The truth is elsewhere
David Grusch - a whistleblower on secret government projects to recover and reverse-engineer extraterrestrial spacecraft - has testified before the House Subcommittee on National Security. Paul Demarty investigates the latest alien visitation to Washington
Extra-terrestrial life once again casts its shadow over the proceedings of the US Congress. (Why is it that aliens are unable to leave Americans alone - or should that be the other way round?)
On July 26, the Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs heard evidence from a certain David Grusch - a soi-disant whistleblower on secret government projects to recover and reverse-engineer ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ (UAPs), which in a more innocent age were called unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Grusch - a decorated airforce officer turned military intelligence operative - made several rather spicy claims, including that several of the UAPs recovered were definitely extraterrestrial in origin; that extraterrestrial biological remains had been recovered; and that at least one person had come to a violent end in order to keep all this a secret.
This stuff was eagerly lapped up by several Republican members of the committee. Left Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose liberalism is strictly of a mundane sort, tried to put a brave face on it, saying that it was a worthwhile exercise in holding executive authority to account, but it is difficult to ignore the fact that several elected representatives of the Greatest Nation On Earth were more interested in the mechanics of intergalactic space travel than the ballooning military budgets and overreach that they have all (including, of course, AOC) happily waved through.
Exasperated sceptics have offered all the usual reasons for suspicion. After all, Grusch’s only real claim on anyone’s belief is that he clearly is an ‘intelligence community’ and airforce veteran - nobody denies this. His claims are all sourced to anonymous contacts - “people familiar with the matter”. He has evidence, but he cannot show congressmen in public. No hard, physical evidence is on offer to be tested by scientists. Beyond all that, it offends common sense that a civilisation could be so advanced as to develop faster-than-light travel, yet so foolish as to crash into this little rock of ours, never mind being bested by the crude defences of us brutish primitives who inhabit it.
Mulder and Scully
Cultural obsessions with aliens, as we have argued before,1 have come repeatedly in waves - especially since the end of World War II and onset of the cold war. There was an explosion of technological innovation in aeronautics; there were the first space programmes.
All of these generated UFO sightings, and then the golden age of alien invasion narratives in film and literature (for example, the Invasion of the body snatchers). The late-60s counterculture generated instead a quasi-religious, spiritual interest in interplanetary visitors and alien ancestors, which was all very ‘Age of Aquarius’ (exemplary here is 2001: a space odyssey); but, from the 1970s to the 1990s, increasing social atomisation - combined with very real scandals about the FBI and CIA, uncovered by journalists and the 1975 Church Committee investigation - gave us the modern alien conspiracy thriller, typified by the X-files.
It is worth bringing this narrative into play, because the most obvious feature of Grusch’s story is that it is basically a plot summary of the X-files. That show expertly drew on the literature of UFO enthusiasts, about close encounters and abductions, cattle mutilations and collusion between human government and extraterrestrials. Its success, however, ensured a kind of feedback loop. Famously, the number of reported ‘close encounters’ skyrocketed after it achieved success; all modern tilts at the ‘They’re here!’ narrative are coloured by its influence.
Even the hearing itself has a certain X-Files quality to it. Mulder and his sceptical but doughty partner, Dana Scully, beaver away in the depths of the state apparatus to expose the truth: “the truth is out there”, as the tagline says - out there in the hidden infrastructure of the deep state to be uncovered, and further out there in the reaches of the cosmos. Their allies include Gruschian deep-state operatives, UN diplomats and one senator. For all the apparent omnipotence of the conspiracy of alien collaborators, and the genocidal project they abet, the existing US constitutional machinery is always tacitly assumed to be adequate to the task of bringing it to heel, and the mere enlightenment of ordinary Americans a sufficient incentive for action to be taken.
We can only speculate at Grusch’s motives here. He may be sincere, in which case it is either a case of psychological distress or of his being manipulated for some deeper reason. (Even the latter possibility was foreseen by Chris Carter and co, when they introduced a plotline into the X-files, where it appeared that Fox Mulder had been manipulated into his belief in aliens by shadowy state operatives trying to distract attention from their real crimes, and all the plot events to that point amounted to a single targeted psy-op.)
In that case, this would roughly fall under the concept of a limited hangout, whereby the deep state allows some partial feature of its malfeasance to become public knowledge in order to avoid fuller disclosures. That would also be the case if Grusch knew he was manipulating public opinion, of course. Further evidence for this comes from the fact that his life is clearly not in danger, he is not suffering the fate the US state inflicted upon Chelsea Manning and would like to inflict on Edward Snowden, and in any case there have been gatherings of the ‘five eyes’ to discuss UAPs recently anyway.
