11 September 2016


Susan Lepselter. The Resonance of Unseen Things; Politics, Power, Captivity and UFOs in the American Uncanny. University of Michigan Press, 2016.

Back in the day, when UFO UpDates ruled the UFO world, with rapier-sharp cut and thrust between the giants of ufology, one criticism which was levelled at Magonia – mainly by Jerome Clark – was that we indulged in ‘literary criticism’ rather than serious, scientific, UFO research.
It never seemed clear exactly what Clark meant by this, presumably that in Magonia we were more interested in analysing the stories that the UFO witnesses and experiencers told, rather than discussing the actual physical phenomenon that created those experiences.

Of course, in nearly all cases the story, or ‘narrative’, is the only evidence we have that the individual did actually experience something out of the ordinary. However we never accepted the premise that we only studied the narrative as an object in its own right, having no existence outside the circumstances in which it was related.

This present book would undoubtedly be dismissed as ‘literary criticism’ by the old UpDates contributors, and perhaps with a little more justification. Lipselter is an anthropologist, and her interest in UFOs is through the people who experience them and the societies they inhabit. She certainly takes her fieldwork seriously, not only joining a UFO ‘experiencers’ group in ‘Hillview’ (an anonymised city somewhere in the US South West) but also working as a waitress at the Little A’Le’Inn at Rachel, Nevada, adjoining the infamous Area 51.

She makes it clear from the beginning that this is not a book about UFOs, it does not attempt to determine whether or not the experiences of the people she interacts with are caused by any particular external stimulus. She accepts Hufford’s analysis of such experiences and comments that “Hufford theorised that sleep paralysis is a universal occurrence that may underlie many traditions of traumatic uncanny attack. However, rather than dismiss the uncanny memories, his respectful and careful study emphasised the primacy of human embodied experience, as a way to insist on the phenomenological of stories that might easily be seen as folklore in the sense of fiction”.

She notes, with I suspect a sense of amusement, the bafflement of Susan Clancy, who in her book Abducted, which promoted the sleep paralysis theory, when the subjects she studies refused to accept that their experiences has no physical reality: “Why, she wonders in the book, won’t they listen to reason?”

In her interactions with members of the ‘Hillview’ experiencers group she does not offer them any explanations, but listens to their stories and notes how they link to other social and political concerns. She records how one experiencer moved from the UFO milieu into the fringes of the militia and survivalist movement. (She notes with interest that a local survivalist bookshop displayed the works of Noam Chomsky alongside books on preparing for the apocalypse), then further into full-frontal conspiracy theories. The woman's original abduction experience seemed to be merely a gateway into an almost total withdrawal from consensus reality which even the most extreme conspiracy theorising could not satisfy.


In her conversations with experiencers, and later with the watchers and dreamers at Area 51 Lepselter discovers an almost poetic quality in the stories they tell. These are not garbled accounts, blurted out at the spur of the moment, but carefully honed narratives. At times she emphasises this by laying them out on the page in the manner of blank verse. At first this seemed an affectation, but when I read them aloud, the phasing and emphasis this revealed reminded me of many of the accounts I had heard directly from witnesses and experiencers. These were not simple accounts of what ‘happened’, but carefully constructed expressions of emotion and belief.

It is in the accounts of Lepselter's season working at the Little A'Le'Inn that we get an insight into the heart of the UFO abduction phenomenon in America, and into the culture that surrounds the conspiracy theories about Area 51.

Europeans seem to find it difficult to understand America. In some ways we in Britain are very familiar with it: we share a common language, Americans look like us, we enjoy their TV programmes, music, and movies; their cultural references are immediately understandable. The British particularly feel that we share a common historical background, from Magna Carta to the Pilgrims, to the World Wars of the last century. But this familiarity can be misleading. And in reading Lipsalter's account of her time in Arizona we forget one thing: the almost, to most British people, unimaginable vastness and emptiness of much of the USA, and its remoteness from any source of political power – an emptiness which is perhaps now being filled by Donald Trump?

She describes an all-day drive to take one of her fellow waitresses at the Inn to apply for a driver's licence at the Department of Motor Vehicles. This was not even at the State Capital, but at the local county headquarters. One farmer describes having to take his rubbish to be dumped at a recycling facility over 100 miles away, which was then closed down because the Federal Environmental Agency discovered that a rare species of rat was living in it. The Federal Government is represented by the guards around the Area 51 site who seem to change the rules of access to vast areas of desert almost at a whim, or a fax from Washington DC, two thousand five hundred miles away.

It is in this climate that the idea of collusion between the US Government and an alien civilisation seems plausible, as Washington and New York already seem totally alien to people living in the remotest parts of Arizona and New Mexico. The stories which are born in the physical remoteness of the desert are amplified and transmitted through the emotional remoteness of alienated individuals in a society which to many has become as arid and unfeeling as the expanse of sand, rock and bush.

As the author admits, this is not a book about UFOs, nor indeed really about the people who see UFOs, even though their stories are told sympathetically and with deep humanity. It is about the world in which these stories – accounts, narratives, conspiracy theories, witness statements, call them what you will – arise and thrive.

Call this book 'literary criticism' if you like, if you do you will miss its worth, but you will not be entirely wrong. A stimulating and sometimes disturbing, but fascinating account of a world which is almost entirely hidden to most of us. 
  • John Rimmer.

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