According to a Time/CNN poll published a year ago, 64 percent of Americans now believe that creatures from elsewhere in the universe have recently been in personal touch with human beings.1 One such mortal, Whitley Strieber, writes that he has “received nearly a quarter of a million letters claiming contact” in the past eleven years alone. Indeed, many people, most of them mere students of the topic rather than “experiencers,” think that the aliens, having subjected abductees to breeding experiments in parked spaceships or secret underground laboratories, have already produced a race of hybrids who will someday rule or even replace us.
The hybrids may in fact be shopping and commuting all around us as I write. And even if they aren’t, their mixed parentage could help to explain the familiar images found in abduction memories like the following, culled from each of the three books under review here:
He’s got on a, a multistriped t-shirt…. And some, like little blue shorts…. They had sophisticated-looking toys, like maybe they got them out of Edmund’s Scientific or something…. They have a yo-yo…. It looks like an Etch-a-Sketch screen, except it’s filled with all sorts of stuff.
They were dressed like 1920s thugs, and came into the bedroom with old fashioned Tommy Guns, aiming at me and blazing away.
Beth Collings saw a naked man in an enormous white cowboy hat…. Karla Turner…mentions two people she knows who have seen aliens disguised as hillbillies. Katharina Wilson had an experience with an alien masquerading as Al Gore.
Once recollections of this kind are taken to be authentic, guesswork about the aliens’ true nature and purpose becomes irresistible. What if, for example, Katharina Wilson’s visitor wasn’t just masquerading as Al Gore but was “Al Gore”—the hybrid or body snatcher who has already replaced the man from Tennessee? And if so, the alien takeover of our executive branch surely wouldn’t have stopped at the second in command. Consider this provocative observation by the renowned abduction expert David M. Jacobs:
Because the late-state hybrids are mainly human, they have strong sexual drives but little conscience. It is as if they have human attributes but lack human controls. Even if they do have a conscience, they know that the human victim will immediately forget what has happened to her. The hybrid might assume that there is no lasting effect upon the human and he therefore can do and say anything he pleases with impunity.
Could the space creature that has assumed the form of Bill Clinton be hideously mocking us when it keeps invoking “executive privilege”?
Of course there are difficulties to be ironed out before speculations along these lines can become fully respectable. One of them has to do with distance. In the planets circling our Sun, no creatures besides ourselves are known for their partiality to tourism. What, then, about the next nearest star, Alpha Centauri? Voyaging from that vicinity at the generous estimate of a million miles per hour, our current visitors would have had to wave goodbye to their loved ones around the time of Moses—and then, having briefly played doctor with their favored specimens, some white Americans, they could look forward to devoting another three millennia to the return trip. Would it, to quote Prufrock, have been worth it, after all?2
To the unlikelihood of such persistent travel must be added the fact that modern UFO incidents, from the still hotly debated Roswell, New Mexico, Air Force case of 1947 until now, can be accounted for in rationally acceptable mundane terms.3 Misleading optical effects, half-waking dreams, sleep paralysis, tricks of memory, paranoid delusions, temporal lobe lesions, intoxication, fraud, and faddism are abundantly familiar to us, whereas the UFO thesis, even without the added burden of abduction tales, flouts the known laws of nature at every turn. Lacking even a scrap of credible physical evidence, ufologists have had to fall back on an appeal to numbers. How, they ask, could so many trustworthy witnesses be wrong about having spotted a spacecraft? Well, just replace “spacecraft” with “witch,” “ghost,” “angel,” “Loch Ness monster,” “Abominable Snowman,” or “face of Mother Teresa on a bun,” and you have your answer.
If all parties to the UFO controversy subscribed to the rule of Ockham’s razor and to David Hume’s reservations about the miraculous, the issue would have been laid to rest a whole generation ago, when Philip J. Klass’s UFOs Explained (Random House, 1974) deflated the best brief for visitation then extant, J. Allen Hynek’s The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry (Regnery, 1972). Empirically speaking, nothing has changed since then; it is still the case that “you can’t get here from there.” Yet UFO claims, far from abating or becoming more humble, have expanded in number, extravagance, and fervor, and there is no reason to think that any deployment of evidence or logic can now discourage them.
