Why Skeptics Keep UFO Discourse Alive
In 1994, Larry King hosted his famous “Live from Area 51” broadcast. It featured many big names from the UFO community, and attempted to provide a debate which would settle the UFO question. Fact versus fiction. Real versus False. Right versus Wrong. Let’s just say the ‘jury is still out.’
However, the 90 minute episode did raise an interesting (exo)philosophical point which does need to be revisited. Larry King suggests at one point that much of the UFO debate hinges upon our capacity to ‘believe’ the witness. Set against the backdrop of the Nevada desert, and the infamous Area 51, the concept of the extraterrestrial reveals and renounces the ‘Truth.’
The UFO discourse exists in a dualism; a blend of attempted scientific method and research mixed with an open democratic ideological free-for-all. Objective and subjective simultaneously; both and neither. This places the UFO discourse into an interesting cultural state, and more importantly, fundamentally requires skeptics and debunkers as essential players in the UFO game.
One segment of UFO discourse hinges upon witness credibility, and that the UFO is an objective ‘thing,’ physical and present. It is something that can be studied. Furthermore, many within the UFO community push for a scientific approach to the UFO question. They argue that the UFO community must apply modern science to address these objects, and have ‘real’ scientists explore the UFO question. In essence, they posit that academic rigour, rationality and logic are essential to solving the riddle.
Others within the community, many skeptics and debunkers included, state that this scientific approach will achieve nothing. It is interesting to note that those members of the community who ‘believe’ in a more mystical UFO reality, and the hardline debunkers, follow a similar vein of thinking; scientific method has been attempted for 70 years, has solved nothing, and it is time to move on to something different. Furthermore, the argument goes that the UFO question does not turn upon human rationality and logic, but exceeds it as our human minds are too rudimentary to understand the broader cosmic reality. The abductee, the contactee, the witness, is more than a simple observer, but an ‘experiencer.’ The event intertwines with them in a mysterious way, divine, fetishized, and emotional. The object and subject are connected and indivisible. A person does not simply ‘see,’ rather they are in ‘communion’ with the Other.
This ideological duality within UFO debate and subculture, this simultaneously objective and subjective state, generates a spontaneous discourse, reflexive to the constant interplay and shifting of ideological constructs. In other words, the UFO debate is constantly evolving and adapting. It is a truly postmodern system of objects, subjects and ideas. UFO discourse allows for any and all realities.
The discourse is chaotic, both meaningful and meaningless. The lines between information and misinformation (or disinformation) is not only blurry, it is constantly moving. However, the subculture continues to grow, UFO headlines still make the news, and the discourse continues to generate ideas, thoughts, theories and hypotheses. It continues to function, even in the chaos. This begs the question, how?
Enter the skeptics and the debunkers who are ever present and fundamentally essential to the survival of Ufology and the UFO discourse as a cultural phenomenon.
UFO skeptics and debunkers are the glue that hold the subculture and the debate together. Mainstream science has basically excluded the UFO question from its ideological world view; it is this exclusion which allows Ufology to continue. Ufology itself has attempted to use the scientific method (albeit unsuccessfully) to turn various UFO hypotheses into ‘facts.’ A whole movement within the UFO community pushes for ‘Scientific Ufology,’ using the very academic discipline which alienates UFOs in an attempt to prove their objective reality.
Theologically, UFO discourse has negotiated many ancient and well established religious ideologies, predominantly aspects of Buddhism, Hinduism, and various indigenous Shamanistic practices, into itself. Discussions over universal consciousness, light beings, the Mandela Effect, spirit guides, energy crystals, prophesy, and divine visitors all exist within UFO discourse. Deemed as crazies and cooks, the mystical UFO believers have legitimized their own ideologies by suggesting their beliefs are ‘True’ while the rest of the world is blind to the facts. They’d argue that scientific understanding is irrelevant as it is a limited human construct. While this sounds a little out there, can any scientist truly argue and prove that the human mind, and the social constructs it generates such as science, is the pinnacle of all evolution within the cosmos? From an established philosophical perspective, this concept is pretty old hat. Metaphysics often deals with this, and many philosophers have dealt with God as a symbol of intelligence that exceeds that of humanity. I digress.
