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.

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