Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures From Outerspace to Cyberspace / Edition 1

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Overview

In a provocative analysis of public culture and popular concerns, Jodi Dean examines how serious UFO-logists and their pop-culture counterparts tap into fears, phobias, and conspiracy theories with a deep past and a vivid present in American society. Aliens, the author shows, provide cultural icons through which to access the new conditions of democratic politics at the millennium. Because of the technological complexity of our age, political choices and decisions have become virtually meaningless, practically impossible. How do we judge what is real, believable, trustworthy, or authoritative? When the truth is out there, but we can trust no one, Dean argues, paranoia is indeed the most sensible response. Aliens have invaded the United States. No longer confined to science fiction and tabloids, aliens appear in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, at candy counters (in chocolate-covered flying saucers and Martian melon-flavored lollipops), and on Internet web sites. Aliens are at the center of a faculty battle at Harvard. They have been used to market AT&T cellular phones, Milky Way candy bars, Kodak film, Diet Coke, Stove-Top Stuffing, skateboard accessories, and abduction insurance. A Gallup poll reports that 27 percent of Americans believe space aliens have visited Earth. A Time/CNN poll finds 80 percent of its respondents believe the U.S. government is covering up knowledge of the existence of aliens. What does the widespread American belief in extraterrestrials say about the public sphere? How common are our assumptions about what is real? Is there any such thing as "common" sense? Aliens, the author shows, provide cultural icons through which to access the new conditions of democratic politics at the millennium. Because of the technological complexity of our age, political choices and decisions have become virtually meaningless, practically impossible. How do we judge what is real, believable, trustworthy, or authoritative? When the truth is out there, but we can trust no one, Dean argues, paranoia is indeed the most sensible response.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Do words like 'truth' and 'authority' mean anything when no one agrees how, much less whom, to believe? Writing spry, acerbic prose . . . Dean guides her readers soberly through strange terrain in which rationality itself gets upended: in view of radiation experiments on developmentally disabled patients and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, is it more sensible to credit a government in cahoots with alien beings, or not to? . . . Dean compellingly traces our national loss of faith in formerly attractive notions like outer space and the 'Final Frontier.' . . . No reader will leave this intriguing book without pondering the unavoidable question she raises: 'What happens to our everyday approaches to truth when reality isn't?'"—Publishers Weekly

"Dean presents a scholarly analysis of America's fascination with aliens, alien abduction, conspiracy theories, and the like. . . . She is especially interested in discovering the connections between New Age beliefs and our social and political lives and the ways people judge what is real, authoritative, and trustworthy. . . . This study will help scholars understand the dynamics of democratic politics as the millennium approaches."—Library Journal

"Dean draws a parallel between the passivity of U.F.O. abductees and the passivity of an American citizenry sprawled before the television set, and she sees a further parallel between the abductees' fruitless quest to establish the truth of their experiences and the difficulty of telling fact from fiction on the Internet. . . . Seeking the truth, and yet unable to rely on anyone's help in finding it, we are cast into a murky haze of paranoia and conspiracy theorizing."—New York Times Book Review

"Dean's Aliens in America leads its reader on a lively odyssey through the epistemological brier patch of UFO research, alien abduction narratives, and their attendant conspiracy theories. . . . A slice of fin-de millennium cultural life. . . . No one looking for a literate, insightful, and comprehensive overview of post-Roswell UFO lore will come away from Aliens in America disappointed. Dean, a professor of political science with a voracious appetite for pop marginalia, covers all of the bases: the documented secret and not-so-secret government efforts to discredit early UFO witnesses; the rise of the alien-abductee movement . . . It's all here, cross-stitched and woven into the surrounding historical context with the assuredness we've learned to expect from the best works of cultural studies and with an acceptably low dosage of the theoryspeak we've learned to fear from the worst."—Village Voice

"Dean states provocatively that the growth of information technology (the Internet, telecommunications networks) has so radically increased the dissemination of knowledge and inflated the notion of 'public' that rumors and opinion fly with such speed it is often hard to determine what is authentic and what is fraudulent. . . . Although Aliens In America is largely an academic text, it is accessible for the lay reader, who may find Dean's evidence entertaining and illuminating, if not completely persuasive."—Booklist

"Aliens in America offers up some incisive pop-cultural analysis. Aliens, Ms. Dean suggests, once reflected the anxieties of the Cold War; now they represent broader concerns, from anxiety about unassimilated immigrants to angst about bearing children."—Chronicle of Higher Education

"Jodi Dean is an emerging scholar of the first rank. In Aliens in America she has deployed both a sophisticated political theoretical framework and a concern about what it means that so many American citizens are coming to believe the claims of aliens. Dean engages in a serious investigation of how popular culture connects to shifts in the political assumptions of a mass public. This is vital and needed work, not just for the field of political theory, but more generally for public intellectuals."—Thomas L. Dumm, author of united states

"A fascinating and provocative book. Dean's major insight about the cultural and political importance of UFO/alien/space discourse and representation at the millennium is convincing and compelling."—Elayne Rapping, author of Media-tions: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars

"Jodi Dean's Aliens in America is a rare find in the literature of the social sciences. It is entertaining and, at the same time, a politically perspicuous and textually acute reading. It treats, from another angle of vision, what Thomas Pynchon mapped in his Vineland: the more paranoid recesses of American culture. And her analysis of a variety of popular culture genres speaks effectively to the issue of the reliability of beliefs in relation to the functioning of democracy."—Michael Shapiro, University of Hawaii

