Who Wants to Believe in UFOs?

Strange things in the skies of a clockwork universe
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Over the past several years, our relationship with the UFO menace has taken on the nervous, hopeful expectancy of a pregnant woman.

We’ve had the steady drip, drip, drip of reports from military and federal sources — a fighter pilot here, a committee there — addressing with various degrees of circumspection the “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” or UAPs, that people seem to keep seeing. (As with any social problem, the preferred terminology for the phenomena is subject to periodic and somewhat arbitrary change.)

A duo of New York Times articles in December 2017 is as good as any starting point to mark. One piece discussed Navy pilot encounters with aerial objects that accelerated and maneuvered in ways that should have been impossible. The other detailed a shadowy alien-investigation program inside the Pentagon, headed by Luis Elizondo, supported by Senator Harry Reid, and involving military–industrial complex giant Robert Bigelow.

The articles felt explosive, but weren’t. Or perhaps the opposite: the articles may have been objectively socially explosive in the way they re-positioned UFOs in public discourse, but the emotional catharsis and epistemic breakthrough of an open, public declaration by the powers that be that they’re here was once again postponed. The U.S. government was officially open to the possibility of aliens, but not committed. Something very strange was happening in those Navy videos, but no one could say exactly what. UFO seekers, after a lot of noise, were left more or less where they had started. The Big One, in fact, was no such thing — not yet.

And of course, this had all happened before. In 1947, following the now-proverbial Roswell incident, the Air Force set up Project Blue Book to study UFO sightings. Before its closure in 1969, the project investigated over 12,000 reports, of which 701 were deemed genuinely unidentified. Nothing (visible) came of the project, whose debunker-in-chief, J. Allen Hynek, would eventually express ambivalence over his role, and the existence of aliens themselves. His career, and Project Blue Book, are variously regarded by UFO enthusiasts as a censorship program, a public opinion management operation, a misdirection campaign, or a false flag.

Nevertheless, after the 2017 articles, history continued to repeat itself without really rising to the level of either tragedy or farce. Follow-up articles in the Times and elsewhere covered much the same ground (“U.S. Has No Explanation for Unidentified Objects and Stops Short of Ruling Out Aliens”) or pulled back (“Many Military U.F.O. Reports Are Just Foreign Spying or Airborne Trash”). Covid arrived, sucked up all the air in the room, and generated its own conspiracies, controversies, and mutual accusations of disinformation.

Now the game is beginning again. Over the span of a few weeks in January and February 2023, four different strange high-altitude objects were discovered floating over the U.S. and Canada, and were shot down. Tabloids recently reported ten-foot-tall humanoids stalking Miami. Senator Chuck Schumer introduced legislation to declassify information about UAPs as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. And former intelligence officer David Grusch, after testifying before Congress, went on Joe Rogan’s podcast to talk about one of the earliest publicly disclosed UFO recoveries (it was in the 1930s and the Vatican was involved, as it always seems to be), as well as the siloed warren of competing bureaucracies that guard access to recovered materials and information about how the government uses them.

The “Gimbal” video
The “Go Fast” video

The “Gimbal” and “Go Fast” videos were released by the Pentagon in 2020. Both depict objects encountered by a group of Super Hornet jets off the U.S. East Coast in 2015. The New York Times reported that “the squadron began noticing strange objects just after the Navy upgraded the radar systems” on the planes. An official U.S. intelligence report could not determine whether the objects “are advanced earthly technologies, atmospherics, or of an extraterrestrial nature.”

The American UFO disclosure saga is not a line, or even an arc, but a roundelay: we repeat the same steps at intervals, and if at each revolution the beat seems a little more insistent, it is hard to say whether that’s the music or the trance of the dance. The effect of this accelerating circle-dance on the American public has been a particularly strange kind of irony poisoning. Aliens are being discussed in publicly unimpeachable places — and yet aliens are never actually confirmed by anyone in authority, and they never show up to give an account of themselves. They can’t be wholly scoffed at, but neither does there seem to be much to do, or any reason to do it. The result is a jump from ridicule to acceptance without any intermediating moment of belief, a transition that can only be negotiated in a blasé, half-joking register.

But whether we’re just getting lost in the music or the beat is really dropping, something about the UFO vibe has shifted these last few years, from sci-fi to something much older and weirder. In this shift we can find a clue to what, exactly, is driving this train across the margins of American culture.

