Last night I finished reading Diana Pasulka’s American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology. It’s a fascinating book, written from a religious studies perspective, about a little-known ‘faction’, so to speak, of the ufology community that Pasulka has called the “scientist-believers”. As the term suggests, these are accomplished scientists, often in considerable positions of power,who are not only convinced that the UFO phenomenon is an actuality, but that they themselves are actively working with artifacts pulled from the wreckage of spacecrafts (or whatever else they may be), or in psychic contact with non-human intelligence—or, quite often, both.
Pasulka’s narrative overview opens with an excursion to a remote locale in the New Mexico with “Tyler” and “James”, two scientist-believers whose background is in the field of biomedical technologies, and in the case of “Tyler”, a long history in NASA’s space shuttle program. The destination is what Tyler claims is a UFO crash site—and, curiously enough, near a mesa featured prominently in the first episode of the final season of the X-Files “Someone from their production team had either been here or knew someone who had. It makes me wonder if they had an insider on their team”, Tyler muses, before setting out their real task: to find a piece of the wreckage in order to test its properties in a controlled laboratory setting.
After we had recovered from the trip and sipped some water, Tyler configured two metal detectors and showed us a map of where the craft had landed. He said that, when the crash occurred in 1947, the government had taken the craft, hidden it away in a secret place, and disguised the area with tin cans and debris to prevent others from finding any remaining artifacts. In fact, looking around, the area was covered over with tons of tin cans. The cans were rusty and most of them had disintegrated into a powdery rubble that resembled compost. He further explained that our metal detectors were special and had been configured to identify the artifacts.
Artifacts are indeed recovered, and the subsequent testing reveals the conclusion that whatever these things are, they are not of this world. The scientific validity of the tests and independent verification are not a question that is probed here, but then again, it’s less important that the picture that slowly emerges: there’s a network of scientists, entrepreneurs, astronauts, and governmental officials that not only believe in the existence of UFOs, but that the further implications of this existence cuts to the heart—or, more properly, the bleeding edge—of questions surrounding consciousness, physical reality, and quantum entanglement. Case in point would be parapsychological research outfits like the Institute of Noetic Sciences, set up in the 1970s by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell following what can only be described as an ‘ecstatic experience’ during his time in space. Another would be the activities, beginning in the late 60s and lasting until the 90s (at the very least), that took place at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) that examined parapsychological phenomena such as remote viewing. The most infamous of SRI’s activities was the Stargate Project, a joint operation carried out with the Defense Intelligence Agency to study the potential applications of psychic phenomena for intelligence-gathering purposes.
One would be remiss not to throw into this weird bucket the ‘consciousness exploration’ goings-on at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. As Jeffrey Kripal points out in his book on Esalen, these happenings were closely tangled with both Mitchell’s Institute for the Noetic Sciences and what was taking place at SRI. Esalen also figures in one of my favorite books on the history of cybernetics, Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain, where he notes the continual slippage towards what he describes as ‘non-modern ontologies’ in cybernetic research, and again in Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which tracks the evolution of today’s Silicon Valley technocapitalism from the fusion of cybernetics, computer sciences and the 60s Californian counterculture. Pasulka avoids going down these weird roads in American Cosmic, but they do come up in an interview she gave on Erik Davis’s Expanding Minds podcast. Noting that the ‘cosmic’ in the book’s title is a deliberate call-back to Russian Cosmism—a scientific-philosophical movement that arose in pre-revolutionary Russia and persisted, in a rather occulted form, into the Soviet Union, particularly in its space program. The ideals of the Cosmist’s ideals sort of prefigure a lot of the tropes that have returned again in the more utopian strands of the tech industry: life extension and perhaps immortality, space exploration, the resurrection of the dead, encounters with extraterrestrial life, etc. But as Davis points out, drawing on the work of Douglas Rushkoff, it may very well be more than passing similarities at play here, with Esalen serving as a point of connection in these snaking continuities.
In his essay “The Anti-Human Religion of Silicon Valley”, Rushkoff locates this convergence as taking place in the course of Esalen’s US-Soviet Exchange Program’s “Track II Diplomacy” efforts. The goal of this program was to bring “some of the USSR’s leading scientists and spiritualists to the Esalen Institute to mix with their counterparts in the United States”. Rushkoff continues:
They set up a series of events at Esalen’s Big Sur campus, where everyone could hear about each other’s work and dreams at meetings during the day and hot tub sessions into the night. That’s how some of the folks from Stanford Research Institute and Silicon Valley, who would one day be responsible for funding and building our biggest technology firms, met up with Russia’s “cosmists.” They were espousing a form of science fiction gnosticism that grew out of the Russian Orthodox tradition’s emphasis on immortality. The cosmists were a big hit, and their promise of life extension technologies quickly overtook geopolitics as the primary goal of the conferences.
