A Mirror In The Sky
The Cultural Role of Aliens
Cosmology and Culture
International Anti-Copyright March 21, 1997
Regardless of whether intelligent life exists on other planets, it exists within the cultural mind of western society. Simply because its empirical validity is questionable does not mean that we cannot learn a great deal about human society from the form of the alien. Could you expect an individual to define their identity without comparing themself to other people around them? Of course not. Similarly, the nature of extraterrestrial, as experienced through science fiction, popular culture, and the historical context of the "other," is to define who and what humanity is, by comparison. In our changing world, as we approach a global consciousness, the ubiquitous (though not by any means desirable) adoption of western culture and the brutal rationality of science, as dominant modes of thought, the identity and rightful role of humanity will need to be defined. In the past, "we" were defined by our relation to god, and other cultures. As these things began to disappear, the alien, that which is foreign, began to take their places as a tool for self definition.
How do we define who we are through the perception of the other? Western tradition has looked at the other for definition of itself since the discovery/invention of the overarching concept of "mankind" when the new world was discovered and distant places began to be explored.
The discovery of difference was profound. No one has ever been compelled to study and classify the differences between the house fly and the human- they are so obvious and blatant that there is no need to examine them. The precise reason that we began to study other cultures is because huge similarities exist alongside of huge differences between various groups of people. We could see that these people were just like us, and yet they were also profoundly different. What were the factors that made such similar beings come up with such divergent views? And why did some symbols and ideas (the higher being or god present in almost all theologies, for example) evolve parallel to each other seemingly spontaneously? For the same reasons, a study of the similarities between a housefly and and a person would be profound, but the study of differences is ridiculous. In short, we subconsciously recognized that these people were our brethren and wondered how they could be different and yet the same.
As explored by Bernard McGrane in Beyond Anthropology, the Western view of the other went through many changes. Before the discovery of the new world and the far east, no real concept of humanity existed. There were categories for different types of people, but there was no overarching category of Homo Sapiens that contained all the groups. When the exploration of the world by Western powers began, the objective was to spread the gospel of Christianity across the planet. Why were these people different? The primary achievement of Western society up to that point was seen as the acceptance of Christ as savior. So the other was viewed as evil, as humans corrupted by the original sin, worshiping deities that were representations of the devil. The only way for any Christian to behave towards these people was, of course, to bring them the truth and give them a chance to achieve salvation. (McGrane, 7-18)
In the Enlightenment, with the split between religion and science, the Western view of the other left the framework of Christianity and metamorphosed into the view that the other was in error. This forgave the other a bit, saying that they had simply misinterpreted the world and could be brought to see the truth a bit easier.
With the birth of theories of geology and evolution and the new ideas about the age of the planet earth, the other found a place on a temporal spectrum. The other was neither wrong nor evil, but simply primitive. They had not yet reached the state that western society had, and the assumption was that in time, with our help, all peoples could be brought to our level of supreme technological and intellectual development. This view presumed a deterministic trajectory for human culture, and Western industry was seen as the greatest state yet achieved by humanity.
The view of the other most commonly accepted today, is the view of the other as differing along the spectrum of culture. This view attempts to destroy all prejudices, saying simply that other people are different, but, just as the nineteenth century anthropologists thought they were being infinitely liberal and open-minded when they said that other people were only separated from us by time, it is likely that multiculturalism harbors some unconscious prejudices.
There is not very much literature on the other's perception of us or of a third party/other. Perhaps this is because western tradition has overlooked this point of view, as it implies an equivalence with the Western introspection and identity crisis, which is seen as the most evolved state of culture reached so far. But I am rather inclined to think that it is because other cultures care little for the Western view and the Western solution to life in general. Why does Western society, then, search for who we are in other peoples? Are we, the supposed epitome of evolved, civilized society, having an identity crisis of monumental proportions?
Perhaps on some collectively not-quite-conscious level we feel that our solution, capitalism and industry, ruthless rationalism and logic divorced from religion and emotion, is not quite right. We search other cultures not only for other solutions, but for similarity to ourselves-because if we found a people who were happy and yet believed in the same institutions and practices, we would not only be justified, but would have a cultural model to help solve our existentialistic identity crisis, and define our identity.
However, Western society, first through military and economic imperialism and colonialism, and now through subtler economic and cultural variations of imperialism, is destroying other cultures. Soon there will be no real other left, and the mythical other, through fiction, and other mediums, will be our primary method of self definition. It seems that we are on a road to increasing our identity crisis, not decreasing it.
