E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces

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Anthropologists have long sought to engage and describe foreign or “alien” societies, yet few have considered the fluid communities centered around a shared belief in alien beings and UFO sightings and their effect on popular and expressive culture. Opening up a new frontier for anthropological study, the contributors to E.T. Culture take these communities seriously. They demonstrate that an E.T. orientation toward various forms of visitation—including alien beings, alien technologies, and uncanny visions—engages primary concepts underpinning anthropological research: host and visitor, home and away, subjectivity and objectivity. Taking the point of view of those who commit to sci-fi as sci-fact, contributors to this volume show how discussions and representations of otherworldly beings express concerns about racial and ethnic differences, the anxieties and fascination associated with modern technologies, and alienation from the inner workings of government.

Drawing on social science, science studies, linguistics, popular and expressive culture, and social and intellectual history, the writers of E.T. Culture unsettle the boundaries of science, magic, and religion as well as those of technological and human agency. They consider the ways that sufferers of “unmarked” diseases such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome come to feel alien to both the “healthy” world and the medical community incapable of treating them; the development of alien languages like Klingon; attempts to formulate a communications technology—such as that created for the spaceship Voyager—that will reach alien beings; the pilgrimage spirit of UFO seekers; the out-of-time experiences of Nobel scientists; the embrace of the alien within Japanese animation and fan culture; and the physical spirituality of the Raëlian religious network.

Contributors. Debbora Battaglia, Richard Doyle, Joseph Dumit, Mizuko Ito, Susan Lepselter, Christopher Roth, David Samuels

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
E.T. Culture is a very strong theoretical intervention and a fascinating read. It is remarkable for its expansive, multiple-explanations approach. Each article makes a different, and each a compelling, argument for what UFOness is all about.”—Kathleen Stewart, author of A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America

“Who would have guessed in this dark and fearful time that a collection of essays on aliens would offer so much hope? Debbora Battaglia and her contributors open up new spaces for thinking. They provide us with room to breathe. Approaching otherness and the uncanny not with anxiety but with optimism, her anthropology of visits invites us to make ourselves open to ambiguity, an invitation which, in an unfortunate age of absolutes, we would all do well to accept.”—Jodi Dean, author of Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822336211
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 1,350,789
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Debbora Battaglia is Professor of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of On the Bones of the Serpent: Person, Memory, and Mortality in Sabarl Island Society and the editor of Rhetorics of Self-Making.

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Read an Excerpt


Anthropology in Outerspaces

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3632-7

Chapter One

Insiders' Voices in Outerspaces DEBBORA BATTAGLIA

In these pages you are invited to enter the outerspaces of extraterrestrial culture, as a realm of social inquiry. Where this journey leads is perhaps unexpected, especially for the discourse of alien beings and unidentified flying objects. For the fact is that, far from fields of exotic Otherness-the space of technomarvels and weird entities, epic enterprises, and terrors unrecognizable in their "structures of feeling"-we find ourselves instead in the presence of an extraterrestrial uncannily familiar and concrete. It is the image on a cell phone or a backpack, the toy in the window that glows in a child's room, the lead character of a blockbuster film, a teenager dressed for Halloween, the saucer-shaped café on a desert skyline. This deep familiarity is, to quote Gregory Bateson's definition of information, the "difference that makes a difference" to how we approach extra-terrestrial (E.T.) culture as lived experience. For it connects us to sci-fi as sci-fact and reveals factuality itself to be cultural at the core-and something we may opt to take on faith. Particularly in these insecure times, when information of unknown origin enters our living spaces as amatter of course, and often unbidden, the idea that diversely inhabited worlds contribute in mysterious ways to life's ambiguous messages and contingencies is not so strange. That extraterrestrial life could figure in this socially cosmic mix is something that a third of North Americans believe (Gallop Poll 2000).

