transcript of the interrogation of the Inquisition and is quite entertaining. This is what the art of the time looked like. He didn’t redo the painting as he was directed to by the Inquisition, he just changed the title. Ah those weaselly artists! To conclude, I believe the two illustrations you sent me are just that, illustrations of phenomena. If the Churches weren’t happy, the artists faced serious repercussions, like the Inquisition and/or the destruction of the works themselves, that is not nothing.

Have a look at Glaser’s other works, here [and, better, here].



Merci for your specialized comments. One small wrinkle in the matter came to light after I wrote you. The Reformation and Counter Reformation inspired a tremendous interest in anomalies, wonders, miracles, and prodigies. The two broadsheets were printed to meet this demand. Glaser (responsible for the Nuremberg one) printed a number along these lines (some dozen are in the holdings of the Zurich State Library, where Jung found these two examples and reproduced them in his book on ufos in the ‘50s).

You can see my two takes on the matter (when you have time and inclination)[at the first two links, above]:



Yes, I am aware of the miracles and wonders illustrated at the time. These two cases however are specific events, which were chronicled in the news of the time. I am not saying that they are exact illustrations, nothing was that straightforward, but I believe they were likely meteorological events, possibly a combination of phenomena such as waterspouts, hail, firestorms and yes, a blood moon. There is the question of these artists place within the hierarchy, They had more freedom because they were not uppermost in the minds of the religious regulatory bodies of the time. These institutions were put in place to force artists (and others) into submission. As for fake news, yes this is possible but both of these illustrators tend to be quite literal in their approach and are very detailed when it comes to illustrating fortifications and ramparts or botanical curiosities. In my opinion, Jung had his own perspective on these from the onset. And, yes, certainly we project our own knowledge base, prejudices and lacunae onto these images.

We witness a stylistic shift in artists working for the Catholic Church during the second part of the 16th century, with the rise of Mannerism.  During this time, the Church is actually fighting wars and has a fleet of ships. It is fighting the spread of Islam but also protecting its trade routes and economic concerns. in the last quarter of the century, Italian artists suffer major losses due to fires that were deliberately set by their enemies (both Bellinis, Carpaccio and several artists whose works are part of the collections held by the more progressive Doge). This is not a comfortable or safe time to live in. Add to that the decimation of a third of the population after an epidemic of the plague in 1576. Titian, who had managed to live to an advanced age, died that year. All that to say there were plenty of reasons to look for wonders in the sky.

I read the texts corresponding to the links, very interesting insights on the matter. Not a subject I know much about. It was fun.



“Signs on the Heaven” and “strange shapes in the sky”: Giving the Devil his due

As I wrote concerning stories of ships in the skies in medieval Ireland, “Just how to understand temporally and culturally distant narratives concerning anomalous aerial phenomena, let alone nonhuman entity encounters, is no simple matter.” The reasons for such stories and the ways they were communicated are more complicated than would appear offhand.

It’s such complexities that underwrite the difference of opinion between me and Rich Reynolds concerning just what to make of two broadsheets from the sixteenth century, one from Nuremberg (1561), the other from Basel (1566). I maintain they are what they purport to be, stories and artists’ impressions of aerial prodigies witnessed on specific dates and times of the day, Reynolds, that they “are ‘editorial rabble-rousing’ by the newspapers and ‘cartoonists’ (the guys who provided the drawings) about the ongoing societal consternations of Luther’s Reformation and the Catholic Church’s Counter-reformation.” My case, with links to our disputations, can be found here.

Exactly what was witnessed in 1561 and 1566 is a question that persists from those years to our own. My own stance concurs with the writer and illustrator of the Nuremberg broadsheet, Hans Glazer:  “God alone knows.” Reynolds seems to be of the opinion that, in fact, nothing was seen, but he nowhere provides a explicit interpretation of the broadsheets themselves that would make clear just how he understands them, aside from their being “editorial rabble-rousing.” So, in the interests of intellectual balance, I want to attempt to argue here that the question as to whether the broadsheets refer to actually witnessed phenomena at all is indeterminate.