"Aliens in America is a provocative book that grounds contemporary interest in the 'science fictional' in concrete social practice. Focusing on alien abduction narratives as symptomatic of a cultural crisis in notions of truth, evidence, and experience, Dean traces the breakdown of 'consensus reality' and tracks the emergence of 'sensible paranoia' as an appropriate response to the incoherence of our increasingly mediated, depoliticized, and 'abducted' lives."—Vivian Sobchack, author of Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If you believe what you read on the Internet, aliens surround us these days and 65% of the respondents in one poll agreed that the government had hidden a crashed UFO since 1947. But political scientist Dean ("The Solidarity of Strangers") is less interested in the credibility of such stories than in their embodiment of a contemporary political culture (networked, televisual, cyber-linked) in which the problem is "that if the knowledge we need to make a judgment stems from shared experiences, what do we do when experiences are reconstituted so radically that we can't tell if we, or anyone else, actually has them or not?" Do words like "truth" and "authority" mean anything when no one agrees how, much less whom, to believe? Writing spry, acerbic prose that only rarely stumbles into jargon, Dean guides her readers soberly through strange terrain in which rationality itself gets upended: in view of radiation experiments on developmentally disabled patients and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, is it more sensible to credit a government in cahoots with alien beings, or not to? While the book grows somewhat repetitive toward its conclusion, Dean compellingly traces our national loss of faith in formerly attractive notions like outer space and the "Final Frontier." The author offers no answers, but no reader will leave this intriguing book without pondering the unavoidable question she raises: "What happens to our everyday approaches to truth when reality isn't?"
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801484681
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1998
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.92 (w) x 8.88 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, xi
Introduction: Alien Politics, 1
1 Fugitive Alien Truth, 25
2 Space Programs, 62
3 Virtually Credible, 98
4 I Want to Believe, 126
5 The Familiarity of Strangeness, 153
Postscript: Commemorations, July 1997, 182
Notes, 199
Index, 233
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE
I Fugitive Alien Truth

"Subscribe Abducted"

    The X-Files capitalizes on and contributes to pop-cultural preoccupation with aliens. Although Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate a variety of paranormal cases for the FBI, the series' underlying theme is the governmental conspiracy surrounding the alien presence. With story lines compiled from cases in UFO literature, The X-Files hints at varying levels of explanation, complicity, disinformation, and intrigue as Mulder searches for "the truth." Scully and Mulder have discovered what appear to be alien bodies, submerged saucers, and miles of underground files on genetic experimentation. Scully has been abducted and Mulder attacked by aliens. Yet they always lack "hard evidence"; they never quite reach "the truth." A poster in Mulder's office says, "I want to believe."

    In the episode "Jose Chung's from Outer Space," the writer Darin Morgan satirizes the inaccessibility of truth within the series as well as around UFO phenomena in general. The episode opens with a typical abduction scenario: a car experiences electrical failure on a dark and lonely road as a bright light paralyzes its teenage passengers. The narrative within which this scene would normally occur, however, quickly folds back in on itself as the gray aliens carrying out the abduction are themselves abducted by what appears to be an even larger and scarier alien (those in the know will quickly recognize it as a Reptilian). From there any possible narrative coherence is sacrificed as the search for truth turns up a New Age cult version of a Hollow Earth enthusiast (i.e., one who believes that UFOs originate from within the earth itself, a view that preceded the extraterrestrial hypothesis), a burned-out and lonely Dungeons and Dragons player aching to make contact with a UFO, and a challenge to Scully and Mulder's gender identities: Scully is taken for a man in drag, and Mulder emits a girly and uncharacteristic scream upon discovering an alien body. As Scully performs an autopsy on the body -- an autopsy videoed, cut, and remade in a parody of the alien autopsy video broadcast by Fox Network during its previous season -- she discovers that what looked like an alien is actually a human in disguise.

    This motif of the conspiratorial human underpinnings of alien abduction repeats itself when one of the teenagers is hypnotized. Although in her first hypnotic regression she claims to have been examined and probed by aliens, when hypnotized a second time the girl instead recalls men in military uniforms. By the end of the show, truth itself has been abducted. When Mulder interviews an Air Force pilot, the pilot cannot confirm even his own existence.

    Less mainstream than The X-Files, Bill Barker's "SCHWA" graphically represents the paranoia of our alien age. Constructed around the small alien with the large black eyes, Barker's "Complete SCHWA Kit" includes an illustrated book, stickers, a key chain, postcards, and a "survival card." All the items are printed in high-contrast black and white, with stick figures, aliens, and flying saucers, the latter signified by simple ovals. Drawings in the book range from a conspiracy theory, stick-figure interpretation of the Kennedy assassination (the bits of skull flying off Kennedy's head are shaped like saucers) to stick figures hanging themselves as the saucers come. SCHWA graphics present HIV as an alien invasion on the cellular level. The oval saucer links surveillance, religion, viruses, corporate capitalism, and alien abduction, evoking a universe where everything is connected, out to get us, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

    We can't even figure out what SCHWA is. The book SCHWA, whose drawings are credited to Barker, is published by Schwa Press. It is available from the SCHWA corporation. The same corporation is featured in the drawings as its SCHWA logo infests the stick-figure society. The big-eyed alien is part of SCHWA, but not original to it. SCHWA performatively disrupts the illusion of boundaries, of clear distinctions, of ownership, and of innocence. Sentences in the book and on various items in the kit explain, "Every picture tells a lie" and "In case of abduction: 1. Remain where you are. 2. Give or do whatever they ask. 3. Forget everything that happens." The stickers announce, "This home/car/person/property protected by SCHWA," but the illusion of security is disrupted by the message that there is no resisting the aliens and the suggestion that, somehow, SCHWA itself is involved with the aliens. SCHWA's site on the World Wide Web immediately informs visitors that they have been counted. It then displays options for purchasing items from the SCHWA corporation, the same corporation implicated in the screensavers, hats, T-shirts, car conversion stickers, and counter-SCHWA kits up for sale, the same corporation in the drawings.

    In contrast to these commercial ventures, the SCHWA Internet discussion group, like some Usenet groups organized around alien themes, is primarily an assortment of disaffected American and Australian students, drawn to the alien image to discuss drugs and parties. By clicking on the alien icon they access and organize the very nightmares and anxieties they simultaneously mock and disclose. Tattooed clerks selling T-shirts and stickers at the mall a town or two over from mine tell me that aliens are big with thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds. "But a lot of kids believe who don't wear the stuff," one adds, warning, in a parody of Fox Mulder on The [X-Files, that "the hype is out there."