The chaotic nature of UFO discourse continues to pop up into mainstream culture due to the constant interplay between itself and the skeptics. The books and essays by Carl Sagan and Philip Klass legitimize the discourse, they provide the chaos with a bit of level ground that outsiders can stand on. The skeptics and debunkers, in a sense, contain the chaos, to allow for debate and discussion to occur in an understandable way. More importantly, the skeptics and debunkers are the ones who bring the UFO question to mainstream culture. The publicity they generate in their criticism affirms the UFO, and the UFO subculture simply pivots, and uses that criticism to grow.
It is interesting to consider the essential place of the skeptic and debunker in UFO discourse. Many within the community despise those who openly criticize their beliefs and experiences, however, without those voices of dissent within the UFO debate, the discourse itself would stagnate. To the broader mainstream culture not regularly involved in the nitty-gritty Ufological world, the skeptics and debunkers are hounds howling at night drawing attention to the darkness. Whether the critics know it or not, the more they speak, the faster Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.
- MJ Banias
Counterculture, Hyperreality and the Illusion of Radicalism
“We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality. We demand them. And we demand that there be always more of them, bigger and better and more vivid. They are the world of our making: the world of the image.”
-Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America
I have argued in the past that UFO discourse, debate, and inquiry has been relegated to the taboo fringe due to contemporary hegemonic power systems, such as late Capitalist ideology. To continue exploring the cultural theories that direct Ufological ideology, I wish to explore the alien abduction/contact question, and focus on the broader UFO community’s acceptance of this phenomenon as being an act of defiance against the status quo power systems which hegemonically govern Western ideology and society.
I appreciate that there are many people within the UFO community and subculture that do not accept the abduction/contact phenomenon as being objectively real, and therefore, legitimate. The intention of this article is not to explore the reality of abduction and contact. To be honest, the ‘truth’ behind the phenomenon does not matter. What matters, at least from a critical standpoint, is that the phenomenon, in UFO circles, does have a broad acceptance of being authentic, and, for all intents and purposes, is “real.”
To avoid further compartmentalizing the UFO subculture into various camps of belief, we can generally appreciate the relativism that surrounds the abduction/contact narrative. Those within the UFO community who have not totally ‘alienated’ experiencers generally approach the phenomenon with a “whatever floats your boat” attitude. In other words, “everyone is entitled to an opinion.” This relativist attitude is quite common within UFO discourse, as the UFO/UAP phenomenon is ideologically tied to the abduction/contact phenomenon.
Furthermore, the attitude generally follows a subjectivist metaphysical line of thinking. The common argument goes something like this:
What is the difference between believing in God and believing in aliens? People believe in Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, Samsara and various avatars, messianic prophets of all sorts, reincarnation, and a whole assortment of other deities. Is not the belief in extraterrestrials, interdimensional beings, or some other alien intelligent Other the same? Humans have a variety of religious and spiritual beliefs which are generally respected. In fact, as our species begins to piece together more information about the cosmos, and the discoveries of dozens of exoplanets which could potentially harbour life, doesn’t the science basically justify the possibility of life elsewhere in our galaxy, and that it is well within the realm of reason that it is coming here?
The theology, while controversial, is just that, theology. It matters not, especially since we can look at the ebb and flow of UFO/ET religions over the last several decades with crisp hindsight. I do not support a theological belief in aliens, however, the ideological “catch 22” here does have a certain level of truth to it.
An interesting cultural phenomenon is that with all the various religions and beliefs out there, assuming that extraterrestrials are visiting Earth, or some other similar ideology, is culturally taboo. Mainstream cultural ideology has no problem with faith in the various, albeit appropriate and allowable, religious deities, but faith in an alien Other, that is considered wholly unacceptable.
The abduction/contact narrative is, in simple terms, countercultural. Furthermore, the tacit support for the people who experience these events, and the general acceptance of this phenomenon by the UFO subculture, is an overt act of dissent towards established cultural and social ideologies. This relativistic position challenges the taboo, and the mainstream culture as a whole. It is a saber rattling performance, a haka (to borrow from the Maori of New Zealand), which generates an ideology for the disenfranchised. A sort of, “people are abducted by aliens, and I’m OK with that” mentality.
