- Boldly Going Where No Political Theorist Has Gone Before
We are more used to hearing about conspiracy theories and aliens from outerspace in the supermarket tabloids, science fiction or cyberpunk than we are to seeing them treated with academic rigor in books published by university presses. Jodi Dean’s Aliens In America would, then, be a unique contribution if only for the scholarly treatment of its very topical subject matter. Fortunately, the book has much to offer apart from a novel topic.
Following the now established tradition of cultural studies, Dean explores the meaning of aliens in America. More than that, it is an exploration of the meanings of outerspace and cyberspace in terms of what they have to tell us about citizenship and gender in America. The backdrop for this fascinating investigation, is the question of truth itself. It is here that Dean is able to show that a popular subject matter does not prohibit one from intervening in lofty academic debates. In this case, the debates in question are those concerning epistemological relativism and the status of reality.
Dean begins from the point of view that in the postmodern age, truth is a problem for everyone (p. 22), and that the key issue with regard to truth is the question of evidence (p. 35). UFO groups seeking to “prove” the reality of UFO’s, alien visitations, abductions and the like, are forced to anchor their contentions in “two discourses, the scientific and the governmental-juridical.” It is in this context that attitudes about evidence are delineated. Dean contends that views about truth work when they are consensual. The problem is that not everyone is consenting to the view of truth and reality as espoused by the government and science which, UFO groups maintain, is sustained only by excluding certain peoples’ experiences (p. 45).
This charge should be familiar to anyone who has worked on social theory and politics anytime over the last 20–30 years. Questions about the relationship between experience and truth have been in the forefront of the politics and theories surrounding feminism and multiculturalism, for example. Likewise, the use of therapy and hypnosis to uncover repressed memories of alien abduction parallels its similar usage in cases of incest and ritual abuse which have periodically hovered around the fringes of the women’s movement. As the history of the debate in these areas has shown, the notion that perception and experience constitute truth and reality, creates a situation where any exclusion of “truth” seems arbitrary (p. 61). The alien phenomenon points this up nicely. And while Dean studiously avoids taking sides over the veracity or lack thereof of abductees’ claims, the tenor of her whole discussion suggests that accepting the experiential view of truth makes it impossible to simply dismiss eyewitness accounts about aliens.
What is the criteria according to which a certain experience is defined as impossible or unlikely on its face? Predictably, the tools used to debunk those claims regarding alien encounters, have been the same ones used against experiential or eyewitness evidence offered up by women and minorities in cases involving things such as rape or hate crimes. Thus, official explanations for all things alien, Dean argues, focuses on witnesses’ unreliability due to insanity, moral failings or what is alleged to be their otherwise erroneous perceptions (p. 39).
While Dean’s work raises a central epistemological question, it does not provide an answer. This probably accounts for her agnosticism as to the abductees claims. To her credit, Dean refuses to fall back on the rationalist paradigm which would discount abductees’ “incredible” experiences outright, or which would demand compelling corroborative and objective evidence. Neither does she embrace the gross relativism of certain feminist epistemologies in claiming that testimony (especially when offered up by the socially beleaguered) equals truth. Dean raises the epistemological question only to abandon it. She chooses instead to expound upon our preoccupation with the question of truth itself. Thus Dean makes the very interesting point that the posing of this epistemological dilemma reflects a falling away of the old paradigm of truth, coupled...