Fugitivity

    Through conspiracies, connections, and frustrated confusions, SCHWA and The X-Files re-create the tangled hints and fragmented evidence characteristic of the UFO discourse. Their insight into the themes and anxieties just below the surface of American society in fact presupposes a general cultural awareness of this discourse. "Getting it" requires prior knowledge of UFOs and alien abduction.

    The same holds for Independence Day. In one of the few creative moments in this War of the Worlds remake, the film cites the story of the disk that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Preserving the integrity of the heroic, fighter pilot, president (Bill Pullman), it uses conspiracy theory to castigate the secretary of defense for covering up the truth, implying that world destruction might have been prevented had the truth been revealed. ID4 further follows themes well established in ufology as it locates the remains of the disk at Area 51. It even redeems stories of alien abduction: not only is Russell (Randy Quaid), an abductee, proven to be sane, right all along in what were sneered at as the ravings of an alcoholic, traumatized Vietnam vet, but also his self-sacrifice helps save the world. Like SCHWA and The X-Files, the better moments of ID4 don't draw from the fantastic tropes of science fiction. They rely on the more everyday reports of saucer sightings and dose encounters. They presume an audience familiar with the fact that thousands of Americans say they have been abducted and sexually traumatized by aliens.

    This presumption makes sense. Abduction, Harvard professor John Mack's account of his work with abductees, received extensive media attention when it was released in 1994. Books by Whitley Strieber and Budd Hopkins have been best-sellers, with Strieber's Communion reaching number one on the New York Times best-seller list in May 1987. The latter book was made into a film, and one of Hopkins's books became the basis for the 1992 television miniseries Intruders. Like the other testimonials by abductees (or "experiencers," as some prefer to be called), and like the case studies by their hypnotists and therapists, these books present themselves as nonfiction, as reports of actual experiences. They are offered as evidence of something real. UFO sightings and abduction narratives involve claims to truth. They deploy the language of science and law in support of the truth of the alien.

    Apparently, significant numbers of Americans are convinced. In June 1997, 17 percent of the respondents to a Time/CNN poll claimed to believe in abduction. In 1996 the Washington Post ran a cover story that describes an abductee's eerie sense that people tend to accept his account of the experience. The story notes: "To the extent that popular culture reflects what they call `consensus reality,' the possible now appears to encompass small gray beings with big eyes borrowing millions of ordinary Americans, harvesting their reproductive cells, then returning them to Earth to tell their stories to therapists." Americans' relationship to the possible, the plausible, the truth is changing, and this change is being played out in the alien themes and images appearing in popular and mainstream cultures.

    The truth of the alien underlies its powerful culture presence. Although there are multiple possible meanings that can be linked to the myriad aliens invading popular cultures today, this very multiplicity contributes to their link to contemporary problems with truth and reality. A click on the alien automatically loads a discourse constructed around the fugitivity of truth, creating pathways to ever more conspiratorial efforts to keep it from being accessed. A posting on the SCHWA list not only employs UFO rhetoric but deconstructs it by dissolving distinctions between fact and nonfact: "There are powerful forces at work to prevent you [sic] knowing THE TRUTH. All will be revealed within 9 terrestrial days. A series of fact-like statements or pseudo-statements or pseudo-facts will be sent to the list on or before May 14."

    The entertainment news show Entertainment Tonight's May 5, 1996, report on the efforts of Travis Walton to set the record straight regarding his 1975 abduction in an Arizona forest further exemplifies the "givenness" of the connection between UFOs and conspiracy, the way this link is something so taken for granted that it need not be said, something so obvious that it can function as framing or connecting motif. The clips of Walton feature his pleas for people to look at the evidence, especially as he lays it out in his new book. He claims that, had he known he would be subjected to the wide-scale derision he received when his story was first publicized, he would never have come forward.

    The ET segment features scenes from the 1993 Paramount true-life drama Fire in the Sky that was based on Walton's first book, The Walton Experience. Even though the most frightening and lurid parts of the movie anchor the Walton segment, one of the announcers stresses that Walton avoided publicity. This apparent contradiction might seem to disrupt the "news" the show is presenting, reminding viewers that this is, after all, entertainment. But the announcer doesn't try to keep truth on a separate terrain. Instead, to, alleviate the tension her claim creates, she explains that Walton went without a telephone for ten years. Merely going without a telephone, in other words, is equated with avoiding publicity--and this for a person whose book became a Hollywood film. After the segment, a group of ET announcers chitchat about whether they believe in UFOs. For the rest of the show they use the language of "uncovering the truth" as they introduce items on films and celebrities.

    The alien dares us to take a stand, to hold a position, to accept or reject it. Confrontation with a story of flying saucers or alien abduction pushes us to one side or another: Is it real? Do we believe? The alien seduces us into a critical reassessment of our criteria for truth: How do we determine what real is? Why do we believe? The claim to truth and its challenge to our practices for establishing it are what enable the alien to function as an icon of postmodern anxieties. Because its appeals to evidence incorporate scientific and juridical criteria, the alien works as an icon that allows us to link into embedded fears of invasion, violation, mutation. It uses the language of reality to contest our taken-for-granted experience of reality. The alien marks the radical strangeness and unknowability increasingly part of contemporary life. It serves as the ubiquitous reminder of uncertainty, doubt, suspicion, of the fugitivity of truth. We live with the alien while never knowing it.

    Intrinsic to this challenge to truth, however, is its confirmation: the truth is out there, after all. Or, as a participant at the 1992 MIT abduction conference observed about the lack of conclusive proof of UFOs, "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." By reinscribing the promise of truth, the alien reassures us that everything is not up for grabs, although anything could be. Some things are certain. We just don't know what they are.

