When I was growing up in Colorado, I used to fantasize about getting, well, not so much abducted as politely whisked away by aliens. My uncle had told me riveting stories about being taken aboard a UFO when he was serving in the Air Force out West, so I had good reason to believe it was possible. Sometimes when no one was watching, I would go out among the silent pine trees and shine a flashlight up into the night sky, flickering phatic signals so that anyone up there watching would know I was good to go. I thought through a list of the resources I would need to quickly assemble—my parents’ Encyclopedia Britannica was the lynchpin of my plan—to teach the extraterrestrials about human civilization, its achievements and follies. Weaned on pick-a-path adventures and Twilight Zone reruns, I figured a pustular little American kid with a homing signal on a lonely mountaintop was as good a specimen as any. It was the 1980s, and I just knew I was bound for something bigger than junior high.
It was hard for me to resist supplementing Susan Lepselter’s The Resonance of Unseen Things, a book of alien abduction narratives, with my own memories or cathecting it with my own feelings. It’s a writerly text, in Roland Barthes’s sense, one that carefully invites readers to invest and project themselves. “The writerly text,” Barthes says, “is ourselves writing”—that is, as readers—“before the infinite play of the world . . . is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system.” Being a writerly kind of text, The Resonance of Unseen Things is also a weird ethnography. It pushes readers propulsively forward with the promise of disclosure but without ever quite disclosing what, exactly, it is an ethnography of. But then I think that almost-but-not-quite deferral of expectations is precisely the point. Lepselter’s text is a magisterial enactment of the thing that it is ultimately about: American weirdness.
“Weirdness,” a term that recurs throughout The Resonance of Unseen Things, could have many meanings. On one level, it clearly has something to do with a project of enchantment (or reënchantment). “Weird things,” Lepselter writes in the book, are “the index to a something more.” They intimate, she continues, that “maybe the terrible things that happened in life took place, in part, because of larger structures and patterns. Maybe the wounds you suffer are caused by paradigmatic forces and structures beyond what you can see.”
Here, I was reminded of the equivalence between god and society that Emile Durkheim draws in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Durkheim contrasts the relatively joyous rites of the Arrente totemic cult with the “cruel expiations” that would come only when “the jealous and terrible gods” made their appearance “later in religious development. Primitive societies are not Leviathans that overwhelm man with the enormity of their power and subject him to harsh discipline.” The United States, as it emerges from Lepselter’s ethnography, is, however, just such a sadistic Leviathan, subjecting people to addiction, sex work, and loss “within the ubiquitous American master narrative of freedom, the prescriptive for personal independence that is supposed to be a staple and a birthright as well as an expectation to live up to.” Stories of UFO captivity become a collective representation for a network of people who feel themselves “caught in a structural something that extends beyond [their] own choices . . . somehow caught. Stuck.” What captivates them?
“As a way to begin seeing those things that have become invisible,” Lepselter explains, UFO experiencers cultivate what she calls apophenia, “the experience of perceiving connections between random or unrelated objects.” This sensory attunement to weirdness allows them to excavate buried memories of abduction by and captivity among extraterrestrials. It also bears a striking resemblance to another modality of enchantment that has been widely documented among charismatic Christians in the contemporary United States. Tanya Luhrmann calls it “metakinesis,” the ecstatic experience of divine immanence in everyday life. Just as UFO experiencers systematically cultivate apophenia, Jon Bialecki describes how charismatic Christians cultivate the ability to pick out “quotidian events . . . having a surprising saliency that cannot be accounted for. This saliency is usually framed as the statistically improbable, the physically impossible, the aesthetically striking, or the uncanny. It often involves the crossing of bodily boundaries,” and through careful training of the senses, one can learn to recognize it as “God’s speech.”
In Luhrmann’s and Bialecki’s ethnographies, American Christians cultivate the ability to attend to God’s speech in church and in small study groups, learning to describe and tell stories about it, and taking it as a constitutive feature of community membership. Similarly, among UFO experiencers, “a flash of the weird . . . becomes an identity, a cultivated speech genre, an epistemology, a politics, and a kind of sacred ground.” Continuing down the Durkheimian path, I can’t help but wonder what the parallel cultivation of apophenia (for UFO experiencers) and metakinesis (for charismatic Christians) tells us about the enchantment of weirdness—or the weirdness of enchantment—in the context of contemporary American secularism. (There is also a parallelism in terms of the difficulties both groups face in using volatile forms of visionary experience as a basis for stable social organization.)