Thus, the National Geographic Channel can broadcast Alien Contact (2004) to a mainstream television audience already primed to hear that "astronomers and astrophysicists and other real scientists-not just nut cases-believe that extraterrestrial life is not preposterous, not possible, but probable" (Heffernan 2004). Notable aerospace engineers, among them the director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP Unit-3) and the director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), can produce book-length manuscripts about the close encounters of astronauts and others claiming that "ETs ARE HERE! and have been for thousands of years" (personal communication). While it is not the purpose of this book's contributors to interrogate the truth value of such claims or of the documents circulating as evidence in spheres of public culture, we hope to show that there is much to be learned about what it means to be human at particular historical moments by admitting a de-exoticized alien into our ethnoscapes and into the light of anthropology's most searching disciplinary questions.

Galaxies of Discourse

A striking feature of the idea of the extraterrestrial is the extent to which conventionally distinct fields of knowledge cross-connect, collide, or pass through one another under its influence. For "insider" and more detached researchers alike, these galaxies of discourse reconfigure how we relate magic, science, and religion in contemporary practice and, often to actors unaware of this, in terms recalling the science spirituality of times putatively more mystical. The "E.T. effect" of social discourse is in this sense deeply cultural and explicitly historical but also intersubjective. Emanating from the outerspaces of cultural imaginaries, it draws us to the horizons of subjects' innerspaces. Whether we train our attention on the idea of the extraterrestrial (aliens) or alien technologies (ufology), on mystical "channels" of communication or "saucerian" visions (as Ryan Cook writes on his Anthro Ufology website), each of these homes to places and times right here on Terra (cf. Melucci 1996).

It follows that the extraterrestrial tests anthropology's methodological grounds as well as its reach, requiring a wide variety of available approaches that present "an opportunity to phenomena that ... would not be 'given a chance' [to appear]" if they were subjected only to the scientific gaze (Latour 2000: 368). "From the Earth native's point of view," as Susan Lepselter cleverly puts it (1997), alien/UFO religions and online and offline communities, and individual seekers of a "truth that is out there," reveal the inner workings of relations enabled, and disabled, by prospecting starward for social connection, with the expectation that this action is reciprocal. Our methods bear witness to this reality for seekers of reflexive contact, and take this as a process worthy of investigating.

Since all of us writing in this volume are anthropologists and/or seasoned ethnographers, our work in one sense or another carries with it the notion of "the field." Classically, this notion calls up images of ethnographic fieldwork and representations of unified "societies" and "cultures," and their "institutions" and "customs" in "out-of-the-way places" (as Anna Tsing has put it [1993]). And, indeed, all of these categorical units of analysis can lend themselves productively to cross-cultural comparison. In the late nineteenth century's Age of Empire, they aided the young field of anthropology in defining itself as a coherent discipline, distinctively positioned to gain new knowledge of complex alien lives-knowledge of its "Others." More to the point, the subjects themselves participated in this, creating their own Others in their self-definitional identity politics.

Yet E.T. culture-being both of this world and out of it, and, more importantly, being shaped in respect of alien "differences not yet otherness" (Agamben 1999: 126)-subverts us/them categories. To the extent that alternative knowledge networks and communities chart their life courses by means of the occlusions and silences of dominant culture authorities and gaps in walls of knowledge, forming identity by contrast to official culture produces social entities that are inherently "spacey." It follows that any anthropological project that orients itself to local "models of and models for" the social actions of coherent cultures and bounded societies-Clifford Geertz's profound formulation-is unlikely to hold for the subjectivities we encounter here. For theirs is a fluid sociality of contact consciousness in an alien key; making and finding rules of order wherever they find themselves mutually engaged-in, say, conspiracy theories or science futurism or abduction scenarios or plans to build an embassy for welcoming E.T. Taken together such sites of social action do not require the encompassing value of a coherent cultural system of belief in order to do the work subjects ask of them. Such subjects abide, suffer, and thrive in a historically contingent social. They orient themselves to the flickering light of mortal prophets, social gatherings of shifting membership, and an eclectic range of material touchstones. One might say that they markedly anticipated anthropology's move out of Empire's shadow, and into critical perspective on Empire's master narratives.