    This preoccupation with the question of truth is a primary characteristic of the UFO discourse as a whole: Are UFOs real? Are they responsible for crop circles and cattle mutilations? Does the government know? Is it covering up evidence of-crashed saucers? And are aliens really abducting people from their beds and cars, examining, probing, and tracking them through implants? As an ever proliferating dispersion of statements around the truth of aliens, the UFO discourse lures us into a confrontation with truth. It compulsively repeats questions of truth, whether in its eruptions into currents in mainstream cultures or within the studies, analyses, and testimonials of those working actively to capture and comprehend fugitive alien truth.

    Because the UFO discourse is constructed around uncertain evidence, evidence of something that may not be there at all, its reports, cases, and files are primarily about the witnesses and only secondarily about the witnessed. Even the material evidence, the photographs, soil samples, government documents, mysterious fragments, and infamous alien autopsy film always stimulate (simulate?) investigations of the people who "found" or produced them. Are the witnesses reliable? Are their motives pure? In the UFO discourse, truth is an issue of credibility. It is produced through practices designed to establish whether someone is worthy of our trust. With the rise in claims of alien abduction during the nineties, the questions have now become whether abductees are crazy, neurotic, psychotic, epileptic, fantasy-prone, hysterical, or suffering from sleep or dissociative personality disorders. Consequently, abductees are subjected to batteries of psychological tests in an effort to explain their experiences. But the tests are inconclusive. Any question, any answer leads into an ever branching network of possibilities.

End-time

    Although UFO flaps have occurred regularly since the late 1940s, the current obsession with aliens seems intertwined with fears of the millennium. Many have associated end-of-the-century culture with boundary breakdown and transgression, especially as heretofore excluded possibilities, be they monsters, the supernatural, or previously repressed sexualities and subjectivities, make their way into the social imaginary. Not only does the alien mark that intrusion of the other so typical of end-time strangeness, but its reinscription of the promise of truth iterates the certainty of knowledge characteristic of apocalyptic modes of truth.

    At last century's end, visitors from space appeared in many media and locales. In 1891, Thomas Blot published the story of the sudden appearance of a Martian in his rural home. Throughout 1896 and 1897, thousands of sightings of mysterious airships and strange, cigar-shaped craft were reported in the western United States. Occasionally, witnesses claimed to have seen or spoken with the occupants. In 1900 the psychologist Theodore Flournoy published an account of the French medium Helene Smith's 1890 visit to Mars. Around the same time, Percival Lowell built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, so he could study the canal system on Mars, sharing his findings in two widely popular books, Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as an Abode of Life (1908). As Howard Blum notes, "It became a national craze. As America entered the twentieth century, there were newspaper contests (`Tell Us Your Idea for Talking to Mars') and even songs about `the lonely man on Mars.'"

    With its "one world" outlook, chosen people, and mood of eminent arrival, the UFO discourse echoes key themes in American apocalypticism. Telling and retelling how in 1947 Kenneth Arnold saw "nine disks flying like a saucer skipped over the water" and how the media distorted this account by coining the fanciful and dismissing phrase "flying saucers," ufology produces its originary moment. It does so in order to overcome it in the end: when the aliens come, the ufologists' careful perseverance will triumph over the scorn of ufology's critics as the truth is revealed and the credibility of witnesses and UFO researchers is restored. Relying on this future confirmation of the truth, ufology projects end-time scenarios based on the ontological shock we will face when the aliens come. The UFO researcher Stanton Friedman argues that government confirmation of contact with aliens and their superior technology will shatter earthly economic and political structures.

    More explicitly apocalyptic are the testimonies of contactees and abductees. In the 1950s, cults grew up around various people who claimed to have had contact with aliens, usually Venusians or Saturnians, although some turned up from Clarion, the twin of Earth that was hidden by the moon. Most of the aliens looked like white humans, some of whom were described as tall, attractive, and Aryan. Reporting the aliens' messages, whether delivered in person or telepathically channeled, some contactees predicted the end of the world.

    One such account, familiar to some academics in sociology and religious studies, is When Prophesy Fails. This book addresses the conflicts experienced by cult members after the flood they had prepared for, the one aliens had announced to their contactee leader, Mrs. Keech, didn't occur. But Mrs. Keech wasn't the only contactee whose predictions went unfulfilled. Since most contactees warned that the aliens were alarmed by Earth's development of atomic weapons, they tended to predict either nuclear destruction or some kind of alien intervention. Truman Bethurum, for example, explained that the Clarionites feared humans would destroy their own planet in a nuclear war and thereby create "considerable confusion" among the inhabitants of outerspace.

    Like the contactees, some abductees report that the aliens show or implant in their minds "scenes of the earth devastated by a nuclear holocaust, vast panoramas of lifeless polluted landscapes and waters, and apocalyptic images of great earthquakes, firestorms, floods, and even fractures of the planet itself." Some believers have suggested that these images symbolize "the inner apocalypse related to our current change in mind," viewing the abduction experience as a transformation of human consciousness. Others read these images as justifications for the human-alien breeding project. Abductions are efforts to acquire human eggs and sperm. These eggs and sperm are combined with alien DNA in order to create a new posthuman race. The hybrids will then "repopulate our planet after the prophesied environmental holocaust."

    Finally, while abductee narratives incorporate divine and technological visionings of apocalypse, in popular culture the alien icon operates in what Lee Quinby refers to as "ironic apocalypse." Conceiving ironic apocalypse as an "insistence on the prevailing banality of everything," she argues that it "numbs people into inaction through its paralyzing sense of futility" and "supplants agency with apathy." This banality and futility is the prevailing mood of SCHWA. It makes a more subtle appearance on a sticker made by the skateboard accessory company Alien Workshop. The sticker features a cadre of Grays and the slogan "2001 Global Take-over." Youth-culture aliens, insertions of big-eyed Grays into familiar locations in consumer culture, scream ironic apocalypse. It must be the end of the world when happy faces, Janet Jackson, anorexic Calvin Klein models, and the Cat in the Hat have all morphed into aliens.

