Aliens have invaded the United States. No longer confined to science fiction and Elvis-obsessed tabloids, aliens appear in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, at candy counters (in chocolate-covered flying saucers and as Martian melon-flavored lollipops), and on Internet web sites. Aliens are at the center of a battle at Harvard, caught in the university’s furor over the psychologist John Mack’s work with alleged abduction experiencers and its attempt to revoke the Pulitzer Prize-winning professor’s tenure. Aliens have been seen in credible company at MIT.
Aliens have been used to market AT&T cellular phones, Milky Way candy bars, Kodak film, Diet Coke, Stove-Top Stuffing, T-shirts, Rice Krispies, air fresheners, toys, abduction insurance, skateboard accessories, and the backlist at MIT Press. Titled “Subliminal Abduction,” the catalog, with its “totally alien prices,” features the typical big-eyed gray alien and the alien’s remarks on various books. For example, about Thomas McCarthy’s Ideals and Illusions, the alien says “Item 120 explicates earthling delusions with grace, wit, and savage sarcasm. A must read! ” Fox Network’s popular show,
The X-Files, with its focus on abductions, conspiracies, and the search for truth, has generated its own line of products (mugs, hats, books, T-shirts, comic books) as well as a lively discussion group on America OnLine. CompuServe features a closed abductee discussion forum. Abductees Anonymous has a site on the World Wide Web where abductees and experiencers (those who feel more positive about their alien encounters) recount and interpret important events in their lives. A special section is reserved for-abductee problems, such as spontaneous involuntary invisibility.
percent believe a UFO crashed in Roswell in 1947. (8)
The Weekly World News says that an alien has visited Newt Gingrich. Reporting on the alien’s exchange with the Speaker, the tabloid quotes the spokesman Tony Blankely: “I can assure you that no extraterrestrial that comes to this country from outer space would be eligible for welfare benefits of any kind.” (9) MAD magazine asks why the aliens don’t take Newt. (10) The opera singer Maria Ewing feels she’s been overtaken by the Internet:
Take, for example, this insertion of alien imagery into the history of the space program: “UFO Rescued Apollo 13,” the headline for a cover story in the Weekly World News. Compared to the tabloid’s coverage of the vampire baby (“Bat Child Found in Cave!” and “Bat Child Escapes!”), the alien report is tame, an unabashed attempt to link into the success of the film Apollo 13 in the summer of 1995. The tabloid does more than capitalize on a popular film, however. The story of the UFO’s rescue of the beleaguered American spacecraft accents the failure of the Apollo 13 mission at a time when the movie and most popular media emphasized the safe and triumphant return of crew and capsule. Stressing the human vulnerability of the astronauts, the tabloid relocates NASA’s story of success to an alien domain.
In the Weekly World News account, the situation was too dire, humans and technology too weak, ignorant, and ill-prepared to cope with disaster. While mainstream media blurred the boundaries between the film and the mission — Tom Hanks not only played Jim Lovell but also brought the astronaut with him when he accepted an award — the tabloid wedges an alternative history between them. This alternative tabloid history offers a challenge — however credible or incredible — not only to the truth of Apollo 13, the movie, but to the original Apollo 13 mission, itself created for a television audience.
The tabloid, in its wild possibility, rejects the idea that outerspace is empty, vacant. It disrupts the fantasy that three white men, heroically venturing out into a new frontier, encounter no one at all, no one to colonize, nothing to appropriate. It reminds us, in other words, that in space, “we” (if those who get there can be said to represent any of us) are the aliens.
"I consider the witnesses, and the witnessing, of launches of manned spacecraft and of alien intrusions into women’s bedrooms and bodies. I look at the discredited and stigmatized knowledge of aliens and at what this knowledge might hold for mainstreams in American culture. Abduction, I suggest, is more than an alien story. It’s a symptomatic or extreme form of what is widespread in everyday life at the millennium."
The tabloid story of a UFO saving the American space program challenges the illusions of technology, power, and agency created in the American 1 heat'd cs of space. With hints of conspiratorial secrets, the tabloid lands in an alien space of virtual truth.
This is a book about alien space, about following and creating links from cultural images of the alien to tales of UFOs and abduction, to computer and communication technologies, to political passivity and conspiracy thinking in the contemporary United States. By examining changes in the metaphor of outerspace that accompany the shift from outerspace to cyberspace, we can traverse webs through US. society at the millennium and better understand American paranoia. To this end, I read accounts of and reactions to the officially produced space program of the 1960s. Like the tabloid, I situate America’s space program in an alien domain.
I consider the witnesses, and the witnessing, of launches of manned spacecraft and of alien intrusions into women’s bedrooms and bodies. I look at the discredited and stigmatized knowledge of aliens and at what this knowledge might hold for mainstreams in American culture. Abduction, I suggest, is more than an alien story. It’s a symptomatic or extreme form of what is widespread in everyday life at the millennium.
Thoughtful analyses by scholars in religious studies have asked about the function of flying saucers in the belief systems of UFO aficionados and “cultists.” (12) My questions are different. I’m concerned less with UFO belief than with aliens in everyday life. How is it possible that American popular cultures in the last decade of the twentieth century are so taken with, so interested in, so inscribed by aliens? People all over the world report UFOs and claim to see their occupants, but aliens are embedded in America.
They have a history in American folklore, a present in Hollywood films. They are part of the cultural moment of the millennium. Stories of aliens and alien abduction appear in the most unlikely places, like the speeches of Louis Farrakhan, gay fiction, the New Yorker. (13) Why? Interpreting these texts won’t tell us. For this we need a broader, more multilayered and interdisciplinary analysis. We need an interrogation of the connections between cultural artifacts and social and political life.
Understanding the aliens in contemporary America requires attention not only to the stories some of us tell, but to the practices and technologies that enable the stories to be told. We have to consider how the knowledge of the alien is produced. So while I look at the tabloids, testimonials, TV documentaries, and Web sites that transmit knowledge of aliens, I also take up the networks of power and information that enable these transmissions to occur. This latter concern, leading me as it does from television to televisuality, involves thinking about the conditions of democracy as it is practiced in the techno-global information society that is America at the millennium.
My focus is on those familiar alien themes and images that escape UFO subcultures to appear in a variety of contemporary media and in easily accessible locations in popular cultures. Langdon Winner says that although genetic engineering and life in space “call into question what it means to be human,” science fiction is the primary site of speculation about such radical changes in the human condition. (14) He’s right, up to a point.
Science fiction is important. But I’m interested in the more mundane aliens that populate alternative science, that come to us from a branch called ufology. Popular practices of science such as ufology are fields of knowledge devoted to exploring and expanding, often quite beyond belief, the scope of human experience of the real. Alternative sciences like ufology are compelling because they claim to be true. Like mainstream sciences, their truth claims take a variety of forms. Indeed, they insert themselves into the interstices of medicine, psychology, biology, religion, astronomy, and ecology. Because of their claims to truth, alternative sciences have political interconnections and repercussions, particularly in democratic societies that claim to value open discussion or in scientific circles that credit themselves with being objective, interested only in evidence. (15) Ufology is political because it is stigmatized. To claim to have seen a UFO, to have been abducted by aliens, or even to believe those who say they have is a political act. It might not be a very big or revolutionary political act, but it contests the status quo. Immediately it installs the claimant at the margins of the social, within a network of sites and connections that don’t command a great deal of mindshare, that don’t get a lot of hits. UFO researcher Robert Dean (no relation) has experienced this firsthand.