At the time of the Hynek-Klass exchange, the bone of contention was sightings: Could any of the supposedly glimpsed celestial objects be spaceships from elsewhere? To be sure, a number of witnesses had also laid claim to very bizarre personal dealings with aliens, but “responsible” ufologists considered such reports fraudulent, and so-called contactees were regarded as a discredit to the cause. The sobriety of that cause depended on the aliens’ continued elusiveness. So long as they kept darting about the heavens so coyly, only pausing occasionally to hover over a swamp or chase a car, their technically inclined human monitors could also maintain a low profile, venturing no inanities about the contents of the baffling extraterrestrial mind.
In 1981, however, Budd Hopkins published his wildly popular Missing Time (Marek), and UFO advocacy underwent a major reversal. The physics of space travel were no longer deemed greatly interesting. Instead, credence was invested in one limited form of human-alien contact—namely, abduction. And that vogue is still going strong today, though certain of the faithful, taking a less dire view of alien actions and motives than Hopkins had, prefer gentler terms such as “visitation” or simply “experience.” But the difference is only a matter of coloration, since all parties concur in maintaining that the uninvited guests have been seizing people and tampering with their bodies and minds.
The abduction stories are supposedly warranted not by their verisimilitude but by the sincerity and emotional agitation with which they are narrated. Thus UFO validation, like much else in our nominally scientific era, has taken an inward turn. Although most citizens distrust abduction reports, others cannot withhold their sympathy from patent victims. They are ready to second Harvard’s resident ufologist and prophet of higher consciousness, John Mack, when he complains that the inclusion of “a hostile debunker” on a radio or television program about abduction “constitutes a human rights violation of an authentic minority.”4
Of the three authors before us, two—David Jacobs and Whitley Strieber—share with Mack and Hopkins the highest popularity among abduction/ visitation believers. Such eminence requires that they keep dissenters at bay by making a grave show of answering empirically based objections. Strieber in particular is a master of such guile, nominally welcoming experimentation and tantalizing his readers with the prospect of physical proofs that never quite materialize. His and Jacobs’s scientific concern is UFOlike: now you see it, now you don’t. Jacobs speaks for both authors when he declares that it just doesn’t matter how the aliens got here. Maybe they did so, suggests this Temple University history professor, by surfing the “astral plane,” or by popping out of “a parallel universe,” or by “traveling on thought patterns”—their own or even ours. “The question is not how aliens get here,” says Jacobs insouciantly, “but whether they are here. The ‘how’ is ultimately a technological detail.”
Once such formalities are out of the way, the encounter expert is free to expand his claims at just those points where they might be considered most vulnerable. You needn’t wonder, for example, how astronauts from another planetary system can give comprehensible orders to monolingual Yankee earthlings; the aliens, Jacobs and Strieber assure us, can read our thoughts and communicate with us telepathically. Again, if only one person in a crowd sees the intruders approach and leave, that is not because they are imaginary but because they have a knack of putting anyone they please into a trance. If an alleged abduction has left doors and windows locked, leading to a suspicion that the whole thing was a dream, the theory comes to the rescue by positing an ability on the aliens’ part to waft both themselves and us through solid walls. If some of the hypnotically recalled visitors bear a suspiciously human aspect, that’s not because people tend to dream about other people but because some UFO denizens must be hybrids. And if women who thought they had been impregnated by aliens turn out not to be pregnant at all, that is because their offspring have already been extracted in a second, but this time amnesiac, violation.
Both Strieber and Jacobs have recourse to the classic sophistry of all ufologists, ascribing a cumulative weight to reports that, when regarded one by one, are lighter than air. (“Individually,” says Strieber, “the stories are incredible. But taken together, they are beyond the incredible.”) What compels assent, they declare, is the otherwise unaccountable congruence of detail from one narrative to another. In fact, however, there is nothing unaccountable about it. Descriptions of spaceships and aliens have always followed the specifications laid down by Hollywood in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); by scare-mongering TV docudramas such as NBC’s sensational and slanted The UFO Incident (1975)5 ; and by books like those before us, the most influential of which has been Strieber’s own runaway best seller of 1987, Communion.
