Sightings: Sunday 4 July 2021: The Great Divide, the Climate Emergency, and UFOs/UAP

One fairly consistent observation among American UFO people in the frothing wake of media attention to the recently released Preliminary Assessment on UAP is how the topic is now not only taken relatively seriously but how this interest is shared across the Great Divide in American politics and culture (Republican vs. Democrat, Conservative vs. Liberal), both among politicians (e.g., Marco Rubio (R) and Harry Reid (D)) and television networks (Fox and CNN). Now, Marik von Rennenkampff, an opinion columnist for The Hill, proposes an even stronger possible role for the topic in his piece How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation.

Von Rennenkampff argues that “the UFO mystery could ultimately transcend the deep polarization of the post-Trump era,” regardless of what Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) ultimately turn out to be. On one reading, the Preliminary Assessment leaves it open that, as President Trump’s final director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe claims, “there are technologies that we don’t have and frankly that we are not capable of defending against” or, that as Chris Mellon, et al. maintain, these technologies may be extraterrestrial. “If Ratcliffe is correct and analysts ruled out mundane explanations or advanced U.S. and adversarial technology, the government’s high-level assessments would fuel a remarkable discussion, drawing in Americans from across the political divide,” thinks von Rennenkampff. Alternatively, “if a thorough investigation, driven by intense bipartisan interest, ultimately determines that balloons, drones, birds or plastic bags explain the most extraordinary UFO encounters, the upshot is that America will [still] be less politically and culturally fractured,” precisely because of “the intense bipartisan interest” this latest iteration of “the UFO mystery” will have inspired.

Von Rennenkampff seems caught up by an enthusiasm for the phenomenon that has clouded his reasoning. On the one hand, one has to wonder how serious the public interest in “the UFO mystery” is. Surely, some believe UAP are “real” as fervently as they do the earth revolves around the sun or the earth is flat, but many, imaginably, even among the roughly half the American public who will say “that UFOs reported by people in the military are likely evidence of intelligent life outside Earth” do so because there is nothing at stake in entertaining the idea. On the other, Rennenkampff is correct to posit that should a large majority of the American populace get taken by the question of the nature of UAP America will be less culturally fractured…on precisely this one point, but it hardly follows that the country will be less politically divided on questions of, e.g., reproductive or labour rights, race relations, gun control, the division of church and state, the environment, taxation, or foreign policy.

At the end of his column, von Rennenkampff writes something that can be read as his dimly realizing the vacuousness of his own thesis: “As large swathes of the country face a drought of ‘biblical proportions’ and all-time temperature records are demolished, an unlikely shot at uncovering ‘breakthrough technology’ is worth eroding the deep fault lines dividing America.” Von Rennenkampff’s very rhetoric undermines his proposal. A drought of “biblical proportions” would, in a country with as many fundamentalist Christians as the U.S., make a profound, urgent impression on just that populace keyed to perceive it, a demographic more likely to respond to such a sign from heaven than lights in the sky. Furthermore, to “erode” a fault line would be to deepen it, unless the author has in mind some biblical deluge that would wash away the earth on either side. His very language testifies against the spuriousness of what he intends.

Moreover, the contrast between the gravity of undeniable, sustained drought and killer heat and the flight of fancy of that “unlikely shot” is stunning. Von Rennenkampff’s wager seems to be that UAP are “real”, that they represent either an earthly or unearthly “breakthrough technology” (at least aeronautically), a technology that can be harnessed to practically address the climate emergency, and that the public might be tricked into uniting to tackle this undeniable existential threat by the fascinating lure of a seemingly mysterious technology (ours or theirs or theirs) when it fails to acknowledge what in fact is right in front of its eyes wreaking death and havoc. And if he and we lose this wager, and “a thorough investigation, driven by intense bipartisan interest, ultimately determines that balloons, drones, birds or plastic bags explain the most extraordinary UFO encounters,” what then?