Science fiction, a new genre created and catapulted to popularity in just over a hundred years, can offer us some insight into our perception of the other and our identity as a species. As we catalog and destroy other cultures, we find that science fiction helps take the place of the dialogue about who we are and how we relate to the other. As Mark Rose details in Alien Encounters, science fiction as a whole can be taken as an exploration of ourselves through the device of the alien, whether the alien be machine, monster, or distorted humanity. In fact, the categories of viewing the other used in exploration of the world can be very easily applied to science fiction, with the possible addition of one more category, the other as inscrutable.
The other as inscrutable is a case in which an alien species is discovered, but contact, or full communication, cannot be established, because of sheer difference between the alien and the human. Many examples of this can be found in science fiction, notably in the works of Stanislaw Lem, among others. In Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, a much discussed novel where scientists study a conscious ocean that is far more intelligent than humans, the other appears as inscrutable because it is so different and so much more intelligent. This is a sort of existentialist anthropology. The other may be inscrutable because its cognitive processes and communication methods are radically different than ours, or it may be inscrutable because its intellect is inferior or superior to ours.
The inferior and superior in science fiction reveals a second set of categories to us as well. In the exploration of the world, other cultures were almost always technologically inferior and usually this was interpreted to mean that they were intellectually inferior as well. But in science fiction no such limitations apply. The alien can either be inferior, equivalent, or superior to us. Interestingly, in science fiction as well as in anthropology, technology and intellect are usually paired (although not always). This reveals that we still hold technology to be an important measure of our development as a species. And when technology and intellect are not synonymous, the other can be a comment on that very conviction.
The inferior and superior can be looked at as a cultural history and cultural goals. The inferior is portrayed usually as an evil, as a mirror of the mistakes that we made in the past, or mistakes that we should be warned against making in the future. We often do battle with the inferior, at first appearing as a threat but in the end defeated by human ingenuity. Two popular examples of the inferior as a warning are the Daleks, from the popular British television program Doctor Who, and the Borg, from the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Daleks were modeled after the NAZI SS. Their military, hierarchical culture and their goal of eradicating all biological life are a warning to us and a remembrance of past mistakes. The Borg were made into a symbol of cultural uniformity, consumerist and industrial shortsightedness, and our society's addiction to technology, for the recent Star Trek movie First Contact.
The superior are usually portrayed as godlike, with a greater perception of good and evil, and a greater philosophy. In William Gibson's books about sentient computers, particularly Neuromancer and Count Zero, the sentient computer is far more complex than the human brain and thus has a greater view of what is good and bad. The computer can communicate with and understand humans, but humans cannot always completely comprehend the computer's motivations. The long-lived subspecies of humanity dealt with in many of Robert Heinlein's novels, capable of living hundreds or even thousands of years before dying of old age, and practically immortal through future medicine, has a much more enlightened perspective on humanity and the universe simply through extended observation.
In the superior we can sometimes see a Faustian flaw, and through this the alien becomes a picture of what traps await us in the future. The Faustian alien appears in a Star Trek episode entitled The Mark of Gideon. Captain Kirk and his crew encounter a race of aliens that is technologically and intellectually superior race who are trapped by a disease of their own invention, forming a warning against technology gone awry.
When the other is equivalent to us in technology and intellect, science fiction can impart another type of message about our identity. Making the other as equivalent allows us to contemplate the categories proposed by McGrane. The equivalent other is different through culture, through time, or through interpretation of the world. Because they are equivalent, these aliens can be brought to our level, or us to theirs, and this shows us which of our traits are contingent on time and which are contingent on human nature, if it exists at all.
A decade after Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' War Of The Worlds, during which many people were fooled into thinking that Martians had landed in New Jersey and were in the process of taking over the earth and were eradicating humanity, the alien began to be manifested outside of the world of science fiction.
In the summer of 1947, "flying saucers" were sighted all over the nation. This was not a rash of tabloids covering stories about aliens meeting with President Clinton. This was front page news for the San Francisco Chronicle on July third, and the sixth through the tenth. The culmination of these sightings came on July eighth and ninth, when a report issued by a military official stated, quite confidently, that a flying saucer had been recovered, crashed in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico. The next day, the analysis was amended, and the debris was identified by the military as a weather balloon.
There are those who insist that a spacecraft containing alien astronauts crashed in Roswell and was secretly taken by the U.S. military for devious purposes. Some claim to be more rational about the incident, countering that the whole thing was a monumental mistake, where some overimaginative individuals misinterpreted a bit of debris and were a part of a social phenomenon that continues to this day.
Regardless of the truth, these events marked a beginning of a belief in aliens visiting this planet. The form of these aliens, too, can be studied, and we can learn about ourselves through our interpretation of them.
