Thursday, August 14, 2014

Did You Hear? UFOlogy is Dying. Again.

New York Magazine spends the slow weeks of midsummer declaring "The End of UFOs!" The title is a major misnomer, as the article in question is actually about the latest death of UFOlogy (or UFOOLogy, as it's alternately known). 

UFOlogy has died so many times I've lost count. I wrote about this boom and bust cycle two a half years ago myself.
Every 10 years or so a new wave of enthusiasts gets all excited about UFOs. It's often preceded or accompanied by a hit movie or TV show, which in turn inspires a clutch of imitators. That brings outs out a new wave of UFOlogists, and rekindles interest in the works of elder statesmen in the field. The topic gets a lot of play in the media, there are a lot of sightings and rumors of sightings and all kinds of expectations arise and all sorts of prophecies are made. 
The problem is that the UFOs themselves never seem to care much. The flaps die down. Sometimes there are major hoaxes or accusations of hoaxes and nothing ever seems to go anywhere.  
Then all of the new, young UFOlogists turn around and declare UFOlogy 'dead' and competition breaks out to see who be the most militant born-again debunker or have the most dramatic skeptical conversion epiphany.
In the past, Keel wrote of UFOlogy's death in the late 50s following the Contactee nonsense and NICAP scandals, only to have it come charging back in 1966 with Interrupted Journey and the 1966 UFO wave. Similarly, Vallee wrote of how the field seemed all but dead in the wake of 1969's Condon Report, only to be reborn with the '73 flap, which became the '74 and '75 flaps.

It would simmer down yet again, only to get a boost with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977. Carter not only reported a UFO sighting, he unleashed a torrent of secret UFO documents under the Freedom of Information Act, a move that kept UFOlogy busy for much of the Eighties.

Just as the lustre from those revelations began to fade, Whitley Strieber unleashed Communion, with its iconic Grey book cover, setting in motion a tidal wave of a movement that researchers such as Budd Hopkins, John Mack and David Jacobs were only too happy to surf. Old time UFOlogists for the most part cast a jaundiced eye in the abductees direction, arguing they were attempting to construct a science, and the religious- and often mystical, usually Christian ("Communion") tone of the abductee material was undermining what they saw as the rigorous work of soil sampling, number crunching and radar analysis.

But UFOlogy has always been a fringe movement, even if major media productions like Close Encounters dragged in the curious. I'd say more often than not most people's first UFO convention was their last (I've never attended one myself) since hard facts and physical evidence has always been the movement's Achilles Heel. And anyone who spends even a few hours poking around UFOlogy sites will see a lot of rancor and infighting. At the height of his celebrity, Strieber was quoted as saying that "so-called UFOlogists are probably the cruelest, nastiest and craziest people I have ever encountered."

Such is the cyclical nature of UFOlogy that Keel himself wrote in the 1996 edition of Operation Trojan Horse, at what many would see as the apex of 90s UFOmania, "The UFO cults would diminish in size in the early 1970s until no one was left except for a very small group who built their dark, paranoid personal worlds around the semi-religious concepts of the contactees of the 1950s and, later, the abductees of the 1980s." Bear in mind, that "UFO Cults" is Keel's term for UFOlogists, not Heaven's Gate or Raelians. 

He adds that surviving "hard-core UFO cultists (there are fewer than 1,000 in the U.S.) responded by simply ignoring this vast literature and making fools of themselves on the tabloid television shows by promoting their now­ archaic extraterrestrial theologies."

You'll find the same kind of bitterness among a lot of old UFOlogists today, many of whom are now mea culpa flagellants, confessing to the sin of flying saucers. They can't quit it, they can't walk away, they still talk about them endlessly, but now they sit and lament what fools they were. Those damned Reticulans never came and took them away from all their troubles! Oh, cruel stars!

What I think it really comes down to is that there's no money in UFOlogy. There was for a while when Laurence Rockefeller was interested and now Bigelow Airspace seems to be running their own privatized UFOlogy (the story goes that the FAA and the like refer all sightings now to Bigelow) for reasons we can only guess at, but they certainly have no interest in sharing the wealth. They have their own UFOlogists, thank you.

This is no small thing because this speaks to a larger story, the expansion of government secrecy, the privatization of National Security, and the increasingly opaque nature of the intelligence apparatus even in the wake of the Snowden and Wikileaks revelations. The fact of the matter is that most of what we know about UFOs and the government dates back to those Carter-era document dumps, and very little has come to light since. Nothing much of substance either for or against has come to light since 9/11.

And the other story here - of course - is the Internet.

The Internet has ravaged the entire book publishing industry, it's all but destroyed the newspaper industry and magazines are barely hanging on by a thread. UFOlogy is filled with older men trying to sell books speculating about what those lights in the sky mean. But there's an entirely new UFOlogy on the Internet where people are taking pictures and videos of their own and posting their own speculations about what those lights in the sky mean, thank you very much.

The New York piece makes this very important observation:
None of this, however, was a reason to close the books on flying saucers. This would be impossible, since if you happened to have laid eyes on something you sincerely believed to be a UFO, it tends to stick. 
I will never be free of that cold winter’s night in 1989 when, along with my wife, I saw a saucer-shaped object fly down the East River and soar beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The way the craft seemed to coquettishly blink its lights as if to say, "even here, I appear, and then disappear" told me, that against all rationality, this particular interface with the ineffable was meant for me.
And so it has been since human beings first looked up in the skies. UFOlogy is just a passing phase, a Cold War relic. A fleeting attempt to tame the ineffable with the hopelessly inadequate tools of the Enlightenment. An attempt to trace a fractal with a t-square. It won't be missed.

On a purely symbolical level, the UFO has been an agent for massive cultural change, as Jung wrote about, as Vallee wrote about. That's during a time of peace and prosperity.  As the American Empire cracks up before our eyes, as both unimaginable intranational and international conflagration loom on the horizon, we can only guess at what role it will play.

UPDATE: The always-unforgivably-brilliant Gordon White has been working this same vein from the other side of the pond. If you don't have Rune Soup bookmarked/newsfed, you are starving your mind.

UPDATE: "UFOLogy is dying," the media tells us. Yet MUFON reports a record number of sightings in 2012 and 2013,  Hangar 1 gets a second season, Giorgio Tsoukalos's haircut gets its own show, Ancient Aliens is now in its seventh season (and is on H2 seemingly around the clock), there are about a hundred UFO docs on Netflix and Chris Carter has a new Area 51-themed show coming out on AMC.

How exactly does the media define dead? Interesting to note that the writers chosen for this latest round of media inoculation weren't really willing to go along with the program, either. Strange times we live in.