He sued his employer for discriminating against him because of his UFO beliefs. Dean won. It is this stigma attached to UFOs and UFO belief that enables the alien to function as an icon for some difficult social problems, particularly those located around the fault lines of truth, reality, and reasonableness. And it is also what makes aliens and UFOs interesting for critical social theory, not whether or not they are real, not whether the claims about them are true. That some people believe UFOs are real and true affects our concepts of politics and the political. Images of outerspace throughout popular culture give us access to social and political anxieties accompanying the information revolution.
So although aliens appeared in American popular culture at the last fin de siecle, and although most societies tell stories about otherworldly visitors, I concentrate on what the details of space stories tell us about American society today. Narratives of abduction and conspiracy are uniquely influential in the current technological context, a context where information travels at the speed of light and everything is entertainment. They tell about particular ways of being human that, as they describe experiences beyond belief and control, reach out from the lives of UFO abductees to suggest an abduction of a completely different sort. They tell about ways of being human that transform the representations of agency and spectatorship found in space imagery up through the seventies. Narratives of abduction reconfigure the present’s acceptance of passivity, suspicion, paranoia, and loss as, themselves, forms of action.
My argument is that the aliens infiltrating American popular cultures provide icons through which to access the new conditions of democratic politics at the millennium. The conditions are new in that—despite the thematics of space, technology, and millennium deeply embedded in American self-understandings — the increasing complexity of an age brought about by networked computers and information, on the one hand, and the inscription of American politics within a televisual public sphere, on the other, have created a situation where political choices and decisions are virtually meaningless, practically impossible. 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. Even further, we have no recourse to procedures, be they scientific or juridical, that might provide some “supposition of reasonableness.” (17)
Popular media are filled with examples of the undecidability of contemporary political issues. Elaine Showalter, in her book Hystories, attempts to i real some of these issues, such as Gulf War syndrome and, yes, alien abduction, as part of a new epidemic of hysteria. In so doing, she misses a fundamental point. What is at stake is the question of truth. No expert analysis can decide the matter, can convince a “public” of its rightness. Globalization and the Internet destroy the illusion of the public by creating innumerable networks of connection and information. By their introduction of disagreement, confrontation, and critique, they have always already displaced any possibility of agreement. Showalter writes that “it will take dedication and persistence to counter sensational news reports, rumors, and fear”—as if there were one truth available that simply needs to be discovered. (18) As if we can know the difference.
In contrast, I am convinced that many contemporary political matters are simply undecidable. My particular interest is in those, like ufology and abduction, that not only turn on questions of evidence, but involve charges of conspiracy and are in conflict with what is claimed as “consensus reality” or “common sense.” (19) Although the crash and investigation of TWA Flight 800, the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, and the arrest of Timothy McVeigh come readily to mind here, the O. J. Simpson trials are the most obvious example. During and after Simpson’s criminal trial, a large percentage of African Americans, as well as others, were persuaded that Simpson was the victim of a racist, evidence-tampering conspiracy on the part of the Los Angeles Police Department. DNA evidence entered by the prosecution was not as compelling as what, for many, was a personal experience of discrimination and harm.
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. Its impact, moreover, is potentially democratic. It prevents science from functioning as a trump card having the last word in what is ultimately a political debate: how people will live and work together. Skepticism toward experts, authorities, and a technology that has made virtuality part of everyday life means, increasingly, that more people find it likely that technology is used to deceive us rather than benefit or protect us.
With the growing use of computer networks the government is faced with the problem of an information blizzard — a lascivious and potentially threatening intermingling in which memos, affidavits, invoices, receipts, bank statements, and other documents combine and recombine themselves to produce dangerous new constellations of meaning. In this scenario the threat doesn’t he with a single piece of damaging information that “leaks out” and exposes government malfeasance, but with the possible interconnections that might be made among dozens of different bits of information; bits that might mean little or nothing by themselves, but that, when assembled by the researcher into a particular narrative r^rm, could prove extremely damaging. (21)
To reiterate, my claim is not that people who think they have been abducted by aliens threaten to destroy democracy. It is not that UFO believers are irrational. (22) Rather, being unable to judge their rationality points to the lack of widespread criteria for judgments about what is reasonable and what is not: ufological discourse upholds the very criteria for scientific rationality that mainstream science uses to dismiss it. “Scientists” are the ones who have problems with the “rationality” of those in the UFO community. “Scientists” are the ones who feel a need to explain why some people believe in flying saucers, or who dismiss those who do so as “distorted” or “prejudiced” or “ignorant.”
Such dismissals, handed out ever more frequently as science increasingly impacts on our lives, contribute to the mistrust that pervades contemporary democracy. Those in positions of power deploy terms like “reasonable” and “rational.” Previously, the victims of this deployment, the “unreasonable” and “irrational,” remained isolated. They had difficulty getting attention and fighting back. Now, thanks to widespread developments in communication networks, the “irrational” can get their message out. They can find and connect with those myriad others also dismissed by science. They can network and offer alternatives to official deployments or reason. They can reclaim their rationality on their own terms.
Access to media and technology affects the practices of democracy. More opinions, more contestations are possible than before simply because of the ease of connection. Dismissing others’ opinions is more likely to provoke outrage, to get some kind of response, even if only a few thousand people on the Internet are watching. The lines of thinking, the networks of discursive authority that had remained separate, are now more likely to blur as more people know more about what happens. Yet, they still may not know what it means or even if it really happened. How can I know which statement on partial abortion reflects “facts” the pro-life movement wants to disseminate? How can I know whether this is an issue on which I might change my mind or compromise?
UFOs, aliens, and abduction provide ideal vehicles for accessing the effects of these changes on American society. America has a long history of contestations, fringe groups, and conspiracy theorists. Now, though, any contest, any group, any theory has more opportunity to acquire an audience, to link into a network where it won’t be obscured by those parts of our culture with claims to public or political status. Because of the pervasiveness of UFO belief and the ubiquity of alien imagery, ufology is an especially revealing window into current American paranoia and distrust. We might say that it’s “of the fringe” though no longer “on the fringe.”
Phil Cousineau’s book UFOs: A Manual for the Millennium helps me explain why. Cousineau provides the following “Quick UFO Facts”: “For every fundamentalist Christian there are five UFO believers; UFO believers outnumber Roman Catholics by a ratio of better than two to one; UFO believers outnumber the voters who placed Reagan, Bush, and Clinton in office; There are three adult Americans who believe that UFOs are real for every two skeptics.” (24) Although the meanings of “belief” and “real” aren’t clear, presumably including a spectrum of views ranging from the possibility of life in outerspace to the conviction that one is oneself an alien, when considered against the scientific rationalism claimed for the dominant culture these statistics suggest that UFO belief is widespread enough to conflict with the concept of a unitary public reason. UFO belief thus challenges the presumption that there is some “public” that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged.