The Explorers: Aliens over There

Against a broad cultural backdrop of indifferent semi-acquiescence to the story are two groups with dogs in the fight: the disinformation-non-enjoyers and the UFOlogists. Disinformation-non-enjoyers are usually the people reminding you that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. They do not merely disbelieve in aliens; they see public discussion of UFOs as an embarrassing social scourge foisted by hucksters on an ever-gullible populace. They don’t get a kick out of even provisional speculation. They believe the forces of disinformation are everywhere, and they are waging war via fact-check.

The UFOlogists are what it says on the tin. But at this point, they can be usefully divided further into two subgroups. Much as the UFO phenomenon lumps together things as different as strange lights in the woods and rumors from the bowels of the deep state, the figure of the UFO seeker bundles together different character types, whose interests emerge from different contexts and whose quests are oriented towards different ends.

The two basic opposed UFOlogist types are what I call, as working titles, the explorers and the esotericists. They are not perfectly distinct factions, but represent broad trends in the motivations and assumptions of UFO enthusiasts.

The explorers are the people whose picture of UFOs and their place in the cosmos is basically congruent with a good science fiction yarn. Their vision of flying saucers and gray aliens on stainless steel tables in top-secret labs dominated popular culture for about the first fifty years of UFO presence in it: E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Men in Black, Independence Day, Lilo and Stitch.[1] In the explorer framework, aliens are other rational biological forms anchored to another place in the universe, who, with the help of unimaginably advanced technology, are for their own reasons surreptitiously visiting our planet. In this framework, all the purported deceptions, all the layers of security clearances, all the years of confusion stem from obvious political imperatives. Earthly governments need to manage a potential biohazard, avoid mass panic, and corner the technological benefits for themselves while also coordinating with other governments.

There are a few important points to note about the explorers. First, their framework is extensive — that is, it extends outward from us. The aliens are over there, but they are over there in basically the same way that North America once was, in the same three dimensions in which we move. They extend our possibilities, but they do not unsettle our cosmology. Belief in them does not require other commitments — you can be a Christian explorer, or you can be a hard materialist explorer, without much to surmount except some nicer points of soteriology or the distasteful odor of association. And while there are layers of obfuscation and mystery, they are basically incidental, the muddled result of political operatives doing what political operatives do. The underlying matter is flat and open — it is not really a matter of new, it is a matter of more.

The second point is that the explorer framework is technological. The TV show Ancient Aliens is both an early sign of the coming shift from the explorer to the esotericist model, and, in the final analysis, a piece of explorer media. Like the esotericists (as we shall see), Ancient Aliens is fascinated by ancient texts and global myth. But unlike the esotericists, the explanation for everything is, in the end, a spaceship. Pyramids? Built by spaceships. Strange carvings on a crumbling megalith depicting a descending god? Guy in a spaceship. A flaming wheel appearing to the prophet Ezekiel? Classic misidentified spaceship.

Everything must be a spaceship because in the explorer framework, the driver of alien–human contact, the big reveal, the presumptive reason Robert Bigelow is trying to get his hands on E.T., is the unimaginable boons of technological advance we will reap by contact with the aliens (assuming they do not liquefy us; technological fear is the other side of technological aspiration). With the Columbian exchange having brought the potato to the Irish and the horse to the Indians, it is hard to imagine a more magnificent efflorescence of human culture blossoming from an encounter between stranger civilizations.[2] But this is what the explorers believe possible.

The explorer is now a somewhat passé mode of engaging with UFOs. The type of person who was drawn to it is now mostly concerned with what humans (Elon Musk) can do in space. For the explorer, the longed-for and feared other who is the mirror and mediator of all technological aspiration and restless desire is less likely to be aliens today than artificial intelligence. Amateur UFO obsessives, on the other hand, are now much more likely to be esotericists.

The Esotericists: Aliens in Here

Esotericists are UFO enthusiasts who believe that UFOs, rather than the emissaries of the new world beyond the great ocean of space, are manifestations of parts of our world that are hidden to us. UFOs might be relict Atlanteans in undersea bases. They might be the inhabitants of an interior Earth less solid and lifeless than we posit. They may be interdimensional beings only intermittently manifesting in corporeal form. They may be time travelers from the future, or the past. They may be fairies or angels. They may be the star people of myth and oral histories, not traveling from their own civilization via unimaginably advanced technologies, but part of and overseeing our own history in ways we have forgotten, appearing and disappearing by a type of motion that is more truly alien to us than a spaceship could ever be. Most importantly, they are not over there as with the explorers, but in here — part of our world, but qualitatively different rather than quantitatively removed.