The bitter irony is that Americans are unable to come together in the face of a relatively concrete public health emergency, to agree on and follow the public health measures, e.g., masking and vaccination, to bring the present pandemic under control, much less to come to terms with the reality posed by drought, dangerously high temperatures, and increasingly powerful and destructive tropical storms and hurricanes. If Americans can’t unite in the face of such immediate, dire threats, the political potential of UAP is a will o’ the wisp.

In a not unrelated vein, some readers of last week’s Sightings may have been mystified or miffed by my linking and referring to a leaked draft of the latest IPCC report in the context of and in contrast to the big ufological news of that week, the release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP. The comments on a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, “Canada is a warning: more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans”, however, included some very telling and pertinent remarks that are more assured of the assessment’s implications: “We now know that humans or non-humans have objects that can move around at very high speeds without giving off a significant heat signature”, and

The US govt just confirmed the existence of UFOs. They are either human or non-human (i.e., not swamp gas, ‘system errors’ etc). These UFOs move in ways that defy currently known technology…. ‘States and businesses’ could get on with researching this now known direction of technological travel,

and most tellingly, in light of the “recent UFO disclosure…We now know for sure the technology exists [to mitigate green house gas emissions]—time to see what it can do and how it might reduce the environmental footprint of humanity”.

Here is a demographic convinced that humankind has either developed or encountered “a breakthrough technology” adaptable to solving its energy and environmental challenges. But its seeing this technology as a way to solving the climate emergency is as muddle-headed as von Rennenkampff’s wager. If the technology is nonhuman, then the possibilities of our exploiting it for our own ends are vanishingly small (the claims of Michael Salla and Steven Greer notwithstanding); if the technology is human (which the Assessment is far from affirming), it doesn’t follow it is even applicable or scalable to solving global warming. Both fanciful hopes are akin to the more mundane if speculative technofixes proposed by geoengineers: they all fixate on development’s solving the problems that attend development when the painful truth of the matter is that we already possess immediately deployable ways to reduce both green house gas emission and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (e.g., the hundred plus solutions set out by Project Drawdown) whose primary obstacle to being implemented is political, namely those parties with vested interests in maintaining an ecocidal status quo from which they profit (and who are among the first to promote technofixes that leave social relations favourable to their flourishing untouched): they are, in a word, ideological.

What’s remarkable about these two instances of “the UFO imaginary” is how their intended touching down on real world concerns is in actuality a flight into fantasy. The overwhelming, seeming intractability of urgent, real world problems makes some of us, understandably, avert our gaze heavenward, seeking answers that cost us nothing to these problems that seem to threaten everything.

Sightings: Saturday 26 June 2021: Contact, the Great Silence, and the Preliminary Assessment

Amid the breathless suspense leading up to Friday’s release of the ODNI Preliminary Assessment on UAP, I spun a discussion thread with a persistent interlocutor around the theory that UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft, aka the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis or ETH. In the course of that back and forth, he linked a YouTube video on the matter. Aside from the ETH, the video’s interviewees pursued two lines of thought that touched on other, more urgent concerns…

“Culture Shock”: Kent Monkman’s “The Scream”

It’s a commonplace in ufology and the more scientifically-formal search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) to contemplate the consequences of contact between humankind and a much more technologically-advanced extraterrestrial species (not race) in terms of that between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, etc. For example, Tyler Cowen, a student of “Nahuatl-speaking villages in Mexico”, making the comparison, refers to “the Aztec empire, which met its doom when a technologically superior conqueror showed up: Hernan Cortés and the Spaniards.” The devastating consequences of this encounter are almost always couched in terms of “culture shock”, the approach adopted for instance by Dolan and Zabel in their A.D. After Disclosure.

It is perhaps no accident that those who speak in these terms are white, North American men; how such speculations are framed by interested parties outside this demographic in the rest of the world, I am unsure. What is striking about thinking of the consequences of contact in terms of culture shock is that it passes over if not represses the more painful facts of the matter implied in Stephen Hawking’s more laconic observation: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

The topic is timely because when we Canadians, for example, “look at ourselves” in the light of two fields of unmarked graves recently discovered on the grounds of residential schools what is revealed is that the disruption of the cultures of the First Nations is not so much due to some catastrophic shift in world-view, however radically unsettling, but the overt and covert violence of settler colonialism, i.e., that the very foundation of the Canadian nation state is premissed on the liquidation of the indigenous population as a means to exploiting the natural resources within its borders unhindered. Canada’s First Nations didn’t experience a spiritual crisis encountering the French, Dutch, and English, but have suffered being displaced from their lands and resources through violence or subterfuge and having their children forcefully removed to residential schools whose explicit purpose was summed up by Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the federal Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-32: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department…” The shock to their culture was the result of intentional cultural genocide.