Likewise, to focus on the ubiquity of alien imagery, I want to refer to a line that appeared in a 1994 discussion of American disillusionment in the New York Times Magazine: “People talk as though our political system had been taken over by alien beings.” (25) What are the cultural conditions that make such a sentence not only intelligible, but also not surprising? What can it mean that reference to aliens and alien abduction pervade popular media even as these references differ in their cynicism, irony, dismissiveness, or respect toward UFO belief and believers? The interesting phenomena involve more than belief in aliens and UFOs, for Americans have believed in an astounding variety of things. (26) 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. (27)
The Theatrics of Space
The stories Americans tell about space are stories about who we are and who we want to be. They incorporate the practices within which we live and govern ourselves and the technologies that make it all, the practices and the dreams, possible. To this extent, space stories provide a key location for interrogating the link between American technology and American identity. Central to these stories is NASA.
In the sixties and seventies, outerspace and the US. ability to conquer it appeared as a serialized account of American power and success. Technology would win the Cold War and the ratings war as it proved the superiority of the American democratic experiment.
The celebration of technological achievement had some political drawbacks. Even as the Apollo flights announced man’s arrival on the moon, the astronaut image did not deflect public attention from the economic, racial, and political warfare spreading throughout the United States. If technology could send a man to outerspace and bring him safely home, why could it not solve more basic problems of poverty and hunger? Given America’s domestic problems, the space program seemed, at best, a luxury we could not afford and, at worst, the most visible expression of a powerful, invasive technocracy. The advances in rocketry necessary for space flight were accompanied by the development of the digital computer.
A tension between human and technological achievement was present in the very first days of Project Mercury.
Now that personal computers have let us take matters into our own hands, cyberspace is the new frontier, the realm of possibility, creativity, outlaw hackers, and nerd billionaires. Computer companies, traditional media, and politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Al Gore transmit the message that the Internet is our future, that it frees us from the confines of home and office, connecting us to people, places, and profits throughout the world. The launch of Windows 95 is a bigger event than Galileo's window to Jupiter.
In stark contrast, outerspace has been reformatted around our lack of will, our acquiescence to powers apparently beyond our comprehension, our passivity in the face of increasing complexities. (29) For the week of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, Time featured a cover story on the Internet. A brief article on the future of the space program describes NASA’s loss of purpose and finds the agency “trapped in a downward spiral of mediocrity.” (30) Newsweek’s cover story on the possibility of a manned Mars landing announces that we have 1 he necessary technology but questions whether we have the will: “Real space llight is never as easy as it looks in cyber-space.” (31) Twenty-five years after Apollo, the images of anxiety have reversed themselves.
That same year — in fact, about that same time—I started thinking about alien abduction. John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist, had just published a book on his work with alleged experiencers of abduction by extraterrestrials. Mack left out “alleged.” As I read Mack’s case studies, I remembered that in 1973 two men from my grandparents’ hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi, claimed to have been abducted by aliens. They were fishing out on a pier by the town’s large shipyard. I had fished there, taken the skiff out with my grandparents and hoped for catfish and not just sheepheads.
The men who were abducted, Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker, were taken for examination (by “officials,” not aliens) to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, where my father worked. Hickson and Parker didn’t have any sort of radiation poisoning or damage, but they seemed credible. People took this seriously. Up and down the Gulf Coast it was a big deal.
Nineteen ninety-four held other important twenty-five-year anniversaries. I was surprised when the anniversary of Woodstock got more press than the anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s 1969 “giant leap,” now reduced to a small step. I was also surprised that former football player and B-movie actor O. J. Simpson got more coverage than the moon, Mack, and Wood- stock combined. During the next eighteen months of attention to Simpson’s t rial for the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, the tabloids went wild. And everything — serious newspapers, serious broadcast news and radio —seemed-to turn into tabloids.
In this setting, I began to wonder how it was possible that alien abduction could become not only a common cultural motif but also a phenomenon that some people take seriously. This question launched me into a study of the contexts and conditions in which the discourse on UFOs and abduction was produced. It also led me to the context and conditions of American society and culture since the end of World War II in general and since the fall of communism in particular. The more I ventured into the weird world of flying saucers, the more it started to look like business as usual at the millennium — or was it the other way around? Abductees claim to he harassed by government and military agents, by shadowy operatives and MIBs (Men in Black). The Pentagon admits to funding research on "remote viewing” or psychic spying. The Clinton administration acknowledges the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on African American men. The mainstream press alleges CIA involvement in drug trafficking in America’s inner cities. Members of the UFO community swear that the government is covering up evidence of crashed saucers and alien bodies.
An atmosphere of paranoia pervades traditional media, informing discussions of the Clinton presidency, suicidal cults such as Heaven’s Gate, separatist cults like the Republic of Texas, and the Internet. Indeed, sometime between the fall of 1996 and the spring of 1997, the attitude of the mainstream press toward the Internet shifts.
This despite the fact that most of the members of Heaven’s Gate had been involved with the group and preparing to move to the “level above human” for more than twenty years. (34) The shift in mood is so pronounced that even the technologically enthusiastic New York Times agrees that cyberia is facing an “image problem.” In April 1997, the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday paper leads with an article titled “Old View of the Internet: Nerds. New View: Nuts.” (35) The Net is no longer presented as the penultimate exemplar of rational democracy. Now it’s a sign of millennial paranoia as well as the new frontier. (36)
This is the context, then, for my reflections on aliens, reflections that link the alien to a political context of paranoia and a technological context of complexity, uncertainty, and interconnection. After losing to IBM’s chess-playing computer Deep Blue, Gary Kasparov remarked: “I’m a human being. When I confront something that’s beyond my understanding, I’m afraid.” If, as I suspect, this is the predominant way in which Americans confront and live their lives today, then it calls for engaged and sustained inquiry. I make such an inquiry informed by questions about democracy. Contemporary political theory already features active debates over the links between democracy, reason, and the possibility of the public. And, again, I claim that because there is no public, because there are only spaces, discourses, networks, and fields that seek to legitimize themselves through their installation as “the public,” we live in new conditions under which democracy must be rethought.
Likewise, because there is no “reason” that can anchor, ground, or unite the disparate networks constitutive of the many popular practices of contemporary democracy, but only discourses that aim to establish themselves as such, democratic theory can no longer presume a reality based on consensus. It has to reposition itself within virtual reality. Consequently, I provide a way of theorizing politics that is embedded not just in popular cultures but in the broader terrain of the social often analyzed by cultural studies. (37) That is to say, I consider aliens not simply as televisual or media products, but as figures within a complex of fields that includes science, science studies, and alternative science as well as ads, tabloids, and fashion accessories. Aliens can be linked under the discourse of ufology. They can also be considered icons to be clicked from a variety of different sites.
I do both.
