The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue
Field Notes

Optical Collusion: The Underpolitics of the Alien

Photograph of a purported UFO in Passaic, New Jersey, taken on July 31, 1952. Photo: George Stock.
Photograph of a purported UFO in Passaic, New Jersey, taken on July 31, 1952. Photo: George Stock.

Seeing is believing. There are many ways to see today—TV, TikTok, Twitter, text, etc. Given all these different ways of seeing, what is happening to believing? Have expanded and altered forms of seeing induced deranged believing? For the past 75 years there has been a steady rise in the belief that aliens from other planets visit Earth. This rise has recently been accompanied by the growing legitimacy of the belief, culminating in a flurry of American legislative curiosity over the past year, including congressional hearings led by avowed believers. But has this increased believing correlated with increased seeing? Or are we just seeing things?

We’ve seen alien activity in photos, in documentaries, and in grainy videos of peculiar aerial phenomena. However, you haven’t seen aliens. Other people sometimes claim to have seen aliens (or their traces), but the testimony of these others combined with dusty visual footage is not compelling evidence that extraterrestrial species are visiting Earth. They aren’t here and they’re not coming.

We can still believe in them, though, just as we believe in myths or Gods. But believing that aliens visit Earth is based on faith, not evidence. As with all mythologies and religions, there is no truth. There is only belief. Specifically, belief in alien visitors requires faith that other organisms organize themselves like Europeans of the past few centuries. Belief in alien visitors requires faith in the universal normality of perpetual territorial expansion (i.e., colonialism). Believing that alien spaceships visit Earth means believing that colonial methods of knowledge production are incredibly effective and abundant, so effective that adherence to Eurocolonial knowledge eventually allows a species to attain interstellar travel.

And what does European knowledge look like? Yes, it looks like spaceships, but spaceships are built from knowledge that normalizes and legitimizes ecocide and genocide. We haven’t been able to figure out how to build spaceships without desecrating our planet and exploiting its inhabitants. European knowledge values spaceships (and the movement of commodities facilitated by proto-spaceships) more than life and its habitats. Indeed, European knowledge rarely even sees the ecocides and genocides involved because such atrocities are so normalized. Eurowestern knowledge adherents don’t see their socio-suicidal tendencies because they’re too dazzled by the glimmer of spaceships (and other shiny fast paraphernalia).

Sure, the statistical argument for the existence of aliens is strong (the universe seems too big for us to be the only biological entities), but statistics make for wrong seeing. They are famously deceptive. Most car wrecks occur within five miles of the home (because that’s where we spend the most time). Human life expectancy was about thirty for most of the past 200,000 years (because a lot of people died under the age of one). One in eight women get breast cancer (but this is based on having a lifespan of 110 years). The point is, statistics never allow us to see reality. Statistics show us averages—abstract mathematical constructs that don’t correlate with the lived world. There’s nothing wrong with believing in abstractions (like love or justice), but abstractions are easy to manipulate. How are aliens currently being manipulated?

As it turns out, colonizers are uniquely capable of seeing aliens. Jonathan Jacob Moore’s research reveals “the UFO/alien abduction phenomenon is exclusively experienced by white people in the United States. But while scholars have probed abductee narratives to surface political and symbolic anxieties for decades, none have thought of the phenomenon’s whiteness alongside the archival absence of Black abductees.”1 Just as darker-skinned people were constructed as Black since the Renaissance, aliens have been constructed as ominous Others since the atomic bomb. The problem, of course, is that darker-skinned people are real, whereas aliens (like vampires, werewolves, or monsters) are not.

Jordan Peele’s 2022 film Nope confronts the parallels between Black visibility and alien visibility.2 This recalls the academic work of Calvin Warren: “black being incarnates metaphysical nothing.” Warren describes antiblackness as a knowledge system “designed to impose nothing onto blackness and the unending domination/eradication of black presence as nothing incarnated.”2 In Peele’s movies there is the persistent idea that Black bodies can be looked at, but Black people cannot be seen. In Nope, capturing the alien in a photograph is a means for the characters themselves to be seen. The existence of alien life will change their world forever; not because of what it means for the science or spirituality of our place in the cosmos, but rather because “taming” the alien is a means of taming the violence of (in)visibility.

There’s a common therapeutic phrase today: “I feel seen.” This affirming feeling eases anxiety about the validity of one’s existence. Conversely, the phrase, “I feel looked at” is much grimier, inducing insecurity about one’s humanity. The existence of aliens depends on the violence of looking and the exclusion that demarcates who is allowed to see and who is allowed to be looked at. Seeing requires eyes but believing requires ocular captivity. The ability to see aliens results from what artist Hito Steyerl identifies as the eclipsing of linear perspective by vertical perspective as today’s dominant viewpoint—the conquest of the horizon by the Verizon.

While starkly different in tone, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (2023) also examines the relationship between seeing and aliens. The entire Anderson universe is meticulously constructed to be looked at, and the tension in his film lies in the characters’ efforts to glimpse behind their own artifice. Asteroid City’s characters are rather indifferent to alien presence (one character cares more about a photo of herself than about one of the alien). This is because they’re engaged in the project of normalizing (normalizing in general, but specifically normalizing colonial conditions—colonization is the normalization of white supremacy). Nope’s characters don’t have the privilege of being indifferent because Black lives have been made abnormal, and indifference requires the comfortability of normality. Rather precisely, to be abnormal is to be different (i.e., not indifferent).