The cosmists talked about reassembling human beings, atom by atom, after death, moving one’s consciousness into a robot and colonizing space. The cosmists pulled it all together for the fledgling American transhumanists: They believed human beings could not only transcend the limits of our mortal shell but also manifest physically through new machines. With a compellingly optimistic have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too gusto, the cosmists told America’s LSD-taking spiritualists that technology could give them a way to beat death.
In Rushkoff’s account, this cross-cultural collision effectively produced an ideology that underpins Silicon Valley’s technocapitalism, particularly in its transhumanist, singularitarian mode (it thus interfaces quite nicely, and adds depth to, Turner’s parallel analysis). Pasulka hints at this as well, tracking a divergent route through the same territory. In the book’s preface she recounts traveling through Silicon Valley one night with the famed ufologist Jacques Vallee, who, along with the aforementioned Kripal, is a mentor to her (Vallee, incidentally, was deeply immersed in the strange 70s matrix where post-countercultural hippiedom and computer sciences collided). “These are the hills of Silicon Valley”, he tells her. “There are many secrets here”. The deep dive into the world of scientist-believers thus appears as the unveiling of this secret: that a rich intermingling of belief in UFOs, psychic phenomenon, anomalous encounters, and technological optimism is the beating heart of this corner of the world.
For Pasulka, this is nothing short of the fermenting of a new religion. Places like the site of an alleged UFO crash that she treks to with Tyler and James become the zone of hierophany—the space where the sacred manifests itself in the physical world with the intent of some sort of communication (think Moses and burning bush). Artifacts recovered from the supposed wreckage of crafts are relics. People like Scott Browne, whose life is consumed in the thankless tasks of parsing faked or otherwise misinterpreted UFO photographs from ones that present something “truly anomalous”, practice a vocation. And like Valleee, Pasulka looks back in time, long before 1947 and the beginning of the modern UFO epoch, and finds distinct parallels in accounts of Marian apparitions, angelic visitations, and religious miracle.
One of the things I noticed reading through Pasulka’s work was the recurring motif of one religion in particular: Catholicism. When she invokes the miraculous, it tends to be those associated with the Catholic Church; Marian apparitions in Lourdes and Fatima feature prominently, as does the angelic encounters experienced by Saint Theresa of Avila. Pasulka’s previous book, Heaven Can Wait, is a historical exploration of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory—and she is, herself a professed Catholic. The climax of American Cosmic doesn’t take place in the research and development labs of Silicon Valley or Cape Canaveral, nor in the wide open spaces of the New Mexican desert. Instead we follow Pasulka and Tyler to Vatican City, where they intend to study accounts of saints capable of levitation and bilocation. In the course of their visit, Tyler undergoes a religious conversion.
There is, however, I think a deeper operation at work, or at least partially at work, in Pasulka’s utilization of Catholicism that doesn’t necessarily rise to the surface of the text. With her emphasis on the scientist-believers—a rather neglected realm of study when it comes to the assessment of ufology and related fields—she effectively splits ufology into two spheres. On the one hand, we have this secretive network that is carrying out this strange work, largely invisible to the public at large and the institutions through which they move, and on the other hand there is the more mass cultural movement that is more commonly associated with theories of extraterrestrial life. This latter sphere is ballooning: while there has been an overall decline in UFO sightings, belief in extraterrestrials and the efficacy of the UFO phenomena is rising. There’s many potential explanatory factors one could point to: the steady trickle of revelations concerning the US government’s ongoing interest in UFOs (from emails unearthed by Wikileaks concerning John Podesta’s involvement in UFO research to the US Navy’s announcement of a UFO documentation operation, which followed in the wake of that video of an alleged close encounter we all saw), as well as the popularity of shows like Ancient Aliens. But Pasulka goes beyond the limitations of merely listing examples, and points to what underscores them: the mass proliferation of means that enable hyperconnectivity, predominantly in the form of social media technology. Alluding to the way in which old sci-fi framed the anomalous experiences undergone by Whitley Strieber (as recorded in his book Communion), she writes:
Whitley’s consumption of Hollywood’s B movies occurred many years ago. Things have changed a lot since then. We don’t have to imagine how this experience has changed. We just have to flip open our laptops or engage our telephones—or even just consult our memories—to recognize (re-cognize) the reality. It’s as if our imaginations have become exterior to ourselves, existing out there in our media, and our media then determines what is in our heads. Where does the spectator end and the screened media event begin? Where do we draw these boundaries? As Andy Clark has observed in his research into extended cognition, the assumption that cognition is brain-bound, or that it just occurs within the skull, is wrong. Cognition occurs within a network that extends into the environment.
