“[The] metaphorical flashing light between memories, utterances, or texts flashes with the beam of a UFO. The UFO is, in part, an expressive vehicle through which people poetically intensify and heighten the resonance between texts, and feel the flash of apophenia. Talking about UFOs, people say: Connect the dots!”
So writes Susan Lepselter in her magnificent ethnography The Resonance of Unseen Things, where she describes a distinctly American vernacular poetics among UFO communities of the 1990s. She interlaces first-person narratives of alien encounters with popular media about UFOs, talk of everyday life, fantastic tales, government conspiracy, and religious fervor. As I read, I cannot help but connect these flashing ethnographic dots to German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, for whom flashy moments were central to his idea of the “dialectical image,” that which snaps together a synthesis of past and present, rife with the buzz of emergent commodity forms. Lepselter dwells in the “flash of apophenia,” or “the experience of perceiving connections between random or unrelated objects.”
Both Benjamin and Lepselter ask the reader to consider the “flashing” as critical method. Benjamin is focused on the flashing up of an “image” that renders a constellation of new connections, while Lepselter hones in on flashes of an inchoate yet deeply felt sense of secret meaning that among other things signals shared trauma. In both authors’ methodologies, we see the contours of a distinctly modern experience, even as these approaches destabilize universal claims to linear progress, the annihilation of magic and superstition, and the dominance of rationality. Traveling across nearly a century of historical time, so much is compacted here in this profound and enigmatically articulated “flash.”
For Lepselter, it is less Benjamin and more Sigmund Freud that offers her a method. In particular, she draws from Freud’s famous essay on the “uncanny.” There he describes the experience of “involuntary repetition,” wherein random events occurring in proximity are experienced as vaguely, often disturbingly, meaningful. However, Freud considered himself a paragon of the Enlightenment, and psychoanalysis an adequate scientific apparatus to discipline the dark waters of irrationality, myth, magic, and psychosis in the world. Uncanny experiences, for Freud, were only possible for a “modern” or “enlightened” subject for whom the historical rupture constituting modernity also constituted the self. E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s Azande narrators would take witchcraft, or connections made by magical thinking, for granted.
Lepselter’s writing performs the structure of this uncanny connection-making through a plurality of distinct but harmonizing narratives. Some are circuitous and some are fragmentary, but in each the flash of the UFO reveals neither the fantastic nor fact but rather an unfinished sense that there is always something more.
Flash Up #1: Magic in Post-2016 America
For the last few years I have taught an undergraduate course called Magic, Witchcraft and Religion at a regional university in the American South. The class is large and regularly fills up, and even before my time here it was always packed. And as I am interested in why students enroll in this course, I frequently ask them. Some will rationalize. The course fulfills a general college requirement, but so do many other classes that, unlike a course on magic, offer “practical” information for gainful employment post-graduation. The utilitarian response is so obviously inadequate, but not dishonest. So I wonder, what to make of the inarticulable undertow sweeping students into this course?
In 2018 and as we looked back on two years of the Trump administration, it seemed clear that certain affects that were previously subtle have become palpable, even surging, across our everyday worlds. In college classrooms a bright red MAGA cap appears, and one detects an anxious spark of awareness. Reports of anti-Semitic graffiti circulate in administrative emails. Norse themed tattoos or vague web comics produce a vague unknowing that feels sinister. Not a day goes by without talk of the latest trend in viciously polemical internet meming. And all of this occurs in the general context of conspiracy-talk, about who or what is threatening the community, the campus, or the nation.
I start class with a simple question: “Who in this room thinks or talks about ‘magic’ in their everyday lives?” Most people nod. But soon the stories tumble forth.
“My family is religious, and I used to be too. But since I got to college I started following blogs or Instagram pages about brujería and self-care. It helps when I feel anxious.”
“I am interested in witchcraft, but there’s a lot of negativity online about it. A lot of bullying in forums where you are supposed to be able to talk about it.”
“I have a lot of student loans and the whole idea of looking for a job someday is really stressful. I got into online fantasy role playing games. It’s what got me into thinking about myth.”
The students are mostly white—but not all. Many identify as gender-fluid. They are of increasingly varying class backgrounds as tuition fees rise due to state defunding of public education and there is more outreach to a new class of wealth coming out of financial or tech hubs. Upwardly mobile students mix with town locals that include day laborers, the chronically underemployed, artisans, various professionals, and retirees from Florida with fancy vacation homes.
Of her informants from the Hillview UFO Experiencers group to the Little A’Le’Inn, Lepselter writes, “[Y]ou don’t need a Christian paradigm (nor any explicit ideology). . . . You need a specific orientation toward power, an inchoate sense of your own distance from its invisible source.” From hundreds of students converging in my course on magic in 2018, I sense a similarly obscured and multiply fractured orientation to power. It resonates between people, and among anonymous hostile entities. Familiar social categories and modes of causation cannot define and control the world around them. Myth, magic, fantasy video games, internet meme wars, and the resurgence of witchcraft are both “impractical” to a thoroughly neoliberalized economy, and yet vital and flashy in the everyday worlds of 2018 trembling with portent. Eco-cide, “fake news,” wildfires, political intrigue, and the list goes on.
Flash #2: Counter Flash
I mentioned to a friend that I was writing this response to a book on UFO narratives that draws heavily on Freud. She told me she was at that moment grading papers from her class on UFOs, but was herself drawing heavily from C. G. Jung because, though Freud did not live long enough to encounter UFO discourse, Jung wrote an entire book he titled Flying Saucers. In short, Jung wanted to understand UFOs as a collective myth with a psychic cause. Lepselter does not mention Jung, and many of us are accustomed to detouring around his work. But the tension between Freud and his former protégé-cum-rival here is compelling. In Joel Whitebook’s biography of Sigmund Freud he comments on the split between Freud and Jung, characterizing Jung as a figure of the Counter Enlightenment who “sought to dismantle modernity and somehow ‘re-enchant’ the world.” On the other hand, Freud regarded the project of psychoanalysis as “complet[ing] the project of modernity and the disenchantment of the world.”
Lepselter’s book does not seek to do either, though she finds Freud’s notion of the uncanny “productive . . . to describe the real, unfinalized coconstructions of modernity and nostalgia.” Jung’s approach is a great foil for thinking about the stakes of Lepselter’s project, as she does not attempt to unify nor to exoticize UFO matters under a banner of anti-modernism, as Jung sought to do with alchemy, magic, and Native American mythologies. In fact, as if speaking to the specter of Jung, she says from the very beginning: “This is not a book about UFOs. It’s not a history of UFO belief, nor a sociology of believers.” The difficult task here is to take seriously a structure of belief while keeping one’s ethnographic material safe from appropriation by reactionary discourses of the Counter-Enlightenment, whose resurgence since 2016 is worthy of pause.
Flash #3: Flashing Up as Method
The Resonance of Unseen Things is one of those books that flashes up as a revelation in method. It flashes up in the “cadence of revelation,” much in the way that Lepselter quotes her friend Randall as he makes baroque monologues that connect New World Orders, the devil, and college graduates. The book flashes up as a return of Freud’s uncanny in what Lepselter calls “its most social register,” as communities of believers push against the grain of a forward-sailing modernity. Lepselter discloses the intertextual processes by which humans make pattern-recognition of their lived experience into American vernacular works of art. This brings to mind, again, the resonance with Walter Benjamin across this text. He writes: “In the field with which we are concerned, knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.” The Resonance of Unseen Things rumbles in the wake of a brilliant flash.