Erik Davis' Figments


A UFO Epistomology

If we're to believe our ancestors, close encounters with the gods are no joke. Even if they beam down in a celestial glow, they still scare the shit out of everybody. And more often than not they lurk on the edge of revelation, in the outer dark, where the firelight is swallowed in gargantuan night.

Today our fires are so bright--the skeptical lights of labs, satellites, and TV cameras--that such entities would need to go guerilla to penetrate our glaring reality. They'd contact us only to baffle: swooping down on isolated individuals, transmitting puzzling messages, or sowing seeds of impossibility. Then they'd disappear into an ontological quagmire, attracting only those foolish or hopeless enough to exit the magic circle of mundane identity for a dizzying wormhole of perverted science, of cheesy synchronicities and information trails that loop back on themselves.

In short, they would act like UFOs.

The UFO is an enigmatic rent in the fabric of the 20th century, and all our explanations are signals shot into the heavens--they either fade into the stellar maw or bounce back, echoes of our own descriptions. By remaining beyond reach, by remaining absurd, the UFO attracts our hiddenmost obsessions with scientific authority, state power, and spiritual futurism--and it demarcates these obsessions far more viscerally than more normal forms of popular culture.

UFO literature, by drawing curious readers into bizarre worldviews shored up with the language of evidence, shows how our attitudes toward information structure our reality and identity. Even if the UFO is bunk, it has become modernity's great mythic mirror. The first "flying saucers" were sighted in 1947 by Kenneth Arnold, in the year that gave us the CIA and information theory, in the decade that gave us TV, the Bomb, digital computers, and LSD. The UFO is part of a package deal--a rumor of god stitched into the dark web of our military-industrial-media complex.

Though habitually keeping a low profile, the visitors have been pretty busy since '47. The UFO and its trickster crew have crash-landed, pulled fly-bys, delivered messages of doom and gnostic salvation, sucked bovine blood, conspired with the Air Force, stolen embryos from Middle American housewives, fucked Brazilian farmers silly, and rammed anal probes into horror fiction writers. But though millions believe, and many more are cautiously credulous, the aliens remain beyond reach, in a netherworld of bad films, paperbacks, and late-night testimonies. Sightings haven't really made news since the '70s and, though Whitley Streiber's 1987 Communion ruled the charts, the UFO seems almost quaint in our cyberpunk world, a cosmic VW bug in the weedy back yard of modernity.

But the UFO has not waned so much as gone within, into the body, into the mind, into the dream of identity. Thousands of abductees, seeking to ease the psychic trauma of being dragged onto spaceships and physically abused by aliens, have solidified a sub-culture that's far more 12 Step than Star Trek. Conspiracy theorists weave UFOs into their insidious webs of government plots, while channeled ET info has evolved into the New Age's most speculative edge. And after years of cranky pursuits for the "nuts and bolts" that will prove the existence of material extraterrestrial spacecraft, some ufologists are turning towards a subtler engagement of the alien as radical mythic enigma.

But setting UFOs alongside sewer alligators and superheroes as "modern myths" is boring--not because UFOs are boring but because our contemporary sense of mythology is. We forget that the first mythologists ran into camp with eyes bugging, babbling and pointing at that thing out there. Cook such testimonies down far enough you get Disney morality tales, but when served raw they glisten with awe. As Carl Jung wrote in his odd, prescient 1959 study Flying Saucers, "in religious experience man comes face to face with a psychically overwhelming Other." Even for the nuts-and-bolts crowd, the overwhelming strangeness of the UFO makes it a fundamentally spiritual object. Holy, violent, and utterly goofy, the alien is the ultimate identity crisis.

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Problem is most of us haven't left the fire. We have not seen glittering diaphragms whipping through the skies. We have not been abducted by little blue dudes in shiny overalls. All we have are texts. Having recently devoured a stack of UFO lit, I can attest that the stuff follows the law that applies to everything from kinky sex to paranoia: the more you slum, the more it begins to stick. You start with the innocent act of just believing that folks aren't lying or hallucinating--definitely a counter-hegemonic move when its a trucker's word against a physicist's. But where do you go from there? Step in any direction, and the landscape starts to melt.

