Friday, June 12, 2009

Reading Notes - The Unidentified

This post is reviewing a book written by Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, The Unidentified. A fact not that well known in the world of ufology is that Jerome Clark was not, at first, a supporter of the ETH. He considered the phenomenon as a parapsychological one. In the introduction of their book, they wrote that the ETH believer

“has managed to demonstrate only that something is going on, something very strange for which no satisfactory accounting has yet been made. Yet as strange as these UFO sightings undoubtedly are, there is at the same time an oddly mundane, undeniably terrestrial quality to them which makes them all the more mysterious” (p. 10).

These lines were written in 1975, almost 35 years ago, and they are as true now as they were then. Once more, anyone really interested in studying UFOs should skip, with a few exceptions, what was written during the 1980s and 1990s, and most of the little that has been produced in 2000s. Clearly, ufology has remained at a standstill since the 1970s, or worst: it has been seriously declining in quality ever since. The full notice is:

Clark, Jerome and Loren Coleman. (1975). The Unidentified: Notes toward solving the UFO mystery. New York: Warner.

A constant human experience in multiple forms

It is interesting to note that what they wrote was very much in tune with other writings of the same period, particularly Keel (1975), Méheust (1978), Rogo (1977), and Viéroudy (1977).

Clark and Coleman provide a number of stories, many prior to 1945, about strange events that were not construed as UFO incidents, but would certainly be if they were to occur today. In all these cases, the common patterns are not the “flying spacecrafts” but rather how people interacted with the strange phenomenon. In other words, what is constant is not the phenomenon itself but rather how our relationship to the phenomenon is structured (i.e. the narrative or archetype). They see in the UFO experience, therefore, a theme rather than a physical experience per se. This approach is similar to one I took in an older article.

They describe the UFO phenomenon as a myth, and underline that: “Myths, so the banal axiom has it, die hard, but a growing body of scholarship, combining the techniques of anthropology and psychoanalysis, disputes this conventional wisdom and argues instead that myths don’t die at all; they just put on new faces. The familiar world of conscious thought and experience goes its own way, blithely ignoring the needs of the unconscious mind and even disputing its very existence. But the unconscious remains. Its language, which it speaks in myth and symbol, may change, but its meaning remains the same. The old gods and demons and spirits continue to haunt us, ghosts in the machine which were supposed to have supplanted them” (p. 48).

To support their thesis they look into a number of folkloric tales which are showing the same fundamental narrative, but experienced in different guise in different eras, and quote as well Vallée’s book Passport to Magonia. They underline that: “Fairies, like UFO beings, come in all sizes and shapes, but, again like UFO beings, they are usually diminutive. Some are the size of dwarfs; others are Lilliputian in stature. Some are beautiful; others are ugly. Their temperament is at best uncertain, and they are better left alone. But they can be very kind if they wish to be.” (p. 67).

They also bring many examples from anthropologists who studied shamanism, visions of the saints, as well as Marian apparitions, testimonies of travel or abduction to strange places, and they clearly show that these experiences have a lot in common with the UFO experience. Among some of these commonalities with the UFO experience they underline buzzing sounds (p. 76), feelings of unity with the universe (p. 95), paralysis (p. 96), dream-like scenarios (p. 187), and shared telepathic events (p. 189).

Re-inventing the wheel?

Once again, after reading this book of the 1970s, I am left with a feeling that many ideas proposed for the parasociological study of UFOs are simply re-inventing the wheel. Their final chapter is entitled “paraufology”, in an attempt to link parapsychology and ufology, something I am trying to do for sociology and parapsychology. Clark and Coleman conclude their book in making two statements, which describe well the approach I have taken so far. The first one is that “the UFO mystery is primarily subjective and its content is primarily symbolic” (p. 236). The second is that “the ‘objective’ manifestations are psychokinetically generated by products of those unconscious processes which shape a culture’s vision of the otherworld. Existing only temporarily, they are at best only quasiphysical” (p. 242). In support of this second statement, they too refer to Roll’s (1972) poltergeist research and to the notion of tulpas from David-Néel (1973). As well, they also made the connection between the “Men-in-Black” as a modern version of the devil’s archetype (p. 239), as folklorist Peter Rojcewicz proposed later on (1987).

Like many other researchers already mentioned in this blog, Clark and Coleman invoke the effects of the collective unconscious, but contrary to others they have looked a bit more into its internal dynamics for explaining the UFOs dynamics. They rely heavily, but without mentioning him, on Claude Lévy-Strauss (1963) structural anthropology, whose ideas were clearly dominating the field of anthropology in the 1970s.

Lévy-Strauss’ ideas were themselves relying on Jung’s concept of archetype. He proposed that like in the case of individuals, societies have an unconscious, and borrowing from Freud’s idea that dreams are the “royal road” to investigate the unconscious, Lévy-Strauss saw in myths societies’ dreams. Hence, myths function like dreams for individuals in the sense that they provide room for the irrational and the suppressed to be expressed in ways that are not threatening to the existence of a society. If these myths are too much suppressed by an excess of rationalism, then the irrational is likely to come out in destructive ways (e.g. destructive new cults, social unrests, civil wars, etc.).

But dreams are not considered as pure free play in this context. At the individual level, if the details will vary widely from one person to another, they are built on typical “scenarios” understood by Jung as an expression of what he calls the “archetypes”. At the social level, myths are also much diversified in their content, but according to Lévy-Strauss they also have a limited number of basic scenarios that he call structures (hence the notion of “structural” anthropology).