Conspiring against the Public
In contemporary America the familiar is strange: computer manuals, programming the VCR, communication with the taxi driver, automated voice mail, the man on the corner who seems to be staring at our child. The familiar isn’t reassuring. It isn’t safe. It isn’t something we know, understand, predict, or control. Like newsstand tabloids and trash TV, the strange is part of our everyday world; indeed, so much a part of it that we don’t try to bring it in. We don’t try to fit the strange into something we can handle. We coexist with dissonance.
This dissonance has been a concern of academics, commentators, and activists of all kinds. Conservatives and fundamentalists formulate the problem nostalgically, stressing the decline of the family and the loss of moral values. Their proposed solution tends to rely on shoring up boundaries, be they those that establish the nation, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. Other conservative reactions turn to scapegoats: the feminists and relativists destroying the universities, the drug addicts and homosexuals spreading AIDS, the teen welfare mothers draining federal budgets, the aliens swarming into California, Texas, Florida, and New York. More progressive responses to the familiarity of strangeness have presented the problem as one of attitude: we need to accept the strange, the different. We need to be more open-minded and tolerant. Once we appreciate multiplicity and hybridity, we will jettison the ideal of assimilation and embrace nonassimilation. “Can’t we all just get along?” Though a welcome relief stable, identifiable truth. from the Right’s barely concealed hate, progressive efforts don’t seem to recognize how acceptance of otherness turns to resignation, how political apathy masks itself as tolerance.
Underneath such approaches to strangeness, whether regressive or progressive, rests a vision of public life as loosely centered in a public sphere. In this public sphere, citizens, whether they share a specific set of cultural values and traditions or have broad commitments to mutual respect and rational deliberation, are not strangers to one another or themselves. (38) Instead, they discuss matters of common interest and concern. When they do so, they understand one another. Their languages and meanings are clear, comprehensible. Disagreements are rational results of differing preferences, themselves rational results of differing outcomes in the distribution (also rational) of goods and services, talents and opportunities. (39) Citizenship, in other words, is characterized by a familiarity that is never strange.
This familiar conception of the public sphere and its citizens has already been the subject of convincing critiques, some based in sex, race, and class.40 Despite their persuasive force, I worry that the critiques might be too limited because they still allow —- indeed, require — the possibility of a group of “us,” a mainstream, a public, who speak a common language and employ a common rationality. This common rationality is the standard by which deviations, irrationalities, are judged, through which exclusions are not only effected but discerned. Differences end up deposited onto some set of others, onto unfamiliar strangers. But what about situations where this supposedly common rationality and language produce strange, contradictory, incredible, irrational results? I am interested in discourses like ufology where participants think they speak and reason like everyone else, but where everyone else finds what they are saying to be incomprehensible and irrational. This seems to be the situation of America at the millennium.
Simultaneously denaturalizing and literalizing the strange and alien, the UFO discourse provides a means for grappling with the other. No matter how familiar, cliched, or banal, the alien remains. In abduction accounts, moreover, the closer the alien gets, the more foreign it becomes. The ufological alien, the product of the understandably self-defensive discourse of the UFO community, marks the contemporary situation of American techno-political life. It appears in popular culture as an icon we can click on to run a program of nonassimilation. We can use the alien, therefore, to open a window to narratives that cling to claims of reason and reality even as they contest them.
Once linked to the indeterminability the rationality of the public sphere, and hence to the collapse of its very possibility, the alien highlights two important characteristics of the site of politics today. Conveniently, The X-Files, that exemplar of contemporary popular fascination with the alien, provides handy and appropriate catchphrases. The first is “Trust no one.” The public-sphere ideal relies on a minimum of trust, on at least the ability to distinguish friends from enemies and “us” from “them.” As Zygmut Bauman points out, however, there are intermediate categories, such as the stranger (and, I would add, the alien). (41) These third parties, pervasive in the contemporary American social, already disrupt the fiction that we can tell friends from enemies, that there is some discernible difference that can be used to tell the one from the other. Produced through a concentrated replication of the themes of mistrust and conspiracy running throughout U.S. history and particularly pervasive today, the ufological alien is an icon for such “undecidables” and “thirds.” Its presence is an invitation to suspicion.
Accounts of space aliens and a long history of suspicions toward foreigners, immigrants, and strangers both suppose a conspiracy undermining America’s experiment in freedom and democracy. (42) Voices in nativist and UFO discourses alike express anxiety about breeding, miscegenation, and hybridity, about the collapse of distinctions between the alien and ourselves. In each discourse appear concerns about governing, about whether confidence in those entrusted with the protection of democratic freedoms is warranted, or if, in fact, they too are corrupt, part of some covert plot that will bring us down. In each the fear of the hidden that is always part of any notion of publicity or publicness motivates a vigilance and paranoia in the very name of the American people—“if they only knew.”
The second characteristic of democracy’s contemporary American environment is summed up by the idea that “the truth is out there.” Accompanying the mistrust of experts and politicians is a sense that, even if one doesn’t know what it is, the truth is still available. Such a situation, I argue, produces paranoia by dint of what William Corlett refers to as the force of “reassurance.” (45) Paranoia responds to anxieties surrounding what can be assumed to be real or certain in today’s high-tech televisual culture by reassuring us that out there somewhere, however hard to find, there is a stable, identifiable truth.
Those in Heaven’s Gate whose Nike-wearing bodies were found in a large house in Rancho Santa Fe, California, believed they had found this truth. They complied with its demands.
In this book I think through the effects of mistrust and paranoia in an effort to theorize the conditions of contemporary democracy in a technological, globalized, corporatized, entertainment- and media-driven society. I consider the discourse on UFOs and alien abduction as a cultural space that says something about us.
I have two motives for using this vague and dangerously inclusive “us.” The first concerns the UFO community. (46) Speakers and participants at UFO conventions and writers of books and articles about UFOs use the term “UFO community” loosely to refer to anyone with a strong interest in UFOs. Like notions of the academic community, “Hollywood,” or the queer community, the term gets fuzzy around the edges and not everyone agrees who’s in and who’s out. Problems with the idea of a “UFO community” resemble problems of queer identity: not everyone who has seen a UFO identifies with the larger group. Usually, however, people in the UFO community have a general sense of what the term means. At any rate, what is interesting about the community is that it combines a reasonable replication of the demographics of the United States (tilted toward the white middle class) together with a self-perception of being an excluded minority. (47)
The UFO community’s sense of exclusion stems from its perception that most people, especially scientists, the media, and government officials, ridicule belief in extraterrestrial contact with Earth. Many who think they have seen a UFO are reluctant to talk about it outside safe, supportive circles. I’ve been surprised at how many of my academic colleagues have come out to me with UFO stories of their own since I began this research. (48) Abductees in particular say they are wary of talking about their experiences for fear that people will think they are crazy — a sentiment expressed by many women in consciousness-raising sessions during the 1970s. So when I ask what the UFO community reveals about “us,” I’m seeing the community as a microcosm of some broader American public. “Us” refers to anyone. It signals a white middle class while acknowledging differences in sex, class, and ethnicity.