Crucially, esotericists may believe one, some, or all of the possibilities listed above. Characteristic esotericists are both profoundly open and restlessly systematizing: hating to flatly deny or exclude any alleged phenomena, delighted with the sheer variety of the chaotic aquarium of marginalia in which they swim, and always ready to countenance a new addition; but unsatisfied to leave everything mere phenomenal chaos. They often seek to do with myth, rumor, and speculation what the medieval astronomers tried to do for celestial movements: come up with a theory that will “save the appearances,” that will reconcile and account for all apparent phenomena in one harmonious theory of the whole.

The esotericists also represent a strange throwback to medieval modes of thought in another sense: they share what C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image describes as the “clerkly” character of the Middle Ages. Annotation is the characteristic way that their theories tend to coalesce.

An example is better than an explication. In 2012, former policeman David Paulides started publishing a book series called Missing 411, claiming that unexplained disappearances in National Parks and the North American wilderness shared certain seemingly irrelevant but predictable characteristics (near granite or near water) and should be investigated as the result of some yet unknown phenomenon. His work has been roundly dunked on by data scientists,[3] but it has also been adapted into full-length documentaries. A few years ago, a TikTok-er went viral offering a condensed version of Paulides’s work, which in the comments quickly got linked to major cave systems and speculation that Teddy Roosevelt created the National Parks in order to control, monitor, and limit contact with the horrible Things living in the caves.[4] In the diffuse, multi-site commentary surrounding these viral TikToks, someone, as I recall, suggested that this subterranean menace might be one and the same as the culprits behind an infamous UFO encounter known as the Hopkinsville Goblin incident. This is the classic esotericist move: someone in the comments section explaining a famous UFO case with reference to a seemingly unrelated kind of alleged fringe phenomenon, filtered through some number of social media popularizers, reaching towards a theory that accounts for both.

Like Lewis’s medievals, esotericists love to comment on and modify various kinds of received accounts. But unlike the medievals, who worked in manuscripts and were fundamentally orderly, prizing traceable chains of transmission as the grounds of authority, the esotericists are the wild product of a much more chaotic hyper-meld of textual, visual, and oral culture: of TikTok, 4Chan, and similar platforms. Ideas, theories, speculation, and counter-speculation circulate, collide, integrate, and transform each other easily and diffusely; without barriers to entry, or even obvious traceable agents; and above all rapidly, so rapidly, in fact, that it is difficult to say with any certainty whether any given theory or trend is actually dominant or whether it merely has the unique death-brightness of a supernova. As I am constantly reminded by field studies of my Zoomer brothers, in a meme culture, once an image is starting to go viral on Twitter, it’s been old news for a week.

This is why the esotericists are in some ways much more difficult to get a handle on than the explorers, and why my attempted description is a gestalt picture of a diffuse commentariat, rather than an analysis of organizing structures like the Mutual UFO Network, or discrete media products like films.

Still, if there is a culture of commentary, there must be commentators to comment and be commented on. Many strains of esotericist speculation do owe significant debts to figures working in traditional forms of media, albeit often on its disreputable fringes. David Paulides is one. Graham Hancock, whose theories about a catastrophically obliterated civilization that flourished during the last ice age make academic archaeologists grind their teeth, is another. Jacques Vallée is probably the most important: an astronomer, Silicon Valley technologist, and author of more than ten books on UFOs, he is famous for insisting that the UFO phenomenon be treated precisely as unexplained rather than pre-emptively slotted into the explorer framework of flying saucers and intergalactic visitors. His 1969 book Passport to Magonia is an attempt to investigate UFOs in light of other ages’ strange aerial phenomena. He is by far the most important figure to attempt such a historical and mythological contextualization.

Vallée is known, and revered, among esotericists. Michael Heiser, a devout and orthodox evangelical Biblical scholar, is probably less so. Heiser did produce a UFO podcast up until his recent death, but his importance stems not from the hobby podcast but from his regular theological work. Heiser’s 2015 book The Unseen Realm and subsequent publications were groundbreaking: they provided a simultaneously scholarly, readable, and recognizably Christian framework for acknowledging and interpreting the decidedly weirder parts of the Bible.

