Learned Nonsense


Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, by Jodi Dean, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 242 pages, $15.95 paper

The author of Aliens in America, Jodi Dean, is a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges; the publisher is a respected university press. With a cursory glance at the title, therefore, an unwary reader might anticipate a learned inquiry into extraterrestrial phenomena. But in Dean's poststructuralist take on UFO sightings and alien abductions, E.T. takes a back seat to politics. From the first page to the last, in fact, the author remains doggedly agnostic with regard to the reality of what she is describing. Reality itself (a word she prefers to put inside quotation marks) is pretty much beside the point for Dean, whose academic field is not astronomy but political science and whose previous work concerned the rather more earthbound subjects of feminism and identity politics.

Dean's thesis in this book, insofar as it can be encapsulated, is that "to claim to have seen a UFO, to have been abducted by aliens, or even to believe those who say they have" constitutes "a political act" because it "contests the status quo"–a status quo that is both political and epistemological. On the political front, she rounds up and slimes the usual bêtes noires of the left: white guys, big corporations, the military-industrial complex. On the epistemological front, Dean's case is far more radical, arguing that the popularity of ufology "marks the widespread conviction that previously clear and just languages and logics…are now alien, now inseparable from their irrational others." Alien narratives, in short, "challenge us to face head-on…the dissolution of notions of truth, rationality, and credibility" in the information age.

Before continuing, I should note that already I have misrepresented Dean's enterprise. To refer to her thesis as a "thesis" is to belie the book's critical method and, ultimately, its raison d'être. For thesis implies a logical structure, an argument developed according to principles of inductive and deductive reasoning. By contrast, Dean's book is based on a technique of pseudo-analysis that amounts to a verbal Rorschach test. Rather than argue points, she links–her favorite word–disparate ideas by mere juxtaposition, forging connections that range from mildly intriguing (UFO sightings are linked with apocalyptic anxieties in our era and in the last fin de siècle) to bizarre (astronauts are linked with mainframe computers, witnesses to alien abductions with networked PCs) to obscene (the death of Christa McAuliffe in the Challenger explosion is linked with the perception of outer space as menacing and, finally, with the supposed sexual violation of female abductees).

What you get, in effect, is a performance, a routine of synaptic somersaults in which Dean free-associates on the themes of aliens and UFOs. Mostly, it's by-the-numbers stuff: The space race, she notes, was more about politics than science; the seven original Mercury astronauts were all white, male, and married–and thus did not represent a true cross section of America; and the Internet has enabled people who would once have been deemed harmless kooks to connect and form a growing subculture.

But the performance veers toward unintended farce in moments of wildly misplaced smugness, the philosophical equivalent of Wile E. Coyote's triumphant snickering as he lights the fuse of his Acme rocket skates: "It is hardly surprising," Dean writes, "that a new skepticism toward religious thinking–this time that which masks itself as science–has emerged." Or: "I guess he [a writer who stresses the importance of fact checking] is reassured by the vagueness of categories such as `facts' and `reality' and the nostalgia they invoke." Or: "The fact that abduction accesses the stresses and excesses of millennial technoculture doesn't get to the truth of abduction (as if getting to truth were still a possibility)."

Considered in itself, Dean's is a profoundly silly book on a numbingly pathetic subject–a parade of the duped and the deluded marshaled in support of highbrow posturing by which the duped and the deluded would themselves be appalled. After all, if you spend your life insisting on the reality of your alien encounter, you do not want to hear that "reality" is itself an illusion.

Considered as a scholarly work, written by a college professor and published by a university press, Dean's book is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American intellectual life. The problem is that a growing number of highly credentialed academics simply do not know how to think. Not what to think–the reason colleges exist is to haggle out what to think–but how to think. Rational argument is no longer the sine qua non of the advancement of propositions among educated people; indeed, rationality is seen in certain circles not as a method of getting at truth but as an instrument of oppression. As Dean writes: "Argument, thought by some to be an important part of the process of democracy, is futile, perhaps because democracy can bring about Holocaust."

Argument is linked to democracy. Democracy is linked to Holocaust. Therefore: Argument is evil. Q.E.D.

The most significant question raised by Dean's book, on reflection, has nothing to do with ufology. Rather, it is a more general question: How did nonsense–as a critical genre–come to be equated with scholarship?

As I mentioned at the outset, Aliens in America is a "poststructuralist" take on the phenomena of UFO sightings and alien abduction. The term, however, requires clarification. Poststructuralism is the philosophical position, or anti-position, that underpins much of the trendiest academic work, including Dean's. It is a theoretical approach to texts that gained a brief cachet among leftist intellectuals in France in the late 1960s and soon thereafter found a lasting niche in literature and social science departments on American campuses. To understand poststructural theory, you must know its genesis. Despite its French popularizers, it is the bastard child of American New Criticism of the 1930s and '40s–in particular, the precept that the meaning of a text is not controlled by the artist's intention.

The New Critics held that a text, once created, should be divorced from what is known about its creator, and its meaning subsequently negotiated, as it were disembodied, by its critical audience. Yet the New Critics never doubted that a text was held together by a "voice," perhaps non-authorial but still a unified presence, or that the text possessed a set of coherent meanings, or that it would sustain certain meanings and contradict others.

