An Open Letter to the Producers of UFO TV Shows and Documentaries
To all television show producers and documentary filmmakers who create and produce content concerning UFOs; I am officially putting you on notice. Like it or not, you are the cultural gatekeepers to the discourse that surrounds the UFO phenomenon. The consistent ideological push for extraterrestrials and aliens from other planets as being the source of the UFO phenomenon is old, tired, and, much like a Hopkinsville goblin, needs a good shotgun blast to head. To all you folks at the History Channel or OLN, or any production company for that matter; it might be time to explore other avenues, as your work does not adequately or properly portray UFO discourse, nor the phenomenon itself.
In previous posts, I have explored the construct of the extraterrestrial hypothesis when it comes to the UFO question, and attempted to posit a few philosophical points which problematize it. I wish to explore the construct of the ET hypothesis further, and the inherent issues which are generated by its constant use in media, primarily, UFO documentaries and reality television shows.
To begin, we must appreciate that the vast majority of people who exist outside of the UFO subculture have not done appropriate research or investigations of UFO sightings or events. Those within the mainstream cultural milieu only experience the UFO phenomenon via television or film, and apart from being occasional tourists within UFO community circles, consume the messages within those programs wholeheartedly without further reading. In other words, “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”
The women and men who produce and create these programs, such as Ancient Aliens, UFOs: The Lost Evidence, Hangar 1, and UFO Hunters, just to name a few are, in effect, the gatekeepers of the phenomenon to the broader popular culture. Their messages permeate the mainstream cultural fabric and generate the ideological illusion that the people who study, research, and investigate the UFO phenomenon all believe that aliens are visiting Earth in their technologically superior space ships. Any producer or editor worth their salt should know this is an oversimplification of the phenomenon and the discourse.
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his essay, The Stars Down to Earth, explores the influence of belief in the paranormal upon modern society. While his focus is on astrology, New Age beliefs, and occultism, it is easy to bootstrap the extraterrestrial hypothesis and the belief in aliens to his philosophical framework. He suggests that modern day belief in the supernatural, and by extension, extraterrestrials, is a “secondary superstition” (49). He writes,
“They [the public] participate largely through the mediation of magazines and newspapers...and frequently accept such information as reliable sources of advice rather than pretend to have any personal basis for their belief. The type of people we are concerned with take astrology [or UFOs and extraterrestrials for that matter] for granted, much like psychiatry, symphony concerts or political parties; they accept it because it exists, without much reflection, provided only that their own psychological demands somehow correspond to the offer. (49)”
In other words, the vast majority of people interpret the UFO phenomenon in a ‘secondary’ way, not directly, such as seeing a UFO or having a close encounter, but via documentaries, television shows, YouTube channels, etc. that portray those events.
“...the individual’s own primary experience with the occult, whatever its psychological meaning and roots or its validity, rarely, if ever, enter the social phenomenon to which our studies are devoted. Here the occult appears rather institutionalized, objectified and, to a large extent, socialized....people responding to the stimuli we are here investigating seem in a way ‘alien’ to the experience on which they claim their decisions are based. (49)”
Adorno points out that the effect of mediating the paranormal via popular media sanitizes the phenomenon. It becomes part of the social and cultural system of ideologies, and simplified in order to be consumed by popular audiences.
The problem lies in this process of negotiation into mainstream ideologies. While many would argue that it is good to bring the message to the people, that is a flawed argument. The UFO phenomenon as presented via popular media, particularly on television, is inauthentic. It is an altered message, removed from its genuine state, washed and stripped of its originality, and sanitized for palatability. The result is that mainstream culture interprets the UFO phenomenon, and the subculture which studies and engages that phenomenon, as being ‘alien.’ It becomes a sideshow of freaks, rather than a portrayal of human beings who have experienced something anomalous and strange.
