THE UFO DIARIES - Keep it REAL
Naturally I was interested in talking with Martin Plowman and reading his PhD thesis. However I found him to be not very forthcoming and he was unwilling to make his PhD available, ostensibly because he was planning to use it as a basis for a commercial book. I have to admit that I lost interest in delving more deeply into Plowman's thesis when I found out what its title was: "High Strangeness: A Lacanian Cultural History of UFOs and Ufology."
It was the Lacan connection that diluted my interest with all its implications of postmodernism and poststructuralism. I guess it was the fact that these modes of thinking were dubious and often excuses for intellectual and literary gymnastics which often bore little semblance to the "realities" they were attempting to describe. One of the best expositions on this controversy was Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont's "Intellectual Impostures - Postmodern philosophers' abuse of science." My copy's cover highlights the focus of the book "the attack on french postmodernism" with a quote from the Evening Standard: "The Merde hits the fan." To save you rushing to your french dictionaries, the English is "The shit hits the fan." Lacan gets a chapter in the book. Postmodernism today has little credibility in philosophy, and survives outside France in academic havens such as cultural studies.
So with the ghost of Lacan and his dubious takes on matters of science and mathematics largely extinguishing my interest in Dr. Plowman's PhD thesis, I did not have very high expectations of the commercial book that finally emerged in early 2011; "The UFO Diaries - Travels in the Weird World of high Strangeness."
While the book makes for a mildly enertaining travelogue through parts of the southern US (Roswell of course), South America (Chile, Bolivia, Peru), and Mexico, using a very light touch on the threads of UFO belief and experience as a loose focus, readers need to understand that Plowman's mantra is intertwined with Lacan's concept of the "REAL" which doesn't have much to do with reality as we know it, and more to do with belief. Thus we have Plowman regularly reminding us that "that UFOs are real, but they do not exist." So Plowman isn't really interested in whether there is a UFO consensus reality, but in UFO belief mediated by Lacan's take on the "Real."
Indeed he calls himself a "ufology-ologist" and cares little for "ufologists", those people who think UFOs might be real, real as in consensus real, not Real as Lacan might have us think. I say might, because as far as I know Lacan never engaged with the subject of UFOs. However that doesn't stop Plowman encountering the ghost of Lacan through the book, a kind of literary device (I think?) where the enigmatic spectre is regularly guiding our stumbling "ufology-oligist" as he seeks the Real UFO belief, but certainly not the real UFO experience. Plowman is seemingly only tracing UFO beliefs and rarely engages with any UFO reality. Remember he thinks they are not there anyway.
So predictably he doesn't have much time for "ufologists" describing them as "cardigan-clad seekers of proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life." Plowman argues that he did walk in "the footsteps of ufologists, a sinuous and broken trail, glowing with the light of other worlds." Well, not really. He hardly ever uses anything that seriously approaches reliable and serious UFO research and prefers the "guidebooks" of Von Daniken and Hunt Williamson. I don't think there would be many "ufologists" who would consider either as worthwhile guides to anything real about UFOs. But of course, I guess thats Plowman's point, I think. Where he occasionally brushes against the opportunity to dig deeply into UFO belief and reality, he seems to move on preferring, it seems, the light touch and certainly not any serious engagement with a possible UFO reality. There are the occassionally interesting points, but most such matters are described and researched far better by others. At best on these rare occassions in the book, Plowman's minor "discoveries" might best be seen as opportunities to engage more deeply with UFO belief and dare I say UFO reality. It's pretty clear Plowman isn't going to.
So whats the point of this meandering memoir steeped in merde. Not much point really. Plowman himself admits at the beginning and the end he has no answers. He entreats us, "Don't listen so much to what ufology says, as what it wishes for."
I say blame it on the Jabberwocky! It was Plowman's PhD thesis co-supervisor "Ken Geldolf" who put Plowman onto this dubious Lacanian take on UFO matters. Plowman resorts to a lot of imaginative literary jousting when he is in the presence of "Geldolf" describing the supervisor's use of his "gleaming vorpal blade of critical incision. A razor-sharp katana forged from the finest poststructuralist steel." You see "vorpal" was a made up word, from the imagination of Lewis Carroll in the Jabberwocky, perhaps formed from taking letters in the words "verbal" and "gospel." Later when Plowman submits his thesis to "Geldolf" he "imagines" a major battle, which bares a striking resemblance to film encounters of the Pink Panther bumbling police inspector character and his kick-ass Asian "butler."
Martin Plowman stumbles fairly early in a small way with his childhood recollections, yet he says he still has the UFO book his parents gave him. In his book he describes being struck by a picture in the children's book of "A UFO seen hovering over Melbourne, Australia, in 1956" - a flying "steam iron" shaped UFO. As a kid he recollects scanning the skies for "signs of the Flying Iron's return." Plowman accurately cites the children's UFO book in his references - "The World of the Unknown: All About UFO's" (1977). It might have helped Plowman's recollections or "beliefs" or "fantasies" about that early UFO "touch" if he had taken a look at it again - in fact the date was 1966 not 1956 and the "steam iron" UFO picture was from Loch Ness Scotland in 1971. The 1966 Melbourne picture is of a disc-shaped UFO - in fact an inaccurate rendering of a 1966 sighting and the controversial photo associated with it. The image in the 1977 book is a painting not a photo. A minor slip, but I guess its all about belief and not real facts - about Lacanian "Real" belief. No need for accuracy it seems.
One also has to suspect that some of Plowman's references are creative ones as well - consider the two offerings from Miskatonic University Press Arkham - Harold T. Wilkin's "Xenonomicon" (1954) and William Dyer's "1001 Ancient Astronaunt Sites to Visit Before you Die" (2006). Nice, but I don't think they exist. Both Arkham and Miskatonic University existed in the mind and fictional writings of H.P. Lovercraft. But again facts don't seem that important in this book, otherwise Martin Plowman might have actually engaged with the serious literature on UFOs somewhat more credibly than he gives the impression of doing. For starters he might have done a better job of understanding what ufology is all about, rather than his superficial and Lacanian blinkered skewed view. What emerges is a somewhat entertaining travel narrative which lightly engages with UFO belief and avoids any serious engagement with UFO reality.
Perhaps Martin Plowman should have taken more notice of "Ken Geldolf's" imaginative blade inscription: "Ne ditez pas la merde" which I take as "Do not talk shit." Sokal and Bricmont didn't have to work hard to demolish the "merde" behind postmodernism and poststructuralism, when its proponents strayed into the realms of science and mathematics. Martin Plowman stumbles along his own trail into what he calls "ufology." What he offers in his book "The UFO Diaries" as his take on what he refers to as "Mestizo ufology" hardly seems worth the effort. It has all been expressed better and researched better elsewhere by Hispanic and Mexican ufologists and western ones as well. They have revealed more substantial takes than Plowman's limited "discoveries." Perhaps he should try reading Dr. Thomas Bullard's excellent book "The Myth and Mystery of UFOs." Therein he would find far better descriptions of the extremes and norms of ufology and indeed the myths behind ufology that seem to engage him so much. But therein he would also find important points such as the fact that there is a genuine mystery behind UFOs, an aspect that Dr. Bullard substantially engages with as well.
In my 2005 book "Hair of the Alien" I quote Cao Xueqin from his classic "The Dream of the Red Chamber" - "Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal's real." Cao's "koan" resonated for me in my attempt to see if there was a reality behind alien abduction claims. However I used weaponary more credible than Plowman's "vorpal" blade. I used science and the power of DNA forensics to see what was "real" and "unreal."
Up to you dear reader what you prefer.