In 1994, John Mack, a respected Harvard psychologist, published Abduction, which was immediately hailed as the landmark first step to a scientific treatment of the alien abduction experience as a real event, and not the ravings of overimaginative people. Mack clearly tried to remain as scientific as possible in the examination of the phenomenon. However, it appears that at some point he faltered and began to believe in the experiences of his patients, which is understandable because they are so compelling. But when one of his patients describes a past life where he is a Pre-Colombian Susquehannok, including the description of a battle that culminated in the scalping of the dead, Mack's mistakes become evident.
The first thing that came to his mind after a long pause was that he was a Native American boy, ... of the susquehannok tribe....This was in a time "before the Indians knew about the white man."(Mack, 284)
Mack's patient then goes on to describe himself in dying in battle,
"The next thing I knew I was away from my body." He saw his body lying on its back below and also one of the Iroquois bending over him and cutting off his scalp.(Mack, 285)
Scalping is a tradition that was instituted by the white settlers: Mack's patient could not have been a Pre-Colombian Iroquois scalping the dead because they did not scalp the dead. Mack has failed to check his patient's story; instead, it sounds good, so we accept it at face value. Not only that, but he fails to give any explanation for past life experiences or even question their validity, giving the reader the impression that he believes in past lives so strongly that they require no explanation.
It is important to note that just because Mack's argument that these experiences are real is not convincing, that is no reason to treat the a/c/e as some kind of wacko. The event is real to the a/c/e, and they should be treated with the utmost respect. Some of Mack's patients went to psychologists who were not willing to keep an open mind, and their conditions often worsened. When treated by Mack, many of his patients became happier and more able to deal with the powerful emotions surrounding their experiences, and for this he deserves great praise.
One of Mack's main objective in bringing this phenomenon to our attention is to convince us that there are some things that cannot be explained by our current Western scientific world view. His patients are not lying: to that extent Mack is completely convincing. But neither can I accept what they are saying as true. So something else needs to be invoked; Mack claims that we need to accept these being's existence on some other-than-physical reality. Another explanation became apparent to me as I was reading Abductions, which I shall come to soon.
Just because belief in alien abductions as hard facts is problematic does not mean that anyone should ignore them. In fact, they may even offer us more insight into our collective identity if they are not real, because then they come entirely from within us. In the interpretation of the alien's message we can see our own view of ourselves.
The basic alien encounter outlined by Mack follows a simple pattern. Aliens come to the abductee/experiencer/contactee(a/c/e) at night, while the a/c/e is driving on secluded roads or sleeping, and the a/c/e awakens to find that s/he is paralyzed or hypnotized. The aliens communicate telepathically not to be afraid, and the a/c/e is taken out of their house/car to a room, usually in a craft, by way of a beam of light. Often the a/c/e and/or the aliens pass through walls, doors or windows on their way. Once on the ship, the a/c/e can be subject to any or all of four basic experiences.
1. The a/c/e is subjected to medical procedure, often highly intrusive and painful, usually involving reproductive organs such as ovaries, womb, or penis, or parts of the nervous system such as the brain or spine.
2. The a/c/e has sex with someone on the ship, either an alien, a human, or another hybrid. This sex can be pleasant or unpleasant, consensual or nonconsensual but is often a murky combination of all these.
3. The a/c/e, is introduced to other humans, aliens, and most commonly, hybrids, often children, whom the aliens want the a/c/e to interact with.
4. The a/c/e discusses with the aliens certain aspects of western society, and the aliens tell the a/c/e that there is something wrong with the direction that human society is heading, often leading to environmental destruction.
Taken as fact, this makes little logical sense. Human technology can perform far more intrusive medical experiments with far less pain and trauma than the alien's procedures. It is even quite conceivable that well prepared humans could drug people, abduct them from the safety of their own home while sleeping, perform all sorts of tests, and then return the people, intact, and the people might feel horrible in the morning but they would never know that they had been abducted and tested.
It is also likely that if a species had developed the level of technology sufficient to travel to earth from wherever they came, they could at least avoid detection by the feeble humans who can't even go to the moon without a great deal of trouble. Yet there are countless reports of flying saucers, by ground observers, pilots, air traffic controllers, and radar operators. The aliens tell a/c/es that they are not intended to remember their experiences, and yet many times will lecture about the need for humanity to change it's practices and attitudes in order to survive, a seemingly pointless lecture if the a/c/es are not intended to remember their experiences. And yet many of Mack's patients had conscious recall of their abduction even previous to being hypnotized. If rational motivation is applied to these beings, their actions make little sense.
Only a few explanations of alien behavior seem to work. One is that the alien's motives require the a/c/e be conscious and aware of these events, and that perhaps the procedures are not as important as their psychological effects. This implies that the aliens are more knowledgeable than humans and more skilled at manipulating us psychologically than we are. This clearly places them higher on the western continuum of development of cultures- superior to us. We seem to be forced to accept that these beings are superior and their motivations and the effects of their actions are unguessable from our point of view.
