All the horse-race drama of the primary season is now but a memory. And there is plenty of time to kill before the spectacle of the party conventions. (In the fullest Guy Debord-esque sense of “spectacle,” no doubt about it.) So lately we have had a chance to contemplate the less heavily vetted aspects of political discourse – the rattle of whatever tin can may be tied to the tail of each presidential campaign. Is Barack Obama really the Antichrist? Is John McCain really Grandpa Simpson? Discuss.
Lest anyone think this is the silly season, we turn with relief to the August issue of the journal Political Theory, where a major article finally addresses an issue too long ignored by candidates and scholars alike. “If academics’ first responsibility is to tell the truth,” write two political scientists, “then the truth is that after 60 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, and cast doubt on the structure of rule that requires and sustains it.”
How true! Hold a press conference on immigration here in Washington, DC and the reporters will come. Hold one about the other aliens, and you’re lucky if a couple of smartasses turn up to ask questions about “The X Files.”
I don’t know if they read much political theory over at the National Press Club. Probably not. But if Alexander Wendt (professor of international security at Ohio State University) and Raymond Duvall (chairman of the poli sci department at the University of Minnesota) can’t get a serious hearing for their paper “Sovereignty and the UFO,” then the cause is truly hopeless, and the incessant rectal probing by our reptilian overlords will never end.
The paper came to my attention via blog postings by a couple of political scientists. One took it as an example of the kind of thing you can get away with once you have tenure. The other grappled with the argument itself and found it wanting on its own terms. (The authors of the paper have replied here.)
That argument boils down to a claim that UFO research has never achieved legitimacy because the very possibility of visitation by extraterrestrials poses too many problems for the implicit metaphysics of the nation-state.
Contemporary ideas about national sovereignty are quite thoroughly anthropocentric. That was not always the case. In the age of kings who ruled by divine right, the ultimate sovereign authority was embedded in God Himself. And if you lived in a community where shamans communicate regularly with bears or fish or the spirit of the mountain, then you would tend to think of nature itself as having, in effect, the franchise.
The modern sense of the nation-state rests on the assumption that politics is a strictly human process. Sovereignty – the ultimate authority to make decisions within a territory – is embodied in human agents.
Furthermore, a nation-state tends to develop mechanisms for keeping track of its own population – a series of institutions and bodies of knowledge devoted to monitoring the people who live within its borders, create its wealth, and obey its laws. (Or don’t, as the case may be.) The result is a grid of power and expertise sometimes designated by the rather unwieldy expression “governmentality,” coined by Michel Foucault.
Sovereignty and governmentality are related though not identical concepts. But they converge on one point that Wendt and Duvall consider a kind of blindspot: In the modern nation-state, sovereignty and governmentality are, by default, completely anthropocentric.
Even after countless thousands of UFO reports from all over the world – often by members of the military – the nearly 200 nation-states “have been notably uninterested” in the phenomenon. “One may speak of a ‘UFO taboo,’” write Wendt and Duvall, “a prohibition in the authoritative public sphere on taking UFOs seriously, or ‘thou shalt not try very hard to find out what UFOs are.’”
Their argument is, in important respects, the exact opposite of – well, “The X Files.” It is not a conspiracy theory. “We are not saying the authorities are hiding The Truth about UFOs,” write W&D. Nor are they even suggesting that The Truth would necessarily involve extraterrestrial visitation. “We are saying that [the authorities] cannot ask the question.”
This claim places their inquiry within a field of study described in this column a couple of months ago: the discipline of agnotology. (Just as epistemology considers the genesis and structure of knowledge, agnotology examines the sources and inner logic of ignorance.) Wendt and Duvall’s endnotes neglect the agnotological literature – but they have added to it, even so.
“Our puzzle,” they explain, “is not the familiar question of ufology, ‘What are UFOs?’ but, ‘Why are they dismissed by the authorities?’ Why is human ignorance not only unacknowledged, but so emphatically denied? In short, why a taboo?”
The pattern of avoidance is, the answer, “akin to denial in psychoanalysis: the sovereign represses the UFO out of fear about what it would reveal about itself. There is therefore nothing for the sovereign to do but turn its gaze away from – to ignore, and hence be ignorant of – the UFO, making no decision at all.”
One knows better than to argue with a psychoanalyst, of course. Disagreement only proves that the insight was valid; otherwise, it would not generate so much anxiety. Likewise, the call for UFO research triggers the “extraordinarily resilient” forces of modern sovereignty and its metaphysics: “Those who attempt it will have difficulty funding and publishing their work,” write Wendt and Duvall, “and their reputations will suffer.”
Wendt and Duvall mention a few cases where governments have, in fact, conducted studies of UFO sightings. But clearly they were efforts to dismiss the question. The decades-long Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project does not undermine the point that anthropocentric sovereignty cannot bear contemplating any challenge. Indeed, the authors write, “SETI advocates have been at the forefront of UFO skepticism.”
Theories are always most beautiful when they cannot be falsified. “Sovereignty and the UFO” is a thing of beauty. Anyone who is already a little tired of McCain and Obama should check out Wendt and Duvall. And keep watching the skies....