I must still disagree with Reynolds’ understanding. Pegging the broadsheets as “editorial rabble rousing” and their accompanying illustrations as “cartoons” is just too vague and ahistorical to do justice to the concrete facts of the print media of the time. The documents in question are best understood as examples of a popular genre of the day, that concerning prodigies and wonders. As Jerome Clark helpfully informs us:  “Rediscovery of the prodigy book of Osequens in 1508 set off a flood of similar works. The most comprehensive was the Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon of Conrad Lycosthenes, which appeared in 1557 at Basel” (48) [my emphasis]. But the appetite for such materials is not accidental.

Reynolds’ whole case is motivated by the historical context, the religious strife that raged through Europe with the Reformation (which begins in 1517) and Counter-Reformation (beginning with the Council of Trent, 1545-1563) culminating in the nightmarish carnage of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). And, indeed, Glaser himself interprets what his text recounts and picture illustrates in religious terms, as “signs on the heaven, which are sent to us by the almighty God, to bring us to repentance”. The heightened religious fervour of the time, like at the turn of the millennium five centuries earlier, inspired an acutely heightened interest in supernatural signs and wonders. As Clark tells us, “Leading religious figures such as Martin Luther reaffirmed that signs must precede the end of the world, and Puritan belief fostered awareness of the supernatural  by emphasis on a daily struggle between God and Satan in the worldly arena” (48). The historical context is analogous to that no less anxious one following the Second World War that, as Jung would have it, duly witnessed its own signs and wonders “seen in the sky”, flying saucers.

On the one hand, therefore, broadsheets, such as those from Nuremberg and Basel (both Protestant cities) could imaginably serve a propagandistic function. Disseminating accounts of “signs on the heaven” and “strange shapes in the sky” would affirm the populace’s belief in the momentousness of the times and the truth of their beliefs, as Glaser’s own gloss suggests. These reports, moreover, need not be true, but only seem to be true, bolstered by reference to specific times and places and  witnesses and accompanied by artists’ impressions. The broadsheets, then, might be thought of as their days’ “fake news”.

On the other hand, however, the broadsheets do refer to specific locations, dates and times of day, which makes them easy enough for the skeptical to verify. Glaser’s broadsheet was printed a month after the events it claims to report; I have been unable to ascertain how long after the events of 27-28 July and 7 August the Basel pamphlet was printed. This is to say that the broadsheets could just as well be sincere reports of anomalous atmospheric phenomena, or not-so-anomalous phenomena (e.g., parhelia, a “blood moon”, etc.) interpreted through the eyes of the spirit of the day. In the final analysis, the question of “the truth” of these broadsheets turns on the question of just what status we grant the genre of print media of which they are an example.

So, either religious enthusiasm inspires visions of signs in the sky (how, exactly, is an interesting question…), which are duly reported by the broadsheets, which confirms and feeds this ferment, or the spiritual excitement sets up an expectation and desire for such wonders, which the broadsheets meet and maintain. In either case, the significance of these documents can be more or less ascertained only through a scrupulous attention to their own features and whatever can be discovered about their own communicative conventions in the context of their society and its concerns. Whether they are factual or fake, “God alone knows.” Nevertheless, and this is the most important point, however “obvious” their meaning might otherwise appear is a symptom of the invisibility of our own prejudices and ignorance.


“There is nothing outside of the context”

Hot on the heels of my post on the air ships of medieval Ireland, Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures offered some, well, conjectures of his own concerning two sixteenth century broadsheets introduced to ufological consciousness by Carl Jung in his famous book on Flying Saucers.

The first is from Nuremberg in 1561 by Hans Glaser:


The second is from Basel, 1566, by Samuel Coccius.