There is a not unrelated paradoxical irony at play in the way that one will hear in the same breath blithe speculations about civilizations thousands if not a billion years ahead of our own and reflections on “the Great Silence”, that we have yet to discover some bio- or technosignature of extraterrestrial life of a sufficiently-advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

Anyone familiar with the work that goes on here in the Skunkworks will be familiar with the implications of that first idea, but, here, I want to remark two other problems with this notion of so long-lived a civilization. On the one hand, one might ask “Whose culture?”, i.e., how to conceive of a culture or civilization that transcends the life of its biological substrate, the species of which it is a culture; a culture that outlives the species whose culture it is stretches the imagination, even moreso if that substrate is imagined to be transbiological, as such “artificial life” (if it can be said to possess a culture at all) would be more likely to change at an even greater rate than a biological species does under the pressures of natural selection. On the other hand, if we “look at ourselves” we find that one of the longest-lived, continuous cultures on earth is that of the aboriginal peoples of Australia, about 60,000 years. What underwrites the longterm stability of such cultures, however, is their having found a sustainable form of life, one rooted in a more harmonious relation to earth’s life support systems than that ecocidal relation characteristic of the so-called advanced, high-tech societies.

When it comes to the Great Silence, in an early articulation of an idea now termed “the Great Filter”, Sagan and Shklovsky in 1966 accounted for it by proposing that perhaps “it is the fate of all such civilizations to destroy themselves before they are much further along,” Unlike the pattern of repression that characterizes thoughts about contact, in this case UFO discourse has been explicitly related to existential threats to human civilization if not homo sapiens itself, from Jung’s proposals in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky to George Adamski‘s Venusians and Klaatu of the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still to recently revived stories of UFOs interfering with nuclear missiles to Vallée’s and Harris’ recent Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret the UFO has been associated with the danger posed by the advent and proliferation of nuclear weapons. More recently, beginning especially with the growing number of abduction stories in the 1980s, the mythology has come to weave itself into the more general ecological crisis, with abductees reporting they have been shown scenes of environmental destruction (a theme taken up by the 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still). Unsurprisingly, e.g., believers in and proponents of Disclosure (official transparency about the reality of and longstanding relations with extraterrestrial civilizations) maintain that zero-point or free-energy extraterrestrial technology can replace our stubborn reliance on fossil fuels. However much the UFO orbits these existential threats, the fantasies this association gives rise to by way of solutions are as weighty as the angel hair that used to fall from the flying saucers: either the extraterrestrial intervention is prophetic (revealing a truth, however much we already know it) or the solution to the problems technological development brings with it is just more technology. In either case, it seems, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to the social order than underwrites present-day technological change, capitalism.

In all these speculations about technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations one can discern a play of revelation and concealment. On the one hand, thoughts about contact or the Great Silence relate and are related to mundane, human matters: the history of colonization during the Age of (so-called) Discovery or the resilience and sustainability of culture and civilization especially under the strain of increasing ecological pressures. On the other hand, on inspection, these reflections betray a repressed, social content that is the mark of the ideological. The (on-going) material violence of European colonization becomes a merely spiritual shock; “civilization” is abstracted from the bodies of the civilized, as if it might be possessed of some immaterial immortality, while, simultaneously, the real, long-lived cultures on earth are overlooked precisely because their form of life contradicts the self-estimation of the advanced societies as having superseded these more primitive contemporaries (i.e., precisely that these cultures are our contemporaries, that they are, therefore, no less modern than ourselves is what must be denied); and the solution to the problems “development” causes is thought to be ever more development, reinforcing the status quo at the base of the problem.