Access Denied

    Although aliens were around in the fifties and sixties, they weren't much of a fashion statement. In Cold War America, in fact, sightings of aliens, or at least their craft, had connotations of resistance. This culture of containment is where the UFO discourse grew up, where it was fabricated piecemeal from alien forms. Because it linked outerspace with amateur achievement, flying saucer society made possible a sort of populist agency that contested the presumed authority of Cold War containment culture.

    The key issue was "evidence." At that time, the military monopolized all information about saucer reports. Finding and analyzing evidence under these conditions turned the question of the truth of UFOs into a question of the proper extent of state authority and the proper role of military experts. Since expert knowledge conflicted directly with "the people's right to know," ufology emerged as a sort of advocacy group. On behalf of those reporting something strange in the skies, UFO researchers challenged the interpretations proffered by military scientists. On behalf of the "people," they challenged the limits to and criteria for government secrecy.

    From 1947, when the term "flying saucer" was coined in the first of three widely publicized sighting waves that would occur over the next decade, just how saucer reports would be handled was a question of power. That year, charged to study and classify UFOs, the Air Force started Project Sign. Like the rest of the country in 1947, the Air Force didn't link flying saucers with extraterrestrial craft--that connection wouldn't become automatic till the early fifties. The Air Force was more worried about earthly invaders. Project Sign didn't figure out what UFOs were. It couldn't explain all the sightings. But it did conclude that UFOs did not present a threat to U.S. air security. Nonetheless, because of increasing Cold War tensions it was recommended that the military retain control over ufological investigations. The legitimacy of U.S. military and political authority vis-a-vis the American citizenry rested quite literally on the disavowal of the other and unknown.

    By 1949, when the project's name had been changed to Grudge, the military took the official position that UFO reports were products of mass hallucination, hallucinations that the Soviets could, in the event of a war, manipulate to block American communications and confuse the public. Security then depended on ensuring that people knew the truth; that is, the same truth that the military knew. To decrease the likelihood of mass manipulation, Project Grudge waged a propaganda campaign designed to alleviate public fears of UFOs while downplaying sighting reports in general.

    A primary element of this campaign involved stripping away the credibility of those who thought they saw something strange in the sky. Properly trained observers (scientists and military experts) would then provide "true" explanations of what were "really" quite ordinary occurrences. Witnesses were dismissed as drunk, hysterical, crazy, or deeply twisted and dishonest. Prosaic (and not so prosaic) explanations for phenomena substituted for on-site research. The witness or witnesses had simply "misperceived" the phenomenon, mistaking for a flying saucer what was really swamp gas, a weather invasion, Venus, ice crystals, or a reflection.

    Together with poor record keeping and an obsession with secrecy that produced a steady accumulation of half-facts and hesitations, the official ridicule heaped upon witnesses had a reverse effect: suspicions that there really was something to hide. Despite military efforts to dismiss UFOs, to assimilate them into something controllable and scientifically explicable, by May 1950 sighting reports were at an all-time high.

    That year two highly visible books were published alleging a UFO cover-up, Donald Keyhoe's Flying Saucers Are Real and Frank Scully's Behind the Flying Saucers. These books shift the problem of credibility from UFO witnesses to the U.S. government and military. In a parallel effort, journalists, civilians, amateur scientists, and former military began investigating sighting reports on their own and in the newly forming research groups. Contesting the Air Force's hallucination explanation in particular and its authority to define the UFO phenomenon in general, "flying saucer societies" such as NICAP (National Investigative Committee on Aerial Phenomena) and APRO (Aerial Phenomena Research Organization) worked to increase public awareness of the UFO phenomenon. Through their publicity efforts and several sighting flaps, interest in and awareness of UFOs grew. By 1966, 96 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll had heard of UFOs and 46 percent of them believed UFOs were real.

    As David Jacobs points out, the Gallup results may well have been due to the extensive publicity around some UFO sightings in Michigan in March of that year. On March 20, eighty-seven women at Hillsdale College saw a glowing, football-shaped object hover over their dorm, fly around, and dodge airport lights. They watched it for four hours. The next day, police officers and several others in a town about sixty miles away witnessed a glowing object rise up from a swampy area on a firm. Within the next few days, most major papers and television newscasts would report on the sightings.

    Under the auspices of Project Blue Book, which succeeded Project Grudge, the Air Force sent Dr. J. Allen Hynek to investigate. Hynek was a consultant to the project and a professor from Northwestern University who would later be known for supporting research on UFOs. At a press conference on the Michigan sightings, however, Hynek explained that the alleged saucers might well have been lights caused by swamp gas.

    Some in the press found this answer even less credible than the possibility of flying saucers. As an article in the New Yorker concludes: "We read the official explanations with sheer delight, marveling at their stupendous inadequacy. Marsh gas, indeed! Marsh gas is more appropriate as an image of that special tediousness one glimpses in even the best scientific minds." Under pressure from NICAP, parts of the media, and Representative Gerald Ford of Michigan, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on UFOs in April. In May, CBS News aired a special report, "UFOs: Friend, Foe, or Fantasy," hosted by Walter Cronkite, who would later play a major role in telecasts of America's own space exploration.

    The result of the hearings was a recommendation for an independent scientific investigation of the Air Force's work on Project Blue Book. After several universities (including Harvard, MIT, and Cal Tech) declined the project, the Air Force contracted with the University of Colorado. Like the other universities, Colorado feared that the UFO project might damage its credibility. It had, however, just suffered some major budget cuts and the Air Force-funded study was worth about half a million dollars.