The modern binary of “human” and “machine” is shown to be the real fake, not new religious forms, populated as they are with nonhuman persons and intelligences.
The line that she pursues tracks into the studies of N. Katherine Hayles, who in books like How We Became Posthuman and How We Think pulls apart the ways in which the co-evolution of humans and technology—a process she calls “technogenesis”—induces transformations in the way in which cognition itself unfolds. It’s a provocative line, and is largely left hanging, in need of further elucidation, but the other level, the one that remains obscured, occurs when we compare the relationship between religion and explosions of mass media. The revolution in social media that is most comparable, in terms of magnitude and paradigm-shift, is the introduction of the printing press in the late 1400s. Examined from the position of religious history, this technology quickly became an accelerant in the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent formation of bourgeois society. So pronounced was the effect of this paradigm shift that cities and towns within 10 miles of a printing press were 57.4% more likely to have converted to Protestantism by the year 1600.
Pulaska does make note of the impact of technology on religious transformation, writing that the “mass production of Bibles in the common language of the people soon gave rise to the doctrine of Sola scriptura or Scripture Alone, according to which scripture is the only reliable and necessary guide for Christian faith and practice”. This was the heart of the Reformation—but was also the heart of an apparently unending schism. Reformist successors like John Calvin and Thomas Müntzer made use of the possibilities of the printing press to go beyond Luther; in each case, the open-ended possibilities of re-evaluation and revision became fuel for political and social unrest, effectively setting in motion a series of revolts and conflicts. Going down the line and you arrive at shifting waves of migration, as theological secession opened into outright relocation, resulting in multiple taking flight to the new world.
The depiction of scientist-believers in American Cosmic often takes on the sheen of Catholicism—something that becomes overt with Tyler’s late-game religious conversion. We’re also maybe invited to draw comparisons between the Vatican astronomers and physicists, whose work probes the interzone where faith and the pursuit and science connect, and the way that the scientist-believers conduct themselves: faith in the existence of the phenomena, methodologically rigorous in their approach. While at the highest level the two domains—scientist-believer and mass culture—can be flattened into a singular continuum revolving around the figure of the UFO, digging into the specifies of their distinctions reveals profound tensions. The former appears more doctrinal, the latter willing to engage in constant (re)interpretation and proliferation. In many cases, the possibilities opened by the convergent of overall technological development with the deepening use of social media complicates the work of the scientist-believers; Scott Browne, the hardnosed believer-debunker, frets about the increasing difficulty in being able to find and maintain firm interpretations of photographs. If he’s a pursuing a religious vocation as Pulaska suggests, it is clear the conflict here is the struggle to maintain an orthodoxy in the face of a rising tide of the unorthodox. The split, in other words, recalls that between Catholicism and Protestantism.
There are, of course, limits to this parallel. The ‘orthodoxy’ of the scientist-believers is by no means established, and Paluska herself draws comparisons between them and the early Christians. At present, it is something of a subculture, hidden away and castigated by the status quo as frivolous absurdity, even if it is actively stalking the halls of power (here, she uses the language of camouflage, raising all sorts of unsettling speculations). Likewise, the relationship between these networks of belief and the technological environment that empowers them isn’t linear at all, because they are implicated within one another on a fundamental level. The usual historical understanding of cause and effect, on the side of the orthodox and the unorthodox and that of subculture and technology, is all scrambled. This is probably to be expected.
Going through this book, my mind drifted back to some of the materials I found in Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. At one point, when talking about the overarching flatness of homogenizing global capitalism, he suggests, curiously, that this manifests in the decline of cults:
There’s an optimistic way to describe the results of these trends: today, you can’t start a cult. Forty years ago, people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known. From the Communist Party to the Hare Krishnas, large numbers of people thought they could join some enlightened vanguard that would show them the Way. Very few people take unorthodox ideas seriously today, and the mainstream sees that as a sign of progress. We can be glad that there are fewer crazy cults now, yet that gain has come at great cost: we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.
A response to Thiel was written by Peter Suderman in Reason magazine, and it is about what one would expect from a libertarian publication: the function that cults and fringe subcultures once served have been replaced by the rise of market-compatible lifestyles. “Subcultures now are atomized and personalized, crossbred and constantly evolving”, and to look back at their heyday is to betray “a form of nostalgia for an older order”. In some respects this actually does come close to Thiel’s own position—he recommends that start-ups be run akin to cults—but Suderman misses the Thiel’s Girardian critique (which I wrote about in my previous poast) of the entropic trend towards mimesis that marketization induces. The atomized subculture, from this position, would be precisely the problem.
But if Pulaska is right, then Thiel too is utterly wrong. Strange beliefs are once again surging upwards.