The "E" Word and the Duality of the UFO Experience
The UFO subculture, as with every subculture, is shaped by minute details and ideological nuance. No subculture can point to a singular event that shapes the paradigms which form its identity. All communities which group together will share, what cultural theorist Dick Hebdidge called, “style.” The UFO subculture most definitely has a sense of communal self, a shared language and ‘jargon,’ and a sort of gravity which pulls members together. While one could easily write out a laundry list of important ‘moments’ within Ufological history, none of those events “are” the subculture’s identity. Rather, it is the collection of moments, their interpretation as well as the broader themes which ran through the popular culture of the day. The UFO subculture is not made up of one thing, but a whole host of things.
That being said, one common motif that runs through these communal moments is the notion of the extraterrestrial, the alien Other. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs regarding the notion of aliens, the history and mythology of the UFO narrative has fused the ET construct to the subculture. Before proceeding, one ought to be clear on the fact that not everyone in the UFO community interprets the idea of the alien in the same way. Indeed, the physical bug eyed alien grey is a common trope, but there exists a wide array of extraterrestrial ideologies. It must be understood that the ‘alien Other’ is best expressed as an intelligence that is non-human but possesses some sort of agency. Currently, there is no public material evidence that a “non-human Other” exists. With that being said, the countless stories, testimonies and experiential interactions with odd beings, monsters, and even divine entities cannot be written off totally. Something strange is going on, it is just unclear what or who that strange is.
Regardless, the UFO community engages in an ideological battle over the source of the phenomenon. Whether it be the Greys from Zeta Reticuli, Blue Avians, or a complex and intelligent overarching control system, the community often confuses its own personal ideologies with facts.
UFO researcher Lorin Cutts, in the book, "UFOs: Reframing the Debate" calls this the UFO mythological zone. The mythological zone is “the gap between fact and belief, what we see and what we want to see, and what we experience and how we interpret it.”
Cutts believes that this divide between truth and fiction is responsible for dysfunction inside the UFO subculture. He explains,
“...look at ufology as a whole- the vast majority lies within this mythological zone. And while there is nothing wrong with open discussion, speculation, and hypothesizing in a field so vast and mysterious, there is a world of difference between these things and passing off totally unfounded statements as absolutes.”
Cutts touches upon exactly what cultural theorists study when it comes to the mythologies that exist around and within a subculture. This mythological ideology forms the reality of the subculture.
This mythological foundation of the UFO phenomenon has made “extraterrestrial” a dirty word, and through transitive property, the term “UFO” as well. Ultimately, this has made UFO discourse counter-cultural, and we must understand that the community itself is pushed out of popular discourse and debate by these ideologies. Even though there are varying interpretations within the subculture of what UFOs are, the mythology which surrounds the subculture limits those differing ideologies and hypotheses to escape into mainstream understanding.
Extraterrestrials, whether they are physical beings or more mystical in nature, pose no real threat to scientific knowledge. To the established academia, those beings are far far away. Furthermore, their arrival here, should they exist, would only broaden scientific understanding for all of humanity. If aliens landed tomorrow, announced their presence, and took credit for centuries of visitation, would the often criticized pseudoscientific and reductionist field of Ufology and UFO discourse die an instant death? Would the study of alien technology and the aliens themselves, become an established academic and scientific discourse? Supposing such an event occurred, no matter how unlikely, the study of which would undoubtedly become established into schools of philosophy, sociology, theology, and the other humanities. The UFO subculture only exists because the entirety of the phenomenon remains unknown. It is due to this unknowability that the community is not allowed to participate in established academic and official culture. Furthermore, it is the mythology that has formed around this unknowability that has shaped the subculture into such a vast collection of ideologies and people.
This cultural bias was apparent after Harvard University professor and psychiatrist, Dr. John Mack, published his famous book, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens in 1994. Mack was heavily criticized by his peers for promoting nonsense, and, as historian Greg Eghigian, points out, his colleagues suggested, using quite an inappropriate racial trope, that he was “going native” by working with abductees and members of the UFO community. According to Eghigian, the controversy surrounding Mack’s work began when he started to "believe" his patients, and accept that perhaps some intelligence was behind the tales they recounted. According to Mack,
“What the abduction phenomenon has led me (I would say now inevitably) to see is that we participate in a universe or universes that are filled with intelligences from which we have cut ourselves off, having lost the senses by which we might know them. It has become clear to me also that our restricted worldview or paradigm lies behind most of the major destructive patterns that threaten the human future—mindless corporate acquisitiveness that perpetuates vast differences between rich and poor and contributes to hunger and disease; ethnonational violence resulting in mass killing which could grow into nuclear holocaust; and ecological destruction on a scale that threatens the survival of the earth’s living systems.”
