UFOs and the Hyperreal

19 December 2017, 1443 EST

On Saturday, the New York Times ran an investigative story that revealed a few significant facts about the US’s programs to study UFOs. There were some interesting findings in the article (and citations/paraphrases below are from the article, which can be found here):

  • A 22 million dollar program called “Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification” was operated at DoD from 2007 to 2012—and, in fact, the program continues today without an official budget.
  • The program produced documentary evidence of spacecraft hovering with no sign of propulsion.
  • A contracted company, Bigelow Aerospace, was given large sums of money to help operate this program, which included the maintenance of a storage facility in Las Vegas for unidentified metal alloys related to UFO events.
  • A Pentagon briefing summary from 2009 stated that “what was once considered science fiction is now scientific fact,” and argued that the US government would have great difficulty in securing itself against some of the technology the program had discovered.

These are rather startling findings. The most interesting part of the story, however, is the relatively little coverage this received from new outlets. For example, at the time of writing this post, a quick glance at the home pages of CNN.com, WashingtonPost.com, and MSNBC.com showed no trace of this story—all coverage was dedicated to the tax bill that is poised to pass today.

It is mind boggling. An investigative piece with revelations about the US government’s investigation of UFOs, written by a New York Times best-selling author and a Pulitzer Prize winner, published in the NYT, has only attracted buzz as a sort of human interest or a “huh, isn’t that weird?” news story. Why is this?

Political/international theory has already had an engagement with UFOs—I’m specifically thinking about Duvall and Wendt’s paper that explores how belief in UFOs as ETs is an existential threat to the anthropocentrism of modern sovereignty. But, the more interesting question in this context is why these revelations have had very little immediate impact on the public consciousness.

The issue of UFOs/ETs is one that is in someway similar to early periods of conquest beyond Europe (1492 being a turning point here, according to some). Many reports were sent back home about an unknown—and, for those living in Europe, an unseen—Other beyond the shores of Europe. Many of these reports were fake, exaggerated, based on varieties of Orientalism and racism, etc. These reports, “discoveries,” and new objects of knowledge had effects. They resulted in a political project that fundamentally changed the world: imperialism and settler colonialism, a horror that would decimate indigenous populations and lead to continued dependence and underdevelopment in many parts of the world.

Even during the Cold War, folk accounts of UFOs held more attention. An entire cultural industry of science fiction emerged based on even flimsier images of UFOs/ETs.

What explains the lack of effect/affect from these accounts today? I think one explanation is that we’ve entered a world where truth is disappearing: a world where we are no longer put in a state of wonder by discovery and revelation of new facts, but one in which we find it hard to mediate between fact and fiction altogether.

One way of approaching this issue has been to talk about a “post-truth” world, where part of the blame is placed on new intellectual trends that are suspicious of an epistemology based on truth. Colin Wight, for instance, attributes blame to post-modernism, but also recognizes that the issue is a larger structural one:

“Although many have been quick to blame postmodernism for the emergence of post-truth, the problem is much broader than that and infects most of the humanities, arts and social sciences. Postmodernism is only the most radical version of the idea that we should value, and allow a voice to, all opinions.”

I don’t think this is an accurate representation of post-modernism’s contribution to this debate. In fact, post-modernism can help us grasp some of these bizarre events where evidence, some overwhelming (e.g., climate change), and others tentative (e.g., UFOs), have become entirely indistinguishable from fantasy, fiction, and the “unreal.” Jean Baudrillard refers to the current era of late capitalism as “hyperreal”—we’ve entered a realm where it is impossible to distinguish between what is real and what is façade, simulation, “alternative fact” (to use contemporary language), etc. Each day we seem to be further immersing ourselves in a hyperreality from which even the concepts of “truth” or “reality” have seemingly no referent.

The problems of this move beyond UFOs. There are clear political implications to the fact that 97% of climate scientists believe the evidence is compelling that climate change is human-caused, while we continue to debate climate skepticism in the public sphere. Or when the CDC is urged by the White House to remove language like “science-based” and “evidence based” from budgetary documents.

How do we engage in democratic politics in such a world? And, perhaps just as importantly, how do we as a global community work together to confront issues like war and peace, climate change, etc. when the line between truth and (science) fiction has disintegrated altogether?

I don’t have all the answers—like the UFO story, while we have new facts, there’s a lot we still don’t know. However, I know I’d rather take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.