    An internal memo from Assistant Dean Robert Low dated August 9, 1966, tries to deal with the credibility problem that the UFO review posed for the university. He points out that

in order to undertake such a project one has to approach it objectively. That is, one has to admit the possibility that such things as UFOs exist. It is not respectable to give serious consideration to such a possibility. Believers, in other words, remain outcasts .... [O]ne would have to go so far as to consider the possibility that saucers, if some of the observations are verified, behave according to a set of physical laws unknown to us. The simple act of admitting these possibilities just as possibilities puts us beyond the pale, and we would lose more in prestige in the scientific community than we could possibly gain by undertaking the investigation.

Yet, Low offers a solution:

    Our study would be conducted almost exclusively by nonbelievers who, although they couldn't possibly prove a negative result, could and probably would add an impressive body of evidence that there is no reality to the observations. The trick would be, I think, to describe the project so that, to the public, it would appear a totally objective study but, to the scientific community, would present the image of a group of nonbelievers trying their best to be objective but having an almost zero expectation of finding a saucer, One way to do this would be to stress investigation, not of the physical phenomena, rather of the people who do the observing--the psychology and sociology of persons and groups who report seeing UFOs.

The review, carried out under the direction of a physics professor, Dr. Edward Condon, was released in January 1969. It sought the appearance of objectivity--indeed, it followed the suggestions outlined in Low's memo--but came under heavy criticism nonetheless, and not least when the Low memo itself was leaked to the press.

    In July 1968, prior to the report's publication, the House Science and Astronautics Committee held a symposium on UFOs, in part because of growing concern over the biases and inadequacies of the Colorado study. Condon had been open in his disdain for UFOs, spending most of his energies on contactees rather than on the reports provided by NICAP and Project Blue Book. The Condon staff was split and factionalized, some suspecting that only a negative assessment of UFOs would be published. Although participants in the July symposium urged continued scientific study of UFOs, Condon's introduction to the soon-to-be released Colorado report presents itself as the final authoritative word on the matter of UFOs: "Our general conclusion is that nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge. Careful consideration of the record as it is available to us leads us to conclude that further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby." Of the ninety-one cases covered in the report, thirty remain unexplained.

Resistance

    Two discourses, the scientific and the governmental-juridical, established the languages in which the matter of UFOs would be delimited, discerned, and debated. Consequently, the investigative work and attitude toward evidence of the groups that formed to study UFOs was produced within these discourses as well. Groups like NICAP, APRO and, later, MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) anchored themselves in science and law as they tried to persuade scientists to study the UFO phenomenon and to induce the government to release the relevant information.

    Official explanations for UFO sightings focused on witnesses' unreliability, either on their moral failings (dishonest or drunk) or on their failures of judgment (lapses in sanity or perception). UFO researchers responded by working to establish the witnesses' credibility. Using scientific and juridical languages, they sought to provide reasons to trust the words of even someone who claims to have seen a flying saucer. This had the effect of shaping the UFO discourse as a whole around questions of trust and credibility as much as around empirical evidence. Ufologists resisted the view that the judgments of significant numbers of Americans are unreliable. They rejected the presumption that citizens should be reduced to "crazies" and excluded from serious discussions important to America's security. To this extent, ufology challenged official notions of what counts as true, of whose words are credible.

    In his testimony at the Symposium on Unidentified Flying Objects held by the House Science and Astronautics Committee in July 1968, Dr. James McDonald, senior physicist, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, and professor in the Department of Meteorology, University of Arizona, went to great lengths to address the question of reliability. Not only did he carefully distinguish between UFO enthusiasts and UFO witnesses, but he also pointed out the reluctance of many witnesses to report anomalous phenomena and their efforts to provide alternative, prosaic explanations for what they had seen. He concludes:

I am one of those who lean strongly towards the extraterrestrial hypothesis. I arrived at that point by a process of elimination of other alternative hypotheses, not by arguments based on what I could call "irrefutable proof." I am convinced that the recurrent observations by reliable citizens here and abroad over the past twenty years cannot be brushed aside as nonsense, but rather need to be taken extremely seriously as evidence that some phenomenon is going on which we simply do not understand. Although there is no current basis for concluding that hostility and grave hazard lie behind the UFO phenomenology, we cannot be entirely sure of that. For all of these reasons, greatly expanded scientific and public attention to the UFO problem is urgently needed.

McDonald's testimony literally reminds symposium participants that the witnesses are citizens. It reintroduces UFO witnesses into a community of those who debate and discuss, who respect one another and take one another's views seriously. McDonald tries to include those dismissed as "crazies" in a public of reasonable people.

    The challenge to governmental and military authority was also an implicit part of what for some was the dark underside of ufology: namely, the contactee cults and flying saucer clubs that raged from the mid-fifties through the late sixties, numbering more than 150 at their peak with a few, such as Heaven's Gate, still hanging on into the nineties. Contactees described personal contacts with space people, people that were like humans, never alien, but better, wiser, more peaceful. The most prominent contactees were George Adamski, Truman Bethurum, Daniel Fry, Orfeo Angelucci, and Howard Menger. They publicized their messages -- which rarely cohered with one another -- on local television and radio programs as well as on nationally broadcast talk shows such as Steve Allen's Tonight. They also spoke at flying saucer conventions, selling books with titles like Flying Saucers Have Landed, Secret of the Saucers, and From Outer Space to You. Howard Menger sold records of music taught him by the space people.

    From the perspective of evidence-oriented ufologists, contactees were extremely damaging to ufology's political and scientific efforts. They destroyed what little credibility the field had, affecting the outcome of the Condon report as well as the tone of much media attention to UFOs. Contactees claimed that aliens had given them specific messages to share with the world. Less concerned with questions of evidence, they departed from the scientific and governmental-juridical language of ufology to situate the question of alien truth on a more religious, spiritual, or mystical terrain.

    The contactee narrative is generally constructed around an accidental encounter with a space person, a ride in a spaceship, and later meetings in which the space people issue the pronouncements the contactee is to deliver to the public at large. Almost invariably these pronouncements are warnings about nuclear weapons. Some contactees said that atomic fallout was threatening life on other planets. Others expressed the fear that the earth was on the verge of a destruction both nuclear and spiritual. Since the spiritual destruction was the result of a decline in love, care, and family values, the contactee message not only challenged the legitimacy of American military strategy but also linked that strategy with a threat to the American way of life.