If weirdness is a form of enchantment, it can also be, Lepselter shows, a sublimation of guilty conscience. Lurking within white Americans’ narratives of alien abduction, she locates the historical residue of Africans abducted and enslaved, echoes of native American children abducted and shipped off to boarding school. Abduction discourse indexes the sinister weirdness of an American normalcy built on the foundations of racism, enslavement, genocide, and settler colonialism. Through a kind of apophenia, A Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 song “Space Program” imposed itself as a soundtrack for my reading of The Resonance of Things Unseen. The song warns of a future where, having irreparably poisoned the Earth, white Americans flee to outer space, leaving the poor and people of color to perish on a dying planet: “They taking off to Mars, got the space vessels overflowing/ What, you think they want us there? All us niggas not going.” It sounds like a conspiracy theory but, given the very real injustices ATCQ enumerates (systemic racism, gentrification, police brutality, and more)—the feeling of being “caught in a structural something,” as Lepselter puts it— this Afrofuturist dystopia seems altogether plausible.
There is a kernel of secrecy at the core of any conspiracy theory. The UFO coverup conspiracy theory clearly took root alongside burgeoning US state secrecy. As Joe Masco and Peter Galison have persuasively argued, during the Cold War, an atmosphere of geopolitical peril justified an expansion of classified governmental activities that, in turn, heightened the collective sense of paranoia. In this sense, the Area 51 coverup conspiracy theory, which looms so large in Lepselter’s ethnography, is, at the very least, an intelligible reaction to a yawning chasm of governmental opacity. For literary theorist Frank Kermode, the suspicion that a concealed meaning lurks hidden in a text justifies the hermeneutic enterprise. Conspiracy theory, in this sense, offers a hermeneutics of state secrecy—a reading in a register of apophenia.
But state secrecy isn’t, after all, what The Resonance of Unseen Things is really about either. What matters to Lepselter, I think, is why conspiracy theories interpellate conspiracy theorists. Why do people find themselves in narratives of alien abduction? Again, she does not give an easy answer, but there are repeated hints that a part of the story has much to do with injuries of class. People drawn to UFO narratives exhibit the “vague and unspoken shame of striving for cultural authority without born-to-privilege ease,” display “the value the workingman places on his craft,” and enact “the autodidactical quest for truth, a register too easily dismissed by established intellectual arenas.” I am reminded of Misty Bastian’s observation that, most ghost hunters in rural Pennsylvania “are working class or of working class origin. They value the opportunity to remind the larger society that they were once the helpers and doers, people who mattered in essential ways to the construction of this country. Among the ghosts—in the old bars, storage rooms, factory floors and military sites—the researchers feel comfortable and needed, not swept aside or discarded, not ignored.”
So class—along with race, historical trauma, state secrecy, secularism, and enchantment—is part of the story, but still not all.
Arraying all these dots in meaningful patterns, but leaving them partially unconnected, Lepselter interpellates us as apophenic readers. Typical anthropological narratives, as Lilith Mahmud writes, are often constructed around the trope of the ethnographer’s journey from ignorance to knowledge of others’ secrets, which, once concealed, are now revealed. The Resonance of Unseen Things doesn’t quite work like that. It rather is something akin to an initiatory ritual that intimates, through avoidance, the incontrovertible presence of something not just unseen, but unseeable.
In my own moments of apophenia, I often found myself captivated by the polysemy of abduction—for instance, when Lepselter says that “traumatic abductions” are “the ground tropes for uncanny conspiracy theories.” Does “abduction” here refer to the kidnapping of people by aliens or rather the logical operation that C. S. Peirce defined as the drawing of an inference based on conjecture from limited evidence? For UFO experiencers, abduction (snatching people) is a form of abduction (snatching evidence); for ethnographers, abduction (snatching evidence) is a form of abduction (snatching people). I think Lepselter wants to avoid being abductive in either sense, which is why she gives us so many weird stories telles quelles. But as readers, how can we not abduct them?