Reynolds and I agree on dismissing out of hand the all-too-common Ancient Astronaut / Alien theoretical interpretation that sees these as premodern UFO sighting reports. Reynolds, however, goes a step farther, somewhat along the lines I pursue with regard to the medieval Irish airship tales, positing that these broadsheets’ illustrations are, in his words, “editorial cartoons” concerning the religious strife that was dividing post-Reformation Europe at the time. Interested readers can follow our dispute on this matter at the link to UFO Conjectures, above.

I maintain, maybe surprisingly, that the broadsheets are reports of real, if mysterious, occurrences. I base that claim on two main features of the broadsheets. First, both illustrations relate to the text they accompany, stories of anomalous aerial phenomena. These stories are, furthermore, specific as to date and time of day, which they wouldn’t be were they satirical allegories of current affairs. (They would, moreover, likelier be in verse, as was the convention of the time).

Reynolds takes exception, especially with regard to the Nuremberg broadsheet (the first of those reproduced, above), pointing to the smoke billowing in the lower right hand corner (which he sees as “the wrath of God, afflicting either Luther’s heresy or the Church’s vivid rebuttal”) and the prominent black spearhead that points to the left over the city (“A spear? Or some kind of Germanic weather icon…?”).

Reynolds is mistaken on two counts, I argue. First, the text that accompanies the picture that illustrates it refers to “globes, which were first in the sun” and that

flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour. And when the conflict in and again out of the sun was most intense, they became fatigued to such an extent that they all, as said above, fell from the sun down upon the earth ‘as if they all burned’ and they then wasted away on the earth with immense smoke. [my emphasis]

The text continues:  “After all this there was something like a black spear, very long and thick, sighted; the shaft pointed to the east, the point pointed west” [my emphasis]. So, it isn’t difficult to relate what the text refers to and what the illustration depicts. More seriously, Reynolds resists the highly stylized artistic conventions of the illustration, ignoring, for example, a striking evidence for this in the sun’s having a face, let alone how the picture neglects perspective.

So, the context of the illustration (the details of its accompanying text) and the artistic conventions of the day both contradict Reynolds’ attempt to write off the picture (he never gets around to the text) as allegorical treatments of the times and support the contention that they are illustrated reports of actual events.

But Reynolds is right when the historical context of religious strife moves him to see things the way does. Hans Glaser himself offers the following gloss:

Although we have seen, shortly one after another, many kinds of signs on the heaven, which are sent to us by the almighty God, to bring us to repentance, we still are, unfortunately, so ungrateful that we despise such high signs and miracles of God. Or we speak of them with ridicule and discard them to the wind, in order that God may send us a frightening punishment on account of our ungratefulness. After all, the God-fearing will by no means discard these signs, but will take it to heart as a warning of their merciful Father in heaven, will mend their lives and faithfully beg God, that He may avert His wrath, including the well-deserved punishment, on us, so that we may temporarily here and perpetually there, live as his children. For it, may God grant us his help, Amen.

Clearly, Glaser understands whatever in fact is described in the text as signs from heaven, and he does so precisely because of the concrete historical situation that determines his writing and illustrating the broadsheet.

Not only does Reynolds abstract the illustration from the immediate context of its accompanying text, however, but he (mis)understands the illustration, viewing it through conventions of visual representation foreign to Glaser’s time and place. He’s right to find inspiration for his interpretation in the historical situation, but neglects another dimension of that context.

Jerome Clark in The UFO Book:  Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial (1998) in the entry for “Anomalous Aerial Phenomena Before 1800” (44-58) remarks the tremendous appetite for books of prodigies and wonders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the following telling tidbit: “Rediscovery of the prodigy book of Osequens in 1508 set off a flood of similar works. The most comprehensive was the Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon of Conrad Lycosthenes, which appeared in 1557 at Basel” (48) [my emphasis]. The broadsheets then are most likely best taken to be examples of this genre, catering to the public appetite for news of wonders.

