Susan Lepselter on her new book, The Resonance of Unseen Things

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Interview by Micol Seigel

https://www.press.umich.edu/8373560/resonance_of_unseen_things

Your book isn’t easy to summarize because of the complex ways you weave your various interventions into (beautiful!) narrative, so instead of using this first question to have you describe the book, which is how this blog generally proceeds, I’m going to ask you several questions to try to convey some of the texture of your accomplishment.  I’d like to start by asking you what your research process was like.  Tell us about the time you spent in Texas and Nevada, the way you lived there, and how your relationships with people evolved, if you would.

Thank you, and I’m glad you’re taking the roundabout route – that does sound very appropriate! Many of the ethnographies I admire grow from the anthropologist’s prior relationship to a place and the people who live there.  For me, though, the way into this project was the stories. I was fascinated with uncanny abduction stories since before graduate school as texts, in mass market paperbacks and UFO magazines. There are scholars who have written brilliant and powerful books about UFO beliefs focusing completely on texts, especially in religious studies. But (not surprisingly) my own reading of these stories was challenged, and I became more aware of how irreducible and mysterious they still were to me, when I started hearing accounts of uncanny experiences told by real people in specific social contexts. In Texas I began going to a UFO Abductee Support Group, which was later called the UFO Experiencer’s support group, in the town I call Hillview in the book. This support group was, from its first meeting, a folklorist’s dream come true: a ready-made storytelling community. People sat together in a circle, and in a structure modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, testified to their disturbing, or exhilarating, inexplicable uncanny experiences. This was the first social context I’m talking about. I also attended meetings of a UFO organization called the Mutual UFO Network.  These were two overlapping communities, but they had different goals – MUFON was dedicated to the scientific study of UFOs and the Experiencer’s group was dedicated to a basically phenomenological approach to the real. I attended both local meetings and larger, national MUFON conventions, but I fell more completely into seeing through the Experiencer’s perspective through my friendships with the people there.

As friendships between regulars there deepened, the Experiencer’s group quickly exceeded its formal meeting structure (which also remained intact).

People made powerful friendships, and for me the people in these groups were in many ways more like colleagues than “interlocuters” because we were all restlessly exploring facets of the same compelling mystery. We just hung out whenever we could. Especially with my two best friends in this group, we’d sit for hours on a porch, or in a living room, or going out to eat, talking and talking, speculating, sharing ideas, dreams, weird memories, theories. I also spent a lot of time hanging out with others in the UFO community who didn’t necessarily go regularly to the support group, especially one man, who had dozens of inexplicable uncanny stories from a previous point in his life. But these conversations also drifted into politics, or society, or our families, or just the mundane stuff of life. The conspiracy theories that go along with UFO stories were braided into real experiences of hegemony and power. So my way of understanding uncanny stories shifted into a sense of their inseparability from the ordinary — a sense of how they worked to both intensify everyday experience and to offer a radical difference and departure from it. Hanging out with the folks in Texas, I often was struck by the fact that even though I was in graduate school, the most intense intellectual energy I ever experienced was on these porches or kitchens, or going out to look for UFOs, sometimes.

In Hillview, people talked a lot about what was going on in Area 51, where the government was said to be hiding a UFO. So eventually I decided to go out there. I was bringing some conspiracy-based material from a Hillview friend to someone who lived in Rachel. This was way before social media, so this was a normal way that people with shared interests might make a connection. In Rachel I based my research in the café in town that was the center of social life there, the Little Ale’le’Inn. The owners of the café were incredibly warm and generous to me. They let me live with them in a spare room in their mobile home. I was volunteering as a waitress in the café, where I heard tons of stories. When my husband came out, we stayed in another mobile home in the neighborhood. I also traveled around Nevada, listening to stories in other places too. But in Rachel, even more than in Hillview, the focus on UFOs – because that was the identity of the town — was interspersed with the ordinary experiences of working UFO tourism or just living in a small western desert town. Here, collecting conspiracy theories and uncanny stories was braided into working with friends in a café, visiting people in the town, seeing their gardens or ranches, playing pool or making dinner, or sometimes taking care of a few people’s kids when they had to work. I was participating in some very rich talk while we were driving around the desert, or holing up during a freak hail storm, or hanging out exhausted after a day of work …all these normal, ordinary activities, filled with jokes or singing or chit chat, rode along with the heavy conspiracy talk that was central in this place. Sometimes people moved here to be in the center of American uncanny conspiracy, and like the Hillview folks, they had an intense intellectual drive and a strong desire to discuss what felt like the most urgent topics. It was obvious that a pressing sense of uncanny conspiracy expressed something in people’s actual experience of power.