The question would then be: to what end is this dubious or false information being leaked? Some speculate to ensure funding for the ‘space force’, reanimated by Donald Trump; but can it really be supposed that any further inducement is necessary for the AOCs of this world to write the necessary blank cheques? Perhaps it is a pure diversion, from the increasingly rickety political and ideological infrastructure of the US itself. If the X-files scenario is less plausible today than it was in the 1990s, that is at least in part because the ruthless competence of the authorities in its fictional world is hardly congruent with a US state apparatus still bruised from the disasters of the ‘war on terror’, whose global hegemony seems increasingly shaky. A perfectly efficient operation for hoarding alien corpses is, perversely, a projection of power.
In the early 90s, Fredric Jameson argued that the rise of the conspiracy thriller as a genre from the 1970s tracked the concentration of power, and that the conspiracy is the only available model of the social totality available to atomised individuals: the social totality as a coherent enemy against oneself. Instead of social relations, the conspiracy theorist sees a discrete narrative of malfeasance among men in the shadows.2
All the more so in the case of the alien invasion narrative: we no longer rely on mere humans to conspire, but a dangerous and unimaginable adversary, possessed with far greater power than us, yet terrifyingly and intrusively interested in us. Hostile aliens of this sort substitute easily for the ideologically-occluded social forces that dominate us. Humans may then figure as particular kinds of enemies: collaborators and cowards.
One of the purposes of such neat narrative structures is to make the dangerous safe: the enemy, however great its power, is confined in the cage of a beginning, middle and end. There is, indeed, a strange discordance between what people claim to believe about this and their actual behaviour. Several Republican congressmen have asserted their belief in Grusch’s assertions - the best known being the Floridian Trump sycophant Matt Gaetz - but, having been alerted to the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life and human contact therewith, they are to go back to their usual routines of petty negotiation over pork-barrel money and grumbling about Hunter Biden - really? How easily the truly remarkable takes its place among the more mundane fantasies of wingnut politicians …
Not that such fantasies are confined to the right. The left has the famous example of Juan Posadas, who once led the Trotskyist Fourth International in Latin America, and who for a time had some influence, including, albeit briefly, in Cuba. In 1968, responding to a new wave of UFO sightings, Posadas speculated that such a degree of technological advancement could only be achieved by a communist civilisation, and indeed the aliens’ failure to invade and dominate further suggested that they had transcended imperialism. They might therefore be valuable allies to the toilers of earth! While for modern ‘UFOlogists’ of the X-files/Grusch stamp, the aliens fill the void of impersonal relations with comfortingly intelligible agency, the Posadists - who had suffered wipeout after a clampdown by the Castro regime - could imagine they were still on the right side of history.
To be sure, fantasy has its place in mental life. The enduring import of science fiction as a genre - even in its trashiest, pulpiest forms - is its ability to estrange human existence by projecting it onto scenarios of pure conjecture. Even its most idiotic, militaristic expressions (Robert Heinlein’s Starship troopers, for example) may serve satirically (as in Paul Verhoeven’s subversive adaptation of the same). Above that low bar, the genre’s greats have deployed aliens as absolute, incomprehensible others, like Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers; or as quasi-mythic archetypes of human behaviour, as in the various alien races of Star trek.
It was this capacity that led Darko Suvin - the founder of science-fiction studies in the literary academy and a Marxist - to consider the genre essentially one of cognitive estrangement: it asks ‘What if?’ in order to upend our complacent acceptance of the world as it is (though for Suvin the ‘What if?’ was narrowly restricted to radical scientific and technological discovery as such). The supposed disclosures of David Grusch might be read most innocently as no more than pulpy science fiction; but in so doing, the essentially trivial content of bourgeois politics in its surface appearance - the fatuous clown-show of the oversight committee on July 26 - is thrown into sharp relief.
Liu Cixin’s well-regarded recent series of novels, Remembrance of Earth’s past, dramatises the reaction of humanity to the certain knowledge that a hostile alien species will invade in several hundred years time. Without spoiling the plot, it will suffice to say that it is not a pretty picture; but still prettier than our species’ efforts so far to confront the existential threats we do face.
The argument of Juan Posadas that the little green men must definitionally be communist may well anthropomorphise our extraterrestrial friends to the point of comedy; but it remains a rebuke to those of us here on earth, bound to social relations that drive us cheerfully towards destruction. How much easier it is to fight imaginary enemies!
‘Flying saucers over Washington’ Weekly Worker June 3 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1350/flying-saucers-over-washington.↩︎
F Jameson The geopolitical aesthetic Bloomington IN 1992.↩︎