Just as UFOs or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) appear to fly free of gravity and the physical laws of inertia and momentum, so too the thinking about or related to them frees itself from the material base (society, culture, and nature) of its ideas to flit around as nimbly, but, just as the countless stories of UFOs might be said to constitute a myth, a collective dream, the truth of these speculations is no less their grave, unconscious, repressed, all-too-earthly content.

As for that preliminary assessment on UAP? What of it? Here’s something on a leaked draft of a report on an arguably more urgent matter…

Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte? Reading Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret Against the Grain

My earlier notice (if not review) of Jacques Vallée’s and Paola Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret has two parts: the first, critical; the second, recuperative. In this second part, I try to salvage some significance from a book that, taken at face value, fails (the evidence is pure hearsay, presented in a barely coherent and, hence, unpersuasive manner, a presentation undermined further by a lack of sharp focus aggravated by frequent digressions, etc.). This salvage attempt is premissed on the insight I express in the notice: Trinity seems to grasp, “in however a tentative, repressed (unconscious) manner” the symbolic (mythological) significance of the story it reconstitutes and relates.

Here, I want to dilate and clarify that insight, venturing a reading of the text unanchored from the intentions of its authors (that it is an investigation of a real event, an early UFO crash/retrieval). The reading I essay here is an exercise or experiment, whose working assumption is that the authors know but repress there is nothing to the story and that its significance is not factual but symbolic. I most emphatically do not pretend to “put the authors on the analyst’s couch” to thereby reveal some obscured fact of the text, but, instead, put into play this faux “psychoanalytic” approach heuristically to account for both how the book is composed and to secure the symbolic truth that Vallée intuits but is unable to grasp as such (It’s as if Vallée “knows not what he writes”).

Perhaps the most immediately striking feature of the book is how it approaches the topic of the crash, retrieval, and debris in an often indirect manner, a lack of focus aggravated by apparently unmotivated digressions (i.e., their pertinence is not immediately clear). Roughly one third of the book is composed of interviews conducted by Harris with the three primary witnesses, “lightly edited… for clarity” (16) by Vallée who also interjects passages of commentary. These interviews are neither the focussed, dogged interrogations that would have dug into the case in the depth needed to make it even initially persuasive, nor have they been pruned down to all the better frame the details pertinent to the book’s argument.What possible relevance, for example, can Paola Harris’ and (the relative of one of the primary witnesses) Sabrina Padilla’s being afraid of snakes have (256)? The same can be asked of many pages, e.g., in the Foreword, the first chapter (that concerns the development and detonation of the first atom bombs), or Chapter Thirteen, the story of a visit to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1964. Were Trinity a work of literature, these formal features (the interviews and digressions) might be said to be mirrored at the level of content in the “poisonous” plants (Cocklebur and Nightshade) that suddenly one year are found to cover “the initial oval landing site” (78), supposedly sown by the Bureau of Land Management, and the intentional and natural changes to the landscape that buried what debris might remain “twenty feet down” (79). That is to say that the diffuse interviews obscure the matter while the digressions bury it under ever more text. It’s as if the authors seek to avoid the void at the core of the book,—the absence of the crashed craft, its pilots, the four different kinds of debris the witnesses describe, etc.—the dearth of hard evidence that becomes, as it were, a bottomless pit around which a screen of distraction must be erected and ever more text shoveled in to fill. I do not mean to suggest that the authors are trying to deceive the reader; rather that, following the heuristic premise that governs my reading, the stylistic features I remark appear as ways of concealing the poverty of their case from themselves and to compensate for this lack.

