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  • Writer's pictureSam Stoeltje

Disclosure! UFOs, the Military, the State, the New Yorker, and Structures of Discourse

When I was a kid, somewhere between the ages of eight and twelve, my dad gave me an old briefcase of his. It must have been a gift from someone, maybe his own father, because he never quite joined the briefcase-using professional class. It was, I think, burgundy leather with gold clasps, a little beaten up. I used the briefcase to assemble my dossier, although I don’t think I had the word, “dossier,” quite yet. The dossier was a collection of printouts from online—yes, it was a time when we actually did this—all dealing with the subject of my emerging interest, even mania: unidentified flying objects. Fueled by natural curiosity, the odd X-Files episode, and above all, the proliferating information ecosystem that was the nascent Internet, I styled myself a young expert. I was, of course, not, if there is such a thing.

Neither am I now, though it amuses me that after a couple decades of circuitous intellectual and emotional change, I still find myself fascinated by the topic. That topic, or more accurately, the climate surrounding the topic, has transformed as well, even as it has also somehow stayed the same. Those paying attention, gasping to each other: The military is talking. The government is talking. The New York Times is giving UFOs the front page! And yet, with a little bit of training in literary theory, or more broadly, cultural critique, I feel confident saying that the “discourse” is more or less the same. If I am not an expert of UFOs, I am, hopefully, at least, as I approach the nonexistent academic job market with my Phd in literary studies, almost maybe an expert of discourse analysis.

I am not alone. There are more and more people discussing the discursive elements of what we may call “ufology and its discontents” all the time. A lot of them are on Twitter. What do I mean by a critical or “meta-discursive” approach? To participate in most UFO discourse is to engage in pre-existing conversations about them, the parameters of which we are not always conscious of, even as they structure what can be asked, argued, even thought. These conversations and their parameters contain assumptions of value, assumptions that are socially, and in the case of ufology, politically determined.

Let us take as a “case study” the new piece in the New Yorker, which at one time I would have found earth-shattering, and which I am still basically happy to see. The central voice of the piece is Leslie Kean, a wonderful and wonderfully sincere freelance journalist who broke the story of AATIP and the Nimitz “UAP” encounters on the frontpage of the New York Times in 2017 (linked above). I met Ms. Kean when she came to speak at my institution a couple of years ago, and she was extremely gracious in dealing with our sometimes excessively academic questions and comments. Focusing on Kean was a shrewd choice; the New Yorker writer clearly likes and respects her, and she projects an aura of objectivity and trustability that is unique among public figures who talk about this sort of thing.

The network of individuals and the series of events that led to Kean being in this position is complex, and to a certain extent, beside the point. The New Yorker does a good enough job of representing it. If we are talking about how discourse is shaped, we will rather be interested in the role that institutions are playing, and what undisclosed beliefs and narratives may be in operation. We might begin with the New Yorker itself, which is popularly understood as a prestigious, cosmopolitan repository of old school, highly polished journalism, center-left political opinion, up-and-coming literary writing, and hit-and-miss cartoons; it is read by the U.S. upper classes and those who aspire to join their ranks. This is a kind of authority. It is an authority of both cultural and literal capital – New Yorker readers get advertisements for investment funds designed to help people do something with their extra money. And we shouldn’t undervalue the historic-geographic-cultural authority of New York itself, the place, the city, the potent fantasy that sailed a thousand poorly constructed condominiums displacing working class communities of non-white people around the country.

In this story about a journalist (from New York!), we find ourselves at one remove from the New York Times, where Kean published, and thus may be reminded of the problem of authority vis-à-vis these institutions. The New Yorker, magazine of the educated elite: critically assessing rhe New York Times, which is at least popularly understood to be the most authoritative journalistic outlet in the United States.

And yet. Perhaps we remember, dimly but persistently, that moment or event when the authority of the Times was punctured, because it became clear that they had lied. I could be referencing more than one occasion, but I mean specifically to refer to the Times stories on “weapons of mass destruction” in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A journalist, Judith Miller, reported that Saddam was stockpiling WMD, the editorial board rubber stamped W. Bush’s experiment in dynastic revenge-cum-petrochemical colonization, and things proceeded to go as nightmarishly as such things always will. As it turned out, if you recall, the story about Saddam’s “aluminum tubes” came from the Pentagon. It was false intelligence promptly used by the state to justify a catastrophic act of aggression.

The Pentagon is also a key player in the UFO story, as it must be, given its status within the discourse as an ambiguous representative of the two dominant actors shaping mainstream discourse on the topic: the state, i.e. the federal government, and the military. A third actor, the nebulous constellation of post-Internet journalism, acts as mediator, or mouthpiece, or ceates some other kind of triangulated relationship between them. A New Yorker story about a New York Times story about goings on behind the closed doors of congress and the Department of Defense stirs up a cocktail of authoritative institutions that signals that all the players are onstage, and that this is, or at least could be, it: the event, the ultimate exposure, the long-awaited Disclosure that has been the absent presence structuring all of our discourse.