Yet “us” problematizes the notion of a “center” and the possibility of generality by focusing on a set of experiences and beliefs with marginalizing effects. It gestures simultaneously toward strangers, toward those disdained by society at large. This book’s title, Aliens in America, is linked to Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America. At the same time, it connects with the only singly aut hored book sympa thetic to ufology that has been published by a university press: the Temple University historian David Jacobs’s The UFO Controversy in America. (49)
By destabilizing ideas of us and them, center and margin, inside and outside, I want to complicate theories of American culture and politics. Radical as well as traditional accounts of citizenship and collective identity attribute some coherence to the notion of a public sphere. Whether norms of public reason are considered oppressive and exclusionary or the pinnacle of the planet’s expression of freedom, the idea that the mainstream, the general populace, the community at large shares a set of common assumptions about reality is rarely challenged. UFO belief is one of those rare challenges.
"The UFO discourse resists official “space frontier” rhetoric. NASA redeployed American frontier myths of a wild, open West, one vacant, empty, and ready to be settled. Ufology challenges the assumed vacancy of outerspace and thereby intervenes critically in narratives of national identity. It demands that NASA the government, the military, and the authorities who act in America’s name, allow for the possibility that, in space, we are the aliens."
What makes ufology significant among these challenges (which include a variety of alternative sciences and other rejections of consensus reality) is its connection to the broader theatrics of space played out in the United States since the Cold War. Most societies have cultural traditions that establish and interpret relationships between Earth, its people, and the cosmos. But the United States is exceptional. Emerging out of a tradition of stories about the “frontier” experience, the American exploration of outer- space came to be linked to the achievements of technology and democracy. As Lynn Spigel writes:
“Ideas like freedom need an image, and the ride into space proved to be the most vivid concretization of such abstractions, promising a newfound national allegiance through which we would not only diffuse the Soviet threat, but also shake ourselves out of the doldrums that 1950s life had come to symbolize.” (50) The American space program was produced with an eye to audiences. Folks at home and abroad would view its achievements as indications of the success of the democratic project. Anyone now or in the future could look to the Americans who walked on the the moon and know that communism would not triumph. Through the space program, then, America produced a narrative of freedom and progress that would structure popular understandings of truth and agency. In this context, asking what ufology says about “us” reaches for that vague sense of America as ethos, popular opinion, self-understanding, mentality.
The American articulation of outerspace together with technology and democracy incorporates an uneasy mix of colonialist, nationalist, and globalist ideals. Until the space program, the United States rarely presented itself explicitly as a colonial power, although expansionism has been integral in its self-understanding. (51) By reiterating the expansive fantasy of the wild, l,iwless West, the metaphor of a “frontier” tapped into earlier notions of American exceptionalism. (52) Indeed, this very exceptionalism, the success ol America’s democratic experiment, was to be revealed and proven by breaking the laws of gravity, escaping the confines of Earth, conquering space itself.
As America reached out into this “new frontier,” the rhetoric of outposts, settlements, colonies, and colonization became part of the public language of outerspace. This language is fitting in that “space technology and communications,” as Elayne Rapping points out, “make possible new extensions of American imperialism, both cultural and military.” (53) Once linked to a growing critique of the excesses of the military-industrial complex, to increased attention to the histories and situations of Native Americans, and to continued struggle in former colonies throughout Africa and Asia, such colonial rhetoric disrupts the space program’s smooth presentation of democratic freedom.
The UFO discourse resists official “space frontier” rhetoric. NASA redeployed American frontier myths of a wild, open West, one vacant, empty, and ready to be settled. Ufology challenges the assumed vacancy of outerspace and thereby intervenes critically in narratives of national identity. (54) It demands that NASA the government, the military, and the authorities who act in America’s name, allow for the possibility that, in space, we are the aliens.
With this nationalist celebration of American achievement came an idea that transcended the nation: Earth. Neil Armstrong was not just the first American on the moon. He was the first man on the moon. This global reorientation met with diverse responses. In his study of American apocalypticism, Paul Boyer mentions the critical response of some prophecy popularizes to the space program: one writer warned specifically that the program was “a scheme to promote global thinking.” (55) In a collection of memorabilia from “Spaceweek 1994” at Brooks Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, I found a poster by Yvonne Alden that expresses a similar sentiment. Below a graphic of the earth in space is written: “I pledge allegiance to Planet Earth, Mother of All Nations; And to the Infinite Universe In which she stands; Our planet, Among millions, Expressing Truth And Unlimited Possibilities for all!”
Despite ambivalence toward the space program, outerspace remains a theater within which American self-understandings are played out, if not exactly worked out. During the eighties, being included in the crew of the space shuttle symbolized that a member of a minority group had arrived, that this group was now accepted in and was part of American society. Discussion of the future of space exploration continues to provide a vehicle for thinking about technological innovation, American lack of will, the possibility of global cooperation, or the outcome of recent policies of privatization.
Initial responses to the announcement of the possibility of life on Mars and Europa further illustrate the interconnections between space and American identity. In many traditional media, speculation focused more on that discovery’s impact on what it means to be human and what it says about America than on what was learned about the solar system. Some said the discovery meant life was no longer special. Others said it ended human isolation. On the Internet, folks wondered if Fox studios might be behind the attention to life in space as a promotional tie-in to the film Independence Day.
More serious speculation linked the discovery with a governmental interest in restoring confidence after the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Olympic bombings. And a few thought this was just the tip of the iceberg. After years of denial, why would the government reveal the possibility of life in two places in less than a month? Surely the government is about to reveal the truth about the crashed saucers and alien bodies.
As the manager of a local market said as I leafed through her tabloids, “Aliens in space? I want to know about the ones who are already here.” The idea of a theatrics of space helps me construct an analogy that clarifies NASA’s and the ufologists’ competing versions of outerspace. The discourse around outerspace associated with the glory years of the space program (i.e., with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects) is like the Broadway rendition of Walt Disney’s animated musical Beauty and the Beast. Both are scripted around big splashy productions with lots of popular appeal. Both are expensive and feature safe, familiar cartoon characters. The official space is Beauty and the Beast, then UFO space is The Fantasticks put on by a community theater group. Amateurs operating on shoestring budgets spend their spare time putting their hearts and souls into old scripts and forgettable scenes. They infuse the words with significance, finding that their own lives become more meaningful. They use a familiar language, but discover truths others miss. As they improvise and make this language their own, the familiar becomes strange, suggesting something else entirely. The strange becomes familiar, inscribed on their lives as a script to be staged.
Coming Up Next
My first chapter, “Fugitive Alien Truth,” demonstrates how the ufological alien works as an icon that allows us to link into embedded fears of invasion, violation, mutation. My argument relies on the alien’s link to truth.
Produced by an alternative science, by a discredited discourse with claims to truth, the alien deploys scientific and juridical standards as means for assessing its truth. It uses the language of reality to contest our taken-for- granted experience of reality.
As I explain, the UFO discourse and community were formed during the Cold War. Changes in political context since the fall of communism have enabled the alien to break out of the UFO subculture and become a repository for postmodern anxieties. Truth is now a problem for all of us, not just for those trying to find evidence that flying saucers are real. The confusions and hesitations of the UFO discourse are thus a concentrated version of the facts and pseudofacts of life at the millennium. The alien icon marks the disequilibrium we face at the dissipation of distinctions between fantasy and reality, original and copy. I argue that the prominence of the alien in postmodern American culture marks the widespread conviction that previously clear and just languages and logics, discourses and procedures, are now alien, now inseparable from their irrational others.