The poststructural twist on New Criticism was the denial that a coherent meaning could ever be had; poststructuralism declared, on the contrary, that every reading is a misreading, that language is always indeterminate and self-contradictory, unbound by any unified voice, and hence that every effort to pin down a meaning is doomed from the start. From such premises is derived the practice of "deconstruction"–the teasing out of secondary and tertiary senses of individual lines, words, or even syllables to show how a text contradicts what it seems clearly to mean.

To wit, Jacques Derrida's notorious defense of his poststructuralist colleague Paul de Man, who, as a literature professor at Yale, helped popularize deconstruction. In a 1940 essay for the pro-Nazi newspaper Le Soir, de Man, then living in occupied Belgium, stated, "One can thus see that a solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences." In 1988, when de Man's wartime writings became public, Derrida defended his friend, contending that de Man was compelling us to think the unthinkable–the erasure of Jews en masse from Europe. In so doing, Derrida argued, de Man reminded us of the right of all people to live in peace.

When the critic's goal is to find contradictions, rather than to reconstruct what the text means, then he or she can set aside the logic of observation and inference and take up free association, word play or, in Dean's case, "linking." Thus, the poststructuralist exercise (project is the preferred term but fails to convey how tiresome and repetitive the approach becomes) is always the same: To show how every text resists yielding up a unified, coherent, common-sense meaning–and how such resistance thereby challenges the very idea of "common sense."

The text itself need not be a poem or a play or a novel. It can be a religious tract or a political treatise. Or a painting or a photograph or a movie. Or, in more recent examples, a sitcom or soap opera or commercial. Or a pop star. Or a criminal trial. Or, in the case of Aliens in America, the phenomena of UFO sightings and alien abductions. Despite its apparent novelty, then, Dean's exercise remains the perpetual poststructuralist exercise: to show how the text resists a unified, coherent meaning, and thereby challenges common sense. "UFO belief," she writes, "thus challenges the presumption that there is some `public' that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged." And again: "Against a scientific priesthood, the individual is held up as an independent source of knowledge. Supporting abductees, or at least respecting their right to their opinions, appears to be radical, a way to resist (for a time) the dominance of scientific and government elites invested not simply in a particular determination of the real, but in set hierarchies for the production and validation of legitimate knowledge."

The challenge to common sense, therefore, constitutes not just an act of epistemological resistance but also of political resistance: "Abductees acknowledge that, from the perspective of the dominant culture, their words are illogical, unreasonable, unscientific. Yet they insist, as a matter or right, truth, and survival, that these words be spoken. They speak, braving the incredulity they know they will encounter, because they experience it themselves."

Speaking the truth to power: In the fi-nal analysis, it is the political utility of poststructuralism, regardless of the sheer inanity of the theory itself, that accounts for its adoption by the intellectual left. As Dean states: "Various Marxists, feminists, and multiculturalists have stressed the importance of knowledge gained at the margins; the importance of the standpoint of the oppressed as epistemologically superior to the falsely disembodied, disconnected view from nowhere. There are myriad perspectives on the world, each with its own legitimate claim to the truth."

So, for example, if you're a multiculturalist, you can argue–against historical evidence–that Greek philosophy is derived from sub-Saharan Africa; or if you're a feminist, you can argue–against biological evidence–that gender is completely a social construct; or if you're a Marxist, you can argue–against experiential evidence–that socialism is compatible with individual rights. What could be more useful, if you can't make a coherent, rational case for what you believe, than a theory that undermines the notion of objective truth, that relativizes all knowledge?

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that poststructuralism and ufology find each other, since both sets of believers stake out logically invincible positions. As Dean herself points out, "From its early years in the cold war up through today, ufology has attributed the paucity of physical evidence of flying saucers to a vast cover-up, explaining that the nation's political, economic, and religious institutions would collapse if the alien truth were known." Thus, the fact that believers cannot adequately support what they believe is itself a kind of support; indeed, when someone writes a book dissecting and demolishing their scarce "evidence" (as the late Carl Sagan did in 1990's The Demon-Haunted World), this is only further proof that they are onto something big.

Poststructuralists similarly stake out irrefutable positions. Critiques of the theory are dismissed as mere logical objections–poststructuralism, its advocates contend, calls into question the dominant status of logic in intellectual exchange and thus stands above such quibbling. Several of its best known practitioners even reject the principle of noncontradiction (x and not-x cannot simultaneously be predicated of y) as an arbiter of truth or falsehood. Apparently so does Dean. Hence, she can blithely assert on page 173: "Confronted with dissolution, insecurity, surveillance, and paranoia, the best response could well be not to respond at all, to wait and see what happens. The problem is that too much happens." But then, on the very next page, without a trace of self-consciousness, she can also assert: "The audience identifies with the characters on Seinfeld because nothing ever happens to any of us."

Too much happens. Nothing ever happens. Such is the universe through the poststructural looking glass. Lack of evidence is evidence of suppressed evidence. Logical contradiction is no bar to academic argument. If there are indeed aliens among us, they must be shaking their heads.

Mark Goldblatt (mgold57@aol.com) has written for The New York Times, The New York Post, and Newsday. He teaches developmental courses and the history of ideas at the Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York.