Indeed, authors like Strieber, Jacobs, Hopkins, and Mack are best understood not as neutral compilers of abduction experience but as theoretically committed generators and standardizers of it, each of whom attracts the type of report he is known to favor. Their works at once provide templates for future dreams or nightmares, filter out or minimize anomalous material, and establish the author as an inspirational figure holding special insight into the extraterrestrials’ plans. If you suspect that ETs are up to no good, Hopkins or Jacobs will help you fit the evidence into a satisfying conspiratorial thesis. If, on the other hand, you prefer the mushy Steven Spielberg approach, Mack or Strieber will soothe you with assurances that the aliens, despite their occasional rudeness, are really our tutors, having come all this way just to raise our ecological awareness and enhance our spirituality.
However earnestly intended, these mind-numbing books can shake loose some very big bucks for their authors and their shamelessly cynical publishers, who surely realize that they are not merely widening their companies’ profit margins but fomenting public delusion. Twenty or thirty years ago, for reasons of self-respect, most houses would have thought twice about lending their imprint to such ludicrous stuff. Not today; there’s no business like UFO business. The prospect of striking it rich again with another blockbuster like Strieber’s Communion or Hopkins’s Missing Time is just too tempting to pass up.
As an entrepreneur, no one in the UFO community quite compares to Whitley Strieber. He was already a successful writer of horror fiction before he decided that he himself was an experiencer with a story to tell. His Communion, having prompted a $1 million advance from Beech Tree Books, was rushed into print in 1987 to steal a march on Random House and Hopkins’s sequel volume Intruders, whose anticipated audience indeed defected to Strieber. (Hopkins was evidently born too soon to benefit from the reign of benevolent cooperation that the Strieber-style aliens are preparing for us.) As for Strieber’s latest effort, Confirmation, a publicity bulletin from St. Martin’s Press points to the happy conjunction of its release with the debut of Hollywood’s much ballyhooed film The X-Files. But Strieber himself would not want to be associated with such crassness. He prefers to call attention to the altruistic-looking Communion Foundation, a tax-exempt, donation-soliciting enterprise which, by gathering “research” and further testimony of the desired kind, can provide the raw material for even more best sellers.6
Strieber was a latecomer to the UFO movement and even to its abduction-theory phase. His fellow ufologists, especially those whose interest was sparked by aeronautic phenomena, have always regarded him with cool suspicion. And well they might, for Strieber manages to be all things to all readers who grant him an initial suspension of disbelief. Alternating between autobiographical narrative, other victims’ stories, and expert-sounding discussion of tests and gadgets, doling out well-spaced frissons in the Stephen King manner, yet also telling the spiritually hungry how much the aliens care about them, Strieber leaves his competitors looking like understudies who are still trying to memorize a master thespian’s lines.7
One element in Strieber’s original success, though it has fallen away as his fame has grown, was his willingness to make personal revelations that a less nimble persuader would have hesitated to disclose. In Communion, for example, he acknowledged a propensity for telling sensational tales about his past that he believed at the time of telling but later realized were false.8 One might think that such a confession would diminish his value as a witness to otherworldly entities floating around his bedroom. On the contrary, Strieber’s show of candor was a brilliant stroke, conjuring an image of pained vulnerability that rendered his outré narrative more credible and poignant to millions of readers who could empathize with his struggle.
But Strieber has reserved his most daring maneuver for his latest volume, Confirmation. His earlier books, he now asserts, were never intended to say that the extraterrestrials are already among us; he had just wanted to raise the issue of whether they were or not. Now, however, he is sure not only that the ETs had arrived but also that they had inserted “unknown bright objects” in his brain. Using those implants as remote control devices, he implies, the spacepersons forced him, unknowingly, to alter the original neutrality of his drafted books. On now rereading the bound versions, he is amazed to find them unambiguously stating the actual truth: “that spiritually evolved aliens were here trying to influence humankind in a positive way.” Anticipating (and also augmenting) Strieber’s sales figures, it seems, the aliens made him their chosen vessel for spreading the good word.