Chapter 1 approaches the alien from the standpoint of the fabrication of UFO discourse and the widespread uncertainty about the criteria for truth. My second chapter approaches it via an inquiry into the official view of outerspace and its only legitimate inhabitant, the astronaut. Entitled “Space Programs,” this chapter sets out the theatrics of space as produced by NASA for a television audience. The space program produced a narrative of freedom and progress that would structure popular representations of truth and agency. It linked outerspace with the achievements of technology and democracy. As a consequence, the astronaut came to function as a symbol for the best of America, the best American, the citizen-hero. An effect of this empowering of the astronaut, however, was the constitution of watching television as a civic duty. If space spectacles signified American achievement, then they depended on their transmission to an audience, to credible witnesses who could attest to the truth of the event, the magnitude of the achievement. Not only did this result in a domesticized vision of an engaged citizenry, a vision informed by media representations of astronaut wives, but it led to the establishment of a televisual public sphere: “If it matters, it will be on TV.”
Chapter 3 looks at current space programs in the televisual public sphere: namely, talk shows that feature women who claim to have been abducted by aliens. The abduction discourse occupies the very terrain produced for the official theatrics of space, and abductees occupy a cultural position similar to that of astronauts. I explain how abductees get installed in this position as a result of the Challenger explosion,
By drawing out themes already part of the American theatrics of space, my readings of the writings of women who identify as abductees demonstrate how reductive the pornographic interpretation is. Thus, in my third chapter, “Virtually Credible,” I explore the reworking of the experience of the astronaut/citizen to provide a more convincing analysis of the complexity of abduction. Whereas the astronaut celebrated governmental and democratic successes, the ab- ductee brings to the fore the government’s failures, its inability to protect, its schemes and conspiracies, its relationship to aliens and the otherness it denies.
I take the title of my fourth chapter from a poster in Fox Mulder’s office: “I Want to Believe.” Whereas Chapter 3 stresses the continuities between astronauts and abductees, Chapter 4 focuses on the new configuration of technology that explains the disjunction, the dissimilarity in the alien theatrics of space. I draw out the multiple layerings and linkages constitutive of 1 lie abduction narrative in order to highlight its ability to provide a metaphor for Internet experiences. Moreover, Chapter 4 clicks on interconnection as the element that links abduction, the Internet, and conspiracy theory It argues that democratic politics in an age of virtuality will need to turn to conspiracy theory as a way of making links, rather than simply accepting those linkages and explanations given by corporate and governmental power. To this extent, it theorizes the paradox of the information age:
Finally, in Chapter 5, “The Familiarity of Strangeness,” I link the space alien to the noncitizen, arguing the impossibility of global citizenship. Through a critical interrogation of the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally,” I draw out the problems of presuming connections, rather than making them, in the networked technocultures of the late-capitalist information age. In this context, I return to the themes of dissolution, hybridity, and paranoia as the conditions for democracy at the millennium.
The social field of contemporary America consists of competing conceptions of the real. As we face ever more decisions on complex scientific and technological problems, as we confront increased skepticism toward political and scientific elites, and as we grow accustomed to virtuality, this distance from any consensus on reality will only increase. Attacks on cultural and science studies have blamed this situation on “postmodernism’s” critique of reason. What these attacks fail to grasp is the way that skepticism extends “all the way down”; it pervades mass culture and everyday worldviews. “Common” sense is lacking. There are only particular senses. The discourses on outerspace access the distrust with which we respond to senses, realities, that are different from, even when only potentially, our own. They challenge us to face head-on the impact of the dissolution of notions of truth, rationality, and credibility on democratic society.
1. See Andrea Pritchard et al., eds., Alien Discussions: Proceedings of the Abduction Study Conference (Cambridge: North Cambridge Press, 1994).
2. Walt Andrus, “Independence day — ID4,” Mufon UFO Journal, no. 339 (July 1996), pp. 9-12.
3. Karl Vick, “UFO Abduction Tales Not Quite So Alien: Mainstream Society Finds Space for Supernatural Storytellers,” Washington Post, May 9, 1995, p. Aiff. A source at Disney (who spoke under condition of anonymity) told me that he could find no records pertaining to the decision-making process or the development of the attraction. He attributed the addition of the alien ride to Disney’s efforts to “stay in touch with the Zeitgeist.”
4. Glen Boyd, “Surfing for Saucers,” UFO Magazine 11, no. 3 (May-June 1996), pp. 15-18.
5. Scott Mandelker, From Elsewhere: Being E.T. in America (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1995).
6. Budd Hopkins, “The Roper Poll on Unusual Personal Experiences,” in Pritchard et al., eds., Alien Discussions, pp. 215-216.
7. George Gallup Jr. and Frank Newport, “Belief in Psychic and Paranormal Phenomena Widespread among Americans,” Gallup Poll Monthly, no. 299 (August
1990) , pp. 35-43.
8. See Bruce Handy, “Roswell or Bust,” Time, June 23, 1997, pp. 62-67; and “Poll: US Hiding Knowledge of Aliens,” CNN interactive (June 15, 1997), http://www.cnn.com/US/9706/15/ufo.p0ll/index.html.
9. Weekly World News, February 28, 1995.
10. Cover, December 1995.
xi. “Sunday,” New York Times Magazine, August 4, 1996, p. 13.
12. See the important collection edited by James R. Lewis, The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
13. I’m grateful to David Halperin for bringing to my attention the interesting work of one of his students at Chapel Hill, Andrea Richards. In an unpublished paper, “Exploring the Mothership Connection: Louis Farrakhan, Black Nationalism, and UFO Narratives,” Richards analyzes the abduction claims of Louis Farrakhan, explaining that his experience is narrated not within traditional ufological themes Imt within the theology and eschatology of the Nation of Islam. Thanks as well to Craig Rimmerman for keeping abreast of the New Yorker's coverage of aliens and for recommending Scott Heim’s powerful novel, Mysterious Skin (New York:
I larperCollins, 1995).
14' Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 113.
15. My inquiry is indebted to the work of Michel Foucault. See his Power/Knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Press, 1979). As I use the term “discourse” to describe the discussions, communities, and practices connected with aliens and UFOs, however, I am following Lee Quinby’s reworking of Foucault. Allowing that the parameters of a given field of statements cannot be fixed, Quinby provides an elastic conception of discourse that refers to the “conventions for establishing meaning, designating the true from the false, empowering certain speakers and writers and disqualifying others” (Anti-Apocalypse: Exercises in Genealogical Criticism [Minneapolis: University ofMinnesota Press, 1994], p. xv). She stresses the constitution of a discourse within a social context “that establishes regularities or prescribed ways of speaking that allow and disallow statements” (p. xv). Together with elasticity, the stress on situatedness helps to account for the ways in which discourses proliferate and expand. Heretofore relatively closed discourses, in other words, can spread beyond their primary field of statements. They can colonize other discourses or infect them virally, a change in metaphor effecting an alteration in meaning that introduces the possibility of unpredictable discursive mutations. Some discourses may become parasitic on others, articulating elements of the host discourse to feed their own ends.
