The Truth is out there

by Henry Farrell on July 31, 2008 · 4 comments

in International Relations

I see that Political Theory has just published Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall’s piece, Sovereignty and the UFO (link to abstract; the article itself is behind a paywall) an article which, it is fair to say, has acquired a certain degree of notoriety. Wendt and Duvall make a complex argument, drawing on Derrida, Agamben etc, but their basic claim is pretty straightforward as I read it. First – there is some material basis to suggest that there is some objective phenomenon, perhaps involving extraterrestrials, perhaps not, behind UFOs. Second, the failure of states to further investigate UFOs, despite this evidence, suggests that there is some structural reason why UFOs simply do not compute for states. Third, the most important structural cause for this blindness likely lies in the nature of sovereignty – because sovereignty presupposes a kind of anthropocentrism, sovereign authorities can’t deal with the possibility of alien intelligences, and hence construct a ‘regime of truth’ in which the notion that UFOs might exist is ipso facto ridiculous. Not only that; a proper understanding of UFOs might lead to the collapse of our current notions of governmentality. In Wendt and Duvall’s words:

For a critical theory of anthropocentric rule, therefore, a science of UFOs ironically is required, and not just a science of individual cases after the fact, which can tell us only that some UFOs lack apparent conventional explanations. Rather, in this domain what is needed is paradoxically a systematic science, in which observations are actively sought in order to analyze patterns from which an intelligent presence might be inferred. That would require money, infrastructure, and a long-term commitment of the kind that to date has been possible only for epistemic authorities, or precisely those actors most resistant to taking UFOs seriously. Still, given the potential disjunction of interest between science and the state, it is possible here for science to play a key role for critical theory. Whether such a science would actually overcome UFO ignorance is unknowable today, but it is only through it that We might move beyond the essentially theological discourse of belief and denial to a truly critical posture.

Modern rule and its metaphysics are extraordinarily resilient, so the difficulties of such resistance cannot be overstated. Those who attempt it will have difficulty funding and publishing their work, and their reputations will suffer. UFO resistance might not be futile but it is certainly dangerous, because it is resistance to modern sovereignty itself. In this respect militant UFO agnosticism is akin to other forms of resistance to governmentality; however, whereas sovereignty has found ways of dealing with them, the UFO may reveal an Achilles heel. Like Achilles, the modern sovereign is a warrior whose function is to protect—in this case, from threats to the norm. Unlike conventional threats, however, the UFO threatens humans’ capacity to decide those threats, and so cannot be acknowledged without calling modern sovereignty itself into question.

… taking UFOs seriously would certainly embody the spirit of self-criticism that infuses liberal governmentality and academia in particular, and it would, thereby, foster critical theory. And indeed, if academics’ first responsibility is to tell the truth, then the truth is that after sixty years of modern UFOs, human beings still have no idea what they are, and are not even trying to find out. That should surprise and disturb us all, and cast doubt on the structure of rule that requires and sustains it.

I’m highly skeptical of claims that UFOs are interesting in any sense but the sociological, for reasons having to do with the Fermi paradox, and the weaknesses of evidence laid out in John Sladek’s excellent and entertaining The New Apocrypha (the relevant chapter is entitled ‘Will U Kindly F O”). But even apart from the question of whether or not there is something to UFO claims that is worthy of sustained scientific investigation, Wendt and Duvall’s argument is highly unconvincing. They claim that there is something about the possibility of alien subjectivities that fundamentally challenges the principles of sovereign rule and makes sovereign entities go into a kind of halting state (pun borrowed from Charlie Stross) when they try to think about them. Hence, the failure of states to investigate UFOs. But this doesn’t seem to me to hold up as a convincing explanation

First – the evidence is inadequate to the claims made. Even if we accept, for the purposes of argument, Wendt and Duvall’s contention that government sponsored reports such as the Condon report (which was prepared by thirty scientists and engineers for the government over a period of two years, based on twenty years of data gathered by the Airforce)[1] doesn’t serve as countervailing evidence because it was ‘politicized’ and ‘flawed,’ I would expect them to provide some serious evidence to support the claim that the purported outcome (failure of government to seriously investigate UFOs) is an outcome of the suggested causal mechanism (the inability of anthropocentric sovereign states to process evidence. We don’t get this; not only do we not get any sort of process tracing, we don’t even get a Foucauldian genealogy. Instead, we have an article which consists of (a) a claim about the nature of sovereignty, (b) a (contestable) claim about states’ failure to research UFOs, (c ) a series of mostly straw man counter-arguments, of mixed accuracy[2], that are duly knocked down, and (d) a re-iteration of the claim that in the absence of ‘reasonable’ counter explanations, the failure to investigate whether UFOs are indeed the product of alien intelligence must indeed be a result of anthropocentric sovereignty.