What’s important here is not Reynolds’ and my dispute, but the kind of thinking at work in understanding historically distant documents. Ironically, though we both eschew the Ancient Alien misunderstanding of these broadsheets, Reynolds’ own take  is led astray by the same kinds of errors:  abstracting the illustration from its immediate context and viewing it apart from the artistic conventions and discoverable material cultural interests of the time.

What then is reported and depicted by these broadsheets? Glaser, perhaps, gives the best answer:  “God alone knows.”


Addendum:  Reynold’s replies in his own inimitable way here.



When a sighting report is not

Visitors to tha Skunkworks will know how little patience I have for those (whose name is legion) who insist on taking premodern tales or artwork to be the equivalent of modern-day UFO sighting reports. I’ve taken Vallée to task for conflating alien abduction reports with fairy tales and Velikovsky, Jaynes, and Ancient Astronaut theorists (not to mention even scholar D. W. Pasulka, who should know better) for their no less ahistorical errors. My point has always been that the way we communicate today differs from the ways of other times and places (linguists would refer to differing “codes”), and, so, it’s just ignorant to read texts or interpret art universally according to how we write and represent things here and now. Friend and Irish Studies scholar Antoine Malette has provided me with an excellent case in point.

Celtic Studies scholar John Cary (presently at University College Cork) presented a paper in 1992 titled “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel” (interested readers without access to JSTOR can sign up for a free membership to read it, here). In his study, Cary scrutinizes variations of a story familiar to readers of Jacques Vallée’s Passport to Magonia (144). In Cary’s version:

There happened something once in the borough called Cloena [=Cionmacnoise], which will also seem marvellous. In this town there is a church dedicated to the memory of a saint named Kiranus [=Ciarán]. One Sunday while the populace was at church hearing mass, it befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky as if thrown from a ship; for a rope was attached to it, and one of the flukes of the anchor got stuck in the arch above the church door. The people all rushed out of the church and marveled much as their eyes followed the rope upward. They saw a ship with men on board floating before the anchor cable; and soon they saw a man leap overboard and dive down to the anchor as if to release it. The movements of his hands and feet and all his actions appeared like those of a man swimming in the water. When he came down to the anchor, he tried to loosen it, but the people immediately rushed up and attempted to seize him. In the church where the anchor was caught, there is a bishop’s throne. The bishop was present when this occurred and forbade his people to hold the man; for, said he, it might prove fatal as when one is held under water. As soon, as the man was released, he hurried back up to the ship; and when he was up the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed away out of sight. But the anchor has remained in the church since then as a testimony to this event.

Curiously, Vallée (and Donald B. Hanlon from whom he cites the story (and Harold T. Wilkins, Hanlon’s ultimate source)) remarks the tale’s variations from eighth century Ireland to Merkel, Texas in April, 1897 and (along with Hanlon) the provocative if no less problematic analogues between the medieval and modern versions but neglects to unfold the implications of this variation, unlike the scholar Cary.

All in all, Cary examines no fewer than six versions of the story, including the newspaper report from 1897. He summarizes their development as follows:

(a) In the mid-eighth century, a notice that ships had been seen in the air was included in the annals. The apparition was subsequently localized at the assembly of Tailtiu, and said to have been witnessed by the then reigning king of Tara.

(b) By the late eleventh century the story had been transferred to the reign of the tenth-century king Congalach Cnogba, and embellished with the detail of the lost and recovered fishing-spear [thrown from the ship]; there was now only one air ship,

(c) By the end of the twelfth century the story was shifted to the monastic milieu of Clonmacnoise, and an anchor took the place of the fishing-spear.

So, the version Vallée and Hanlon compare to the 1897 newspaper story is already so embellished it can’t be seriously considered anything other than a fanciful (i.e. fictional) tale of the marvelous (a medieval genre with its own features and purposes). But I’m not interested in the tiresome exercise of merely debunking Vallée et al. The philology of this tale’s development is more complex and interesting in its implications.