In terms of mainstreaming the strange, Vallée and Heiser are twin titans of their very different, but enormously important, tectonic plates of American culture: the Silicon Valley–based information industry, and evangelical Christianity. Their widely accepted accomplishments, and their demonstrated independent commitments — for Vallée, to the methodology of data science, for Heiser, to the content of Christian teachings and the standards of Biblical scholarship — have provided a kind of stabilizing background against which their speculations can escape the recursive and sealed Rube Goldberg dreamscapes typical of conspiracy theorists and their cousins. They allow relatively normal people to contemplate, at least in peripheral vision, some really spooky and kooky stuff. At the same time, they provide strong meat for the annotators to sink their teeth into.

It would not surprise me if Heiser’s work were in an indirect way responsible for the rise of one of the most dominant esotericist UFO theories: the one about the Nephilim.

Return of the Giants

The Nephilim populate one theory in an esotericist pantheon (or pantheoron) which, as we have seen, has room for many. But it is worth paying them a little extra attention: if Jacques Vallée and Michael Heiser represent two major currents feeding esotericist speculation, the Nephilim theory is its characteristic product and, based on my impressions of YouTube and self-published Amazon books, currently one of its most popular.

The Nephilim show up in Genesis, and, at much greater length, in the (mostly) nonbiblical book of Enoch — the Ethiopian Orthodox are probably the most significant church that does accept Enoch as canonical. In Enoch, we learn about certain sons of God, a rebel faction of God’s mysterious angelic watchers. Instead of overseeing humans, as the good watchers do, this faction has given humans cosmetics, weaponry, sorcery — in short, initiating them into technological acceleration. In Genesis, the Nephilim — sometimes translated simply as “giants” — are the monstrous result of illicit procreation between these rebel watchers and human women. They are not, to put it mildly, good actors. It is to destroy the Nephilim giants that God floods the world in the days of Noah.

In the Nephilim theory of UFOs, when we hear accounts of people abducted, taken up to the heavens, shown impossible physical capabilities, subjected to invasive reproductive procedures for unclear ends, given messages for humanity, confused and traumatized, what we are seeing is the watchers, the fathers of the Nephilim, up to their old tricks for a new society. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (Though the theory is mostly about the watchers, the “sons of God” and fathers of the Nephilim, the term “Nephilim” has come to serve as a popular metonymy for anything relating to this story.)

It is easy to see why the Nephilim became a popular speculative touchpoint for UFO esotericists. The theory accounts for the high-handed way in which the UFO phenomenon seems to interact with its human targets, and provides a framework for many of the bizarre recurring motifs in UFO abductee accounts. It saves the appearance (in the medieval astronomer sense) of UFOs as a trickster phenomenon, shrouded in illusion, “messengers of deception,” in Vallée’s phrase. It allows esotericists to rescue and revise the technological framework of the explorers, in which modern UFOlogy was born. It offers tantalizing possibilities that can be extended and combined with other stories and theories. It offers a radically reworked vision of human history and the human present, as well as hints about the human future. It touches on the claims of major religions but, because it draws heavily on the apocryphal book of Enoch, incurs little danger of implicitly accepting the authority of any one religion. The esotericist can still remain the final arbiter of the key to all mythologies.

It’s Not About Religion

The Nephilim theory helps explain why, for many, the answer to the question “what are UFO enthusiasts getting out of all this?” is immediately and obviously “religion.” Some religion scholars make a slightly different argument: that UFO beliefs are beginning to take on the trappings and form of a new religion. But as you scroll through page after page, video after video, purporting to reveal the UFO–Bible–Nephilim connection and what it means, it is tempting to adopt the more capacious conclusion: that interest or belief in UFOs is purely and simply the search for a substitute for religion in a godless age. However, I do not think this is true.

For one thing, it is totally possible to believe in some version of UFOs, and even a version of the Nephilim theory, while remaining traditionally religious. It is not only possible, but actually exists as a strain of UFO discourse: what I like to call the negating esotericists, or, people who believe UFOs are simply demons.

