Governmentality and UFOs?

Scott McLemee:

Lest anyone think this is the silly season, we turn with relief to the August issue of the journal Political Theory, where a major article finally addresses an issue too long ignored by candidates and scholars alike. “If academics’ first responsibility is to tell the truth,” write two political scientists, “then the truth is that after 60 years of modern UFOs, human beings still have no idea what they are, and are not even trying to find out. That should surprise and disturb us, and case doubt on the structure of rule that requires and sustains it.”

That argument boils down to a claim that UFO research has never achieved legitimacy because the very possibility of visitation by extraterrestrials poses too many problems for the implicit metaphysics of the nation-state.

Contemporary ideas about national sovereignty are quite thoroughly anthropocentric. That was not always the case. In the age of kings who ruled by divine right, the ultimate sovereign authority was embedded in God Himself. And if you lived in a community where shamans communicate regularly with bears or fish or the spirit of the mountain, then you would tend to think of nature itself as having, in effect, the franchise.

The modern sense of the nation-state rests on the assumption that politics is a strictly human process. Sovereignty – the ultimate authority to make decisions within a territory – is embodied in human agents.

Furthermore, a nation-state tends to develop mechanisms for keeping track of its own population – a series of institutions and bodies of knowledge devoted to monitoring the people who live within its borders, create its wealth, and obey its laws. (Or don’t, as the case may be.) The result is a grid of power and expertise sometimes designated by the rather unwieldy expression “governmentality,” coined by Michel Foucault.

McLemee points out that this is a contribution to the discipline of “agnotology” or the study of ignorance. The article (in the journal Political Theory) argues that the lack of knowledge about UFOs goes against the grain of this will to know.

Is this a weakness of governmentality (Foucault got it wrong), of governments (why is there no action to know?) or of UFO scholarship? The authors argue that our sovereignty is “anthropocentric” and therefore cannot encompass UFO research.

Foucault always said that there were disqualified knowledges that fail to rise to the level of science (he called them subjugated knowledges) that nevertheless trickle away in the background. From a government perspective therefore the will to know is not a totalising one.

As editor of a journal I wonder if I would have published this article? Well sure why not? The authors say in a rebuttal to some discussion that it went through 5 drafts and received 50 sets of comments (not sure what this means…obviously not 50 referees). The paper would surely generate interest.

Here’s something though that is more confusing:

Earlier versions of [our] paper in fact contained the beginnings of such a genealogy, but word limits and reviewers’ concerns that this section was too “sociological” for Political Theory, conspired to leave it on the editing room floor.

Genealogy is sociology? Now there’s a controversial suggestion!!


5 Responses

  1. […] Governmentality and UFOs? « Foucault blog Endlich mal wieder was Spannedes über Gouvernementalität. (tags: foucault governmentality) « links for 2008-08-13 [] links for 2008-08-13 []links for 2008-07-28links for 2008-07-29links for 2008-08-05 []links for 2008-07-27 […]

  2. […] bekommt seinen evil twin: Agnostologie, die Wissenschaft des Nicht-Wissens [via Foucault Blog]. Die Idee ist natürlich nicht so neu, wie es einem der Artikel weißmachen will – ein Schelm, wer […]

  3. I don’t know… for me it just seems that this people want to gain some attention with writing about UFOs, what’s ok and seems to work, but it’s not that great.

  4. If we are to believe that in the great expanse of our solar system (and potentially many others) we are the only life forms that exist, it would certainly be an awful waste of space. We can contemplate various UFO sightings and reports from around the world in an attempt to derive some logical explanation, but I for one cannot close myself off to the belief that we are not alone in this universe.

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