In addition to drawing from Quinby’s conception of discourse, I also use Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s analysis of a discursive structure as “an articulatory practice which constitutes and organizes social relations” (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy [London: Verso, 1985], p. 96). Here, as in other poststructuralist and cultural studies approaches, “articulation” is a term of art. An articulation establishes a link among elements that changes their identity (p. 105). Throughout this book, I have generally used the term “link” as an easier, breezier, cyberian synonym for “articulation.”
16. William E. Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), p. 100.
17. Jürgen Habermas writes: “The supposition of reasonableness rests on the normative sense of democratic procedures which should guarantee that all socially relevant issues can be thematized, treated with reasons and imagination and worked through to resolutions which—with equal respect for the integrity of each individual and each life form — suit the equal interests of all.” Habermas, “Nach- holende Revolution und linker Revisionsbedarf: Was heisst Sozialismus heute?” in Die Moderne — ein unvollendetes Projekt (Leipzig: Reclam-Verlag, 1990), p. 232 (my translation).
18. Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modem Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 12.
19. The term “consensus reality” is used by philosophers to denote a particular theory about the relationship between people’s perceptions and descriptions of reality and the “stuff” that is “really” out there “in the world.” They might contrast this conception of reality with, say, a correspondence theory of reality. But “consensus reality” is also a term of art among ufologists and abductees who use it to refer to the notions of the real accepted by and acceptable to mainstream society. When I use the term, I have both meanings in mind.
20. The sort of conspiracy theory I’m advocating here has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Despite the fact that American conspiracy theories have appeared across the political spectrum, targeting various enemies from the Ivy League Protestant establishment, the pope, communists, and, yes, Jewish bankers, many people mistakenly assume that all conspiracy theories are anti-Semitic. I am interested in the form of conspiracy thinking rather than in specific contents.
21. Grant Kester, “Access Denied: Information Policy and the Limits of Liberalism,” available in the Articles/Papers section of Sarah Zupko’s Cultural Studies Center on the World Wide Web (April 1997). An abridged version appeared in Afterimage 21, no. 6 (January 1994).
22. Here I am influenced by Bruno Latour’s compelling discussion in Science in Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987). Latour includes the example of UFOs to point to problems that arise when scientists think outside the “networks” that establish for them the conditions of inquiry, discussion, and proof. “For instance,” he writes, “an astronomer will wonder why ‘modern educated Americans still believe in flying saucers although they obviously do not exist.’ ” In this example, “it is implicitly assumed that people should have gone in one direction, the only reasonable one to take but, unfortunately, they have been led astray by something, and it is this something that needs explanation. The straight line they should have followed is said to be rational; the bent one that they have unfortunately been made to take is said to be irrational” (p. 183). Consequently, I am not trying to explain why people believe in UFOs. My interest is in what the attention to aliens and UFOs in contexts beyond the ufological tells us about contemporary American society.
2 3. “Push technology” refers to the elimination of the Web browser as media are pushed onto the screen without the user having to search for them. In 1997 early versions of this sort of technology were available from PointCast, Backweb, and Active Desktop. In a typically enthusiastic embrace of this new technology targeted at a stockowning “you” burdened by disposable income, Wired writes: “Networked communications need interfaces that hop across nodes, exploiting the unique character of distributed connections. Technology that, say, follows you into the next taxi you ride, gently prodding you to visit the local aquarium, all the while keeping you up-to-date on your favorite basketball team’s game in progress. Another device might chime on your wrist, letting you know that the route home is congested with traffic, and flashing the address of a restaurant where you can eat cut-rate sushi while waiting it out. At home on your computer, the same system will run soothing screensavers underneath regular news flashes, all while keeping track, in one corner, of press releases from companies whose stocks you own. With frequent commercial messages, of course.” See “Push! Kiss Your Browser Goodbye: The Radical Future of Media beyond the Web,” by the editors of Wired, March 1997, cover et seq.
24' Phil Cousineau, UFOs: A Manual for the Millennium (New York: Harper- Collins West, 1995), p. 179. Cousineau credits these “quick facts” to an analysis of a 1990 Gallup poll done by the Center for UFO Studies Journal.
25. “Antipolitics ’94,” New York Times Magazine, October 16, 1994, p. 37.
26. I’m indebted to Simon Critchley and Aletta Norval for convincing me on this point.
27. In her discussion of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Donna Haraway writes: “The signals emanating from an extraterrestrial perspective, such as the photographic eye of a space ship, are relayed and translated through the information- processing machines built by the members of a voraciously energy-consuming, space-faring hominid culture that called itself Mankind. And Man is, by selfdefinition, a globalizing and, therefore, global species. The people who built the semiotic and physical technology to see Gaia became the global species, in which they recognized themselves, through the concrete practices by which they built their knowledge.” Haraway, “Cyborgs and Symbionts: Living Together in the New World Order,” in The Cyborg Handbook, ed. Chris Hables Gray (New York: Rout- ledge, 1995), p. xiv.
28. Warren Young, “The Machines Are Taking Over,” Life, March 3, 1961, p. 108ff.
29. Constance Penley overlooks the importance of computers and cyberspace in her assessment of the continued utopian potential of NASA and outerspace. See her NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America (London: Verso, 1997).
30. Dennis Overbye, “And Will We Ever Return?” Time, July 25, 1994, p. 58.
31. Sharon Begley, “Next Stop Mars,” Newsweek, July 25, 1994, pp. 42-47.
32. Kester’s “Access Denied” appropriately places discussions of Net democracy in historical context, linking them with similar discussions of steam and electric power.
33. See the critical article linking the Internet with conspiracy theory by George Johnson, “Pierre, Is That a Masonic Flag on the Moon?” New York Times, November 24, 1996, p. E4.
34. For a thorough history of the Heaven’s Gate group from the standpoint of the sociology of new religious movements, see Robert J. Balch, “Waiting for the Ships: Disillusionment and the Revitalization of Faith in Bo and Peep’s UFO Cult,” in Lewis, ed., The Gods Have Landed, pp. 137-166.
35. George Johnson, “Old View of the Internet: Nerds. New View: Nuts,” New York Times, March 30, 1997, pp. Ei, 6.
36. More complex assessments of the political and social meanings of networked computers have been common in genres of science fiction and cyberpunk, whether in film, literature, or comic books.
37. For accounts of the eclectic methodologies found in works often grouped together under the name “cultural studies,” see the introductions to Cultural Studies, ed. and intro. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 1-16, and The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. and intro. Simon During (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 1-25- My understanding of my approach has also been greatly enhanced by Gil Rodman’s detailed elaboration on the use of cultural studies for providing a specific enough account of a cultural phenomenon — one, that is, that doesn’t explain away what makes a phenomenon interesting by subsuming it under, say, capitalism or postmodernism. The elements of cultural studies that he finds helpful for understanding the posthumous career of Elvis Presley are also what enable cultural studies to shed light on the UFO discourse: “its radical contextualism, its explicitly political nature, its commitment to theory, and its self-reflexivity.” See Gilbert B. Rodman, Elvis after Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 19.