That such cosmic gall can pass unchallenged, as I am sure it will, among Strieber’s loyal readership may suggest how deeply he and other visitation authorities have tapped into the will to believe. As many observers have noted, the feelings that find expression in UFO doctrine are multiple and deep.9 They range from religious yearnings and a sense of anomie and threatened autonomy to resentment of dryly materialistic laws of science and a conviction, based on individualistic contrarianism, that the government’s belittlement of UFOs is a strong point in their favor. These are dispositions, not arguments, and therefore skepticism has nothing in its arsenal that can touch them.
That fact in itself is of no great consequence. Insofar as the UFO obsession constitutes just another form of supernatural belief, it can be regarded as a comforting hobby. And as hobbies go, a rage for flying saucers would seem preferable to, say, the racing of dune buggies across fragile desert terrain. But there is a catch: the troubled people who come to see themselves as abductees are not hobbyists but genuine victims, though not in the way they think.
As David Jacobs relates, “Most abductees say the phenomenon has had a devastating effect on their personal lives.” One can gather what he means by attending to the following fragment of a case that was brought to him:
Then the hybrids told Beverly that they could take her body whenever they wanted and that she was always vulnerable and never safe. One hybrid raped her, and she was forced to perform fellatio upon another. They pinched her, twisted her skin, and hurt her without leaving marks. They pushed an unlit candle into her vagina. They then told her she had caused her children to be abducted…. On another occasion hybrids made her envision her six-year-old daughter walking into a room ringed with naked hybrids who had erections; she was led to believe that her daughter would be raped by all of them.
Even Strieber, whose correspondents generally represent the uplifted-and-enlightened end of the experiencer spectrum, admits that “sixty percent specifically mention fear. Twenty percent report negative encounters.”10
The first impulse of most readers, I suspect, once they are made aware of such needless terror, is to pathologize the sufferers: they must be exceptionally disturbed if not outright crazy. No doubt that is true of some of them, but as a generalization it falls flat. One need only peruse Nova’s excellent program of February 27, 1997, “Kidnapped by UFOs?,” to become acquainted with self-perceived abductees who are intelligent, articulate, and rational in all respects but one, their memories of close encounters. And that impression is borne out by every study that has attempted, always fruitlessly, to find predictive factors for susceptibility to the UFO illusion.11
It is inappropriate, then, to set apart self-perceived abductees as psychotics or, more mildly, as “hysterics” who have failed to contain an internal buildup of pressure, be it repressed “shame, guilt, or helplessness” or some vague millennial anxiety.12 The spotlight should be turned instead on the Pied Pipers who induce false belief, not only through their books and films and talk shows but also, in many instances, through their one-on-one practice of quack therapy with patients who have consulted them about their unnerving nightmares featuring ETs.
Nearly always in such consultations, the fateful source of error turns out to be abuse of hypnosis. The great facilitator of anguish over abduction is not mental illness on the victims’ part but hypnosis in the hands of their would-be supporters. Those dabblers, many of whom lack any training beyond a quickie night school course, have failed to learn the most important fact about hypnosis: that the emotions and “recollections” generated in a hypnotic session needn’t refer to anything but the suggestive pressure exerted by the hypnotist himself.