Furthermore, and perhaps more problematic, is that this oversimplified message only pushes UFO discourse further into the fringes of culture, reinforcing the already established taboo. Rather than portraying the UFO subculture as a community of people with varying beliefs, hypotheses, and rationales that continuously debate with one another, the media presents a single interpretation; an interpretation that forces the mainstream public to assume all who are interested in the topic believe in alien beings from other planets. Much like any group of people with disenfranchised belief systems, the mainstream ‘alienates’ the members of the UFO subculture. It paints them with the brush of the “Other.”
It is easier to taboo and alienate an idea when it appears unified. Take, for example, the all too common, and discriminatory, portrayal of Islam in the media. The current ideological bend is to portray the entirety of the Islamic religion as being linked to fundamentalism and terrorism. This ‘othering’ of Islam creates an attitude, a feeling, an ideology, within mainstream society that all Muslims are somehow linked to extremism. This is obviously an absurd and abhorrent construct purposefully designed to dehumanize a certain group for political and economic gain (primarily to justify continued military and corporate footholds in the Middle East).
This tactic is ultimately used on many groups, and while the severity of Islamophobia, and other religious and racial based discrimination is much greater than the alienation of the UFO subculture, the end result is the same.
It leaves the UFO subculture having to defend itself against a powerful ideological mechanism. The power of TV networks and production companies greatly outmatches the individuals within the community who interpret the phenomenon from varying places. In other words, the voices of actual members of the UFO community, and the people who have had authentic experiences with the phenomenon itself, are unable to have their voices heard when it counters the ideological framework portrayed by producers, editors, directors, and the corporate production companies that fund them.
While I do not have an answer on how to fix this, I would begin by asking those production companies to adjust the message and look carefully at the stories they tell. However, this is like asking the fox to watch the chicken coop. Rather, the UFO community should push its own members who appear on these programs to tell authentic and varying stories. This is no easy task. As with any field of study, one has to deal with ego and the desire for one to ‘make a name for themselves.’ However, it must be made perfectly clear that there are no ‘experts’ in the UFO field, and those who sit on their Ufological pedestals are only there because the community has placed them there. As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes reminds his readers, the collective is the true “Leviathan” ready and able at a moment's notice to depose anyone who opposes them.
Philosophy aside, one must ask themselves what truths they create by the stories they tell. When producing a television show or documentary about the UFO phenomenon, or anything for that matter, are these men and women duty bound to tell the whole story, no matter how nuanced or complex, or just a piece of it? Is omission a lie in this case?
This is not easy, I understand that. However, I challenge those behind these programs to explore the many variations of the phenomenon, and that the subculture that generates the UFO discourse does not wholeheartedly buy into one single theory. I challenge the production companies to tell these other stories, and to push for honesty rather than the lining of corporate pockets. Finally, I’d ask that the directors, writers, and creators of these programs do their research, and actually have a legitimate desire to understand the content of the discourse, and the people who engage with it. UFO discourse is complex, awkward, absurd, rich, and beautiful.
On a personal note, these shows are what got me interested in UFOs as a teenager, and I know they are necessary. If you are spending significant time and treasure in the production of a program to explore the subject, you must do so with love and honesty, otherwise, stay the hell away from it.
Continue the conversation below. What do you think of current UFO TV and Documentaries? What would you rather see? Are we running over the same old ground, or are these shows essential to the survival of 'Ufology?'
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)]
TV Shows and Why We Can't Shake the ET Hypothesis
I recently watched an episode of “UFOs: The Lost Evidence”. For the uninitiated, it is a resurrection of the typical UFO TV show, with the main differentiator being that many of the cases, images, videos or audio “have never been seen before on television.” It’s your typical UFO ‘expert’ interviews blended with recreations and stock footage.
As I was watching the show, I began to consider other cable shows regarding the UFO question (Hangar 1, UFOs Declassified, UFO Hunters, etc.), as well as the general Ufological ideologies present among those outside of the UFO discourse who look in from time to time. These shows, along with various other forms of popular media, typically revolve around the UFO phenomenon being caused by aliens from another planet. The extraterrestrial hypothesis basically pervades the UFO question to those in the mainstream. In other words, those who do not actively engage in UFO discourse regularly, but are ‘tourists,’ have a coerced notion that the UFO debate primarily concerns otherworldly aliens.