Not only is there no direct evidence adduced, but there’s no reason to think that governments’ failure to pay attention to UFOs is unique. There are many, many out-of-left-field claims out there that governments, mystifyingly, have failed to investigate, despite evidence that is at least as good as the evidence that Wendt and Duvall claim justifies further investigation of the UFOs-are-evidence-of-aliens-among-us hypothesis.[3] For example astrology, which some have claimed has a statistical basis, and which would surely revolutionize predictive intelligence if properly developed. Transcendental Meditation – we have research published in The Journal of Conflict Resolution, no less, which points to the statistically observable effects of application of the Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field to the Israel-Lebanon conflict. Curiously, states have failed (to date) to act on this finding in order to solve the problem of war. Prayer, for healing and otherwise; now there’s one that the 2000-2008 US administration should have been investigating, one would have thought, given its ideological predilections and the technology’s obvious battlefield implications. And going a bit further into the wildlands, what about Scientology? If the US military had had a few Operating Thetans on tap to send out against the enemy, the Iraq war would have gone rather better than it did.

And so on. On Wendt and Duvall’s argument as I understand it, none of these potentially exciting fields of discovery challenge the anthropocentric notion of sovereignty. Yet none to date have been investigated – something that seems difficult to explain using their argument. If only one could come up with a single mechanism to explain this seeming regularity …

Even more troubling, there is evidence (not actually discussed in the piece, although the program is mentioned in passing) that seems to directly undermine Wendt and Duvall’s basic claim. In their argument, “one of the possibilities that we must countenance if we accept that the UFO is truly unidentified is that its occupants are ETs—and that threatens both the physical and ontological security of modern rule.” But if this is the underlying problem, we can point to a research area which is equally problematic for the notion of anthropocentric sovereignty, but that has been sponsored by the state. I’m referring, of course, to the ongoing SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program, which uses radio telescopes and similar to search (so far unsuccessfully) for evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. This ought to be just as unthinkable for the modern state as UFO research, if an anthropocentric universal order is a necessary precondition for modern sovereignty. Yet it has been funded by the US over a period of many years. I think that this is substantial disconfirming evidence for their argument.

I’m much more familiar with Wendt’s work than Duvall’s; I do know both are very smart guys. Nor do I think that articles which investigate ‘weird’ topics should be dismissed out of hand – scientific progress often requires open filters. But I do think that there are real problems with the set up and evidence of this article, regardless of the topic – if you want to make a case that states simply cannot deal with certain problems, you need good evidence to support your claim, and I’m not seeing it. I am much more impressed with a superficially similar piece, Patrick Jackson and James Heilman’s chapter on “Outside Context Problems,” published in Donald Hassler and Clyde Wilcox’s New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction volume[4] which convincingly argues (a) that Iain Bank’s spiffy series of ‘Culture’ novels is all about the difficulties that liberal civilizations have in encountering alien Others, and (b) that political scientists and theorists ought to pay attention to these books. Something along these lines, making less sweeping claims and using the evidence as a kind of thought experiment, would, I think, have made for a much better piece.

fn1. summary of Sladek, op cit. As Sladek observes (p.39): “If nothing else, the Condon report should have convinced ufologists that saucers were being taken seriously. It didn’t. Scientists who worked on it, Dr. Edward U. Condon in particular, were accused of being ‘anti-UFO’ and their ‘professional bias’ was often noted by amateurs who themselves showed little inclination to accept anything less than visitors from space. … Donald Keyhoe sent an angry telegram to President Johnson urging him to terminate the project. Richard Shaver found Condon a ‘pedant’ for not getting on with the real business of science, i.e. fighting the evil, telepathic dero. (Shaver referred to the dero by the Velikovskyan phrase, ‘vermin from space’).”

fn2. For example, Wendt and Duvall suggest that NASA’s defunct ‘Breakthrough Propulsion Physics’ program provides evidence that ideas about FTL travel are ‘speculative’ but ‘scientifically sound.’ I’ve been an enthusiastic amateur consumer of ideas such as the Alcubierre drive etc for years, but my understanding is that none of these ideas seem at all practically feasible for reasons to do with fundamental physical constraints, massive energy requirements etc – they serve less as blueprints for feasible stardrives than a form of entertainment for bored physicists. More to the point, while most of NASA’s BPL web pages seem to have disappeared with the passing of the ages, my very strong recollection is that the money available through this project was peanuts.

fn3. Wendt and Duvall do suggest that the willingness of states to investigate ESP, together with their unwillingness to investigate UFOs suggests that it really is about notions of sovereignty. But there are many other hypotheses which could explain this more simply. Most obviously, it is rather easier to study ESP in an experimental setting with controls and the like than it is to study UFOs, which have a disconcerting habit of disappearing will-o-the-wisp-like when you might like to get your hands on them.

fn4. Which, I should say, also has a piece by me.

{ 4 comments }

grad student July 31, 2008 at 3:31 pm

Thank you for writing such a thoughtful, generous, considered, non-knee-jerk take-down of a truly terrible article.