If, however, we are to look at the classical alien abduction as a fiction, mythological, symbolic, or religious experience, a much greater order emerges. The abduction experience can be seen as a revelation, where the a/c/e undergoes trauma symbolic of the trauma that a paradigm shift in the world view that the aliens propose would cause. The a/c/e is used to create a hybrid between alien and human, symbolic of the synthesis of two cultures two points of view. The a/c/e is now a messenger for the new awareness, much the same as those who have had a religious experience. The alien is seen as superior in intellect and technology, and like aliens in science fiction, can be interpreted as a guide for us.
The abduction experience is felt by the experiencer as real. This is the most compelling piece of evidence for the reality of these experiences. The a/c/e is often shocked when forced to accept that the abduction is a real event. The a/c/e usually previously believes that the abduction is not a real event, but a dream or imagination. The abduction is often at the root of psychological problems; many people have fears of intimacy and sex and of being alone at night because of their experiences. Some people feel stuck into a system that they cannot escape but that they know through the aliens is wrong.
But, to look at these abductions as stories, we can glean a great deal of meaning from them. They fit the category of the superior other, not entirely decipherable, and benevolent. They have evolved to a point where they are without need of our violence or our verbal language, they seem to have comfortable social relations and in short, they are a model for us. Someday, we can become like them. Their attention to us tells us not only that we are not alone, among the intelligent races in the universe, but also that we can communicate with at least some of those alien races. And it tells us that we can solve our internal problems, and that someone else cares for us.
In the alien's messages we can also see a little more about who we think we are. It is interesting to note that an abduction that took place in the fifties, described in Angels: An Endangered Species by Malcolm Godwin, the aliens (they were perceived as aliens, not angels in this specific incidence) imparted to the a/c/e that their goal for humanity was to help prevent the spread of communism. All of the aliens described in Mack that made their agendas clear said they were here on a mission to stop the environmental destruction of the earth. So it appears that either the aliens are guiding us through periods of development, or they provide a crystal ball through which we can see what we perceive to be the most dangerous threats to humanity in the minds of the people. If this is true it would be tremendously heartening, because it would mean that the environmental movement has a great deal of support.
Angels presents a compelling case for the similarities between angels and aliens. Godwin outlines thirteen points of angel/alien similarity. Here they are, shortened:
1. Both are otherworldly.
2. They are superior entities, closer to perfection.
3. They are benevolent and androgynous.
4. They speak the contactee's native tongue.
5. Both carry a message for humanity, to be imparted through the individual.
6. They can fly and move supernaturally; use disks, wheels or saucers.
7. Both are beings of light, their faces shine, and eyes enrapture.
8. Both give the contactee the impression of "goodness, kindliness" and "peaceful harmony".
9. They are generally clothed in blue or white, close fitting tunics, or robes.
10. Both are human sized. Angels can be up to 8 feet, aliens are usually smaller.
11. They are concerned with humanity's lot and their message has great importance to us.
12. Both give the impression of being brethren of humanity.
13. The evidence is subjective, the witness and witnessed are linked together.
Godwin's last point may be the most striking: here is Mack's thesis revisited from a different point of view. Mack insists that this phenomenon be viewed outside objective reality, and Godwin proposes that the phenomenon is entwined in subjective individual reality. Alien abductions could be the same phenomenon as the religious sightings of angels, simply interpreted through the dominant cosmology of the culture and the individual. In the middle ages in Europe, Christianity is invoked to explain the mystery; In the "enlightened" scientific age, technology and science are used to explain the alien.
One thing is clear, however. In the middle ages, our society had a method of interpreting this phenomenon. The message could be listened to by the society, whether its source was a higher power, an alien, or the society itself. As evidenced by Mack's patients, people who experience alien abductions are treated like aliens themselves by their friends, family, psychologists, and society as a whole. This is only the tip of the iceberg as far as how much we have sacrificed to our purely scientific, abstract, anti-mythological point of view.
Aliens are, above all, a measure of what we can imagine. And whatever we have imagined has already made the perilous first step to realization. Aliens can be seen, finally, as a measure of our own perceived potential. If we can imagine a race of people who are happy, intelligent, kind, and at peace with each other and their surroundings, can we not make it come true? Let the unexplained live in mystery for a while, and it becomes a breeding ground for dreams and hopes. We need aliens, because they help us remember that the sky's the limit.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer; Ace Books, New York, 1984 and Count Zero, Ace Books, New York, 1986
Godwin, Malcolm. Angels: An Endangered Species; Simon and Schuster, London, 1990.
Mack, John E. Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens; Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1994
McGrane, Bernard. Beyond Anthropology: Society and the Other; Columbia University Press, New York, 1989
Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1981