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)]
The alien abduction narrative has been a part of popular culture for many years, and the UFO discourse has countless allegations by experiencers of abduction and contact. Initiated by some intelligent other, those meetings flow along a spectrum from kind and benevolent visitations to abusive and violent kidnappings. In dealing with the phenomenon, two prevalent camps arise in the abduction enigma; the benevolent spiritual meeting, generally, but not wholly, accepted as “contact,” and the cruel malevolent snatching of a person, typically known as “abduction.” There is significant discourse concerning these events, and even more debate. Contact and abduction has become a significant aspect of the broader UFO question, but little has been done to explore the ethical dilemma these two events create. For many, it may be clear that abductions are a violation of ethics, but what about the countless people who have had alleged visitations from benevolent beings who have come to impart some kind of divine knowledge? Is contact, on the part of the intelligent other, ethical?
I recently had the pleasure to see filmmaker Jennifer Stein's 2015 documentary Travis: The True Story of Travis Walton. The 90 minute documentary focuses on one of, if not the, biggest UFO abduction cases in history.
In 1975, Travis Walton and his logging crew saw a strange light in a quiet remote forest in Arizona. The men entered the woods to explore the source of this light, and what they saw hovering in the clearing was beyond belief. There was a blinding flash of light and the men scrambled out of the woods back to their truck, but they were one man short; Travis allegedly was struck by a blast which left him crumpled on the forest floor. The men took off into the night, only to return a short time later, knowing they had to muster the courage to find their friend. When they returned to the clearing, Travis was gone. A frenzy ensues; the men are suspected of murdering their friend, they are put through polygraph testing and were even guarded by deputies while the local authorities searched for Travis in the forest. The world paid attention to the story of the missing Travis Walton and his coworkers who are blaming his disappearance on a flying saucer. The mystery only deepens when Travis Walton appears five days later on a lonely stretch of highway, tired, hungry, dehydrated, and with very few memories of what happened to him.
Do I dare type it?
All those people, those victims of alien abductions, ghosts, ghouls and demons, did they just dream it up?
In a June 2014 essay by Karen Emslie published by Aeon Magazine, she discusses her battle with sleep paralysis, her experiences and the experiences of roughly 6% of the world's population. According to Emslie, the problem is as ancient as humanity itself. Dreams have always played a vital role in story telling and story making; sleep paralysis is the lucid living of that story, bad or good, terrifying or beautiful. As Emslie points out in her essay, alien abductions are most likely caused by sleep paralysis. It's a tough pill to swallow for the believers, especially those believers who have experienced an abduction event. The facts, so far, suggest she's correct. So let's talk about reality...