Wherever we turn in history, the movements of these seekers across their distinctive ethnoscapes show the traces of the social insecurity that we associate with "liquid modernity" (to borrow Zygmunt Bauman's phrase) but also traces of hope for a brighter future for humanity than it is managing to produce on its own. A requirement of writing culture in congruence with such space-time topologies, which are from the start complexly, even holographically multisited, is that we keep sight of the fact that for subjects the validity of being "elsewhere" is a given. So, too, is the validity of being "elsewhen," whether in the "lost time" of an abduction experience, "in the beginning" of a religious philosophy of alien Creationism, or in the event time of a pilgrimage to the historical faith sites of contact and exchange: to Roswell, New Mexico, where everyone knows that the first "flying saucer" crashed on an Independence Day weekend in 1947; or to the "mother of all crop circles," created by unidentified artists in the grain fields of southern England in 2001. The diversity and numerical growth in the "contact zones" of E.T. culture, which include UFO theme museums, archives and collections of ufological artifacts, talk radio airspace, archaeological sites, television documentaries, Web logs, and so forth, defy us to ignore-as Jodi Dean has observed-that we are living in an "alien age" wherein "the ideal and the material repeatedly cross-cut their separation" (Karen Sykes's comment on the network theory of Bruno Latour [2003: 157]). As indicated by the limits of our disciplinary technologies, and by our many anthropological approach routes, out of literary, linguistic, social and cultural theory, history, and science studies, it is our willingness to observe an "ethics of dissensus" (Ziarek 2001) that in the end will determine how successful we are in writing E.T. culture and, too, in realizing our potential for discursive articulation among ourselves as scholars.

In sum, our search for models sufficient to writing E.T. culture leads us to the interstitial coordinates that people wonder by. Their dedicated leaps of faith, their brave hypothesis making, are the reality with which we must converge as anthropological writers. This is perhaps why, as one who tends to plunge into my ethnographic fieldwork, I could read Dan Barry's "Close Encounters" in the New York Times Magazine and feel at home in the sensibility and social process he describes.

One summer evening, our parents piled us into the station wagon for a "very special" 70-mile trip to a place in New Jersey called Wanaque-where, kids, spaceships have supposedly been hovering over a reservoir. I never thought how strange this mission was, how odd that my family half-expected to see an alien spaceship that night. We had been reared on the general premise that it was arrogant to think that humans were the only intelligent beings in the universe. (2004: 132)

The E.T. effect. In an abstract sense it acts upon the social like Latour's proposition: "an offer made by an entity to relate to another under a certain perspective" (2000: 372). Unlike (linguistic and optical) metaphors, which hold that interpretative bias interferes with accuracy, the proposition finds its value in the notion that "The more activity there is, and the more intermediaries there are, the better the chance to articulate meaningful propositions" (375). Accordingly "each entity," as Stafford notes further, "is forced to pay attention to the other, and, in so doing, both diverge from their customary paths to venture into territory which, although it appears foreign from each of their unique vantage points, nonetheless belongs to an interdependent existence" (1999: 183). This process is at the armature of what I would call an anthropological model of visits-a model of inquiry that calls forth the structures of feeling in the proposition.