Having surveyed the tale’s variations, Cary conjectures about how it might have arrived at its final, thirteenth century version. The sky ship’s anchor getting caught echoes a motif from around the world and from at least two extant Irish texts, the saga Tochmarc Emere and an extended gloss on the hymn “Ni car Brigit buadach bith“. The tale reaches its fullest elaboration with the Clonmacnoise version likely because, as Carey writes, “Clonmacnoise in the later Middle Irish period seems to have been greedy for marvels: quite a number of little tales, drawn in all likelihood from many disparate sources, associate the monastery with fantastic occurrences of all kinds.” Therefore, Cary concludes, “it seems likeliest that it was in the heady atmosphere of Clonmacnoise mirabilia-collecting” that previous versions and other material “were fused into a single tale.”

The very scheme of the story (aerial ships) and other marvelous elements woven into it by the monks of Clonmacnoise are part of a larger tapestry in Irish and world literature. Cary cites the example of “the famous encounter between the mortal Bran in his ship and the divine Manannán in his chariot, and the [ancient, pagan] poem in which the god declares that what is sea to one is land to the other”. Cary proposes that

such flourishes of paradox and surreality subordinate our habitual frame of reference to an alien [!] and unreckonable scheme which lies beyond it. The stories, in [Proinsias] Mac Cana’s words, explore “the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, between this and the other world, together with the ambiguities and relativities of time and space which were implicit in their interaction.”

Cary’s and Mac Cana’s point here is all the more persuasive when one reflects that the clouds’ being compared to the foam of the sea is ancient, and the revery that inspires it is likely one many of us will remember from our childhood.

However much the story of sky ships is caught up inextricably in daydream, poetic inspiration, and embellished retellings, the matter is still more complex. As all authors here—Cary, Vallée, and Hanlon—admit, the problem of how the modern, newspaper story follows so closely upon the thirteenth century version cited above is “a recalcitrant one.” Moreover, Cary, being the sincere scholar he is, admits up front that

the date, the range of attestation, and the fact that the item [the appearance of aerial vessels] was first recorded in Latin all suggest that we have here to do with a contemporary notice of an anomalous occurrence [my emphasis]. We will of course never know what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s, or how many retellings and mutations separated the first testimony from its distillation in the annals.

In the case of the newspaper story from the Houston Daily Post, the story either records a real event, copies the tale from the thirteenth century Norse text Konungs Skuggsj, or uncannily draws from the same sources of inspiration that coalesced in that version; each of these possibilities equally strain credulity. More to the point, we’re still left with the mystery Cary notes, “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead in the 740’s.”

Those inclined to believe the Psychosocial Hypothesis will maintain that even those earliest, lost passages from the annals record nothing more than rumours, themselves merely stories like that of Bran and the god Mannanán, inspired by the same imaginative schema as the Irish poem. But this response, ironically, commits the same error as taking all stories to be equivalent to witness reports, conflating the genre of the annal or chronicle with that of mirabilia, forgetting that Herodotus called his writings “histories” motivated by the meaning of the ancient Greek verb at the root of our word ‘history’, meaning to inquire, explore, or, as the poet Charles Olson so forcefully put it, to see for oneself. This is to say, no less ironically (or dialectically) that Herodotus’ histories and medieval annals and chronicles are closer in spirit and linguistic code to modern day witness or newspaper reports than the marvelous tales worked up the monks of Clonmacnoise. And a sufficiently persuasive account for how the 1897 version of the story came to be written is still wanting.

Thus, a further irony leads us to a notion central to Ancient Astronaut theorizing, that the body of literature under scrutiny here, like all those myths such theorists point to, is the pearl formed by the oyster of the Unconscious or Creative Imagination around the hard grain of truth of “what it really was which some person or persons saw overhead”. But this proposal doesn’t get us very far either, for just what the medieval annals record, in this case, at least, is lost, and, ironically (…), the modern-day version is, in Hanlon’s words, all the more “strange and, in fact, downright suspicious” precisely because of its mirroring the thirteenth century, demonstrably fabulous version.