38. See Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), and Nations without Nationalism, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)- The discussion of Freud’s Das Unheimliche in the former details the psychoanalytic understanding of the “immanence of the strange within the familiar” (pp. 182-183). Priscilla Wald’s compelling analysis of cultural anxieties as they appear in, draw from, and displace specific official narratives of nationhood and identity is also useful here. See Wald, Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), especially her reflections on Freud’s use of the uncanny (pp. 5- 10). Wald writes: “Freud’s uncanny recognition . . . turns on the discovery that the unfamiliar is really familiar (the stranger as self) but also that the familiar is unfamiliar (the self as stranger). . . . Ultimately . . . the uncanny sends us home to the discovery that ‘home’ is not what or where we think it is and that we, by extension, are not who or what we think we are” (p. 7).
39. My sketch of this normative model of the public sphere draws from Jurgen Habermas’s conceptualization of the bourgeois public sphere in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989). See also my critique of the public sphere in chapter 3 of Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism after Identity Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1996) , and in “Civil Society: Beyond the Public Sphere,” in The Handbook of Critical Theory, ed. David Rasmussen (London: Basil Blackwell, 1996), pp. 220-242.
40. Examples include the contributions to Craig Calhoun’s edited volume Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), to The Phantom Public Sphere, ed. Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), and to Public Culture 7, no. 1 (Fall 1994).
41. See Zygmut Bauman’s account of the stranger’s disruption of the friend/ enemy opposition. Arguing that strangehood cannot be reduced to problems of knowledge and interpretation, Bauman writes: “The strangers are not, however, the ‘as-yet-undecided’; they are, in principle, undecidables. They are that ‘third element’ which should not be. The true hybrids, the monsters: not just unclassified, but unclassifiable. They therefore do not question this one opposition here and now: they question oppositions as such, the very principle of the opposition, the plausibility of dichotomy it suggests. They unmask the brittle artificiality of division — they destroy the world.” See Bauman, “Modernity and Ambivalence,” in Global Culture, ed. Mike Featherstone (London: Sage, 1990), p. 148.
42. For a thorough account of the paranoia and fear of conspiracy in American anti-alienism, see David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
1988) . Pm indebted to Marty Kelly for bringing this book to my attention.
43. In his introduction to The Phantom Public Sphere (pp. vii-xxvi), Bruce Robbins returns to Walter Lippman’s critique of the public as an unattainable idea to consider what it means today for the public to be a phantom. In this context, Robbins challenges the equating of the political with the public in the sense of open. I, too, question the assumption that “making visible” is sufficient — or even necessary — for political action, suspecting that “truth” is always what is presumed to be seen or revealed. What makes the public a phantom is its opposition to the hidden. The public sphere is haunted by the possibility of the invisible, the closed, the secret, and the surreptitious. My concern is with the way that, through its very use, the concept of the public sphere compels disclosure even as it conceals its impossibility: there can never be a full disclosure because suspicion is generative. Put somewhat differently, the intersubjectivity that gives the public sphere its political character brings with it the limits and distortions of recognition.
44. I say “may” because, with aliens, conspiracy is in the air. In “The Clinton Haters,” a cover article in the New York Times Magazine for February 23, 1997, Philip Weiss discusses the various conspiracies allegedly involving the Clinton White House. The cover announces that “no President has been put at the center of more conspiracy theories, nor been the object of more virulent accusations. What is it about Bill Clinton — and the nation he leads?” Yet, Michael Rogin points out the centrality of the former president, CIA director, Skull and Bones initiate, and Trilateralist George Herbert Walker Bush to conspiracy thinking. See Rogin, “‘Make My Day!’ Spectacle as Amnesia in Imperial Politics,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 499-534.
45. William Corlett, Community without Unity: A Politics of Derridian Extravagance (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989). Thanks to Tom Dumm for helping me understand the importance of this discussion of reassurance.
46. Here I am talking only about the UFO community in the United States. There are large and active UFO groups in England, Australia, and Brazil. A UFO museum and research center is under way in Japan. The Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) includes representatives from thirty-five different countries.
47. At present, I can’t provide solid evidence for this statement. Gallup polls support the claim that sightings and belief appear throughout the U.S. population (although the percentage of college graduates who believe in UFOs is higher than the percentage of those with only a high school education). See Gallop and Newport, “Belief in Psychic and Paranormal Phenomena Widespread among Americans.” UFO literature stresses the diversity among witnesses and abductees. MUFON’s director Walter Andrus agrees with this assessment, although he acknowledges that the number of African Americans interested in joining MUFON tends to be low. At MUFON’s 1996 International UFO Symposium, the audience seemed to be just as I described. I’ve spoken personally with abductees from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, including Mexican American, African American, Jewish, and Anglo Protestant.
Brenda Denzler’s survey data on the 1996 symposium indicate that 83 percent of the participants were white. Her data confirm the Gallup poll results with regard to education: 63 percent of the participants had bachelor’s degrees, and 11 percent had doctorates. Interestingly, 87 percent of the participants claimed to vote in regular elections. See Denzler, “Who Are We?” Mufon UFO Journal, no. 349 (May 1997) , pp. 9-14.
48. Those of you reading this, don’t worry; your secrets are safe.
49. See Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (New York: Theatre Commissions Group, 1993). In particular, I have in mind “Part One: Millennium Approaches.” Also see David M. Jacobs, The UFO Controversy in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975).
50. Lynn Spigel, “From Domestic Space to Outer Space,” Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction, ed. Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel, and Janet Bergstrom (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 210. See also Walter A. McDougall,. . . The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Program (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
51. Rogin writes: “The linkage of expansion to freedom instead of to the acquisition of colonies prepared the United States to see itself as the legitimate defender of freedom in the postcolonial Third World” (“Make My Day,” p. 510).
52. In his account of narratives employed in the constitution of American national identity, Michael Shapiro explains that “responses to cultural anxieties have often taken the form of repeating the story of the winning of the West; the retelling of the myth of violent (yet sacred) expansion has been a dominant mode through which ‘America’ has performed its legendary national identity. Such textual performances, in which Americans are constituted (or reconstituted) in response to cultural anxieties about appropriate personhood, have been evident in various historical periods ... in which America’s mythic Western past was reaffirmed ... [and are] especially pertinent to the politics of constructing the alien-other.” NASA’s construction of the astronaut-hero is one such retelling. See Shapiro, “Narrating the Nation, Unwelcoming the Stranger: Anti-Immigration Policy in Contemporary ‘America,’” Alternatives 22, no. 1 (January-February 1997), pp. 1-34, quotation p. 28.
53. Elayne Rapping, The Looking Glass World of Nonfiction TV (Boston: South End Press, 1987), p. 79.
54. I’m drawing here from what Shapiro refers to as “the myth of vacancy at the place of settlement,” a myth vital to the national identity of the biblical Israel and redeployed in America’s fantasy of the wild, open West. See Shapiro, “Narrating the Nation,” p. 25.
55. Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap, 1992), p. 265.
56. Showalter, Hystories, p. 196.
In: Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1998, pp.1-24