UFO discourse and Ufology paint themselves, to the broader culture via TV shows and other mainstream media, as being primarily the study of a phenomenon caused by aliens from another world. While some in the UFO discourse also share similar ideologies, there are many others who oppose a hypothesis regarding a physical ET from another planet who travels about in interstellar craft.
The UFO discourse is a small field made up by a collection of fringe dwellers, who, in order to pull in future community members and to bring awareness of the topic, require these shows to act as bridges from mainstream culture to the subculture. The bizarre twist here is that these shows portray an oddball subculture of ‘believers’ in aliens, which further pushes the discourse itself into the outer edges of popular culture. These programs enshrine the concept that the UFO topic is a fringe one, yet are required by the UFO discourse to spread its message beyond the current subculture.
To add to this ‘catch 22’ is the addiction to the ET hypothesis which is not really representative of the UFO discourse as a whole. The UFO discourse requires these shows, and continues to impress upon them an ideological construct that aliens are somehow involved in the phenomena. However, some of the most respected members of the UFO discourse, such as Vallée, would argue that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is not the answer to the UFO question.
We arrive at a cultural oddity. An assortment of television shows that solidify one hypothesis within UFO discourse, and all the while, continue to enshrine the topic as one for the outer rim of social and cultural ideology. However, these shows ensure the survival of the discourse. They maintain the UFO topic within the mainstream cultural milieu.
This begs a question; why do cable networks and TV producers focus only on the ET hypothesis, when the UFO discourse is a chorus of many different hypotheses as to the ‘source’ of the phenomenon?
One can imagine the hesitancy of many TV show producers to engage in a show concerning the more metaphysical or mystical sides of the UFO debate. Aliens are already a cultural icon, an aspect of our shared mythos, archetypal, and generate a deep seated anxiety. From a cultural perspective, dealing with mystical beings, and non corporeal intelligences that exist in some metaphysical ether is difficult to consume and process. They are not visible. They do not exist physically like we do, and they do not generate discomfort among broader society and culture. Extraterrestrials, on the other hand, do.
The aspect of a physical being, or an intelligence that can take on physical form, and interact with humans on a one on one level plays at every instinctual fear we possess. Within the physical alien is the human self, the ultimate Other, the chaos of humanity that exists outside of the cultural norms of a given terrestrial society. They are like us in that they have some form of agency. Everything else is different. They are unreadable, unknowable, and they force us to dive deep into our own psyche and extract those pieces of us that we find frightening. It is not that ‘they’ are evil or good (by human standards), it is that they live outside of that duality, and that is scary.
It blurs the line in our minds as to whether we are the predator or the prey. It challenges our place in the world, the place we know and can easily negotiate, and throws all that out the window. It puts into our collective mind the question of, “do we actually have the power in this situation?” It dispels the illusions that humanity is the sole proprietor of its own destiny, agenda, and environment.
The beauty of anxiety is that it is typically addictive. We enjoy the feeling of fear. This is why movies like Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) are so popular. Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Stekel posited that we all possess a ‘death drive.’ We all fear our own demise and loss of power, but we fettishize it too. We are drawn to the idea of it.
If we really examine the constant tropes of Ufological television shows, they carry with them tones and motifs that push a feeling of anxiety. As the narrators often ask, “what do these UFOs want?” This question is essentially the same question the ET hypothesis asks, “what do they want and why are they here?” If you really think about it, the answer is significantly less frightening than the question.
Finally, the ET hypothesis establishes a clear dichotomy; us and them. It retains ‘the self’ as a social subject within the mechanisms of a capitalist global culture and framework. The ET hypothesis allows us to continue dwelling within our collective cultural illusion. While a public and open ET arrival may shift our cultural landscape to something totally different, that has yet to happen. The mystical approach to the UFO question challenges our current ideological framework regarding power, economics, and politics. It identifies the illusion, and informs its followers that the status quo ideological reality is a falsehood. Mainstream culture is not interested in radical change, and the media, television included, is designed to propagate culture, not challenge it.
The thought that these TV shows are a fundamental part of UFO discourse is undoubtedly making many within the UFO community gag. When these shows air for the first time, Facebook is typically riddled with negative comments. There are concerns over the use of debunked evidence, criticism of the ‘experts’ chosen to be interviewed, and even disapproval for the various UFO incidents and events that get selected for (re)examination (I’m looking at you Roswell…).
That being said, the UFO discourse often demands to be accepted into mainstream culture without success. The cable shows ironically are the only method to achieve that goal. However, with every episode, UFO discourse moves farther and farther away into the cultural fringe.
Archetypes, Tricksters, and Divisions in UFO Discourse
In an April 21st blog post, Jeff Ritzmann wrote,
“Folks have written me asking about the literary Trickster themes and how they play into, or pertain to the phenomenon.
Wikipedia says of literary Tricksters: "In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a Trickster is a character in a story (god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphisation), which exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge, and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behaviour." Lewis Hyde describes the Trickster as 'boundary crossers'.”
Ritzmann explores the Trickster archetype in this blog post, and its connection to various paranormal phenomena, including that of the UFO. Reading through this article several weeks ago, I was drawn to it again by an interview with Susan Demeter-St. Claire and Greg Bishop on the Radio Misterioso podcast. A day later, I was given the opportunity to preview Seth Breedlove’s The Mothman of Point Pleasant, and as I was watching the documentary, my jaw literally dropped.
Just as the film’s narrator mentioned the name Woodrow Derenberger, the podcast and Ritzmann’s article came rushing into my mind. Just as the main ideas for the blog post you’re reading began to form, I was shown on the screen an animation of the man named Indrid Cold. I had to press Pause. I stood up. I went to have a think outside.
I’ll return to the above point in a moment.
I’ve mentioned before on my blog that there is a divide within UFO discourse. On one pole sits a belief that the UFO narrative stems from scientific nuts and bolts extraterrestrials from other planets. On the other, the UFO and associated events are somehow mystical in nature, an aspect of human consciousness, influenced by some Other (or not), that exists outside of our physical realm. This division, and the debate around it, is old hat. It’s been debated for decades. More importantly, it’s also merged into complex systems of beliefs that tie in both ideologies. Physical and spiritual. Nuts and bolts technology blended with metaphysical states of reality not totally clear to our everyday life.
That being said, the UFO community has yet to find consensus. It continues to engage in this exophilosophical debate, citing evidence, cases, incidents, events, and various other forms of data that attempt to prove “the reality of the situation.” This debate is not a bad thing. It simply is part of the Ufological discourse.
Back to Indrid Cold. In 1966, a sewing machine salesman by the name of Woodrow Derenberger was driving down Interstate 77 near the famous Point Pleasant, in his truck when he noticed a large object move past his vehicle and land on the road. Pulling up to the large object, the shape resembling “an old fashioned kerosene lamp chimney,” he witnessed a man exit the craft and approach him. Wearing a strange greenish metallic topcoat, and a strange grin, the odd man introduced himself telepathically to Derenberger as Indrid Cold.
The story of Indrid Cold is an old one. It was first featured in John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, and received significant attention from the media. You can hear an interview with Derenberger here (#47). The man even went on to write a book about Cold, called the Visitors from Lanulos, and the two allegedly enjoyed multiple visits together.
Keel himself went on to claim that he received many phone calls while investigating the Mothman legend from a person said to be Indrid Cold. This story, this very bizarre story, leads us down an interesting path in UFO discourse. Many other people came to have experiences with a strange man bearing a huge grin, and their tales vary from stark contrast to identical similarity with the Derenberger event.
Before us lies odd situation, one that calls into question the Ufological divide that exists between scientific and the mystical. What is the difference between the two? What series of arguments can one make to suggest one side is right, and the other is wrong?