And yet of course it is not. The New Yorker piece is fascinating because it tells the stories we are familiar with in an eloquent, self-aware fashion that lends them a kind of contingent legitimacy: the Nimitz encounters, Harry Reid, AATIP, Luis Elizondo, and then inevitably, like a crashing car, Skinwalker Ranch and Tom Delonge. It introduces some new details for those who are following closely: about ongoing government activities, about who actually thinks things may or may not have been recovered from certain crash sites (I wish Diana Pasulka had been talked to), about certain mysterious slides to which Ms. Kean has gained access. At the end, though, we are left where we always find ourselves, that is, with pieces, fragments, that we must assemble for ourselves.

This is because there can never be a final metaphysical grounding of any discourse, if a discourse is a thing made out of language. UFOs, I think, are fascinating because they dramatize this reality in such a vivid way. For any cultural-discursive model imposed upon them, there are a dozen or a hundred instances in which that model clearly does not work. Which is why it is depressing that the normative habits of so many who participate in UFO discourse are so clearly structured by the models of the state and of the military. Ms. Kean, in her work, has done much to resist this trend, but when the Times or the New Yorker gets involved, you will not hear much about folklore, consciousness, religion, dimensionality or time-travel (to pick some other available models); if they are there, they become background noise, while the occupants of the center stage are people who think about UFOs only as sophisticated technologies, or often enough, as threats.

The object of desire in the UFO community is Disclosure. A common narrative structuring disclosure operates as follows: the U.S. military branches routinely encounter something like UFOs, gather records of these encounters, and then the state conceals them. Disclosure is the prospect of the state finally un-concealing these records. It is, in a very religious way, a revelation. But it is a secularized religion that seeks this longed-for revelation, one that relies on, even as it rebels against, the patriarchal State; more worrying still is when this degodded UFO-religion places its faith in an autonomous military, which (it is imagined) will finally decapitate the authority of the state in the epistemological equivalent of a right-wing coup.

Baby Boomers famously grew up in a time when it became clear that the state could lie. Millennials learned this lesson again in the wake of 9/11 and the Bush administration's “retaliatory” propaganda campaign, with the added component that sometimes the supposedly independent “fourth branch” collaborated in these untruths. Such is our baseline now, that the government and the media are lying, or at least that they could be. We may see then how the demand for disclosure is a demand, not for the truth, but for the truth plus some unspecifiable un-closing of the state itself, one that would somehow guarantee once and for all the truth-as-truth. As it happens, this is impossible. It is the demand for a return to the intimacy and unity between beings that is forever ruptured by language itself, which as a system cannot help but contain the inherent potential for intentional misrepresentation, that is, lying. The only final possibility of “Disclosure,” which shows itself to be complete unmediated transparency, would be in the relinquishing of sovereignty or dissolution of the state as such: the levitation of the pentagon.

No institution can serve as the final epistemic ground. Robert Anton Wilson was right that we are alone, if not cosmically then epistemologically, and that we must assemble our own realities. Discourse analysis, hermeneutics of suspicion, critical thought: while each of these can be taken to extremes, in moderation they offer an avenue toward true epistemic humility. But the stakes may be even higher. To me, one of the more intriguing possibilities about UFOs is that they, in some way, collaborate with human consciousness and social expectations in the form that they take. If this is so, and if UFOs also have a material component, then the realities that we choose to assemble do in fact—at least in this one type of circumstance, but who knows? elsewhere?—become real. Which is to say that the material, ethical, and political stakes may turn out to be quite high indeed. If any of this is the case, then it seems obvious that we should want to turn away from assembling a reality full of hostile threats, and toward one that vibrates with wonder and kindness, to imagine not the animosity, but the amity of the radically other.

Postscript – As long as I can remember, I’ve had dreams about strange lights in the sky. I realize now that they have fallen into roughly two categories or genres, or perhaps, structures of discourse. In one kind of dream, the source of the lights is obviously some new, impossibly sophisticated air- or spacecraft, and I find them menacing, because I have the intuitive understanding that they belong to some apocalyptically authoritarian state regime that has determined it is time to buckle down and begin the mass surveillance and oppression of the citizenry. The other kind of dream, which in my internal monologue I’ve taken to calling the “carnival of light” after the fabled unreleased Beatles recording, is entirely different. The lights which spin and contort and oscillate throughout the night sky are not menacing, they are dazzling; and I have the impression that I am watching the extreme-time-lapse motion of cosmic bodies, as they somehow become conscious and dance with each other intelligently. It is occasionally frightening, in a sublime way, but more than anything, it is enchanting, and I wake up hungry for more.

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