As Keith Thompson points out in his smart if sometimes breezy Angels and Aliens: UFOS and the Mythic Imagination, in the end the UFO is nothing more than our attempts at interpreting it. Recognizing that each hypothesis is "a particular and limited question put to the UFO by particular observers with particular assumptions," Thompson shows that mainstream ufology's grail of physical evidence is not only boring but moot. Far more interesting to engage our own reflections in those almond-shaped whiteless eyes that peer back from so many paperbacks.

So with a judicious use of Angus Fletcher's great Allegory, along with dips into Kafka, Gregory Bateson and Camus, Thompson reads the history of ufology as a series of primal scenes that provoke hermeneutic battles. He shows that UFO phenomena are structured like open-ended allegories, their power resting neither in baroque surface details nor some underlying code of paranoid explication, but in the protean tension between the two. Since aliens are encountered not in frescoes but in wheatfields, Thompson locates this mythic indeterminacy in the unfolding boundary between mind and matter. Picking up on the pioneering work of Jacques Vallee, he sees the alien as the latest in a procession of ghosts, Blessed Virgins, leprechauns, and all the other critters you read about when you were 11 and the world was not a closed book. But rather than pin the UFO as the latest butterfly from Faerie, Thompson points out that these entities always slip through the fingers of our perception and understanding. Their very being is a bizarre, nauseating blur, as if their sole purpose were to yank the reality rug from under us.

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If interpreting the alien leads us only further into the mind's house of mirrors, experiencing aliens is another story entirely. As portrayed in Streiber's pulpy and compelling Communion and Transformation, and catalogued more paranoically in Budd Hopkins' Missing Time and Intruders, the act of being interdimensionally sucked into claustrophobic smelly rooms by expressionless gray aliens with needles is no party. Not only do aliens violate the bodies and minds of abductees, they shatter their very identities. As Streiber tells it, "Whitley," after being drawn up into some foreboding round room, "ceased to exist. What was left was a body in a state of raw fear so great that it swept me like a thick, suffocating curtain...I do not think that my ordinary humanity survived the transition to this little room. I died, and a wild animal appeared in my place." The aliens proceed to jab a hair-thin needle up his nose into his brain, lay him on an operating table, take a foot-long object--"gray and scaly, with a sort of network of wires on the end"--and invade his asshole.

That Streiber is a well-read student of the weird and a horror fiction writer detracts not one whit from the power of his books. The thousands of letters he received and the support groups that followed in the wake of Communion's success validate the emotional trauma he described more than polygraphs ever could. As Streiber writes of of abductees in his "prelude", whatever we choose to believe about what actually happened to them, "scoffing at them is as ugly as laughing at rape victims."

The analogy is no joke, for the abduction phenomenon clearly arises in part from contemporary obsessions with violation, specifically the talk-show trade in tales of ritual child abuse and, more subtly, of incest. As with many of these narratives, recollections of ET nastiness are usually uncovered from behind thickets of denial and "screen memories" (the psychological equivalent of an Air Force cover-up). Much of this essentially ambiguous evidence is ferreted out by sympathetic therapists using hypnosis and other probes. Also, in attempting to manage their lingering terror, anger, and shame, as well as their despair at not being believed even by their family and friends, abductees have banded together into tight-knit support networks that, by accepting the validity of their experience, perpetuate it as well.

Though some abductees climb the 12 steps to God following their trauma, many buy into Budd Hopkins' dark-side view of the aliens as nefarious and physically real embryo stealers who need human genes to graft into their own thinning stock. A cheap SF plot for sure, but as images of racial otherness are spliced together in the great Michael Jackson video of multinational culture, it's interesting that terrified humans should encounter the greatest miscegenation since mythic times, when the swan took Leda and the fallen angels raped the daughters of men. And it's all too appropriate that Betty and Barney Hill--whose 1961 encounter is generally treated as the first modern case of abduction in the U.S.--were an interracial couple. The notion of alien hybrids amps the cultural and genetic scramblings of interracial couplings onto the level of human being itself. Between DNA manipulations, penetrated flesh, and the stark terror of a ruptured reality, the extremity of the abduction experience throws identity not just into question, but into the abyss.