Aside from these positive features, there are, as it were, negative ones, which appear to function in the same, symptomatic ways. In my notice, I remark the persistent orthographic lapses, the typos that riddle the text, a most striking one, the spelling of a book’s title two different ways on facing pages (134-5). Such overt errors are of a piece with the poor organization of the text and its digressions. The way the accused will hem and haw and stumble over their words as they dissemble to conceal their guilt from their interrogators, the text’s lapses are a kind of nervous tic, indicative of graver problems.They are, as it were, a veiled confession, hairline fractures in the surface of the argument’s edifice that hint at the gaping, fatal cracks in its foundation. In addition, both how the book supports and fails to support its claims is suggestive. The first endnote, on the Plains of Saint Augustin or Agustin, is cribbed from Wikipedia, a not-even tertiary source that would fail to pass muster in a college-level research paper. In the footnote on page 33, the authors note that they were put on the trail to William Brothy, an Army Air Force pilot who is said to have seen both the smoke from the crash and the two primary witnesses (307), via the Amazon website. Moreover, many claims are left simply hanging. For example, Vallée states in many of the interviews conducted after the book’s release that the primary witnesses had binoculars as good as those possessed by the army. What binoculars, specifically, did the witnesses have? How does one know? What was the standard set of field glasses issued to the army in the American Southwest at the time? Most importantly, what are the optical specifications of these binoculars and what light can these specifications shed on the testimony of the witnesses concerning what they saw? Many such basic forensic considerations are passed over in silence. Such shoddy, negligent research both reveals and conceals the vacuity of the book’s case. Citing Wikipedia and the Amazon website, for instance, seems an admission that the matter is unworthy of more authoritative legitimation, while omitting or refusing to cite supporting evidence for the most basic yet essential claims ironically “covers up” the baselessness of the book’s argument. It’s as if the authors could not bear to look too closely into the matter for fear of revealing to themselves the absolute poverty of the case they seek to make. I am not claiming in fact that the authors are incompetent or fraudulent, only that the flaws in the text can be read as so many “returns of the repressed”.

One could analyze, as well, the way the authors “protest too much”, e.g., with regards to the reliability of the witnesses (seven and nine years old at the time of the incident), but I would turn now to how the unconscious awareness of the physical, factual vacuity of the case precipitates an awareness, in however no less repressed a manner, of the rich symbolic content of the story the authors tell. Ironically, the francophone Vallée will be the first to understand that the French word histoire (like the German Geschichte) denotes both ‘history’ (a chronicle of factual events) and ‘story’ (a fictional narrative). It is no less the case that contes and récits (roughly, tales) are histoires. Vallée and Harris purport to be relating an histoire but in truth they tell an histoire. Perhaps it’s this brisure (hinge) in the polysemy of ‘histoire‘ that swings Vallée’s thinking (however consciously) from informational patterns to literary texture or folkloric motifs:

Everything, in this story, appears to be going in threes…Three atomic bombs were exploded in the summer of 1945…There were three live Campamochas aboard the crashed craft…there were three ‘short ugly guys’ who ‘started to put things into the mind‘ of the sheepherder…Also, at least three metallic artifacts were recovered… (149)

Vallée remarks, too, “three objects of interest”: Fat Man (the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki), the “avocado” UFO observed by the witnesses, and the Jumbo test enclosure on display at the Trinity site (150), to which one could add the number of direct and indirect witnesses and the three peaks that give the Trinity site its name and the book its title. He collates, as well, an additional trio, comparing the San Antonio crash with the Socorro and Valensole landing cases (pp. 183 ff.).

Vallée wrestles with the idea that the details of the story he and Harris investigate are in some profound way meaningful: “Jose and Reme were witnesses to an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols between the brightest scientists in the world and something else, undoubtedly the product of another mind…” [my emphasis] (282). Regarding the stories of UFO crashes and retrievals, in part or in whole, he wonders

What if those UFO devices had been designed so they could not be reverse-engineered by people with our current level of knowledge and social development? What if their target was at a different level? At a symbolic level, about our relationship to life? At a psychic level, about our relationship to the universe? What if they contained an existential warning? [my emphasis] (287)

