Close Encounters of the Digital Kind

D.W. Pasulka’s new book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, is about contemporary religion, using as a case study the phenomenon known as the UFO.

Drawing on the theories of Jean Baudrillard, Carl Jung, and her own duties as a “religion consultant” on the set of the horror franchise The Conjuring, Pasulka argues that belief in UFOs proliferates through media technologies—movies, TV, newspapers, social media—which intentionally blur fact and fiction. Such technologies don’t merely confuse our understanding of what’s real and what’s fake, she argues; they collapse the distinction between experiences we’ve lived and the media we’ve consumed. “Things we commonly take to be unreal in a materialist sense,” Pasulka writes, “have real physiological and cognitive effects. Media technologies have as much an impact on human bodies as biotechnologies, and perhaps even more.”

Put simply: UFOs were fake news before Fake News, and fake news often feels like real life. But American Cosmic is only in part a scholarly investigation of the technological basis of UFO phenomenon. It is, perhaps primarily, “a story,” Pasulka writes, “of [her] own participation in a group of scientists and academics who study the phenomenon anonymously.” That group is a secret brain-trust of ufologists committed to their belief in “the reality of the phenomenon”; they belong to a “parallel tradition” within the UFO community that Pasulka, borrowing a term coined by J. Allen Hynek, styles as the “Invisible College.” These individuals are highly credentialed within their chosen scientific fields, and they insist on anonymity because they fear “backlash from their professional colleagues.”

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