Supporting the abductee/contactee creates the appearance of radicalism, and attempts to subvert the scientific, academic, political and economic power systems designed to maintain the cultural and social status quo. It tries to force the mainstream consensus reality into the proverbial corner, and provide a view into a world consisting of individuality, unique thought, and ‘authenticity.’
“Damn the man.” Well, sort of. As I stated above, “it tries.”
This worldview without judgement, supported by the UFO community and the abductees/contactees, is not what it seems. Similar to the mechanisms of late Capitalism, and the constructs of contemporary power systems, this anti-establishment position generated by the UFO community is an illusion.
To borrow an idea from the French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, concerning ‘hyperreal’ states, we, as a society, struggle to interpret what is real and what is not. In his famous work, Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard writes,
“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning. (79)”
It is not that we lack information regarding the phenomenon, as a search of the MUFON database or YouTube will provide a large collection of abduction/contactee stories; rather, it is that we struggle with the ability to distinguish between real and ‘unreal.’ We cannot differentiate the experience from ‘the image.’
The abduction/contact narrative is hyperreal, it exists because there is information regarding it; YouTube videos, blog posts, books, TV shows, documentaries, podcasts, and late night radio shows. However, it also does not exist, as it is not a shared or common human experience. When faced with a story of abduction and/or contact, we, individually, must decide its reality, yet the ‘act of decision’ is objectively impossible. The story, the narrative, is not simply the telling of an event, but a vast collection of technological data, interpretation, and a subject with very little judgeable information flooded by opinions of ‘experts’ on both sides of the debate. In other words, the abduction/contact story is not the event itself, but the collection of ideology which surrounds that event. One cannot separate one instance of abduction/contact from the rest; there is no place to stand from which to do that, as no one can shed their ‘knowledge’ concerning the phenomenon. We cannot remove ‘the image’ from the picture.
The act of support by the general UFO community for the abduction/contact narrative is ultimately a simulacrum. It is pretend, not because members of the community do not mean it, but because they want it to have meaning. The UFO community inundates the abduction/contact narrative with other illusions and ideologies, compounding it, influencing it, and only widening the expanse between real and ‘hyperreal.’ Charges of government conspiracy, insidious hybrid baby breeding, Disclosure, secret space programs, and many other scenarios complicate the narrative. The ‘information’ spins and churns and collapses on itself only to spin and churn and collapse again, ad infinitum. Similar to the lights and sounds of the Las Vegas strip, the city becomes lost in the fantasy, and the fantasy becomes the city itself; the two cannot be separated. This relativist support for the abduction/contact narrative is, in totality, tied into the web of information, but essentially meaningless.
Where does this leave us?
The problem with ideologies is that they cut both ways. While the UFO community may look upon mainstream power systems, such as modern Capital or Government, with disdain and mistrust, the community itself does not have some special access to ‘truth’ or ‘reality.’ While mainstream society and culture may be a hyperreal state of constructed illusions, the UFO subculture, and the politics it supports, is also illusionary. As the famous X-Files quote suggests, “The truth is out there.” That is to say, it is not in here with us, the UFO community. It is and forever will be “out there.”
With all of this, we still see the UFO community, and the abduction/contact narrative relegated to the fringes of general society. Regardless of the illusion, contemporary power systems require their ideological constructs to keep them functioning. The abduction/contact narrative, while ideologically motivated, still challenges the status quo. While it is merely the swapping of one ideology for another, albeit a more democratic ideology perhaps, current social, political and economic interests do not want a trade to occur.
The support for abductees/contactees among the general UFO community, that posturing haka, is still dangerous for the status quo. While we may never be free of ideology, perhaps some ideologies are “better” than others. This acceptance of those who interact with an alien Other shows a glimpse into the world of stark individuality, and a world where even the most alienated can find a place and voice within society. Is it perfect? No. Is it less worse? Maybe.
Do people get abducted or make contact with an intelligent Other? I personally do not know. Strange things do happen, and I’ll leave it at that. Whether it happens or not, the ideologies behind the abduction/contact event are truly what shape it, more so than the event itself. We cannot have the experience alone, that is impossible, rather we have ‘the image’ first, and the experience comes after.
[Featured image: Alien Abduction (2014 film)]