Whether Mack’s patients were truly being taken by extraterrestrials is not important here. What is important is that Mack directly challenged academic and scientific authority. Rather than proper and thorough inquiry into his findings, his community lumped him into the lunatic fringe UFO subculture and attributed his new-found world view to a colonial cultural trope. Furthermore, it only reinforces the ideological fears which haunt the academic and scientific communities; that contemporary Western materialist and logocentric thinking is somehow flawed.
The UFO, both as a social and objective construct, is an object of dissension. It challenges mainstream culture. The UFO phenomenon, and every iteration that stems from it, whether it is a government conspiracy and alien abduction and fairy lore, simply put, is both fact and fiction simultaneously. The objectivity and authenticity of UFOs are in a constant state of duality, shifting in and out of cultural and social frames of reference. UFOs and extraterrestrials do not attach themselves completely to a reality we currently understand, therefore, to make claims of 'Truth' about them is impossible.
The UFO has two masters, the observable daily world we dwell in, and the world of mass media, television, literature and film. UFOs are products of the real and the imaginary. It is difficult to think of UFOs outside of the illusory meanings placed upon them by television shows like The X-Files or films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Moreover, various documentary programs, books and magazines have also shaped our collective understanding of what UFOs are. We consume UFOs rather than understand them. The UFO phenomenon is, outside of the illusions we’ve constructed, unknowable to us. We cannot “undo” the hyperreality of fact and fiction which shapes their meaning.
Regardless of this real/mythological duality we have framed the phenomenon in, the UFO haunts our culture. While imagery of alien Predators camouflaging in trees and tall white aliens in flying saucers grace our screens, real experiences of strange sightings and contact with strange unknown entities seem to dot our very real social storytelling. Both imagined and real, the UFO phenomenon challenges these boundaries. Nothing ought to be taken for granted, and UFOs act as a symbol of the transience of knowledge.
As a subculture engaged in the study and storytelling of the Ufological phenomenon, the community is an active counter-cultural movement challenging mainstream popular and official cultures.
In this two part series, I will underscore how the UFO community challenges mainstream ideology, and why this curious culture must exist upon the fringes of social discourse.
- MJ Banias
In his ethical treatise, Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle presents an ethical ideal which is commonly known as ‘the golden mean.’ Using a very Greek love of moderation, Aristotle suggests that humans ought to live in a harmonious middle way, staying away from excesses and extremes. Oddly enough, perhaps the UFO community could learn a thing or two from Aristotelian ethics?
In his work, Aristotle argues that eudaimonia, which loosely translates to ‘well-being’ is the highest aim, or duty, of practical thinking. In other words, how you act in this life should be governed by your desire for wellness.
Well-being, according to Aristotle, can only be achieved by making decisions and acting in ways that maintain a balance. In Book II of Nicomachean Ethics, he states,
“First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly, the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.”
The ideal of “the mean” is to maintain a proper balance in the way we behave and act, and also moderate ourselves. As Aristotle points out, too much courage and bravery can make someone rash, reckless, and even a danger to the lives of others. Too little courage and bravery makes one a coward, and again, can endanger others. Aristotle would suggest that a person must find the middle line; courageous enough to fight for truth, beauty and innocence but not too courageous as to endanger those things.
While I admit to simplifying Aristotle, he argues (in a nutshell) that, we make decisions and communicate with each other based upon three constructs; ethos (our ethics and values), pathos (our emotions) and logos (reason and logic). Aristotle argues that these three constructs must exist in a tempered middle ground. In the case of UFOs and the UFO community, I want to specifically speak to the ideal of logos, the logic and rationality that form our decisions.