It is no coincidence that, of the four leading abduction boosters, three—Mack, Hopkins, and Jacobs—use “time regression” hypnosis as their key means of gaining information about contact with aliens. As for Strieber, he himself submitted to hypnosis so as to resolve doubts about his initial encounter of December 1985, and he credits countless mailed-in stories without investigating what role hypnotic anamnesis may have played in their production. Although all four authors make token gestures of caution against hypnotic confabulation, their actual prudence in that regard is nil. Indeed, Mack can even write, with childlike ingenuousness, that the United States leads the world in abduction reports, with England and Brazil coming next, “largely because of the availability of practicing hypnotists and therapists working with abductees in these countries.”13
As the Nova video makes clear, there is nothing unusual about the way most abduction memories are formed. They begin with sleep paralysis, the same condition of half-awake dreaming that once fed into widespread and catastrophic delusions of possession by witches, incubi, or Satan himself.14 Alarmist books and programs about alien invasion take the place of religious folklore in shaping the preliminary interpretation that scientifically uninformed Americans overlay on such experiences. But, typically, it is only in the office of a true-believer hypnotist or other quasi-Mesmeric practitioner that the hunch congeals into “truth” and becomes a lasting threat to the dreamer’s equanimity. When David Jacobs tells us, for example, that many abductees “live in fear that it will happen again and feel guilty that they cannot protect their children,” he is largely describing the outcome of his own meddling as a biased hypnotic detective.
Here, inevitably, we arrive at the theme of recovered memory. Not surprisingly, abduction reports began multiplying just when, in the 1980s, false memories of “repressed” or “dissociated” incest trauma became a national epidemic. Abduction memories and memories of “forgotten” childhood sexual abuse are conjured in exactly the same way, by applying an unsubstantiated psychodynamic theory to the images unearthed by hypnotherapy, dream analysis, and assorted techniques for stimulating and guiding fantasy. Although the sex abuse specialists see recollections of alien contact as screen memories for incest while the abductionists take the opposite view, they are all playing the same noxious game.
But this parallelism could also give us cause for optimism about the likely fate of the abduction fad. Thanks to the harm it has caused and the attention it has drawn to pseudoscientific notions about the mind that were shared by judges and juries only a few years ago, the recovered memory movement is now in retreat, and the therapists who swelled its ranks are nervously waiting to be sued by some of the awakened “retractors” whom they deceived. There is every reason to expect a similar end to the scare over extraterrestrials. Though general UFO belief will surely go on indefinitely, the folly of abduction “memory” can be halted if, through public education and counseling, “abductees” themselves come to realize what has been done to them.
As someone who spent his employed decades in a congenial university setting, I would like to think that academics will be prime contributors to this effort. And perhaps they will. The third book under review here, however, offers a reminder that the contemporary academy, riven as it is by a chasm that has continued to widen since the 1970s, cannot be counted on as a bastion against irrationalism. In Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, Jodi Dean, a political scientist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, strikes an attitude that is more disturbing in its way than anything said by Professors Mack and Jacobs.
While those tenured apologists work amid well-earned ostracism and ridicule from their colleagues, Dean, who has already composed one book of feminist theory and edited another,15 here wields the current idiom of poststructuralism and postmodernism in a way that must have favorably impressed peer evaluators and the staff of Cornell University Press. Yet if Aliens in America is a mainstream work, the mainstream has become a turbid meander. The problem is not the author’s hospitality, per se, to the alien abduction hypothesis; indeed, she repeatedly assures us of her perfect indifference to all claims proffered by the UFO movement. But indifference itself—a studied refusal to acknowledge any criteria of judgment except sheer subversiveness toward an imagined establishment—is precisely the scandal here.
As a sociologist of cults and conspiracies, Dean might be expected to show us how the abduction zealots debase the language of scientific prudence, simulating a concern over fraud, error, and hypnotic confabulation while appealing to faith at every turn. She does allude more than once to the UFO literature’s abundant but meaningless invocation of the majority culture’s “scientific and juridical standards.” But those standards figure in her book not as our common rational heritage but merely as technocratic idols to which the powerless are forced to pay homage. She herself takes pride in doing without them altogether.
What counts for Dean is that a UFO report, however discreetly it may be couched, is “a political act” that “contests the status quo.” “Those of us attracted to left-wing causes,” she says, “to critical positions against political, governmental, and corporate authorities, or maybe just to underdogs in general may feel at home in ufology.” Abductees are especially praiseworthy because “they hold on to their experiences, resisting the efforts of interpreters to compile them into coherence.” Mere persistence in UFO delusion, then, constitutes useful sabotage of the evil empire—“the technoglobal information society that is America at the millennium”—which nevertheless, Dean implies, remains in total command of our lives.