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Though the abduction phenomenon points toward the slippery realms of waking dreams and mass psychology, the majority of UFO researchers remains beholden to the dogmas and rituals of hard physical science. These nuts-and-boltsers aren't interested in faeries or psychobabble--they want testimonies, burned turf, weird rocks. They want information. Marginalized from the legitimacy and cash conferred by institutional research, they desperately want to normalize the UFO into a legitimate object of study. They don't want to hear that their urge to prove what they call the "ETH" (extraterrestrial hypothesis) using the tools of science is just one more metaphysical compulsion set before the feet of a radical enigma. They don't want to hear that busting science moves like graphs, credentials, acronyms, and the language of hard evidence (dates, exact times, measurements) is just a fetish is the face of the void.

As solid, investigative pseudoscience, the nuts-and-bolts stuff can be as fun as it is cranky, if only because the best works mutate the authority of scientific style by soberly fusing cosmic speculations and legitimate hard science. Most scientists hate this material not just because they're trained to, or because they think the world it too dull for ETs (far from it), but because pseudoscience has a dangerous tendency to encourage us proles to jump the fence of technical languages and sneak around the arena of Truth. Dipping into UFO studies is a great way to experience the subtle and pervasive powers of scientific hegemony.

It's a deep comment on contemporary forms of knowledge that, in their drive for literal resolution and their obsessions with institutional authority, mainstream ufologists are drawn like bugs into conspiracy theory. The grassy knoll in this case is the Roswell Incident, a 1947 report of a crashed saucer that was announced by the Air Force and later retracted. Like JFK assassination material, UFO cover-up lit draws you into a magnetic vortex of marginal information. As Whitley Streiber put it, "I found myself in a minefield. Real documents that seemed to be false. False documents that seemed to be real. A plethora of 'unnamed sources.' And drifting through it all, the thin smoke of an incredible story." Convincing stuff like Timothy Good's Above Top Secret: The Worldwide UFO Coverup leads to wacky stuff like We Discovered Alien Bases on the Moon. Your formerly arched eyebrows start to scrunch into a suspicious scowl. And once you accepted the existence of disinformation and the subsequent likelihood that most debunkers are agents, it's too late. You're gone, sucked out of consensus reality into the black voids that mark up FOIA documents, energized only by your rumor jones and your tangled relationships with other buffs.

In the information age, marginal data and rumors sipped from underground springs can bend the mind as decisively as any drug. In the case of the UFO, they can take you about as far out as you can go without invoking God-talk. For example, there's William Cooper's deliriously fun and patently mad Behold a Pale Horse , a self-published tome that weaves together crashed discs, "Nordic" aliens, and the Illuminati. Besides reprinting that chestnut the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Behold a Pale Horse comes stuffed with aerial recon photos, government documents, and fuzzy mimeographs. Much of this material concerns a major fixation of the dark-side UFO web-weavers: the mysterious Area 51 at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada, where aliens from Zeta Reticuli are supposedly trading tech with the government in exchange for the right to rip off our genes.

Research long enough and you might even score a visit with one of the UFO drama's greatest figures: the dreaded Men In Black (known, of course, as MIB). Often hounding UFO researchers, MIB show up in black caddies, dressed in immaculately creased G-men suits, white shirts and shades. They proffer false ID, and proceed to either extract information from witnesses or threaten them into silence, speaking in stiff, monotonous phrases copped from bad noir. Just to compound the strangeness, MIB are often described as "swarthy-skinned" and almond-eyed--thereby crossing non-white "alien" qualities with the purest archetype of the white man's systematic control. In the UFO realm, otherness is so protean it becomes its own other.