Both explorers and esotericists have negating modes: those who accept the premise that something fishy is going on, but who reject the proposed payoff. The negating explorers are the people who believe the UFOs are nothing more than a massive psyop: still conspiratorial, still political–technological in framework, but deflationary as to new interstellar possibilities. The negating esotericists, on the other hand, track with other esotericists in their relation to materialism and the constraints of secular academic public reason — but the negating esotericists eschew materialism in favor of an order that both transcends the natural world and interacts with it in ways that are by this point mostly pretty legible. Some creepy little goblin making faces at your window? You’ve got demons, folks. We know what they are, we know how to deal with them. Call 1-800-PRIEST and don’t think too much about them, because they like that. Negating esotericists aren’t into UFOs as some new religion — UFOs-as-demons map well enough onto their existing religious commitments.

You might argue, on the other hand, that it’s the explorer type who is in it for religious reasons, as UFOs, and related forms of technological messianism, provide a kind of materialist religion. Contact with aliens imbues us with a great destiny, an eschatological horizon for humanity, a sense of where we are going in the long run, as well as a project worth devoting our lives to right now.

But this too is a dead end. UFOs do not permanently solve any major problems for the explorer, any more than AI does for a new generation of touchingly committed materialist weirdo. There’s an issue with fixing the joys of new horizons as the central end of our existence rather than an incidental reward. It turns history into a chronological gold rush: the key is to take what you can before the next sucker born five minutes too late. The frontier is always closing, and a truly inexhaustible “new” would cease to be new — it would just be cyclical.

But the biggest problem for the UFOs-as-religion thesis is death. You can put your hope in your bloodline, you can put your hope in civilization, you can put your hope in glory and fame, but none of it affects the issue that, after our consciousness has been uploaded into the cyborgs and we’ve gotten off the planet, then out of the solar system, then seeded an intergalactic civilization that will outlast any sun, according to current scientific consensus the universe is apparently going to pull apart at the seams and finally unravel into chilly emptiness. Expansion is not always our friend.

And even if you are not a materialist — as many esotericists are, vaguely, not — the religious satisfactions offered by UFOs, or fringe theories, or unexplained phenomena in general are already available in one or all of the many disorganized religions. If you find it hard to subscribe to any of the familiar creeds, but still yearn for something beyond, for spiritual rather than merely material possibilities, you can take your pick. There’s informal conversion to some pastiche form of another hemisphere’s religions; there’s spiritualism of one kind and another; there’s a hopeful and undefined belief in a loving creator and an immortal soul. And most importantly, since many organized and disorganized religions alike promise supernatural truths only accessible through faith and praxis, their claims about reality can be bracketed — at least enough for the demands of coexistence. Whether or not they share your faith, nicely brought up people will make respectful and sympathetic noises rather than looking at you like you’re a nut. This isn’t true of belief in UFOs, and is a major liability if that’s your pick to fill in the religion blank.

The key distinguishing feature of the esotericists is not an impulse for the supernatural — it is that they are interested in possibilities pertaining to the natural world. They are interested in a longer and more marvelously peopled history, in the deeps of the sea, in speaking stars. In contrast to traditional believers, their concerns are not primarily with a transcendent supernatural reality, although they are not necessarily hostile to it and might be interested in some of its incursions. And in contrast to the explorers, they want to say new things — or old things — about the cosmos, not just to extend its current possibilities as we already understand them.

If these are not the satisfactions of religion, what kind of satisfactions are they? What are the esotericists, at the bottom of all the chaos, looking for? How can we understand them in terms of modernity, or atomization, or disenchantment?

Roundelay Discourse

Before I try to answer this question, let me admit that this has all gotten a bit tedious.

Must we always piously assert that it’s not really important whether UFOs are real or not, that what’s important, what’s interesting, is what they mean, what they say about our society? Because, speaking only for myself, the question of whether or not we are being harassed by angels or visited by covert supercomputing cosmonauts seems pretty interesting. Must we still, even after all the congressional committees, make all these protective evasions about how we, of course, as serious people, are only looking at these beliefs through field glasses for our ethnographies? Must we still make it all about UFO discourse, and never about the UFOs themselves?

I suspect we must. I will offer my reasoning why, but first let me proffer a token of good faith by showing my hand a bit. I am focused on the discourse not because I am a disinformation-non-enjoyer writing off the UFOlogists. I am basically an esotericist sympathizer whose practical range of inquiry is severely curtailed by the negating esotericists. In other words, I believe there are probably various kinds of things appearing to and interacting with people for different reasons, but I have been well and thoroughly warned by Tradition and tradition against trying to go after them.

