Metaphysical conspiracism: UFOs as discursive object between popular millennial and conspiracist fields
Robertson, David George
This thesis argues that narratives about Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) act as the central point of contact between conspiracist and popular millennial fields. Their confluence has come to form a field here termed ‘metaphysical conspiracism’, combining teleological narratives, the promise of soteriological knowledge and the threat of occluded malevolent agencies. I argue that metaphysical conspiracism offers a unique perspective on the interplay of knowledge, power and the construction of the other in contemporary popular discourse. Narratives about UFOs (and their extra-terrestrial occupants) have their roots in the Cold War period, but from the 1980s were increasingly constructed within a supernatural framework. Discourse analysis of popular literature from this period reveals a process of discursive transfer as the UFO narrative is contested and negotiated between conspiracist discourses concerning powerful, hidden agencies and popular millennial discourses of personal and planetary transformation, including ‘New Age’, 'Ascension' and '2012'. Using historical discourse analysis, supported by small-scale ethnographic sampling, I examine this discursive transfer in the work of three popular writers who together offer a broad overview of the field. Whitley Strieber was a central figure in the 'alien abduction' narrative in the 1980s, but his speculations on its meaning led him increasingly towards millennial and conspiratorial narratives. David Icke's well-known theory that a conspiracy of reptilian extraterrestrials has secretly seized control of the planet is demonstrated to have developed in the 1990s from a post-Theosophical narrative of benevolent UFOs as harbingers of the 'New Age'. Although less well-known, David Wilcock's work demonstrates that UFOs were also instrumental in the incorporation of conspiracist material into the recent '2012' millennial narrative. I seek to answer two questions with this thesis. Firstly, what is the common mechanism which facilitates the hybridisation I uncover between conspiracy narratives and popular millennialism? Secondly, how do the resulting metaphysical conspiracist narratives serve their subscribers? Despite a number of structural similarities, I argue that the common mechanism is the mobilisation of counter-epistemic strategies; that is, those predicated upon access to non-falsifiable sources of knowledge. The UFO narrative is particularly well-suited to suggesting sociological uncertainty about the boundaries between scientific and other strategies for the legitimisation of knowledge, encouraging its adoption by both conspiracist and millennial discourses. Secondly, metaphysical conspiracism reconciles the utopian vision of popular millennial discourse with the apocalyptic critique of modern global society announced by conspiracists. I therefore argue that metaphysical conspiracism supplies an effective popular theodicy with a Gnostic flavour in which these millennial prophecies did not ‘fail’, but were prevented from arriving by hidden malevolent others.