What should remain beyond a reasonable doubt is the need for and value of the application of intelligent, sensitive specialized erudition in such matters, an application neglected by all the ufological authors in question. Just how to understand temporally and culturally distant narratives concerning anomalous aerial phenomena, let alone nonhuman entity encounters, is no simple matter. Indeed, similar scrutiny can be applied even to the hermeneutics, productive and receptive, of modern-day witness reports, as if their being contemporary makes them any more immediately comprehensible. By a further turn of the screw of irony, such considered and well-informed analyses and explanations render the topic all the more mysterious, leaving as well the hard kernel of the mystery of just what was seen along with the strangeness of its apparent transhistorical consistency as further grist for the mill of reflection, investigation, and speculation.

No Singularity but Technological Terminus?

Because the UFO phenomenon is anomalous, it is a site of mere speculation until it is definitively identified. Speculation is a curious activity, melding conjecture, contemplation, and mirroring (‘speculum‘ being Latin for ‘mirror’). Thus, our more or less informed guesses about the nature of the UFO reflect our assumptions about ourselves and the world.

As I’ve often held forth at length here, thoughts about the UFO reveal how we think about ourselves. Talk about the UFO as being an artifact produced by the advanced technology of an extraterrestrial intelligence gives away how we conceive of technology and intelligence in general.

In the first instance, intelligence is reduced to instrumental reason, solving problems to achieve certain ends; technology is understood to progress, to develop along a linear vector toward ever greater efficiency and power. In thinking as close or disparate as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or variations on the ufological Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), this restricted sense of intelligence is assumed to be a universal product (if not goal) of evolution, technology, in turn, the inevitable fruit of this intelligence, invariably progressing along the same trajectory.

More gravely however is the (ironic) theological underpinning of these notions of science and technology. The ultimate end of science is the philosopher’s God, an omniscient, omnipotent being. The omnipotence of technology’s god is underwritten by its omniscience (how fateful that knowledge is here expressed by the Latinate ‘science’!). Philosophy might begin in wonder (as Aristotle had it), but science does not spring from the desire to understand nature but to dominate it (as Francis Bacon proposed).

The head-spinning progress made in this project has inspired as much techno-pessimism as -optimism. The figure of Elon Musk combines these tendencies:  on the one hand, he seems persuaded that technological ingenuity might extricate humanity from the dire problems development has engendered, as indicated by his investments in batteries and electric cars; on the other hand, he has equally pushed space exploration and colonization and expressed grave concerns about the potential threats posed by Artificial Intelligence. But in either case, Musk et al. are technofetishists:  like those who cast the Golden Calf then prostrate themselves before what they themselves have made, the technofetishist places human technological activity and achievement on a pedestal, as if it were a self-causing, self-sustaining phenomenon, independent of society, its actors and their interests, i.e., as if it were natural. Masking contingent human activity as if it were necessary and natural is the very definition of reification. Such reification is all-too-evident in ufological discourse that orbits ideas of advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations.

At this point I want to introduce a no less bold, complementary speculation: what if technology, despite its historically very recent acceleration, is already nearing its terminus?

This thought is inspired by recent on-line backs-and-forths I’ve had with various embodiments of the technofetishist zeitgeist. Among those heavily invested, monetarily and otherwise, in information technology (I.T.) is the belief that artificial intelligence underwritten by quantum computing is a done deal, just waiting around the next historical corner. Aside from the thorny issues around just what concept of intelligence is assumed here (though I touch on that matter, above), is the status of quantum computing. There is good reason, both physical and mathematical, that quantum computing is in principle impossible. (Interested parties are urged to consult these brief articles by Moshe Y. Vardi, Mikhail Dyakonov, and on Gil Kalai).