However, this is not why I believe that UFO meta-discourse is still the only productive line of inquiry. The reason is the aforementioned American UFO roundelay.

To anyone who has followed the history of UFOlogy, the roundelay is one of its most striking and consistent aspects. No matter how many congressional reports, New York Times investigative pieces, or interviews with Navy pilots, at the end we are again where we started: in a choose-your-own-adventure scenario. A world-historical event or revelation is always on the horizon, but always deferred.

Five possibilities seem to me most plausibly to account for this.

  1. The disinformation-non-enjoyers or the negating explorers are correct. Whatever is happening is some kind of disinformation campaign or socially contagious hysteria. In this scenario, the meta-question — the discourse and its origins — is literally all there is to ponder.
  2. The explorers are correct, and either a deliberate cover-up is being tenuously maintained, or the aliens will eventually make public contact but simply have not yet. In either case there seems nothing to debate until what is promised actually appears — until the cover-up fully fractures or the aliens land. Only then will it become possible and profitable for us plebes without top-secret clearances to evaluate and debate what kind of beings we are dealing with.
  3. The negating esotericists are correct, and the UFOs constitute either individual demonic harassment or an attempt at collective confusion and demoralization by some form of the same. Call 1-800-PRIEST and live your life.
  4. The esotericists are correct, and we are engaged in some sort of cosmic struggle with the fathers of the Nephilim, or comparable beings. They have plans that will profoundly reorient our collective conception of our history, our cosmos, and our place in it when they finally make themselves known. For Christians, this leaves you in about the same boat as before: trust in the Lord, wait on the Lord, and mind your business; mutatis mutandis for other faiths. If you are an irreligious esotericist looking for the key to all mythologies, you are in the same boat as the explorers. Until and unless rumor and arcana erupt into actual history, there is little to do and little to argue, although it is probably never a bad idea to try to develop a gun that can kill angels.
  5. The esotericists are again correct, but in this version the UFO phenomenon involves a type or various types of encounters with other wills and minds that form a recurrent motif throughout human history. These encounters are not going anywhere, but they are also not going anywhere in a narrative or teleological sense. They are by nature marginal; the wills and minds involved may have various dispositions towards us, but they do not have any organized or coherent plan or stance regarding us. We share a world with them, but we do not share a trajectory or ground of sustained engagement. They are fundamentally not our business, and we are not theirs. If this is what you believe, you might have a limited curiosity about particular encounters, or even entertain theories separating various subtypes from one another, but you are not waiting for any dramatic revelations. The phenomenon is not shaping your sense of history, political crises, or future possibilities. You don’t expect to discover what, in some overarching way, the UFOs are up to. (Maybe they just want to play. That’s what I want to do, most of the time.)

Some of these possibilities could be combined, to a degree, without contradiction. It could be true, for example, that a distorting disinformation campaign is operative and also that real encounters exist. Various combinations could prove very interesting to speculate about. Most of them leave us with very little practically to do or argue about beyond speculative assertion. But only 1, 3, and 5 — UFOs are a hoax, they are demons, and they are perennial but marginal wills of another kind — do not require us to provisionally assume some future world-historical revelation that will put an end to the roundelay. Only 1, 3, and 5 allow us to discuss the UFO phenomenon as it actually appears thus far, by allowing us to account for the roundelay as it continues.

However, in possibility 3 — the UFOs-as-demons theory of the negative esotericists — the roundelay is part and parcel of a deliberate attempt to distract and confuse. Further inquiry is automatically foreclosed: since it is the work of demons deliberately trying to gain your attention, rather than human agents pursuing their own presumably thwartable ends, obsessing over their productions is just about the least helpful thing you could do.

That leaves us, practically speaking, with possibilities 1 and 5, since only they both account for the roundelay and offer further grounds of investigation.

In possibility 1, the roundelay results from the friction between, on one hand, the continued maintenance of the psyop or the hysterical delusion, and, on the other hand, actual reality.

In possibility 5, the roundelay emerges as an accident of our historical moment. A type of encounter that has long existed on the margins as rumor or folklore has made its way out of them; having left the margins but without fully entering public perception, it cannot be suppressed, bracketed, or accommodated. It cannot be culturally metabolized, and thus intermittently produces odd rumblings without relief.