On a regular basis, I have, by many within the UFO community, been labelled a skeptic. Within Ufological, and indeed, paranormal discourse, “skeptic” is a dirty word. It holds discursive gravitas in the community; to be a skeptic is to be a heretic. Perhaps the purpose of my article here is to clear the air concerning my position on the phenomenon, but more importantly, to appeal to the logos of the UFO community; we all must walk a middle path.
I’ve written before that the belief system that surrounds anomalous phenomena is a sort of spectrum. It ranges between ardent and extremist believers who follow without question to closed-minded debunkers who refuse to accept the possibility that things exist outside of human understanding. Both of these extremes are, according to Aristotle, unethical and pull us away from eudaimonia. Our intellect is as important as our physical selves, and we have a duty to care for it, to make it “well.”
The Theravada Buddhist tradition even speaks to this notion of the “middle path” for its religious practitioners. In one’s practical life, but also in one’s spiritual and intellectual life, one must avoid excess and extremes as that can destroy the self. The Pāli Canon, one of the most extensive collection of Buddhist texts, states that,
“Avoiding both these extremes...it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment…”
Within any discourse, Ufology, paranormal study, and Anomalistics included, we must strive to maintain a balance between what we want to be true and what is true. Moreover, we must temper those desires. The phenomenon, whatever it may be, can be addictive. It can lead a person down a road of extreme obsession. The UFO community often falls victim to this metaphysical, social and cultural opioid.
It is unreasonable to take the position of, “I think what I think, and nothing can change my mind.” And, as Aristotle would argue, it is unethical. Significant time is spent arguing the finer points of various UFO themed organizations, investigative bodies, Pentagon funded programs, and characters from Ufology’s past and present. Ideological lines are drawn in the sand, and as the bile and venom gets spewed out by believers and debunkers alike, no progress is made. I, personally, am guilty of such actions. Undoubtedly, we all have fought our little crusades knowing full well that nothing would change. No one in this field is innocent of this, and if someone says they are, they are deluded.
I think we must engage in a polite way, and recognize that we have our own biases. When we make a decision to believe in this UFO event or that whistleblower, we may be making a case from pathos (our emotional needs and feelings) instead of logos. It is one thing to say, “I believe” or “I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt,” but those things are not tantamount to truth.
I am a firm believer in maintaining an open mind to multiple possibilities, as that is the definition of true skepticism. A true skeptic does not disregard but regards multiple logical and reasonable possibilities; possibilities that both do and do not concur with believers and debunkers. A true skeptic walks the middle path and operates in the ‘golden mean.’
The researchers worth their salt in the Ufological field are true skeptics. They engage in discourse with an open mind and work hard to be polite (and they will fail at times in this, as everyone does on occasion). They have the wherewithal to admit their mistakes. Moreover, they will not be convinced simply by fancy stories, flashing lights, and rhetoric. They need evidence for every truth claim; it can’t be circumstantial, and it can’t ‘sound true’ but must ‘be true.’ In a world where truth can be mediated and controlled by clicks of a mouse in Photoshop or Final Cut, and where people’s opinions on any given subject can equate to clicks on a website, YouTube channel, and money in a bank account, witness testimony, photographs and video footage must never be enough to hang the truth on.
Aristotle suggests that it is not enough to make conclusions, as those conclusions, at times, can change. Moreover, we must not be governed by the wish for something to be true, because wishing for something to be true “seems to be a good, though it is not.” Through transitive property, we can lump belief into this as well.
Working in the golden mean allows me to believe someone, but also be critical enough to know that my belief does not equate to fact. In other words, my belief can be incorrect, and I have the insight to know that. Moreover, expecting that others should believe, and stating that they are “blind to the truth” because they do not, does not make someone enlightened, it makes them a zealot. If you are going to express that something is a fact, and the evidence leaves room for a shadow of doubt, you have not done your job. A collection of circumstances, testimony and even a video or two is, in a word, compelling. “Compelling” can lead to belief, opinion and speculation, but not to the truth.
Perhaps we must work towards owning and calling out the differences between our beliefs and opinions, and what we know. We must work towards the mean and appreciate that we must be critical of others but also of ourselves. We must not be governed by what we want, but by what is. Let us return to true skepticism, to the middle path, because if we don’t, we are nothing but fools.
- MJ Banias