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Though motivated by the quest for hard information, conspiracy weaving ultimately becomes more akin to rosary counting. In his--and it's usually his--totalizing view of events, the paranoid is only the most rigorous of metaphysicians. Both the esoteric and the crudely popular tendencies of Western religions encourage this divine paranoia. Jewish kabbalists have read Genesis as a code whose letters conceal secret messages, while Satan-fearing Christians have used the Book of Revelation as an interpretive gloss on current events from over a millennium.

In the spectrum of cosmic conspiracies, halfway between God and Darth Vader ETs lies what one could call the Starseed take on human history. Typified by Erich von Daniken's '70s pot-boiler Chariots of the Gods?, this view holds that ancient pagan sky gods and Biblical oddities like Ezekiel's chariot are UFO phenomenon, suggesting that human consciousness was implanted or at least nudged toward civilization by visiting ETs. Much better than Daniken's books is Robert K. G. Temple's astounding The Sirius Mystery, which rigorously directs academic methods toward totally wacked conclusions about beings from Sirius, the ancient Egyptians, and the Dogon tribe in West Africa Temple fuels his research with the dusty synchronicities that spending too much time in libraries can produce, demonstrating that the tools you rely on to hammer the world together can just as easily yank the nails out.

As captured so well in Robert Anton Wilson's classic counter-cultural wild ride Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati--which connects meddling Sirians with Aleister Crowley, Tim Leary's Starseed prison visions, and the strange recurrence of the number 23--catching the eye of the pyramid has a lot to do with your attention, with consciously tuning into coincidences and weird information sources (odd books, dreams, drugs, incantations) until glittering patterns emerge. The challenge is that unless you want to get slurped into what Wilson calls a "reality tunnel" and wind up carrying a sandwich board, you must adopt a kind of a bemused schizophrenia, a yin/yang of skepticism and lucid madness. About the only concrete thing Whitley Streiber's doctors could suggest to him was that he learn to live with a high degree of uncertainty. Not a bad postmodern prayer.

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In the end, most UFO theories--Air Force cover-ups, Sirius acid jokes, channelled New Age messages, the cranky ETH--can be seen as different modes of structuring the information that crusts around the slippery edges of a massive enigma. Even mainstream science's sop to ETs--SETI, the big dish search for intelligent radio signals in deep space--reflects the faith that signals can always be untangled from noise. Taken to its extreme, this information theory becomes information mysticism, a giddy flux that runs through one of the most universally reviled literatures currently produced anywhere: New Age channeling.

The genre isn't exactly new--in America, such practices stretch back at least to the early 1800s, when Shakers went into trance and brought forth the spirits of George Washington, various Native Americans, and other wisefolk. It was only after TV that such spiritualism became "channeling." Nor is god-talk from ETs particularly novel. Aleister Crowley, every rock star's favorite occultist, contacted a Sirian named Lam in 1919; in the '50s, blond Space Brothers delivered cosmic greetings to loons like George Adamski; the '70s saw an explosion of UFO churches. But these days the spiritual UFO hovers over the much larger carnival of the New Age, a synthetic stew of archaic gods, pagan lore, watered-down theosophy, pseudoscience, and therapy jargon. For example, Michele Jamal's New Age quest narrative, Volcanic Visions: Encounters with Other Worlds, begins far from the cold reaches of space, in the sensuously conjured environment of Hawaii, where Jamal lets her earthy fascination with the fiery volcano goddess Pele run wild into a hodgepodge of horny dreams, "post-patriarchal" myths, and zoned-out nature walks. But then she awakens from a dream of Kilauea and flying saucers, and switches to tech talk: "The thought came to me that somehow information had been transmitted through my neuro-circuitry." What's a girl to do but go to Michael El Legion, a visiting channel from the Extraterrestrial Communications Center in Arizona, who dutifully channels Ashtar, member of the Universal Federation.