If you are disinclined to believe possibility 1 — either because it does not seem to plausibly account for the extent of the phenomenal evidence, direct and testimonial, or, let’s face it, due to preference[5] — possibility 5 remains. And what is subject to further inquiry in possibility 5, beyond simply cataloging and classifying oddities for their own sake like natural historians of the marginal, is why these encounters cannot be culturally metabolized. We are left once again with the meta-discourse — with the attempt to understand why these encounters cannot be currently suppressed, bracketed, or accommodated.

“Red sprites,” an atmospheric phenomenon long reported but not confirmed by photograph until 1989
© Paul Smith. Used with permission.
Why UFOs Cannot Be Culturally Metabolized

I submit that this type of encounter (or types of encounters) has left the margins due to the power and ubiquity of new forms of social media that transmit and transform speculation and oral history. It cannot be suppressed because of that same power and ubiquity — and because it does not make any claims to epistemic respectability or official status. No one involved cares about peer review.

It cannot be bracketed because it does not make claims of purely academic metaphysics, or supernatural faith — which are subjects widely regarded to deal in realities that are invisible and untestable by experimental hypothesis, and that generally belong to a different realm, subject to a different set of rules, than the everyday reality we all share. It does not even make the less tolerable, but at least still manageable, claims of specific miraculous interventions or invisible visitations of spirits. These exist within the organizing structure of supernatural faith, and thus can shelter under its bracketed umbrella for the purposes of our social epistemics. The type of encounter to which UFOs belong, on the other hand, is not currently protected by ties to any organizing belief structure with whom public reason has made an uneasy truce. Its claims are of visible, physically relevant phenomena within the natural world: the world that the scientific method has staked out as its special domain.

And it cannot be accommodated because the rightful privileges of the scientific method are not only important to scientists, but to all of us as a culture. The natural world is not only the proper domain of the scientific method; it is also a domain that scientific measurement and data collection, and subsequent analysis, hypothesis, experiment, and reproduction under controlled conditions, are supposed to be able to completely and fully describe — whose fundamental reality they plumb and exhaust.

In his 1957 book Saving the Appearances, Owen Barfield posits that this is one of the most significant legacies of the scientific revolution sparked by the Copernican and Galilean crisis in astronomy. It was not the content of Galileo’s theory that was revolutionary, he argues. Rather, it was Galileo’s assertion that his mechanical theory of the universe did not merely “save the appearances,” but that it was actually true — that it did not hypothesize a satisfactorily reasonable model for the workings of the universe as they appear to us, but described them as they really are. If Galileo’s mechanics of celestial movements could actually be called “truth,” then, by a short step, the cosmos was, and was only, that which corresponded to mechanical models produced by geometry. The movement of heavenly bodies went from something that could be adequately modeled by geometry but was in fact caused by heavenly minds, to the inanimate and automatic workings of a machine.

Here is how Barfield puts it:

Our collective representations were born when men began to take the models, whether geometrical or mechanical, literally. The machine is geometry in motion, and the new picture of the heavens as a real machine, was made possible by parallel developments in physics, where the new theory of inertia … assumed, for the first time in the history of the world, that bodies can go on moving indefinitely without an animate or psychic “mover.” It was soon to be stamped indelibly on men’s imaginations by the circumstance of their being ever more and more surrounded by actual artificial machinery on earth.

The point here is not whether or not all this necessarily followed from Galileo’s assertion. Nor is it the changing meanings of “knowledge” and “truth.” Nor is it whether the scientific consensus in physics and astronomy today still holds to his theories. The point is how, as Barfield claims, the Galilean revolution worked on the popular mind — what it did to our “collective representations”: the shared, background, total world-picture that allows us to turn sight into perception, and distinguish vision from schizophrenia. This world-picture is always mediated to some degree by assumptions, from religion and philosophy, from art and science, without necessarily following any of them perfectly or representing them proportionately. Outstripping and outlasting the theory that birthed them, our current collective representations, per Barfield, are still largely those first produced by the Galilean revolution: the universe as a real machine, or, to borrow a term from Barfield, the “mechanomorphic” cosmos.