But if our oppressors pay no heed to alien abduction, where does the subversion come in? The answer is that it resides entirely in Dean’s own head. The politics that animate her are focused not on concrete developments but on conceptual fuzzballs such as “contestation,” “thematics,” “cultural space,” “essentialization,” “reinscription,” and “the originary moment.” In the never-never “site” where she “interrogates the production of knowledge” and deconstructs “the social imaginary,” points are awarded to any act or notion that can be counted as “antihegemonic.”
It scarcely matters to Dean, then, that our popular culture, in which she herself shows every sign of being uncritically immersed, devours the “subversive” abduction tales like so many Big Macs; nor does it matter that the state of Nevada is drawing tourists to an official Extraterrestrial Highway commemorating alien contacts; nor that one can now attend an abduction conference held on the grounds of MIT and then read a sympathetic account of it in the upscale and none too revolutionary New Yorker. Nor does Dean care that writers like Strieber, Hopkins, Mack, and Jacobs, in the tradition of religious quietism, “contest the status quo” by encouraging millions of people to point their hopes and fears heavenward instead of acting in their material interest.
This is not to say that Dean leaves real historical circumstances entirely out of account. Both the cold war and its stepchild, NASA, are continually cited in Aliens in America as the backdrop against which ufology acquired its revolutionary cast. But if we had to rely on Dean for our knowledge of the cold war, we would never realize that it had something to do with thwarting Soviet expansionism. For her, as for other post-Vietnam academic radicals, “Cold War containment culture” was just an instrument for imposing American values on the world, penalizing social nonconformity, and hounding imagined “enemies within.”
Then there is NASA, which in Dean’s view has served no other function, either military or scientific, than to wage a “theatrics of space,” a global skywriting campaign that could “win the Cold War and the ratings war” by upstaging the Russians with flashier stunts than theirs. Ignoring abundant evidence that the Air Force and the Pentagon, not NASA, have been ufology’s perennial bêtes noires, Dean takes it as axiomatic that UFO buffs share her loathing of the space program. In the private mental Nintendo that she mistakes for politics, abduction survivors achieve their highest score by serving as anti-astronauts. Their tales of kidnapping “tell about ways of being human that transform the representations of agency and spectatorship found in space imagery….” And imagery is all that finally matters.
Dean does recognize that someone who has become convinced he was kidnapped by ETs may thenceforth be subject to paranoid fears. At that point her reader momentarily entertains the hope that compassion will set in, prompting Dean to back off from ideologizing the abduction theme. But nothing of the sort occurs. Rather, Dean rushes to embrace paranoia itself on political grounds. True or false, paranoid conspiracy theory recommends itself to her as “an appropriate vehicle for political contestation,” obliging the rest of us to think about “victimization, colonization, surveillance, and the ‘technologizing’ of reproduction and the body.”
Nevertheless, Dean perceives a flaw in the paranoid mindset: it is too fixated upon truth. The paranoiac, she says, thinks that answers really lie “out there” but are concealed by sinister forces, whereas she herself suffers from no such illusion:
Faced with gigabytes of indigestible information, computer-generated special effects, competing expert testimonies, and the undeniable presence of power, corruption, racism, and violence throughout science and law, voters, consumers, viewers, and witnesses have no criteria for choosing among policies and verdicts, treatments and claims.
By way of illustration, Dean cites the O.J. Simpson trial, in which “DNA evidence entered by the prosecution was not as compelling as what, for many, was a personal experience of discrimination and harm.” She comments: “Given the political and politicized position of science today, funded by corporations and by the military, itself discriminatory and elitist, this attitude toward scientific authority makes sense.”
For Dean, all that’s certain is the undecidability of every issue. Yet even here the discourse of the alien gives her a vanguard feeling: it “marks a dissolution of the boundaries of the intelligible so complete that any exclusion seems arbitrary, repressive.” Since ufology instructs us that there are “myriad perspectives on the world, each with its own legitimate claim to truth,” the wisest course would be to venture no assertions and take no action. “Passivity makes sense,” Dean observes, “if we lack perspective, if we lack even the possibility of perspective because all possible points from which to assess our situation have collapsed into one another.”