At one level, we witness here Vallée speculating about the crash, its spatiotemporal proximity to the detonation of the first atom bomb, the puzzling earthliness of the crashed object, the irrationality of its colliding with a radio tower, etc., ultimately imagining the whole event to be possibly an attempted communication from a nonhuman intelligence. Vallée’s struggle, however, in light of the reading I pursue here, is a process of realization, as if he were waking from a dream whose manifest content is the “literal” understanding of the story of the crash and whose latent content occurs precisely at a “symbolic level.” The story of the crash is “an unexpected dialogue of sorts, an eerie exchange of symbols“, between the witnesses and researchers and “another mind”, just not a nonhuman, extraterrestrial, ultratraterrestrial, interdimensional, or transtemporal mind, but that of the inhuman Other (following Lacan), the Unconscious, Creative, Collective, or otherwise, a dialogue that only becomes audible and one we can take part in only once we suspend our belief in the factual truth of the story Trinity tells, i.e., along the lines of the heuristic (“as if”) reading I here propose and sketch out.

This is perhaps “the best kept secret” of Trinity , that it is best understood not as a true histoire (and Kevin Randle, among others, has given us good reason not take it so) but as an uncannily unconscious fiction (histoire), a book that the science-fiction novelist Jacques Vallée failed to write. (And I am hardly alone in remarking the book’s possessing “all the hallmarks of a fictive account.”) As such, it can enter the engagement with “the myth of things seen in the skies” that extends from Jung to Lynch and beyond, into both the conscious and unconscious elaboration of the myth and the unending Traumwerk of understanding what it is we are trying to tell ourselves that we cannot otherwise face in the light of day and reason.

A Note on Twin Peaks Season 3 and Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret

I ended my review of Jacques Vallée’s and Paolo Harris’ Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret noting that the book, because of its suggesting a connection between the detonation of the first atomic bomb and the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP!) crash it investigates, finds “its place between the covert fictions of George Adamski (whose Venusians came to warn us of the dangers of atomic energy) and the overt fiction of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.” Since, I’ve become aware of certain uncanny motifs Trinity and Twin Peaks share.

Vallée has made no secret of his intuiting a connection between the Trinity “test”, “the emergence of our civilization into, essentially, the nuclear age,” and the San Antonio crash. What crashed was said to be egg-shaped (like an avocado). From a damaged side of the ship, diminutive pilots were said to have emerged, who were compared to Praying Mantises, Fire Ants, or Jerusalem Crickets.

It’s hardly unique to perceive the advent of atomic weapons as a fateful development in human history. For Vallée, evidence of our having entered the Atomic Age precipitated a non-human intervention, however ambiguous. In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Season 3, Episode 8, the Trinity test, too, disturbs a barrier between our world and some other, opening the way for no less mysterious, inhuman agents (the “Woodsmen”) and unnatural evil. The otherworldly origin of these beings and others is tied into the UFO mythology by Lynch’s recasting Project Blue Book (that thematically rimes with the series’ motif of “the Blue Rose”) as an investigation into just these beings and their nature.

In Episode 8, the Trinity test is followed in the next scene by the arrival of the Woodsmen through a weird portal in an abandoned convenience store somewhere in the American Southwest. The action shifts to an otherworldly void, where an amorphous if feminine figure emits an ectoplasmic vomit.

This extrusion seems a stream of unnatural evil that will manifest itself in our mundane reality in various ways. One of these is the landing of an egg (some visible in the still, above) in the general vicinity of the Trinity test and the convenience store, which will hatch a weird frog-moth hybrid that eventually makes its way into the mouth and down the throat of a hapless young woman, to possess or impregnate her.

The parallels are as striking as they are mystifying: the Trinity test is supernaturally momentous, triggering an opening between worlds and the intrusion into ours of the denizens of that other. In both imaginings (and Vallée’s and Harris’ is an imagining, being a reconstruction from hearsay), this intrusion manifests as an egg out of which emerge unnatural (however animal-like) beings. Here, I only register these shared motifs and venture no further speculations (though some suggest themselves: the oval shape of the first A-bombs and the connotations of the egg in general, the unnaturalness of mutated creatures, etc.), other than to note that the source of “the myth of things seen in the skies” works in mysterious ways!

