It came from outer space

Far from being a throw-away genre trope, the unresolved puzzle of extra-terrestrial visitors gives us unique insights into the nature of thought, communication and memory.
Photograph of a flying saucer
Vintage colour photograph of a flying saucer. Credit: Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images
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The much–anticipated release earlier this summer of a US government report about unidentified flying objects – or ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’ (UAPs), as they are termed in the publication – may have, on the surface at least, brought UFOs out of the realm of science-fiction and into the arena of mainstream science.

As well as the report, ordered by Congress, military films of various incidents of UAPs were released. The report concludes that while objects have been seen, there is no evidence for (nor against) these being of extra-terrestrial provenance. This combination of elements – aerial sightings, political interest for defence reasons, the possibility of unearthly origins, raised but neither endorsed nor quashed – has been repeated at intervals during the last seventy years. The pattern remains remarkably constant, both in the form of the question – are these UFOs from another planet? – and in the lack of any clear answer, for there is no incontrovertible evidence on either side of the debate.

In an unresolved puzzle of this enduring kind, we might ask about the categories in which the question is posed: what kind of thinking allows the problem to be termed in the way it has, and when did it come into existence? What allows us to think in terms of UFOs and their possibility or impossibility?

The media revolution

The crux lies in the changes associated with new forms of media. A series of new technologies, dating from the end of the nineteenth century and extending to the present, have permitted new experiences and new forms of imagination. The gramophone, for example, allows the experience of being addressed directly by an absent person, even a dead person. Radio, a later development, though not by much, permits us to hear disembodied voices from far away. Both, initially, had an uncanny quality; they abolished differences of time and space. Photographs, likewise, made present images of elsewhere, never encountered in experience, or brought before us images of people we may have known, even loved, but who had lives in other places. And motion pictures multiply novelties of these kinds: they not only present records of stretches of other times and places, but – through recording and replaying – create new perspectives and new angles on scenes, not only allowing new things to be seen but fresh details to emerge, reframing incidents, calling attention to hitherto unperceived moments of significance, and presenting short sequences that may alter the meaning of an encounter. In short, we might say that new media create new kinds of experience and possibilities, and turn our lives into new sorts of narrative.

New media have always had this kind of effect. But the means of recording, storage and replaying developed from the 1880s on were particularly striking both in their effects and in the widespread nature of their impact, touching not simply an elite few, but almost everyone, through radio and cinema, altering the nature of experience and memory, creating new shared ways of being in the world. As a population, we perceive everyday life in categories that derive from these experiences, these vivid enactments of things that are not there. The world in which we live has changed, and these new ways of grasping life as it is lived operate at several levels. For instance, we anticipate the sudden presence of minds from elsewhere; we can receive direct communication from absent friends; we can conceive of new perspectives on situations, modelled often on shots from above that reveal patterns of behaviour or shots from below that reveal relations of power, and, most of all, we can conceive of ourselves as caught up in stories, or being touched by other stories, unknown to us but going on in the same space. Our life is, to a degree, cinematic, shaped by audio-visual images. And once collectively we have glimpsed the power of media in this regard, we can conceive of the world as being ordered by codes, and can imagine it is constructed by invisible means and controlled by unknown people whose intentions are hidden from us. A world shaped by experience of film is also, potentially, a paranoid world.

Flying saucers arrive

Flying saucers are a small feature of the imaginative space created within these new technological frames. They can be dated quite precisely: spaceships appear in fiction contemporary with the development of radio and, like radio waves, travel through space, hiding their origin. The motives behind the appearance of spaceships are also often hidden – they make unexpected contact, and convey messages with implications that are hard to evaluate. These ideas were elaborated in early science fiction, a branch of pulp publishing popularised in the first half of the twentieth century, which drew on theosophical speculations for many of its details, describing spirit forms travelling between planets, organising cosmic evolution, and aiding the development of the human race. These works offered a meditation on the contemporary human condition, confronted with the expansion of scientific knowledge and of the technology that accompanied it, and laid down most of the ground rules that apply in modern UFO sightings. In this fashion, science fiction provided content for a form arising independently.

But flying saucers only became a reality in the context of the Second World War and its transmutation into the Cold War; they co-existed with the extraordinary acceleration of technological development associated with the notion of ‘total war,’ with the invention of atomic weapons, rocketry and supersonic flight, together with a range of other industries, including those concerned with communications – radio, radar, and the rapid transmission and analysis of information through what became known as information technology. Weapons and communications form a single complex and define the modern world we still precariously inhabit.

When they first appeared in the late 1940s, flying saucers were an amalgam of characteristics drawn from contemporary research projects – silent flight, radical circular designs, alternative power sources – and exhibited powers of manoeuvrability, acceleration and hovering that resembled images on screen, and showed evidence of interest in human military and industrial sites, with sightings concentrated around military testing grounds, nuclear stations, electrical plants and so forth. They were of interest to military intelligence and, since many of the sightings of daytime objects or night-time lights were by United States Air Force pilots, a unit was set up by the Air Force (newly separated from the Army) in 1947, a small part of the intelligence operation concerned with the properties of new enemy aircraft. This unit had a varied history, only being reabsorbed into other projects in 1968. Its concerns were precisely those of the recent report to Congress.