Like most channeled entities, ETs like Ashtar, Bashar, and the aliens who pop up in Lyssa Royal and Keith Priest's Visitors from Within speak in

the New Age pastel blend of positive-thinking therapy talk. But these ETs are more fun because they give it all an SF twist, going on about alien sex rites and ET taxonomies--the loving Arcturians, the meddling Zeta Reticuli, the mystical Sirians, the nasty Orions--while chanting a techno poetry of "Harmonic Wave Templates" and "Polarity Resonance Manifestations." But the underlying message remains the New Age's great rallying cry: you create your own reality. A mantra for the privileged to be sure, yet in the hands of a wiseman like Bashar--who claims to be a human/Zeta Reticuli crossbreed blasted back from the future--this heretical one-to-one identification with the Creator achieves a seductive force that can worm its way into your brain. "Personality is an artificial construct," Bashar proclaims, asserting that since reality is keyed to malleable filters and belief structures, we can change our experience as easily as twisting the dial.

In part, the bubbly weightlessness of the New Age's extreme positive-thinking arises from an identification not with matter or the socio-political inertia of human history, but with the instantaneity and immaterial flux of information. Metaphors of info-tech abound in the New Age. If monotheistic faiths are religions of the book, then the New Age is a religion of the byte. At the same time, such on emphasis on divine data also resurrects musty myths of stellar origins that can be traced back to ancient gnosticism. In the gnostic view, the true god--not the false god Jehovah--is an alien being whose sole connection with the fallen, material earth is the "sparks" or "seeds of light" hidden within the human soul. We are not sinful, just ignorant, lost in a forgetful sleep that can only be banished by receiving the mystical influx of alien information, or "gnosis." Only then will our homesickness be assuaged.

True to its gnostic character, channelled ET material is structured more like a virus or a trigger signal than a set of beliefs. This rhetoric of immediacy is most obvious in the pervasive use of the second person, which in a powerful work of SF Christianity like Ken Carey's The Starseed Transmissions becomes the literary analog of the Zeta Reticuli's sharp needles--only instead of your brain, the entities invade the seat of your "you". "It is critical that you remember your origin and purpose. Your descent into Matter has reached its low point. If all that you identify with is not to be annihilated in entropic collapse, you must begin waking up, begin living." Carey and others attempt to create a flip-flop at the slippery edges of identity ("you are not the form you animate, but the force of animation itself"), transforming alienation into a sense of alien mission. Compared to the paranoiac Budd Hopkins, New Agers accept this cosmic mutation with open arms. So you get wonderfully weird texts like the self-consciously humorous E.T. 101: The Cosmic Instruction Manual, An Emergency Remedial Edition, a spiral-bound notebook directed at those aliens who have incarnated on earth and are just beginning to wake up to their true origins and original mission now that "third-dimensional reality is up for grabs."

What's the mission? To spread the millennialism at the heart of information. At the wacko fringe of a wacko phenomenon, you find a mutant equivalence of identity and information, as if the glut of data and images that continues to rewire the postmodern subject is only the leading edge of a much greater transformation. Though characterized in many ways, the new space we are moving toward is the space of information itself--nonlinear, disembodied, complex, synthetic. Bashar calls it the "fourth density," wherein one experiences that "everything is interconnected holographically; everything is the same one thing manifesting in all the different, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional ways that it can--simultaneously." In one of The Starseed Transmissions's most remarkable passages, the channeled beings say of their gnostic proclamations: "This new information is not additional data that you will act upon. It is, rather, the very reality of your new nature. You are not to act upon my information in the future, you are to be my information yourselves." These alien angels are telling us something computer junkies already know: the degree to which we truly live in cyberspace is the degree to which we identify ourselves with information. Perhaps the UFO is nothing more than the pied piper of hyperspace. Flying pie tins, conspiracies, and anal probes are nothing more than lures, bobbing plastic worms that tantalize us just enough so that we will look up, and slowly ascend to the edge of the world.

(first published in the Voice Literary Supplement, February 1993)

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