Josh R. July 31, 2008 at 5:19 pm

Ironically, there was an op-ed in the New York Times this past week that dealt with Britain’s investigations into UFOs:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/29/opinion/29pope.html

The American government has not investigated U.F.O. sightings since 1969, when the Air Force ended Project Blue Book, an effort to scientifically analyze all sightings to see if any posed a threat to national security. Britain and France, in contrast, continue to investigate U.F.O. sightings, because of concerns that some sightings might be attributable to foreign military aircraft breaching their airspace, or to foreign space-based systems of interest to the intelligence community.

zota August 1, 2008 at 3:15 am

Jacques Vallee had a much more nuanced position about UFOs and sovereign governments. In books like Messengers of Deception and Revelations he pointed out in detail how intelligence agencies were using the widespread belief in aliens and UFOs as a propaganda tool for their own ends.

After spending decades documenting the likely reality behind UFO phenomena and the certainty that it was being twisted for the purposes of sovereign governments, Vallee concluded that it was utterly impossible to get to reach any objective conclusion about what was actually happening.

So he quit writing UFO books and became a venture capitalist. Smart guy.

ProfPTJ August 1, 2008 at 4:52 pm

Henry — thanks for the shout-out. I agree, James and my piece is a smashing example of how to do this kind of thing right ;-)

Self-congratulation aside, I think the real flaw in the Wendt/Duvall article is the fact that they move too quickly to a deep-structural explanation of social action — or, in this case, social non-action. Although I’m not sure that the object of explanation here is actually non-action; it seems to me that there are a whole series of actions that the American state has undertaken with respect to the UFO phenomenon. and those are what we ought to be explaining. (Whether those state actions are adequate or appropriate actions is a separate issue, and almost certainly the kind of normative and/or political question we ought not to get ourselves caught up with while speaking as social scientists. But I digress.) The analytical question here is whether it makes sense to set out to explain non-action in the first place; I’m less than convinced that it does, because “why didn’t actor X perform action Y” presumes that we have some antecedent reason to suspect that actor X, or actors like X in similar situations, would perform action Y . . . and that sort of nomothetic reasoning strikes me as deeply problematic when applied to human social existence unless we only mean “X should have performed Y” as an ideal-typical claim of some sort. Now, I’m fine with treating that claim as an ideal-typical one, but that would mean that we would need to adduce situationally-specific factors to explain why actor X didn’t perform action Y — the polar opposite of Wendt and Duvall’s claim that it’s actually something general or universal that prevents actor X from performing action Y. Bit of a logical leap here.

Of course, for Wendt and Duvall this isn’t a problem, because they’re not engaged in ideal-typical analysis; they are making the critical realist move whereby a set of observable actions are treated to an abductive process and the analyst comes up with some deeper, unobservable cause that generates the surface-level observed phenomenon. What causes states not to investigate UFOs in the way that Wendt and Duvall would like them to? In some sense, it’s their “stateness.” But if that were the case, then the solution they suggest — investigating the UFO phenomenon — would mean a massive change in the terms of stateness itself. So states can’t investigate UFOs because they’re states, and if they did then they wouldn’t be states (sovereign states, at any rate) any longer. To me this line of reasoning looks a) Aristotelian, b) tautological, and c) rather pessimistic in its implications, since if it’s unobservable essences that are causing things then there is really no hope for changing anything. (Unless, of course, the deep structures have an inherent transformational logic, preferably a materialist one — let’s welcome back to the stage that wacky dynamic duo of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels!)

I hasten to point out that these issues are characteristic of every critical realist / contemporary Marxist argument of which I am aware, and not just of Wendt/Duvall. But the logic is strikingly similar, and, I would argue, equally problematic, in all cases. I’m a lot more comfortable with a less deep-structural and more configurational view of the matter: we have some observed, concrete action(s) to explain, so we apply ideal-typical mechanisms to the empirical material and generate an analytical narrative of precisely how the phenomenon was produced. What did the state do about the UFO phenomenon, and how was that course of action generated — in particular, how was it legitimated, and thus rendered an acceptable course of action in the first place? This tells us diddly-squat about what might happen tomorrow, but that’s not the point of the exercise anyway.

Or, of course, we could go back to Henry’s suggestion and do what James and I did: treat the text of alien encounter scenarios as thought-experiments. The UFO phenomenon, in that sense, can tell us a lot about ourselves and our present-day practices of self-crafting and social imagination, but I don’t think it tells us much of anything about the putatively essential nature of our institutions or ourselves — largely because I’m skeptical of the very enterprise of trying to tell us anything “essential” about such things. In James and my chapter, we argue only that liberalism has exhibited a set of dynamics, and suggest that if liberalism remains as it has been it is likely to exhibit those same set of dynamics. Nothing essential or deep-structural there.

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