Sightings: Monday 24 May 2021: Polarized Politics, Propaganda, and Post-Truth Populism

Sometimes bits of ufological and related news catch my attention. Either due to my time/energy or interests, these may not be provocative enough to inspire a whole post, so, on such occasions, under the category “Sightings”, I at least try to leave some trace of the thoughts these ephemera did in fact prompt. This week, there are three…

“…the issue is entirely political…”

That the topic of UFOs (UAP) is charged is surely an understatement. As an element of Twentieth and Twenty-first Century world culture, the UFO hovers over fields from science to religion, national security to science fiction, and even politics, in various senses both popular and more philosophical, gets caught up and drawn into its vortex.

Amid the increasingly bigger media splash UFOs are making since the breakout New York Times articles is the appearance of the topic on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time, where Sean Cahil and Christopher Mellon as well as Mick West were recently interviewed. Apart from the question of just what the videos in question actually show, that the so-called “mainstream media” is covering UAP (UFOs) prompted the following comment on a Facebook group I belong to: “this is no longer a scientific issue. Now that 60 Minutes has made UFOs mainstream the issue is entirely political. Already we have the left wing CNN vs. the right wing FOX News. Now Chris Cuomo vs. Tucker Carlson,” an angle on the politics of American media shared by Robert Sheaffer: “On the right, we have Tucker Carlson on Fox News, and the New York Post. On the left, we have the Washington Post and The New York Times.” (Though I’m unsure just how, e.g., Cuomo’s and Carlson’s views on the matter significantly differ …).

The commenter’s take is backed up by a relatively recent Gallup poll conducted in the first half of August 2019. published just this month (May 2021): “Which comes closer to your view: some UFOs have been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies, or all UFO sightings can be explained by human activity on Earth or natural phenomenon?” Again, apart from the unremarkable (if not problematic) question itself, what’s curious is the very first remark concerning the poll’s findings: “This is one topic on which Republicans and Democrats agree: 30% of the former and 32% of the latter describe UFOs as alien spacecraft from other planets. Belief is a bit higher among political independents, at 38%.”

That a topic, however “popular”, such as UFOs should get caught up in the cultural polarization that characterizes U.S. society presently in a social media comment is not too surprising, but when the question of an individual’s identifying as “Republican” or “Democrat” becomes a default question for, in this case, a Gallup poll, “politics” becomes an sign of a more grave, social malady. (With regard to the question of what someone believes about UFOs, why should party allegiance trump, e.g., education, religion, race, or income?). Clearly, UFOs are not political—a matter of social consequence—the way that gun, abortion, or voting rights are; it’s just that, in American media, any topic that catches its attention is immediately parsed in this all-too-familiar, polarized fashion.

There are, however, more profound senses in which the UFO is political, or, more properly, can be understood politically, i.e. ideologically. On the one hand, one can speak of Left or Right “ideologies”, the explicit set of beliefs and values adhered to by a group, the “everyday” (popular, vulgar) sense of the term. ‘Ideology’, however, denotes more usefully precisely those beliefs about society and its values that are unspoken and often shared across the (vulgar) political spectrum, assumptions that demarcate and maintain that social context within which differences, such as those between American Republicans and Democrats, play out…

On the one hand, Trotskyist Posadists and paranoid, right-wing reactionaries, such as Bill Cooper, both believe that UFOs are spaceships from a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial civilization, but their (vulgar) ideological differences obscure the radically ideological content of the belief that UFOs are advanced, unearthly technology. The Extraterrestrial Hypothesis as such is ideological. As I formulated this thesis most recently:

However much technology is not essentially bound up with capitalism, it is the case that technology as we know it developed under capitalism as a means to increase profit by eliminating labour, a development that has only picked up steam as it were with the drive to automation in our present moment. When this march of progress is imagined to be as natural as the precession of the equinoxes, it is uncoupled from the social (class) relations that determine it, reifying the status quo. In this way, popular or uncritical speculations about technologically advanced extraterrestrial societies are arguably politically reactionary. But they are culturally, spiritually impoverishing, too. This failure, willed or otherwise, to grasp our own worldview as contingent legitimates if not drives the liquidation of human cultural difference and of the natural world. Identifying intelligence with one kind of human intelligence, instrumental reason, and narrowing cultural change to technological development within the lines drawn by the self-regarding histories of the “advanced” societies, we murderously reduce the wild variety of intelligence (human and nonhuman alike) and past, present, and, most importantly, potentially future societies to a dreary “eternal recurrence of the same,” a world not unlike those “imagined” by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises wherein the supposed unimaginable variety of life in the cosmos is reduced to that of a foodcourt.