Less simple than it may appear, such a model challenges us to reevaluate our attachments to and detachments from place, as a cultural ethics of visitation. On the one hand, it acknowledges the problematic of departures, enjoining us to honor the disconnect, even as our focus shifts to the work we more commonly undertake as anthropologists of interrogating contact and the problematic of connecting across differences. Too, our "rites of return," as Vincent Crapanzano has termed them and as we know from studies of what James Clifford terms "diasporic consciousness," point to the importance of understanding what time "offworld" can do to our experience of "home." The prime-time television miniseries The 4400 (which was airing in the United States as I sat down to write this essay) is based on what might be called the reintegration narratives of abductees returned to Earth after different lengths of time out of historical time-a journey understood by television critics as an allegory of life-worlds rendered unrecognizable by the trauma of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Overall, then, this volume might be understood as an exploratory project in two registers: a project of reflexive contact involving subjects and alien entities and subjects and cultural researchers in boundary negotiations and exchanges at the sites of E.T. culture. Partly because of this structural affinity, the two sets of relations can productively engage one another in their departures from the more usual grounds of authority for recognizing modalities of humanness. But, too, since the metaphysical is not essential to such mutually supplemental acts of reflexivity, they can, taken together, raise a common, and profound, question regarding who claims the status of "host" and who "visitor" in this discursive realm. In this matter, which is centrally about where, how, and when "home" might be found, anthropology can pose useful questions in the company of scholars who have engaged alien/UFO beliefs out of religion, political theory, and science culture. We do so in anticipation that our questions will yield new knowledge that will supplement and destabilize prior knowledge, acting back on this, and constructively reveal gaps and insufficiencies (see Battaglia 1995; and "For Those Who Are Not Afraid of the Future" in this volume), and new itineraries of critical inquiry.

But fundamentally, if we are doing our work properly, our questions in this volume will acknowledge subjects' own concerning what it is to be human. They will consider, on the one hand, our openness to foreignness within the social spaces we know or have thought we understood as home and, on the other hand, our ability to make sense of everyday lives in which we sometimes seem foreign to ourselves. They will ask who our ancestors are and where they came from; who we are and are not; what throws this knowledge into doubt; and who or what moves us to act, to make choices-that is, where agency is located.

Indeed, agency as an anthropological issue is vastly complexified by E.T. culture. Is it located within us as individual or relational persons or in the space between us? Or in an author or a figure of authority, such as the prophet of a UFO religion or a charismatic writer or interpreter of theosophical texts? Is it contained in a shamanic healer's body or in whomever or whatever possesses it? Or an extraterrestrial scientist/creator's experiment of life on Earth? Or alien technologies: spacecraft, robotic entities, computers that have arrived at their own agendas? Or is agency in the images that act on us? In the popular scenarios of cultural imaginaries of contact, abduction, or colonization and invasion and their imaging technologies: cameras, sonar, FLIR sensors, telepathy? In a Web master's vision or the ether of online chats between ufological researchers or members of "plugged in" cult religions and fan culture networks? Perhaps agency re-sides in the events that give rise to dissociative states. For that matter, who or what dictates what counts as evidence, and truth, and for whom?

The essays in this volume suggest all of these and also make the argument that extraterrestrial discourse cannot be dismissed as pseudoscience before we know precisely what of social and material consequence to a heterogeneous life on Earth we are dismissing: what the extra in extraterrestrial is and what a view of globalization as planetization is doing for and to the creativity of social life.

"The Powers-That-Be"

Not surprisingly, authority, authorship, and authorization will figure centrally in these pages, in reference to questions about sources of power and access to knowledge. In a positive vein, the idea of an alien knowledge source can inspire bold efforts of translation across differences, carrying the promise of more closely articulated social exchange (see especially David Samuels's essay in this volume). In a negative vein, alien powers can call up a common nemesis: the opaque and inaccessible "powers that be" (Jodi Dean's great notion, drawn from conspiracy theory [1998]), who guard access to knowledge.


Excerpted from E.T. CULTURE Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Insiders' voices in outerspaces 1
Ufology as anthropology : race, extraterrestrials, and the occult 38
Alien tongues 94
The license : poetics, power, and the uncanny 130
"For those who are not afraid of the future" : Raelian clonehood in the public sphere 149
Intertextual enterprises : writing alternative places and meanings in the media mixed networks of Yugioh 180
Close encounters of the Nth kind : becoming sampled and the Mullis-ship connection 200
"Come on, people ... we *are* the aliens. We seem to be suffering from host-planet rejection syndrome" : liminal illnesses, structural damnation, and social creativity 218
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