Saturday, 2 May 2020

UFO's In Postmodernity

 Pentagon released footage recently of what they termed ''UFO's' though meant it in the true meaning of the word, they had video of objects flying at high speed which they claimed they couldn't explain. Looking at the footage I couldn't help but notice how retro and dated it all seemed, and when I browsed the reactions on social media I saw that I wasn't the only one.

 In fact, the general consensus seemed to be that the UFO's in the grainy black and white footage were a bit naff, a bit ''cringe''. There was a few people saying it was the government directing people's attention away from current world realities, but mainly people reacted with cynicism and mockery.

It seemed to me that 30-40 years ago footage like that released would've seemed earth shattering, a revelation or at least something which stirred up a lot of debate and discussion, yet it sank within a few hours and nobody cared, except to laugh at how dated it all seemed.

 Where do UFO's fit into today's culture? you don't seem to hear much about them anymore they do indeed seem to be a cultural artifact from a bygone age, 1950's America mainly, and the mid-west of America at that. Farmers seeing strange lights and odd shaped clouds, maybe a new secret weapon the government was testing out. In the background the Cold War played out and all those unidentified and unexplained objects may well have been the Godless commies spying on the good folk of Idaho.

 The zeitgeist that spawned the UFO  had many component parts. Not just the Cold War, but the fact that space missions were actually being launched. Western man's horizons were expanding into the void, as was his scientific expertise. Throughout the second half of the 20th century man began to realize his smallness in the universe, and through the threat of nuclear war, his vulnerability.

 We had just 1 planet, and that planet was nothing but a mote of dust in a vast Godless nothing. And popular scientists like Carl Sagan promoted the smallness of man to massive audiences. According to people like Sagan a nuclear war on earth would be the end of life on earth, but to the universe it'd be not much more than a match going out, it was meaningless and insignificant.

 Even Science fiction as a popular form came into its own during these decades. And it is fair to say Hollywood actively encouraged the UFO hysteria, but then again scientists did actually have perfectly sensible arguments that life did actually exist elsewhere in the comsos.

 It was just a numbers game really, the chances of primitive life emerging on a planet were tiny, let alone advanced intelligence. But the universe was so massive and there were so many planets out there that life, and even life more advanced than human, was a statistical certainty. Believing in aliens was therefore rational, once you knew the numbers and scales involved.

 In Hollywood movies of the era the UFO's and aliens were very often just a stand in for the USSR, at a more sophisticated level it questioned whether the government was to be trusted, as in the Area 51 and Roswell conspiracies, or the idea that UFO's were advanced spying equipment. Or maybe it was the fact that alien life probably was out there. But in every case it speaks to an us and them mentality, we know who we are, we also know who we're not, but we do know we're vulnerable, whether from atom bombs or a death ray.

But at another level it speaks to an outward looking civilization reaching it's furthest expanse, encapsulated by the simple question ''Are we alone''

 The culture surrounding UFO's and aliens went mainstream in the 90's X Files turned the deep lore into one of the most popular cultural products of the era. But with the 90's came Generation X and with Generation X came irony. Lots of irony, now the 50's would be looked back at with a knowing smirk and wink. It was lovable kitsch with terrible special effects, every theory had been turned into a T-Shirt and series which could be watched on prime time TV.

Existential threats had become easy watch entertainment

 The UFO was either a bin lid on a piece of string or a 20 miles across CGI monster that could blow up whole cities. How could questions about aliens and conspiracies be taken serious in the age of South Park and The Simpsons, the Simpsons creators even produced a spin off called Futurama which mined the rich vein of ironic nostalgia the 90's ushered in. Who could seriously consider the idea of alien abduction in age when Cartman on South Park gets abducted and then anally probed?

 The Cold War had ended and we'd supposedly, reached the end of history. Yet if 1998 was the end of history it seemed like the west, and especially America, would spend eternity laughing at the past while increasingly fearing their own governments.