Both Anderson and Peele recognize the role of the alien in reifying the contemporary exploitative status quo. Both movies reveal how aliens normalize the idea that there must always be an exploitable other. The answer to the Fermi Paradox (i.e., if life is as abundant as it statistically seems it should be, why hasn’t it visited us) is that today’s socio-technic order is objectively bad for biological lifeforms. It’s not sustainable, not capable of perpetuating itself. It’s not that life is rare; it’s that colonial-capitalism is rare. A mindset that finds it imperative to perpetually expand and conquer is rare—it doesn’t work for long.

This is not to say the US government isn’t hiding information from its citizens. It’s possible they have unknown technologies, they do weird sky experiments, or even abduct people. The same could be said of multinational corporations. Is it more likely that another species comes here to conduct experiments on Earthlings or that Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, and Exxon have been experimenting on Earthlings? DuPont has conducted a multi-decade experiment on rural West Virginians by contaminating their soil and water with synthesized toxins. Colonizers have a long history of experimenting on Earthlings. Are Aliens colonizers? If they are, like us, they probably won’t be able to marshal the social cooperation necessary to attain interstellar travel.

Our planet does not have enough fuel for us to build settlements on other planets. And we are not going to invent some new magical high-efficiency propulsion technology. No such innovation will occur because our scientific knowledge is built on the naturalization of exploitation (of animals, vegetables, and minerals). Our understanding of motion is structured around the steam engine’s fossil fuel combustion, which allowed us to statistically aggregate causality via the disequilibrium of particle velocity. As long as this probabilistic energy remains the prevailing paradigm for understanding dynamics, humans aren’t getting past Mars. And we won’t get past this steam engine mentality as long as we remain colonial-capitalists.

The US government lies to its citizens all the time, but the lie isn’t about the existence of aliens. The lie is that we are not being exploited. The lie is that it’s possible to find meaning within colonial-capitalism. Aliens are (at best) a distraction from the pointlessness of the world. As Moore suggests, fantasies about alien visitation and experimentation exemplify naturalized European history. Colonization has been so naturalized that it’s only natural that we should expect Earth to be colonized. Because that’s what powerful societies do, right?

The idea that other species would suicidally alter their planets to make spaceships is rather Eurocentric (as this is precisely what Europeans have done). UFO narratives universalize the privileging of territorial expansion over ecological sustainability. UFOs fetishize energy exploitation. They encode the idea that energy exploitation leads to something grander than planetary decimation. UFO conspiracies implicitly promote salvation from apocalyptic colonial fuel consumption. Sun Ra’s Arkestra narrative questions such “claims of universality in exploratory space travel and [makes] links between the history of slavery, the scarce resources available to the oppressed, and hopes for interplanetary travel.”4

The alien, however, need not serve this obfuscating role. As alluded to above, aliens could play a social role similar to monsters in other societies. The etymology of the word “monster” derives from revealing or allowing to see (e.g., demonstrate, premonition). The role of monsters, such as indigenous Canada’s Wendigo, is to serve as abstract scapegoats upon which to blame unexpected misfortunes, so as not to foment grievances among actual community members. This role of the monstrous was, of course, broken in sixteenth century Europe with the demonization of living women via the witch. Aliens could theoretically ameliorate social tensions, but they’ve been framed as a progressive step in the inevitable march of maximally profitable technologization.

The role that aliens play in society will be decided by how we see them. What concepts and media will we see them through? If we see them as simply more advanced exploiters of thermodynamics, they will remain a tool of divisiveness—just another competitor for galactic resources. However, we could see them mythologically, that is, make of them a parable about how (not) to behave. Aliens could serve as mythological telescopes showing us the futility of building societies around expansionary exploitation.

Today’s thirst to see aliens is reminiscent of early ethnographic practices, which sought to subdue and control through observation; to subsume all human knowledge within European encyclopedias. No information can hide from the burning retinas of Enlightenment. Regarding such violent colonial looking, Frantz Fanon lamented “I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes…Having adjusted their microtomes, they objectively cut away slices of my reality. I am laid bare.”5 At present, we are looking for aliens with these same white eyes, cutting away slices of reality in the process.

  1. Moore, Jonathan Jacob. 2022. "Starships and Slave Ships: Black Ontology and the UFO Abduction Phenomenon." Qui Parle 31(1):143-158, p. 143.
  2. It’s never made explicit that the creature in Nope is from another planet. In fact, I interpret the creature as evolving in Earth’s atmosphere from all the images stored in the “cloud” and bouncing around our satellites. But for the purposes of this article, let’s just say it’s an alien.
  3. Warren, Calvin. 2018. Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 5, 9.
  4. Díaz, Eva. 2018. "We are all Aliens." e-flux 91.
  5. Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Mask. New York: Grove Press,p. 116.


Scott W. Schwartz

Scott W. Schwartz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Anthropology at City College of New York. Their work examines the material culture of numbers and how quantification facilitates capitalized social relations. Their book, An Archaeology of Temperature: Numerical Materials in the Capitalized Landscape, was published in 2022.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues