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
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