The sides would both use scientific language, such as “look at the evidence” or “use logic and reason” to establish their cases. They would dive into the realms of psychology, citing deep seeded genetic archetypes established by evolution. They dive into religion, Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, and even provide historical evidence to prove that the UFO phenomenon is spiritual or scientific, or some mix of the two. They would provide big data, UFO sighting information, shapes, sizes, colours, and the rest. Whatever form the debate takes, it will ultimately run into the ever present brick wall; what differentiates the mystical from the scientific? What objective fact present in UFO discourse will shout, “Eureka!” and end the debate?
Nothing. There is no fact. No objective truth. That is the point of Indrid Cold. No member within the UFO community can claim with any objective truth that one Ufological event occurred, and the other did not. There is no fundamental difference between a witness seeing odd lights in the sky defying the laws of physics, and one man on a lonely stretch of highway bumping into a grinning man in a shiny suit. What is the difference between twenty people staring up at a strange disc hovering over Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 2006 and twenty people having telepathic conversations with a man named Cold over several decades? Even the physical trace evidence can be called into question, is typically inconclusive, and is often fraught with issues concerning provenance and legitimacy. Does our interpretation of truth simply boil down to what sounds less crazy, and what fits more nicely into our consensus reality? It can be argued that both events are equally mind boggling. Yet, what evidence do we have for either case that proves one is true beyond the shadow of a doubt? What evidence exists that, without question, proves there is a UFO phenomenon, and it is caused by X?
Jeff Ritzmann’s definition of the archetypal trickster as that which “disobeys the rules and conventional behaviour” is the cornerstone to the UFO question. The debate rages around the extraterrestrial hypothesis, co-creation, mysticism, the psychosocial hypothesis, and many others because the UFO itself is that which “disobeys the rules.”
I do not claim that the Indrid Cold case is legitimate or a hoax. I honestly don’t care. What does matter is the symbolism of Indrid Cold, and that these three events lined up for me to write this post. Cold did not literally visit me in my basement as I watched Breedlove’s film that evening, but in a way, he did “tell” me something as his eerie visage appeared on the screen before me.
He showed me, as Ritzmann says, to explore the idea of being a “boundary crosser.” I do not believe in one UFO reality over another, and the luxury of my work within UFO discourse is that very freedom. Critical theory and philosophy allow me to dwell in many thought worlds, in the various systems of truth, and there are essentially no limits to logic experiments of the mind. This is the beauty of working with, what many have come to call, “exophilosophy.”
Some will argue that these thought experiments are useless, and only add to the “pile of bullshit” that is UFO discourse. Perhaps. To those who make that argument, I would ask them to provide tangible evidence that their scientific or mystical approach has made any headway. The filing cabinets and internet databases of sighting reports, cold case files, rehashed UFO events, charts, tables, declassified documents, hypnotherapy evaluations, psychological reports, and testimonies from ‘credible’ witnesses are all well and good, but they still form one big pile...and I don’t have to tell you what it all smells like to me. The razor cuts both ways.
Whatever is responsible for the UFO phenomenon, much like the trickster, it seems to sow chaos. Much like Derenberger on that night in November, we find ourselves in an unsettling place trying to figure out what is going on. As every second passes, we are left with only more questions, and significantly fewer answers. Praying that some light can be shed on this bizarre moment, we are greeted by a strange grinning man named Cold.
The Collective Unconscious and Engaging A Non-Human Intelligence
Non-human Intelligence and the Universal Other
An Exophilsophical Exploration of Alien Existence
The Spectrum of Science, Mysticism, and Exophilosophy
Ufology, the Future, and Why Science Won't Save It.