    Regardless of the disdain shown by the evidence-driven ufologists, the contactee narrative participates in flying saucer society's critique of America in the fifties and sixties. They, too, provided a site in popular culture for confronting that which was so alienating in the Cold War mentality of containment and conformity. Although George Adamski toured Europe in 1959, and was even received by Holland's Queen Juliana, the contactees were a particularly American phenomenon, providing their own rather campy version of what the military found so important to deny. Again, quite literally, the legitimacy and coherence of America's political and social norms were revealed as requiring the exclusion of the alien.

    In the 1950s and 1960s, ufology linked outerspace to possibility. It established a space from which to resist the expert culture of containment and assert the authority of amateur and civilian opinion and research. At a time when "the military enjoyed tremendous prestige and was largely unchallenged," flying saucer society undercut military assurances of security. Military legitimacy rested on a disavowal of the unknown. Truth referred to what could be established, identified, secured. That which was unidentified could not be true. It was outside the parameters of truth, dangerously threatening to a security ever dependent on a stable, predictable, containable, real. In face of the possibility of aliens, the military looked weak, unable to provide the safety it promised. In the face of charges of conspiracy, the government looked corrupt, indistinguishable from its own representation of the communist enemy. Few other positions in Cold War society provided so consistent and potentially fundamental a challenge to military competence and integrity.

    The disruptive effects of UFOs were recognized at the time. In a letter to the chair of the House Armed Services Committee written in 1966, Representative Gerald Ford criticizes the Air Force's dismissal of a plethora of Michigan sightings, writing: "We owe it to the people to establish credibility regarding UFO's." The Condon report not only worked to restore public confidence in the military, but also concluded that, with regard to the sensational treatment of UFOs by the media, "whatever effect there has been has been bad." so Shortly thereafter, a critic of ufology observed that "several generations of teenagers had grown up believing in UFO, ETH [the extraterrestrial hypothesis], and the governmental conspiracy. If the government could lie about flying saucers then it could lie about anything. The UFO propagandists of the 1950s undoubtedly contributed to the growing credibility gap between the government and the people."

    Although this observation exaggerates the effects of the UFO discourse, it reiterates the link I'm making between outerspace and agency in the 1950s and 1960s: ufology was doing something; it wasn't just spinning an outlandish conspiracy tale. At the very least, it was publicizing an outlandish conspiracy theory that used outerspace and the possibility of extraterrestrial visitations to challenge military and scientific hegemony. Indeed, Tom Englehardt suggests that, precisely because it was "beyond the pale," flying saucer society was able to attack the government without being accused of communism. From the perspective of the dominant culture, ufology was silly. Nonetheless, precisely because it was outside the constraining equation of truth with security and identifiability, ufology was free to focus on the unknown, to indicate the limits of governmental authority and validate the experiences of witnesses without necessarily claiming that it could identify or establish the object of their experiences.

Assimilation

    Ufology used the official languages of containment culture to challenge containment culture. Like science and law, it appealed to evidence. In order to defend the credibility of UFO witnesses, moreover, researchers appealed to precisely that sort of evidence they assumed would be acceptable to scientists and lawyers. Thus, they tended to reinforce official assumptions about who or what can be credible. Because ufology wanted to convince political and scientific authorities of the truth of its claims, it accepted their standards and criteria even as it resisted official efforts to monopolize evidence and discredit witnesses. Since the dominant view was that seeing a UFO signaled some kind of suspect irrationality, ufologists fought on the same terrain, making the witness as normal, conventional, and upright as any true-blue American. In effect, they tried to claim a place for them within the conversations of democracy.

    During the 1966 hearings on UFOs by the House Armed Services Committee, Durwald G. Hall, the representative from Missouri, linked those who claimed to have seen UFOs with drug use and moral decline, saying:

For some time we have even had space conversations down in the Ozarks, in the last 13 years, and it would seem obvious to me in view of the report today [that] those who take trips by the use of hallucinatory drugs are almost synonymous with the number of space sightings we have had reported today, namely, in the order of 10,000. To me it indicates a decrease in the morals and the fiber of those who would subject themselves to hallucinatory influences in the first place.

    For Hall, UFO reporters are as disreputable as drug users, who he also presumes are on the other side of the border separating moral citizens from degenerate noncitizens (or, from aliens). Those on the other side don't warrant attention or respect from the rest of "us."

    Similarly, an appendix to the 1968 symposium hearings on UFOs provided a scientific method for assessing the reliability of the perceptions of those who claimed to have seen a UFO. Included as an example of the method's efficacy was the detailed evaluation of a thirty-seven-year-old unmarried white man who reported a large luminous disk hovering over Tucson at 3:00 A.M., November 17, 1967. "The Applied Assessment of Central Nervous System Integrity: A Method for Establishing the Creditability of Eye Witness and Other Observers" provides a thorough medical history and the results of a physical examination, laboratory studies of the man's urine and blood, a neurologic evaluation, a qualitative ophthalmologic examination, and a quantitative neuro-ophthalmologic investigation. It concludes that heavy smoking and the early stages of alcoholism damaged the witness's eyes so as to make his sighting "highly unlikely."

    Results from the physical examination alone were said to indicate the probability of misperception. Nonetheless, the witness was subjected to a psychiatric evaluation, too. Although the report acknowledges the man's college education, exemplary record as a bank employee, and sense of responsibility, it finds more significance in the fact that "he was breast fed for nearly two years because his mother couldn't afford to buy store milk"; that he was "more than once called a `mamma's boy' by his peers"; and that his sexual activity was limited to masturbating once a week to the fantasy of removing the "round, plastic, chartreuse nipple covers" from a belly dancer who performed at a local bar. On the basis of these tests, the probability of the man's credibility was estimated at 5 percent, putting him in the "extremely impaired category."