With these ideas in the background, Clark and Coleman proposed that UFOs and many other similar paranormal manifestations are the product of the collective unconscious seeking a way to express itself. It is in this context they wrote: “because the collective unconscious exists outside time and space, it can perceive the direction of events in a manner denied us in ordinary conscious perception. It is attuned to elements in the common psyche of humanity that are unknown and deeply mysterious. Nonetheless it occasionally manifests itself to us in dreams or visions which preview future occurrences. […] When the premonition arises out of the collective unconscious, it may be to alert us to the imminence of some major event of archetypal significance[…]” (p. 233). This approach describes quite well the approach I took in the case study of the Hills’ alleged abduction.

Similarly, they propose that the “Men-in-Black” are an expression of the collective unconscious directed at those who want to dig without due precautions into the unconscious. At the individual level, Jungian and Freudian psychoanalysts tend to see demoniac dreams and visions and the like as one’s unconscious telling his/her consciousness to not open too wide the lid of the unconscious, as we also store there our darkest impulses.

Ultimately, Clark and Coleman consider that the UFO phenomenon is an expression of a repressed collective unconscious that takes the means to be heard. They add that “if this balance is not soon restored, the UFO myth tells us, nature will have its way. The collective unconscious, too long repressed, will burst free, overwhelm the world, and usher in an era of madness, superstition, and terror—with all their socio-political accouterments: war, anarchy, fascism” (p. 241). On this point, I am not sure that their dim predictions have occurred. I think, instead, that the collective unconscious, most of the time, gets heard one way or the other and it is precisely why societies in general do not sink into complete anarchy. In other words, social order is more prevalent than social anarchy.

They also see the UFO phenomenon as a global poltergeist, but unlike John Keel who sees non-human entities as being behind the phenomenon, Clark and Coleman see only humans. They state that “thus we are rather surprise that so far, to our knowledge, no one has considered the UFO phenomenon as a kind of ‘planetary poltergeist’ usually generated by the psychic energy of the collective unconscious and more rarely by the individual unconscious” (p. 244). On this last point, I think that the individual unconscious actually “picks up” on the collective unconscious once mythological theme is established. If in the case of the Barney and Betty Hill story the collective unconscious played an important role in framing the event, most of the subsequent “abduction” accounts to this date were probably generated by individual unconscious processes, feeding from a socially shared narrative content. It is a critical distinction for empirical research that is not found in Clark and Coleman’s book.

As well, they comment that “if the otherworld is really the domain of the collective unconscious imprinted on the ‘psi field’ creating in each cultural frame of reference a dream world that is relatively fixed in the psychic realm, then occasionally—through a process of ‘psychic spillover’—its errant inhabitants may enter our realm. This happens when the PK function of the brain confronts the archetypal contents of the otherworld, and it apparently is a side-effect of only secondary importance” (p. 245). Here again, I think Clark and Coleman are confusing two levels of analysis. PK spillovers from the collective unconscious can describe a number of events where the individual witnesses may not be psi subjects, while in other instances the PK effect is created by the witnesses themselves. It is also another important distinction that has substantial consequences if one is to conduct empirical research.

As it is known, Clark eventually distanced himself from his own book around 1980. The Wikipedia article on him, it states that “In the years since, Clark has championed a sort of open-ended agnosticism, choosing to focus on phenomena that are purported to have some degree of documentable support—whether physical evidence, or reliably reported events. He has argued very cautiously in favor of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, not as proven fact but as a working hypothesis, choosing to focus on the UFO cases he regards as the most promising: multiple witness and/or UFO cases which are said to leave physical evidence”.

It is interesting to note that 35 years later “more objective physical evidences” are still nowhere to be found. Without speculating too much on his reasoning to change his approach, the date of 1980 appears to me as very meaningful, as it was the beginning of the Roswell/Majic hysteria, an era where it was almost impossible to publish (and sell) anything about UFOs without embracing the ETH.

What’s left?

Clark has changed his approach, but it did not help him to provide any further explanations of the UFO phenomenon. From that point of view, his previous researches highlight that parasociology has still its work cut out. First, if Jung and Levy-Strauss approaches are useful to explain why we see UFOs today, while we saw fairies yesterday, they are not very helpful when one needs to go at a lower level of analysis (i.e. why these specific witness, why at that time, why that particular content, etc.). This only reinforces my previous conclusion that a better understanding of the inner dynamics of the collective unconscious is required. It would be helpful for parasociology, but also for sociology, psychology, parapsychology, and for the study of paranormal phenomenon in general. As well, it reinforces the notion that if we are to come closer to solve the UFO mystery, it is by looking around the phenomenon that we will find some components of its inner dynamics, rather than naively looking at a multitude of “naturalistic” descriptions of the phenomenon in the hope that something will emerge.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

1 comment:

Al Dodge said...

Well done! I agree, this phenomena, whatever it may be, isn't what it appears to be. It's a reflection, Alice's looking glass, and not a "real" reality at all. I also read this book in the 1970's and it took me sometime to understand all, or any of what, it was trying to say. I now firmly believe, even though at least one of the authors has changed his mind, that it gave us the key to solving or understanding this mystery. To quote from an Edgar Allen Poe poem, "Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream." We are, all of us, more spirit, more "magic" (for lack of a better word), more ghost than physical matter. We are not clods of earth, we are the condensed energies of the Universe.