What if, then, the I.T. revolution will soon run into the limits stated by Moore’s Law, the paradoxes of the quantum world prove ultimately unsolvable to human intelligence (instrumental reason in its speculative guise), and relativistic spacetime restrict space exploration to subluminal speeds? It hardly follows that science and technology will come to an end, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that human intelligence (instrumental reason) and ingenuity will reach ultimate limits, as some argue they have in the realm of physics.

The flabbergasted and violent reactions this suggestion might inspire among the technorati and ufophilic alike speaks not to so much to its potential truth-value as to the (unconscious) ideological and no-less theological character of technofetishism and its ufological variations, SETI and the ETH.


The Dialectic is a Trickster, or the Trickster is a Dialectician

If William Murphy over at The Anomalist found my post on Robbie Graham’s take on the hyperreality of the UFO “brainy”, I can only shake my head over what he or the like-minded will make of this one…

A central line of argument I’ve been developing here at Skunkworks concerns how the imagination of the Alien Other relates to society at large. The UFO as a piece of “advanced technology” is merely (“mirrorly”) a reification of the recent history of one society on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world. That is, when the science-fiction script writer, the UFO believer, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher all imagine extraterrestrial, technologically advanced societies, they are only projecting the “First” world onto other worlds, as if instrumental reason were identical with human intelligence in general, as if anthropomorphic cognition were the universal goal of evolution, and as if the destiny of such intelligence was tool-use and an inevitable development of what we recognize as technology, which progresses along a linear scale, such that some is more or less advanced than others.

Such speculations about UFOs are a kind of manifest content of an unconscious dream logic, whose latent content concerns how we understand our own intelligence and that of other forms of life, whether those real ones with whom we in fact share the planet, or the Alien Other. Understood as belonging to an alien race, the humanoid or anthropomorphic Alien Other is a projection of our singular selves; understood as a member of an alien species, the Alien Other is a surreal reminder of our belonging as an equal member to the family of all living things, simultaneously raising other organisms to our pretended level.

The Abrahamic apotheosis of humankind that sets it above all other creatures (Man being made in the image of God and being granted sovereignty over creation) I among many other ecological or ecosophical thinkers take to underwrite the capitalist exploitation of the natural world, animal, vegetable, and mineral, as sheer raw material. For this reason, I have argued that the intrinsic value of animals and plants need be recognized (rather than their value as means to our ends let alone their exchange value under the commodity form), marshaling the findings of research into animal and plant intelligence to undermine the Abrahamic singling out of homo sapiens and to culture greater humility on our part and deeper empathy toward all the other children of Gaia with whom we share the planet.

The foundation of my argument—that recognizing the personhood of nonhuman nature might halt their commodification—is overturned, however, by the sharp insight of philosopher Michael Marder. Marder is most famous for thinking about plants, though his philosophical work is both more wide-ranging and radical. By chance, I was led to his Los Angeles Review of Books Channel, The Philosopher’s Plant, and thereby to his post “A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity”. There, he makes the argument that

…To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital….

I still maintain that the majority of ufological discourse is ideological, unconsciously reasserting certain views of human being and society that maintain a status quo; however, the hope that unmasking this function and balancing these views (that humankind is king of creation with which it can do as it will) with their dialectical Other (human beings are one creature among others in a symbiotic, ecological system) might somehow serve at the very least to call them into question, itself gets caught up in a larger process whereby anything that can possibly come into view, e.g., animal or even plant intelligence, is immediately potentially subject to being exploited for profit.

Surely, to the ufophilic or ufomaniacal, these thoughts are farther out than speculations about how ET gets here from Zeta Reticuli or how to decode crop circles, but for those who dare read the phenomenon in the context of the real conditions of the world that form the matrix for its appearance in the first place, they reveal how much more grave and consequential the UFO mythology is in its implications and the knotted ways it is woven into and out of what we might make out of being human in the early Twenty-first century.