Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Invasion of the Image.

When asked Where do UFOs come from? most saucer buffs are content to say outer space, and leave it at that. This is because most saucer buffs like to regard UFOs as basically physical objects, like trucks or air planes. Trucks or air planes, that is, that come directly from the impossible, yet strangely intelligible, curve of advanced technology represented by outer space.

The problem with this lies in the fact that UFOs derive much of their appeal from the fact they have never been a definite object of any kind. UFOs are tiny smudges on an otherwise pristine canvass; tiny blurry spaces in a moving image that was meant to capture something else. They seem to exist, if they exist at all, to dart across the world's peripheral vision, and prompt people to say things like Did you see that? or What the hell was that?

The human mind abhors blank spaces and fuzzy anomalies as much as nature is assumed to disdain the vacuum, and thus projection, interpretative frames of reference, and belief systems begin. It is for this reason that the real study of UFOs cannot be simply a study of physical objects, at least until someone is lucky enough to capture one in a butterfly net. Their real fascination lies in the study of how information is processed, how it is continually mutated by categorization, and by the assumptions and myths we project onto slippery pockets of raw, unruly data. Semantically, the UFO is an oxymoron: an indefinite object that nevertheless conjures a solid, tangible concept in most people's minds, i.e. a vehicle from outer space, piloted by the strangely blank, iconic figures that are believed to pilot such things. If you think about this at all, the UFO begins to appear less a dynamic, physical object, and more like a newspaper cartoon, with it's alien pilots golem-like agents of the absurd, perpetually caught in the act of asking some befuddled passer-by to Take me to your leader.

UFO historians who have a particular investment in the extraterrestrial hypothesis rarely acknowledge that ufology is at least half a cultural history, in much the same way that sceptics insist that it is nothing but. The idea of invaders from outer space is as old as the hills, but its modern formation began with the cool, unsympathetic Martian intelligences of H.G. Wells, and really assumed its iconic form through a series of static images - those appearing on the covers of science fiction novels and pulp magazines. The idea that our culture selected to animate the aerial Rorschach ink blot of the UFO came from inner space, and was the fruit of a gradual invasion of the subconscious by the imagery of the pulp imagination.

It was via the pulp imagination - itself a peripheral phenomenon, populated to a large degree by weird outsiders, hacks, and troubled visionaries - that many of the salient elements of the UFO belief system took shape. It was through sidelong glances into the pulp pressure cooker that we learned, basically, what aliens look like - massive brained, bug-eyed, spindly-limbed creatures - and what, basically, these creatures spend the bulk of their time doing - the aliens spend a lot of their time being interrupted in the act of abducting beautiful women, carrying out experiments, generally committing menacing acts in spaces that resemble both hospitals and laboratories.

There are an endless amount of reasons why the alien meme stuck. The alien and the UFO facilitated a marriage of the driving engines of the modern world - high technology and progress - with the perennial desire of human beings to have some kind of congress with intelligent, non-human beings, be they angels, demons, gods, or monsters. It is this contradictory synthesis between the demands of the modern mind and the prehistoric one that chiefly illuminate the UFO. During the forties and fifties, many people felt an unavoidable presentiment of this contradiction inhering in humanity itself. The Bomb, like the UFO, reflects an indivisible synthesis between technological mastery and dark primitivism, and flying saucers emerged, chronologically and geographically, in the shadow of the Bomb.

Regarding UFO lore as being somehow inherently a literalization of pulp imagery - a collective reverie composed by half-remembered magazine covers and movie scenes - would certainly explain some of the stranger aspects of alleged UFO encounters. First of all, it would explain the high percentage of absurd, almost cartoonish material recorded by apparently credible witnesses - stories of aliens in diving suits asking farmers for the correct time, and making saltless pancakes for other befuddled humans. Jacques Vallee often argued that the alien behaviour reported by alleged abductees in the seventies and eighties simply made no sense - there is no reason why an advanced race would need to preform the same essentially primitive medical procedures, over and over again, on thousands on people. But if the Greys were somehow composed of cultural memories, often of static illustrations, then they would be trapped in a perpetual loop, forced to perform their generic function over and over again.

If ufology is a simply a history of cultural contagion, then it gives us a valuable insight in the process whereby imaginary imagery gradually becomes a reality - to a certain marginal percentage of the population. The late John A. Keel's theory of ultraterrestials, however, suggests an another possibility. Basically Keel claims that beings that exist in a different dimension from ours - which he christened ultraterrestials - are constantly manifesting themselves in our reality:
"Instead of thinking in terms of extraterrestrials, I have adopted the concept of ultraterrestials - beings and forces which coexist with us but are on another another time frame; that is, they operate outside the limits of our space-time yet have the ability to cross over into our reality. This other world is not a place, however, as Mars or Andromeda are places, but is a state of energy."

Keel knows little for certain about these vaguely Lovecraftian entities, except that they like to play games with us - games whose pieces are our belief systems, frames of reference, and explanatory manifestations. The ultraterrestials appear to us in the forms we have created for them - they adapt themselves to the prevalent belief system of any given period, and escalate those beliefs by manifesting them. Hence, everything from the appearance of a Homeric deity in ancient Greece, to an angelic visitation in medieval England, to a flying saucer hovering over the New Mexico desert "are not real in the sense that a 747 airliner is real. They are transmogrifications of energy under the control of some unknown extradimensional intelligence." Returning to information, we simply process these energy frissons in the language of our dominant mythologies.

Whether you think that Keel is On to Something, or has simply injected an industrial dose of Philip K. Dick paranoia into the insights of cultural anthropology and postmodernism, there is a certain irresistible elegance to his theory:
"If you saw a strange light in the sky in 1475 you knew it had to be a witch on a broom because you had heard of others who had seen witches on brooms skirting the treetops. Now in 1975 you might decide it is attached to a spacecraft from some other planet. This conclusion is not a qualified deduction on your part. It is the result of years of propaganda and even brainwashing. If you are under thirty, then you grew up on a diet of comic books, motion pictures, and television programs which educated you in to believe the extraterrestrial hypothesis. A small knot of nuts has talked to you year after year on interview programs, telling you how the sinister air force has been keeping the truth about flying saucers from the public; the truth being that UFOs are the product of a superior intelligence with an advanced technology, and that the flying saucers have come to save us from ourselves. The gods of ancient Greece are among us again, in a new guise but still handing out the old line. Believe.
Belief is the enemy."
Just as the rickety old space faring Venusians and Martians were a perfect folkloric foil for the modern period, Keel's ultraterrestial tricksters are a potent myth for the hyper-sceptical, post-quantum, postmodern condition of today - a unified field theory and Copenhagen Interpretation of the paranormal. If the alien invasion was really an invasion of images - and, as such, an invasion of media technologies - then this myth can only continue to resonate, as that invasion continues apace into the fabled uncanny valley of perfect simulation.

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