Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Aliens in the Mirror: Message or Mirage?

Counter culture psychologist R.D. Laing argued that mental illness is often socially manufactured. Laing believed that if you examine the contents of psychological 'delusions' you will often find perfectly sensible commentary on real situations... commentary no one much wants to hear:

"For Laing, it is the family (or perhaps even society) which is destructively mad; those whom society labels as mad are only reflecting the craziness by which they find themselves surrounded. Their mimetic response to the insanity of the world into which they are thrust takes the form of a creative reworking of the insanity to which they are exposed. This response is labelled by that diseased world (or family) as an 'illness' and this view determines how the individual is perceived.."

Sander Gilman, from "The Mad Man as Artist: Medicine, History, and Degenerate Art", Journal of Contemporary History, (London), Vol 20 (1985), 575-597.


Laing was talking about individual mental illness, not cultural phenomena, but his thinking can easily be expanded to illuminate alien abduction experiences and other strange claims.

If we look at alien abduction as a form of cultural madness (a perspective many researchers vigorously reject a priori), then Laing's views can useful as an interpretive lens.

Laing's theories don't provide a full explanation of alien abductions: what they are, why they are happening, whether or not they are materially 'real'.

Laing's theories do, however, provide a different framework for interpretation of alien abduction experiences; an interpretive framework that opens up a whole new set of questions.

Living in a Material World

Most of the resistance to framing alien abduction experiences as a cultural analog to individual psychosis stems from a form of reductionism that dictates that only matter is real.

Science tells us that images, experiences, emotions, sensations--all of these universal dimensions of human existence are merely reflections of or reactions to the primary reality of physical matter.

As refections, science says, images are often distortions; as  reactions, both experience and emotion are highly subjective and unreliable. Only a detached observer rigorously trained in the scientific method can sift out the underlying physical reality; the only reality that is really real.

This is the mainstream view, anyway.

Craving authority and epistemological legitimacy, ufologists therefore accept this view and try hard to 'prove' the physical reality of UFOs. They bristle at any kind of psychologized, mythological, or creative interpretation of their subject.

Most ufologists rigorously reject the testimony of anyone who may be the least the bit unstable (sic: mentally ill) and they almost always make a big point of vouching for the sanity and ordinariness of their witnesses. If UFOs, alien abductions, or any of the common features of such phenomena are  frequently found in psychotic delusions, they certainly don't want to know about it--much less include that fact in their data.

Weirdly, ufology and mainstream science start from the same premise: that only physical matter is real.

Ufology says, the evidence overwhelmingly points to the material reality of UFOs and aliens. Science says, bring us a corpse and a fusilage or get lost.

That is a very boring (and also very dated) discussion.

And yet it's been going on for over 60 years.

More Things in Heaven and Earth

Weirdly, this material version of reality is already obsolete, and science knows it.

Science knows, for instance, that there is really no such thing as a detached observer; that the very act of observation impacts and alters the behavior of whatever is being observed. This dictum has not been handed down from Star Trek, but rather from quantum mechanics; an especially difficult branch of theoretical physics that is already busily imaging parallel universes--tons of them.

OK, this is not where I make the argument that, "Hey, aliens are from parallel universes!"

Maybe they are. Maybe they aren't. Who really knows?

That's not the point of this essay.  The truth is, quantum mechanics is hard to understand, and if you want to really irritate a quantum theorist, just start babbling about how that branch of physics proves absolutely that aliens are popping into your bedroom while you sleep, or whatever other pet New Age belief you currently hold.

Seriously, they hate that kind of thing.

The point of this essay is that the paradigm used by both ufologists and scientists to investigate and discuss UFOs and alien abductions (the one that says only matter is 'real'), is already obsolete and everyone knows it. So why not try something else?

That's where Laing's theory comes in handy.

Abduction as Parody
Campy depictions of alien beings as they carry off swooning terrestrial females have populated pulp fiction and B-movies for decades.

Before that, as early as the late 19th century, Freud, Charcot, and others performed the same feat in front of eager audiences of male medical professionals--in that earlier case using female 'hysterics' and the new discipline of hypnosis.

(See my previous post for some illustrations of this emblematic pose.)

The similarity of the female posture in all these illustrations and its relationship to 1) male authority, then 2) robots, then 3) big-eyed aliens is visually striking and symbolically telling.

First there is the extreme control (of the hynotist) and the total submission (of the female patient). Control calcifies into a robotic agenda, with robotic others now carrying off swooning women. Finally, the robots morph into monstrous alien 'others' with huge eyes (recalling the hypnosis cliche, "Look into my eyes...) who carry off prone women.

The scene dramatizes extreme control mirrored by extreme lack of control, but it quickly moves from a male/female human agenda (male hypnosis of women with an invented illness), to an increasingly psychotic displacement in which the agent of control is not the male dominated intellectual establishment, but a feared 'other' that becomes stranger and stranger and more and more alien and monstrous.

The scene can be understood as a symbolic image that portrays the Western intellectual tradition in the midst of a complete psychotic break.

More than one alien abduction researcher has noted that the typical abduction experience resembles a symbolic mockery of how contemporary human science actually proceeds: by use of advanced technology that is devoid of basic emotion, an inability to reproduce (in science, imagery and emotion are invalidated as legitimate ways of knowing), and an obsession with human sexuality and control and yet a complete inability to make the simplest human connection.

In other words, the aliens are us. Or a mockery of us.

In my next post I'll raise some issues and questions that naturally follow when alien abduction experiences are viewed as an artifact or symbolic depiction of a kind of cultural psychotic breakdown.

The main question of course is this:

If alien abduction experiences are a symbolic parody of Western science, is this parody generated by humanity itself?  (As Jung and company theorized in the 1950s.)

Or is something else--something not-human--trying to tell us something using its own highly condensed visual language?


  1. Wow! I truly enjoyed reading this! You raise a good question. Is it humanity or a highly intelligent other communicating with its own "highly condensed visualy language"?

    I too see the large eyes in art work as a recurrent theme and I always wonder why. Hmmm...

  2. Thank you so much Ann! I really, really appreciate you wading through this. I've thought about it a lot and about the art connection you have noticed yourself (that's why I used the Magritte reproductions as illustrations). You really made my day by commenting and 'getting' it! :)