Let me begin by saying that I love science, but when it comes to the UFO question, it alone cannot save Ufology, nor can it lead some sort of revolution in the field. The call of many in the UFO discourse is that mainstream science is essential to understand the phenomenon. While the sciences may be able to provide insight, the current economic and social realities of the West will not allow this happen. Gone are the days of “science for the sake of science”- rather, all science is strictly controlled, monitored, and governed. Science is very much a Capitalist endeavour; the race towards new products, patents, and the development of new technologies makes or breaks corporations, economies, and shifts world markets. Even in academia, collegial bodies and universities, which mostly function within Capitalist mechanisms, control who gets research grants. While Ufologists may be hoping for some scientific revolution for the UFO phenomenon, UFOs do not fit into the construct of major production or consumption. Even scientists themselves are limited by their ability to explore the UFO question; many are blackballed for even entertaining the topic.
If the general sciences are unable to participate openly in the debate, this leaves few avenues for solid legitimate research, rigour and criticism. UFO believers and truthers will continue to fall back upon their theological faith in an intelligent Other; this religious fervour unfortunately leaves no room for actual debate and discourse. The political Disclosurists will continue to petition the systems of power, which they openly distrust, to release UFO information; information that, by its very nature, is untrustworthy. Historians will continue to explore old government, military and personal documents, painstakingly categorizing old cases with hopes of finding the smoking gun. The journalists and writers will record, detail, and expound upon sightings new and old. What about the philosophers and theorists?
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?
On November 11th, Denis Villeneuve’s The Arrival (2016) hits theatres. The film clearly touches upon many facets of the UFO discourse, and delves deep into the fundamental principle that the UFO phenomenon is more of an exploration of the self, than that of physical or metaphysical objects occupying our skies. The UFO question is not about an objective other, such as flying saucers, ET or “light beings”, rather, it is subjective - the real phenomenon is within ourselves.
It must be noted that I am not suggesting that there is no physical UFO phenomenon. There is enough evidence, at least in my own opinion, to suggest something strange is occurring in our skies. What that strangeness is, I can only speculate. Even though there may be a physical UFO phenomenon, we can only truly begin to understand how it affects us, the subjective self, as the actual objective cause of the phenomenon may be forever out of reach.
So why is The Arrival, potentially, an important film? It calls into question one fundamental principle of Ufology; how much does our subjective interpretation shape the objective UFO?
Part 2 of 2 for this series. For Part 1, click here.
We must begin by examining how we culturally "understand" the UFO phenomenon, as objective reality is fundamentally unreachable.
The Cultural UFO
When we examine the existence of an object, a physical UFO, and a subject, an intelligent other piloting said UFO, we slam into a wave of ideological constructs. We, as creatures of the social world, are entrenched in cultural messages, experiences, values and ideas. There is no way for us to see or experience an objective base reality. Similar to Pokémon Go, we view the world through a screen that presents us with an augmented reality. The difference is that we cannot shut the game off. In simple terms, there is no place one can stand to see actual unfiltered, uncultured, unsocial, un-ideological truth. Science, like all other human endeavours, is also trapped in this ideological prison. We perceive the Wendt and Duvall object/subject dualism of the UFO then in purely cultural terms, void of any actual objective truth.
UFOs are undecidable, much like the in-game Pokémon, as they both exist and do not exist. In “official” popular culture, the mainstream, UFOs, as Hynek repeatedly reminds us, “do not exist because they cannot.” To the general public, UFOs are not real because they are told they are not real. The ideologically constructed state of UFOs, fashioned by governments and the human need/desire for anthropocentrism, is that they do not exist. However, people have reported seeing UFOs from far away and up close, being aboard them, etc. An entire subculture has been born out of the UFO phenomenon. To a certain minority, UFOs do exist. Scientists have yet to prove that UFOs do not exist, and UFO believers have not been able to prove that they do; we are left in a quagmire of ideology. Scientists, stuck in their own potent ideological dogmatism, typically fall back upon the social construction known as “common sense” in regards to the UFO question, but possess no actual evidence to disprove their existence. While the onus may be on the UFO believer to prove the existence of UFOs, for a scientist to state that UFOs (or an intelligent other for that matter) do not exist is a scientific error. What occurs instead is a curious pseudo-theological debate over which ideology is believed to be more true.