Something’s going on, but we don’t know what it is…

The recent media attention being paid to UAP focusses on videos and photographs all leaked from the U.S. Navy, whether 2015’s “Gimbal” and “Go Fast” videos, 2004’s “FLIR1” or “Tic Tac” video, the more recent “Pyramid” footage, or the “Metal Blimp w/ payload”, “Sphere”, and “Acorn” photographs (the featured image for this post, above) or now a video of a USO or “transmedium” vehicle from the USS Omaha. All these are problematic in two, provocative ways. First, none, on close examination, very persuasively show anything unusual let alone unearthly. The three photographs arguably picture party balloons (the Metal Blimp, a shark, and the Acorn, a Batman balloon) or something just out of focus (the Sphere). The Pyramid appears to be nothing more than a camera artifact. And the Gimbal, Go Fast, Tic Tac, and USS Omaha videos have their proposed mundane explanations, too. More troubling is how this video/photographic evidence is simultaneously officially stamped as “authentic” (taken by military personnel) but their provenance remains in the dark. So, many have posed the question as to why such unimpressive, officially-sanctioned “evidence” is being released, disseminated, and spun the way it is (among them, most recently, Andrew Follett).

From the first ripples of this splash (that gave us History’s Unidentified) to the present waves (or foam) of interest and commentary, the purported Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) have been presented as potential threats. Setting aside the proposals of Steven Greer and Michael Salla (…), that this spin is part of the preparation for a false flag alien invasion, others propose that the threat narrative is a way for the military industrial complex to secure greater support or funding. But this proposal is unconvincing, given the famously bloated defense budget of the U.S. that withstands every attempt to deflate it even a little. There’s already a Space Force, and, given that the threats posed by Russia, China, and even global warming are all officially acknowledged and monitored, what need would the Pentagon have to resort to such easily-debunked evidence of UAP incursions to make a case for itself? It’s precisely the shoddiness of the proffered “evidence” that seems to persuade only hardcore believers, themselves only a fraction of that roughly a third of Americans who will entertain the idea that UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, that gives me pause for thought. Even if these UAP are spun as earthly, foreign aerospace developments (as would seem to be suggested by the news about questionable patents for exotic propulsion systems, also part of the story), already-accepted real-world threats are hardly aggravated by unpersuasive video or photographic evidence, however “official”…

Time will tell, or, as is often the case when it comes to UFOs/UAP, it won’t, creating an abyss for neverending speculation to fill Google’s YouTube servers and swell the bookshelves of UFOphiles…

It’s just so much more complicated…

Finally, first in response to a blog post by Christ Rutkowski, then at the prompting of The Anomalist‘s Bill Murphy, I essayed some thoughts on the causes and character of the kind of thinking that goes into our post-truth iterations of New World Order, etc. conspiracy theorizing. I stand by the genealogy and the psychological and social aspects of the phenomenon I sketch, but, the matter being very complicated, I failed to remark two, essential dimensions. First, the disruption of our sensus communis has been undertaken by agents both domestic and foreign: there would be no “post-truth” crisis were it not for Trump and his ilk echoing, in their own farcical way, the Nazi rhetoric directed against die Lügenpresse and foreign (and now domestic) actors working to misinform and increasingly polarize the citizenry. More profoundly, the advent of digital and social media is overwhelmingly pertinent, both as a general condition governing the dissemination of information, both in terms of its content and velocity, and as the technology weaponized by the aforementioned actors. As well, I assumed anyone interested in the topic would be familiar with the ways that propaganda (from Operation Mockingbird to the Iraqi WMD scandal) and government secrecy (from Watergate to “deep events” such as the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11, among many other instances) had long tilled the soil for the crop we reap today.

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.

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…

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….


“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).