In this light it is significant that the object of greatest scorn in Aliens in America proves to be the late Carl Sagan, a fellow academic who shared Dean’s interest in UFO abduction but publicly challenged its reality. She has certainly chosen the right adversary to epitomize everything that she is not. Yet because rationality itself is anathema to her, she cannot begin to deal with Sagan’s argument against the likelihood of space intruders. Instead, she lamely attempts to show that he “confirms the importance” of alien abduction simply by discussing the topic at length. Since Sagan has placed himself “in the UFO discourse,…his very critique reaffirms its claim to scientific status.” Furthermore, “Sagan isn’t as skeptical as Hopkins because he, Sagan, works within a worldview that he doesn’t question…. He doesn’t even know where we are now, when people are skeptical to the point of paranoia.”
Having thus expressed her contempt for critical reasoning, Dean faces the problem of putting her own propositions into some kind of order without sounding like yet another slave to thought. Her solution is to “link” ideas free-associatively, citing as precedent the analogy of Website links that nonhierarchically connect everything with everything else. In Dean’s rhetoric, links—between alien abduction and alien immigration, the race issue and the space race, a new breed of men (astronauts) and the breeding of new men—replace logical operations while retaining a vaguely syllogistic air, as if her mere ability to pun between themes amounted to proof of something momentous.
Precisely because Dean’s links are too easily “clicked,” however, they fall short of meaning anything definite even to her. All of her key terms lead her in circles, and at times she is reduced to a kind of stammering:
It is an age of aliens, an alien age when alien images and alien copies and copies of aliens appear unpredictably and unannounced in places they shouldn’t, in places we can’t understand, in multiple, contradictory, alien places.
The interesting phenomena involve more than belief in aliens and UFOs…. These phenomena include the interest in aliens on the part of those who don’t believe, in aliens as fashion statement or icon of techno-globalism or globo-technocism. The interesting phenomena involve the myriad acknowledgments in networked information cultures of the extraterrestrial gaze.
The editors at Cornell University Press—unless they have already been supplanted by space invaders—are apparently wagering that such babble will be the academic lingua franca of the future. If they are right, Carl Sagan, himself a distinguished member of the Cornell faculty and a champion of clear prose, won’t be missed. I suspect, however, that what Aliens in America really announces is a dead end. Here the gestural radicalism of Paris 1968 has reached its futilitarian nadir, where sheer disablement—the inability of traduced people to free their minds from haunting and debilitating images—is hailed as the nearest imaginable thing to freedom.
But the fiasco is intellectual as well as political. For decades now, we have been told that “knowledge” is not a legitimate goal of striving but merely a shibboleth for enforcing the dominance of a class, race, or gender. From that position it follows that the correct way to assess an idea is not to test its congruence with established facts but simply to ask whose interest it serves. And once this anti-empirical habit comes into play, it automatically creates sympathy for whatever notions are rejected by the ruling group. The process of rehabilitating “marginalized” conceptions stops at nothing—not even, we now perceive, at the most comical excesses of the abduction mania.
“The aliens have landed,” writes Jodi Dean with slacker sarcasm. “Resistance is futile.” On the contrary, Aliens in America helps to clarify, through its very stagnancy and incoherence, just where resistance ought to be applied.