Barfield wrote Saving the Appearances partially in response to new developments in physics that might have been assumed capable of unsettling and remaking our collective representations and our mechanomorphic cosmos. But looking around, that cosmos seems to me to have had remarkable staying power. The biggest development seems the elevation of chemical and electrical mechanisms within the machine universe: we love to talk about love as “a chemical reaction,” and our Twitter compulsions as “dopamine hits,” as if we were actually clearing obfuscation by speaking in these terms. We love to discuss thinking as “our synapses firing” and our world as a tiny rock hurtling along its orbit through space.

And this, I think, is why the encounters with unexplained aerial phenomena, unable to be suppressed or bracketed, also cannot be culturally accommodated. They offend against the received, unconsciously held model of the cosmos in which we all orient ourselves. Motion in the mechanomorphic universe is strictly a matter of mechanical causes. We move because of the electrical firings in our nervous system. The planets move because of gravity (whatever that is). Glowing orbs of light have no complex physical infrastructure of electrical synapses. They do not have brains. Therefore, they should not, in any scenario, be moving in ways that suggest will or mind. They should not be dancing. Under no circumstances should they be calling your name.

A medieval priest was in some ways much better situated to deal with someone claiming that he had encountered a ball of glowing light dancing and calling his name. The priest might say: “Oi! Piers! You’ve been at the metheglin again, you addlepated old peasant!” He might say: “None of those words are in the Bible and if you go consorting with fairies I’ll have the beadle after you.” He might go home and on his little vellum blog write A Commentary on Johannes de Turbot’s Account of The Aetherial Daemons, With Particular Reference to Certaine Accounts of Sublunar Aerial Daemons. But his choice was not forced by an existential conflict with the basic model of socially shared reality he upheld as an educated authority, as it is for the disinformation-non-enjoyer.

The disinformation-non-enjoyer needs UFOs to be, not merely irrelevant, but illusory. They must be covered with contempt, not merely approached with caution or detachment. Anything else compromises the sense of a socially shared, collectively agreed-upon, long-familiar universe. By anointing science as more than a legitimate form of inquiry into the visible world, as the inquiry whose methods both fully reveal and define the extent of its reality, we have as a culture perhaps bought ourselves a unique sense of stability and permanence in our collective representations. We may not feel at home in the world, but we have felt at home in our model of the world for a long time. The disinformation-non-enjoyer, usually someone invested in stability, authority, education — none of them bad things — responds to the rumor of the UFO not as an oddity, but as a threat.

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After the Machine Universe

I have great respect for the disinformation-non-enjoyers. To me they seem graced with a touching melancholy and gallant attachment to the old order, a stalwart rear guard against change, like old European houses that maintain the civilities of a world the wars have utterly destroyed.

They have a long fight ahead of them. I do not think the esotericists are going away any time soon. And this brings me, finally, to the question posed earlier: What are the esotericists getting out of all this? I think, aside from the obvious and trivial delights of obsession, secrecy, and epistemic oppositional defiant disorder, that they are tired of the machine universe. They want out.

The esotericists love to systematize and annotate and save appearances like medievals. Will they bring us back to the medieval model of the cosmos? Here is how C. S. Lewis characterized that model:

Again, because the medieval universe is finite, it has a shape, the perfect spherical shape, containing within itself an ordered variety. Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest — trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building…. The spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony.

Is this what we’re due to return to? I vote no — not exactly, at least. You never get to go back, however much you (or essay writers) think you want to. But I hope the esotericists find a way to go forward — beyond arcana collected like Pokémon, beyond the frenetic seductions of TikTok: out into a night sky filled with music, and mysteries, and minds.

[1] Why not include The X-Files, you ask? The enduring genius of the show is in combining the frameworks: the end-game arcs were explorer, while the monster-of-the-week episodes veered esotericist.
[2] If you, like the other sheeple, believe the accepted narrative that the horse has not always been here.
[3] … which of course makes people with brainworms like mine more sympathetic than they were before.
[4] The National Parks Service are not, as they seem, a group of wholesome, outdoorsy, Dudley Do-Right civil servants. They are Tolkienesque Park Rangers of the North, they are The Dark Knight in hip waders, mounting a ceaseless and thankless watch to keep us mostly safe from the goblin menace. Frankly, I think that’s great and we should do something similar for postal clerks.
[5] Occam’s Ruler: all else being equal, we should choose the theory that rules.

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