Going supersonic

The report looks at recent sightings of UAPs – fast moving objects filmed by aircraft or from naval vessels, objects which show extraordinary manoeuvrability and which exhibit intelligent behaviour, apparently investigating ships and accelerating away when approached by aircraft, shooting into the sky or, sometimes, plunging into the sea. The question of their origin is an important one: they might be supersonic weapons systems produced by other countries, yet their performance appears vastly advanced and beyond any known technology, with acceleration and deceleration powers that would destroy any human pilot. Discussions of the report have led to renewed theorising about potential interstellar origins, possible life-bearing planets in other solar systems, the conditions for development of other technological civilisations on such planets, and speculation concerning projects of observation and communication carried out by artificial intelligence – robots perhaps launched thousands of years ago but capable of undertaking research in our locality and in real time. The report, however, is far more circumspect, confining itself to reviewing the evidence but eschewing conclusions about extra-terrestrial origins.

All this discussion shows an underlying concern not only with technological innovation – the latest military hardware and developments in information technology, not to mention the findings of radio astronomy – but also with a certain conception of communication, understood as the central characteristic of intention and therefore of intelligent life, human or otherwise. Communication is understood in this sense: that ideas may be conveyed without distortion or interruption between minds – effectively, a bodiless voice speaking straight to the receiver’s ear, for which radio offers a model. This idea is far older than the Second World War, but it takes a new form in the late 1940s, linked with the appearance of the technical concept of ‘information’ emerging from considerations concerning transmission of signals and encrypting (and decoding) messages. In practice, conveying precise information in an undistorted form over distances is only a small part of complex common enterprises, whether in war or peacetime. But in the post-war period, the concept of information has come to be considered a sufficient key to describe all kinds of processes, in nature and in every aspect of human activity: not only genetics and cell biology, but economics, diplomacy, social life, personal relations and therapy have all been expressed in terms of the unimpeded exchange of information. And using this concept, the communication of information from one mind to another has been central to imagining the purposes and actions of visitors from other planets. Speculation concerning their aims in showing themselves, their possible agenda, what they might be seeking to exchange, and our anticipation of the appropriate forms of contact (the search for signals, construing and constructing alien languages), are all cast in terms of the exchange of information. Without the concept of information and the ambition of its pure (bodiless) communication, we would have no frame within which to make sense of our hopes of encounter.

Alien encounters

Although it appears to take us some way from the content of the recent Congress report – unidentified objects seen, defence concerns, the source(s) of the objects in question – it is worth adding that ‘information’, which is a structuring concern of the report, links up with a particular understanding of ‘memory.’ This is memory conceived as the retention of accurate information; the recovery of a particular significant encounter in the past and therefore an accurate record retained with all its significance intact, capable of being re-lived and explored in full. This is memory as film. This idea is vital for the potential memory recovery in alien abduction cases, but it is also needed to give character and purpose to the possible alien visitors, who may be future forms of life derived from the human race, bearing an understanding of the past (which for us, means our future history) and so are able to help guide us through threats and crises. Again, although the idea of memory has a long history, the concept only gained its present possibilities, that of access to accurate and complete records, recently, with new recording technologies and the focus on the ideal of transparent communication of information between minds. Hence the play with artificial intelligence in satellites, monitoring us and, perhaps, relaying information home.

The basic materials, then, for understanding the continuing life of sightings of unidentified flying objects are these. First, the close mutual implication of weapons technology and media images, together with the taking up in these images of theosophical ideas, transmitted through science fiction, of minds ‘out there’ concerned with human contributions to cosmic evolution. Then, an over-reliance on the ideal of direct communication between minds, taken up and elaborated in the idea that information constitutes a key to the intelligibility of the human and natural worlds alike. And last, a notion of memory as the recall of exact information. These three clusters of interrelated ideas have remained relatively constant, although developing, over the past eighty years. And once this complex was initiated, around the end of Second World War, it was inevitable that something like flying saucers would make an appearance in a world exhausted by warfare, dominated by security concerns, and obliged to place its hope of survival in the continuous development of new and extraordinary technologies. The categories still generate UFO sightings of the kind that prompt questions: ‘Are they true? Or error? Or fiction?’. This creates accompanying dilemmas for politicians and strategists responsible for national security; providing material for experts, commentators and amateur speculators.

The formula has been put to work by the wider population; it has become a key to popular thinking about the centrality of the military-industrial complex to American public life, whether in the ongoing role of media representations that simultaneously display some aspects of that centrality (NASA, for example,) and occlude others (such as DARPA), or, more generally, in the play of information, memory, and forgetting which appears both in widespread public distrust of the state and in a vast range of therapies, whether concerned with recovered memory or with clearing obstacles to communication with self or others. In short, this complex of ideas is well instantiated in the modern world, part of the fabric of our imagination, continually evolving, but with certain constant features.

We shall not, then, cease to be confronted with reports of UFOs (or UAPs) and their unresolvable dilemmas until a profound shift occurs in the way in which we make sense of novelties of many kinds. Turning the theory on its head, the continuing, if also mutating, life of flying saucers offers a reliable clue to central questions about the world in which we find ourselves.

Tim Jenkins

Tim Jenkins retired from the University of Cambridge, where he taught anthropology and religion, in October 2019. Since then, he has been writing a book on reports of flying saucer sightings, provisional title Images of Elsewhere, which is near completion. Previous publications include Religion in English Everyday Life (1999), The Life of Property (2010), and Of Flying Saucers and Social Scientists (2013). He lives in Cambridge.

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