June 25, 1998
See “Poll: U.S. Hiding Knowledge of Aliens,” CNN Interactive (June 15, 1997), http://www.cnn.com/US/9706/15/ufo.poll/index.html. Among the believers, roughly half subscribe to the thesis of alien abduction. ↩
The logistical difficulties surrounding the UFO thesis, it should be noted, do not extend to the interception of (as yet undetected) radio signals from remote civilizations. In this connection, see two new books: Michael D. Lemonick, Other Worlds: The Search for Life in the Universe (Simon and Schuster, 1998), and Barry Parker, Alien Life: The Search for Extraterrestrials and Beyond (Plenum Trade, 1998). ↩
For cogent discussion of the Roswell matter, see Philip J. Klass, The Real Roswell Crashed-Saucer Coverup (Prometheus, 1997) and Kendrick Frazier, Barry Karr, and Joe Nickell, editors, The UFO Invasion: The Roswell Incident, Alien Abductions, and Government Coverups (Prometheus, 1997). Sensible broader studies are Klass’s UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game (Prometheus, 1988) and, largely prior to the abduction fad, Donald H. Menzel and Ernest H. Taves, The UFO Enigma: The Definitive Explanation of the UFO Phenomenon (Doubleday, 1977). ↩
John E. Mack, “An Approach to Helping Abductees,” in Alien Discussions: Proceedings of the Abduction Study Conference, edited by Andrea Pritchard et al. (North Cambridge Press, 1994), p. 484. Mack’s chief contribution to the abduction debate has been Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (Scribners, 1994). ↩
The UFO Incident founded the abduction craze by purporting to relate the true vicissitudes of Barney and Betty Hill, who had supposedly been kidnapped by ETs in 1961. NBC’s light regard for facts is explored in Klass’s UFO-Abductions and Menzel and Taves’s The UFO Enigma (see note 3 above). Strieber’s publisher has announced that NBC will be doing another encounter “special” soon, this time with Strieber himself as co-host. ↩
Strieber’s abduction series thus far includes, between Communion and Confirmation, Transformation: The Breakthrough (Avon, 1988), Breakthrough: The Next Step (HarperCollins, 1995), and (with Ann Strieber) The Communion Letters (HarperPrism, 1997). ↩
In yet another coup, Strieber has been permitted to include in Confirmation an interview, conducted by the UFO visionary Michael Hesemann, with Monsignor Corrado Balducci, who is a member of the Curia of the Roman Catholic Church, a noted authority on demonology, and a practicing exorcist. The Monsignor declares the evidence for UFOs to be overwhelming, and he speculates that “these extraterrestrials—if that is what they really are, rather than angels—are very good beings who aim to bring us nearer to God.” ↩
Strieber also has a record of hearing voices and switching his religious sympathy among Christian denominations, medieval mysticism, Zen Buddhism, earth-goddess witchcraft, and Gurdjieffian theosophy. And when the aliens paid their first call at his upstate New York cabin in the backwoods, they had to deactivate a distinctly unrural alarm system and foil his nightly check of all closets and crannies for small intruders. After that incident, his composure hung in the balance until the kindly Budd Hopkins helped him regain control—an intervention that Hopkins may regret by now. ↩
For a sense of the fringe beliefs attending UFO interest, see the credulous but wide-ranging final chapter of C.D.B. Bryan’s Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind: Alien Abduction, UFOs, and the Conference at M.I.T. (Knopf, 1993), and Phil Patton’s more consistently reportorial new book Dreamland: A Personal Journey through the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51 (Villard, 1998). ↩
Strieber, Breakthrough, p. 96. ↩
See, e.g., June Purnell, “Measured Personality Characteristics of Persons Who Claim UFO Experiences,” Psychotherapy in Private Practice, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1988), pp. 159-165, and Nicholas P. Spanos et al., “Close Encounters: An Examination of UFO Experiences,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 102, No. 4 (November 1993), pp. 624-632. ↩
The quoted phrase is from Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 207. For a critical examination of Showalter’s premises and thesis, see my review, “Keeping Us in Hysterics,” The New Republic, May 12, 1997, pp. 33-43. ↩
Mack, Abduction, p. 12. It should also be mentioned that Barney and Betty Hill (see note 5 above), the Adam and Eve of abduction legend, did not come to believe in their own alien kidnapping until they, too, were hypnotized. In their case, however, even the hypnotist remained unconvinced; see Klass’s discussion in UFO-Abductions, pp. 7-13. ↩
See, in this connection, Susan Blackmore, “Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis?,” Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 22 (May/June 1998), pp. 23-28. ↩
See Jodi Dean, Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism After Identity Politics (University of California Press, 1996), and Jodi Dean, editor, Feminism and the New Democracy: Re-siting the Political (Sage, 1997). ↩