    Dr. Sydney Walker, the author of the assessment method, observes that without these tests, the witness might have seemed highly credible because of his respectable bank position, general demeanor, and claim to good health. Thanks to the medical evaluation, however, the witness is discredited as a sexually dysfunctional alcoholic and the sighting is explained as "an acute illusory phenomenon in which his regressed oral yearning for his mother was symbolically represented in the `light.' That the object took the color and shape it did (like the nipple covers) further demonstrates [the witness's] all-pervasive oral fixation."

    This kind of assessment method--and there was at least one resignation from the Colorado research team over the legitimacy of a similar psychologically based witness questionnaire -- constructs the UFO witness as an object of medical research. Instead of a participant in discussion with other scientists and citizens, the witness is something to be examined and studied, a lab rat rather than someone to be heard. The discourse of science is a site where the witness is fabricated into a test subject, not a language that the witness can use to describe what he or she has seen. Consequently, the lines in the battle over credibility are drawn. The question is whether witnesses, and UFO researchers, have the right to use these same scientific and legal languages or whether the very rules of their use turn witnesses into objects and researchers into crazies.

    Hynek, the Northwestern professor who had worked with the Air Force on Project Blue Book, responded to the House symposium attacks on the character of saucer witnesses. Stressing that fear of ridicule caused most sightings to go unreported, he defended the credibility of witnesses in the same languages that were deployed in the attempt to discredit them. People risked mockery and dismissal for two reasons, Hynek said: "One, is out of a sense of civic duty. Time and again I will get a letter saying, I haven't said this to anybody, but I feel it is my civic duty as a citizen to report this .... The second reason is that their curiosity finally bugs them, They have been thinking about it and they want to know what it was they saw." Like McDonald's testimony in the same symposium, Hynek's tries to reinsert witnesses into a public of credible citizens, into a discussion carried out among Americans who respect one another, who take one another seriously.

    What this meant, though, was that McDonald's and Hynek's efforts to support witnesses actually served to consolidate the terms in which this respect could be given. Ufology so affirmed the standards and practices of science and government that it simultaneously challenged and reinscribed their authority. Those who counted as "reliable" occupied a legitimate subject position as citizens or scientists, those whose moral standing could go without question or whose professional credentials made perceptual errors unlikely.

    Other ufologists contributed to this consolidation of the conditions of credibility. Many called attention to sightings from pilots, astronauts, professors, and military men. In one chapter alone of Flying Saucers: Top Secret, Donald Keyhoe identifies as UFO witnesses (whose signed reports are in NICAP files) the following: three pilots; "a well-known Baltimore astronomer, Dr. James C. Bartlett, Jr., author of numerous scientific articles in astronautical journals"; and a Lutheran minister, the Rev. Kenneth R. Hoffman, and his wife (who remains unnamed). Similarly, Gerald Ford's letter refers to sightings by a retired Air Force colonel, a scientist from MIT, an aeronautical engineer, and twelve policemen, asking: "Are we to assume that everyone who says he has seen a UFO's an unreliable witness?"

    Furthermore, in contrast to the medicalized/psychologized approach to witness reliability offered by Sydney Walker, another participant in the 1968 symposium suggests that "it might be fruitful to set up formally an adversary proceeding modeled after our system of jurisprudence." Dr. Robert L. Hall, chair of sociology at the University of Illinois, describes several UFO reports that met the criteria for witness credibility before a court of law. He argues that reliability should be judged in accordance with the witness's reputation, consistency, motive for prevarication, reaction to the event, and other conventional criteria.

    The early struggles of the ufologists can be read in terms of their reinscription of conventional ideas as to who counts, who is trustworthy, who is actually and above all a citizen. Such an interpretation, however, needs to be supplemented by attention to the battle around the very nature of truth out of which modern saucer stories emerge. The early ufologists fought against essentialist understandings of truth that would inscribe truth in objects (and relations between objects) in the world. Rejecting this idea, they relied on an understanding of truth as consensual. If our living in the world is an outcome of a consensus on reality, they would explain, then stop and notice that not everyone is consenting to the view of reality espoused by science and government. For this so-called consensus reality is exclusionary; it is based on the silencing and discrediting of real, everyday people, people who want to be heard. If truth is truly consensual, then other voices -- those of the UFO witnesses -- have to be included. As long as they are dismissed and objectified, as long as they don't count as citizens whose voices and opinions are worth taking seriously, then truth will be only a play of power.

    Emerging at the intersection of scientific and legal discourse, ufology was constituted through the redoubled effects of its exclusion. In the first instance, talk of flying saucers was discredited as nonsense unworthy of serious scientific or governmental consideration. UFOs were outside the domain of the dominant rationality. In the second instance, because of the outsider status of UFOs and UFO reports, establishing the intelligibility of witnesses required UFO researchers to appropriate the discourses that had originally excluded them. To be comprehensible to governmental and scientific authorities, UFO talk relied on their languages and logics, even as it remained alien to, incomprehensible in terms of, these languages and logics. Unable to equate the true with the predictable, identifiable, and containable, ufology redeployed truth itself. Thus, the resistance embodied in the UFO discourse was produced as an effect of ufology's exclusion, an effect that resulted in its adoption of the languages of science and law.

[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES...]

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  • Anonymous

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    Just because Ms Dean cannot 'choose among policies and verdicts, treatments and claims', she dismisses all attempts at reason and understanding. Having no concept of truth, in fact, in trendy postmodern style, dismissing its very possibility, she is left wallowing in the midst of the most ridiculous muddle of fraudulent, self-serving nonsensical claims about the reality of 'alien abduction'. Some writers and publishers, including Cornell University (!!)Press, to its shame, make money out of this tosh. Grow up - we are on our own there are no saviours, either from our human past or from some alien planet.

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