The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Threat inflation: intergalactic edition

May 1, 2010

Should IR scholars worry about material threats emanating from outside the confines of earth? IR scholars Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall sort of tackled that question in a 2008 article in the journal Political Theory. They discussed the “UFO taboo,” which essentially prohibits “the authoritative public sphere” from “taking UFOs seriously.” Dan gave the scholarly response some attention at the time.

In any event, here’s a summary of the Wendt and Duvall argument:

The UFO compels decision because it exceeds modern governmentality, but we argue that the decision cannot be made. The reason is that modern decision presupposes anthropocentrism, which is threatened metaphysically by the possibility that UFOs might be ETs. As such, genuine UFO ignorance cannot be acknowledged without calling modern sovereignty itself into question. This puts the problem of normalizing the UFO back onto governmentality, where it can be “known”only without trying to find out what it is—through a taboo. The UFO, in short, is a previously unacknowledged site of contestation in an ongoing historical project to constitute sovereignty in anthropocentric terms. Importantly, our argument here is structural rather than agentic. We are not saying the authorities are hiding The Truth about UFOs, much less that it is ET. We are saying they cannot ask the question.

The Wendt and Duvall piece is available for free download, so check it out if you are interested.

This post is about the fact that physicist Stephen Hawking broke the taboo this past week with the broadcast of his Discovery Channel program and followup interviews for newspapers and television. Moreover, Hawking is clearly worried about extraterrestrial threats.

The following quotes are from a Times of London story dated April 25, 2010:

“To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” he said. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

…He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

According to published reports, aliens might pose enormous threats to earth that wouldn’t even directly involve the planet:

“Hawking contends that one such consequence of contact with advanced life is the possibility of our sun being either drained completely for energy resources, or used as the catalyst to create massive wormholes for cross planetary travel. In either case, these two options being catastrophic and deadly for humans.”

Perhaps because of the SETI program and other human activity, Hawking told Larry King that humans cannot readily hide our existence: “It is already too late. If they are out there they will know.”

Earlier this week, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert was far more sanguine about the alleged threat.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.