“The original is unfaithful to the translation” – Jorge Luis Borges
Have you ever watched a game show in another language, the product of a culture with which you are unfamiliar? People are clearly having a great time and laughing hysterically, but the context and outcomes are incomprehensible. This of course describes many of my dates, but long ago in my misspent youth as an anthropologist, I was taught to treat all things bizarre as an exercise in ethnography. Instead, try and put yourself into the mindset of a fellow from the Borneo highlands watching Jeopardy. I mean, people are asking questions when they’re obviously supposed to be giving answers, right? The world is all topsy-turvy, and seemingly universal standards of human interaction are not being adhered to. Oddly, this is what I’ve been thinking about in light of recent declarations about fascinating results derived from “the first comprehensive academic survey of alien contact experience” announced by the Foundation for Research into Extraterrestrial Encounters and the curious observation that 70-75% of contactees reported that the alien contact experience was positive.
Now, I could muse on limited sample sizes, dubious methodologies, leading survey questions, and the applicability of the scientific method, so effective at parsing reality from unreality, to questions that fall far outside the realm of normal human experience, but where is the fun it that? Similarly, it might be prudent to reject scientific method or appeals that seek recognition from the academic community entirely, but as truth seems more likely to emerge from a multitude of voices, rather than a concerted silencing of naysayers, such an approach also seems inadequate to the task of asking not whether or not aliens exist, but what the significance of reported alien contact actually is. An experience may be phenomenal (having some physical reality) or noumenal (existing purely in the realm of ideas), but if the anthropological perspective has nothing else to offer, the central notion that we inevitably perceive our universe through a cultural filter has unavoidable methodological relevance, either in the possibility that we have completely misunderstood any given situation or that our interpretation tells us more about ourselves than it does those we propose to study.
Anthropologist Gregory Bateson observed a bizarre traditional ceremony in New Guinea, “put on by a man to honor a sister’s son who had done something praiseworthy. It was a startling event, featuring transvestitism and other dramatic reversals. The mother’s brother dressed up as a sort of pantomime dame, offered his buttocks to his sister’s son, and acted the female role in a fantastic similitude of copulation with his wife. Here was the classic ethnographic puzzle, an apparently absurdist ritual. What sense did it make? Bateson analyzed the kinship relations involved…the ideas and values coded symbolically in the ritual; the psychodynamics. It began to make sense but, unfortunately, his ethnographic data was too thin to stand up to all that scrutiny. ‘It is clear that I have contributed but little to our store of anthropological facts,’ he admitted. The data ‘does no more than illustrate my methods. Even for the purposes of illustration my supply of facts is meagre, and I certainly cannot claim that my facts have demonstrated the truth of any theory’”(Kuper, 2014, p48-49).
If one trawls the relatively brief record of extraterrestrial contact, or mines history for events presumed to be analogous, from gods pronouncing all sort of arcane rules, to faerie abductions, to our more modern encounters with everything from grays to reptilians to Nordic aliens, what stands out above all is the recurrent theme that these hypothetical visitors, more often than not, when they deign to communicate with us, are filled with bizarre pronouncements and behaviors that for lack of a better term, are simply absurd. They anal probe. They mutilate cattle. They share buckwheat pancakes. They ask for a bag of fertilizer. They steal brand-name sodas. They assure us they are from planets that we are fairly certain can’t support a life form reasonably similar to us. The steadfast scientist accumulates these reports and concludes the apparent ludicrousness of such behavior is highly suggestive that some sort of human psychological pathology is in play, and turns to more reputable sources. That is to say, the more plausible an encounter seems, the more likely it is to be lauded as a significant event in the annals of ufological history. It seems rather odd to presume that we might be able to discern the minds behind such activities, their goals and motivations, when we can barely do that for people who live in the country next door.
We want to make meaning. We want to interpret events in a framework that can help us come to terms with our experience. We translate what happens to us in terms of its impact on us, positive or negative, and that which is not overtly negative can only be termed as developmentally positive, for what other option do we have? Happiness and reason are enmeshed in cultural standards, and in the absence of data to explain the projection of the seemingly absurd into our lives, we inevitably look for the most convenient positive explanation, in the absence of a clear threat to our existence (such as say, forced abduction or unsavory experimentation). Albert Camus once said, “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world”.
When faced with countless reports of extraterrestrial/ultraterrestrial encounters that verge on the absurd, the essential conviction that those who experience such things are slipping into madness, the disdain of scholars for any elements deemed illogical by a very narrow standard, but nonetheless continued reporting of encounters with aliens behaving badly (or at least incomprehensibly), it is purely our obsession with quantifiability as the standard for truth that can drive the skeptic and believer alike. The believer has quantifiable evidence of an impact on his life. The skeptic has evidence that such things cannot occur. We pay lip service to cultural relativity, but in large part this is simply a recognition that we don’t and possibly can’t understand. We need to understand, but we lack the relevant context.
Humans have lots of desires. The desire for fame. The desire for love. The desire for recognition by one’s peers. The hope that someone appreciates us. Sadly, the history of our species is a history of struggling in ignorance, searching for elusive meaning that may not even exist, yet confidently assuring ourselves that if we can simply capture the right numbers, interpret our experiences through the cold lens of an arid logic, or reject the mainstream as too bounded by ideology, perhaps we can ensnare a transcendental meaning. This is what emerges in “serious” analyses of alien contactees, and the results are usually the same – a bizarre description of a bizarre interpretation of a bizarre experience. That’s of course what makes it all so amusing, or as David Lynch said, “Absurdity is what I like most in life, and there’s humor in struggling in ignorance. If you saw a man repeatedly running into a wall until he was a bloody pulp, after a while it would make you laugh because it becomes absurd”.
Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: The British School in the Twentieth Century. London, UK: Routledge, 2014.