But even that didn't escape the irony, the 90's were marked by self awareness, by people being taken outside of their narratives and being made conscious of their own cliche.

The fact that the X Files promoted a theory that amounted to the government covering up aliens speaks to an age of comfort and naivety, an era without a founding event, or an era waiting for one....

 How quaint Roswell seemed now, all those poorly shot photos of clouds, geese and probably spy planes. Now in 2001 we got the event from multiple angles and in high definition.

 Only 46% of Americans believe the official 9/11 narrative. The arrival of the internet meant everyone could have their own theory or even create their own theory depending on their own biases and politics. And not just on the subject on 9/11 either, but on everything. And what's more, history can be rewritten and interpreted as any feels like, with one or two exceptions. Not everything in postmodernity is up for revision, but almost everything is.

 This is then reinforced in a digital space, a bubble, an echo-chamber.

But look at the difference between today's counter culture and the age of the UFO. It's to contrast an outward looking and curious people with a confused and inward looking people. If the big question of the age of the UFO was ''Are We Alone?'' the question of the digital age is ''Who Are We?''

 Physicist Michio Kaku once said that the way humans on earth behaved in relation to space was suicidal, earth, he said, was a very noisy planet which belched out radio-waves across space and actively signaled to aliens where we were and how to find us. Right now old episodes of Dallas and Knight Rider are wafting past distant planets in the solar system.

 But he hardly should have worried too much, the more digital earth becomes the quieter we get. Again, we're turning inward and the new frontier exists in cyber space, not actual space. Bygone generations in the middle of the 20th century had the endless void and its mysteries impose itself upon them, the human population who now mainly live in cyber space have it impose itself upon them as well. But there's a difference

 Are we alone, and who are we?

People from somewhere traveled across Arizona looking for UFO's in the night sky, people from anywhere gaze into the void of cyber space. In the digital realm there are infinite numbers of theories and ideologies and infinite ''hot takes'' debunking each and every one of them. Ideas pile up like heaps of rubbish and we can sift through them seeing which one fits. It isn't so much that truth doesn't exist, but that everyone has their own truth. The mythology of the UFO's is just one narrative in the junk pile of postmodernity.

 It isn't as immediate as the coronavirus lockdown and it isn't as seismic as 9/11. It just doesn't matter anymore, it's irrelevant.

 Is there life in the stars? who cares, it's something to be pondered over before moving on to a new TikTok video. The big questions have no right to any more importance than whatever is trending on Twitter. Ideas and concepts in cyber space are like objects in real space, they operate without gravity. 

In the digital space you can be anything you want to be. But what's more, you know longer need to drive a pick-up across a scenic landscape to see the universe, now you can command your own space empire without leaving your bed.

On the same year Voyager 2 left the solar system and entered deep space we saw men competing with women in weight lifting competitions because we lost the ability to define even the most fundamental aspects of identity. And yet Voyager carries with it a ''Golden Record'' explaining some basic facts about planet earth, the golden record's symbol of humanity is a European man and woman. 

Today most European men and women probably don't know or care that their symbolic form is hurtling through interstellar space at 15 km a second, they're too busy looking into cyber space and anyway, what is a European? what is a man or a woman?

It's almost to compare two completely different civilizations, yet they're just a few decades apart. One outward looking and curious, one introverted and confused.

 Are we alone vs who are we?

What I find fascinating about all of this is that the people and the culture who gave up on big questions can't actually make themselves disappear completely. The Big Questions confronted by a previous generation were never solved, people just got bored.

Maybe the Pentagon's footage was just a PR con-trick, it doesn't matter, it was just a story for half a day then submerged in videos of people dancing and whatever social justice madness was winding people up on the day. 

But the big existential questions exist in a external framework, the fact that they've ended up on the junk pile of post-modern nihilism speaks more about us that than the questions themselves, which are still out there, and still asking......

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