It was wonderful to spend time in Rachel. It is a strong community and the people there were unbelievably generous with their time and their hospitality.

Now would you write a little bit about your writing process?  How did you sit down to compose the evocative and even haunting prose that comprises so much of Resonance?  Clearly you are working on multiple planes here, very far from the straight-up sort of formal academic statement of argument.  What is it that you hope this style of narration might accomplish alongside your academic interventions?  What are the politics, in other words, of your narrative style?

 First off, this style of writing was opened up to me by my mentor, Katie Stewart. I don’t think my kind of ethnographic writing would have been possible without her brilliant, lyrical ethnographic work, beginning back in the 1980s.

This is the main thing about my venturing away from a traditional academic style: I think the key part of writing about the social is the practice of attention you develop. Instead of sticking always to specific interview techniques, or planning to fit your data into an existing theoretical template, or making some kind of moral or political judgment about things, you just give yourself over to listening. For this book, I wanted to make it clear that I was writing about something powerful in the voices I heard, not summarize what they said. What I did was immerse myself in the feeling, form or style of people’s stories, both in my face to face encounters and later when I transcribed tape recordings of interviews or conversations.  I was and am moved and awed by the performance of their talk and I wanted to write in a way that showed it was the poetics, not just the referential content, that got to the inchoate feeling of things, and did the work of meaning making. Anthropology has for a long time explored the co-construction of the political and the poetic. The politics of conspiracy theories can be challenging, but that’s intertwined with other elements that are more implicit. So first I committed to the idea that the actual object, the data I was after here – (and stories are, in a way, material data like rocks or bones) – was not just the manifest meaning, and wasn’t something to be explained away or debunked, for example. The things that I was going to write about could be gotten to only obliquely, because actually the topic for people was not any single story or event, it was the uncanny connections between stories and what that suggested about power.  They were talking about haunting, about the way things pile up and overlap.  The people I was hanging out were themselves always noticing the way stories resonate with each other. My job was to get to the actual ethnographic object, and that object was intertextual  and poetic – it was the depth of that piled-up sense of meaning. Paraphrasing it, or translating into an academic language, representing instead of presenting it, simply didn’t let me get to the specific “it” I wanted to show. You know the expression that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Explaining it without evoking or performing it would have been dancing about architecture. So, I tried to perform what I wanted to say, too. And that’s the style you see here.

I think the politics of this ethnographic writing stance is about not leading with an obvious politics, actually. That is a stance that’s more comfortable with writing about cultures outside our own. When we are writing about people who seem both too close but on the opposite side of something, it’s more challenging not to make it just a polemic, or not to reduce it. First, I hope my work shows that people who are stigmatized or marginalized are not outside society; what they say is an intensification of the naturalized center of things.   It’s also political, for me, to believe that people are artful and creative and intellectual in ways that aren’t marked or supported by official institutions. For example, the intensification and condensation I was hearing in this talk is what poetry does, too. This focus on the vernacular is of course at the heart of anthropology and folklore, and I think it’s an inherently political way of understanding creativity and expressive culture; it’s why I wanted from the beginning of my career to write about narrative and poetics through anthropology. I was writing this book on and off for years and years, I’m a very slow writer, and for various reasons I didn’t seek to publish it for a long time before going back to it. But although my framing and interpretations changed some, what never altered was knowing that people’s way of telling stories about the uncanny is at once an unmarked art form, a way of theorizing power, and a public affect that exceeds the story’s explicit subject matter.

 In case it isn’t yet obvious, the book engages people who have experienced alien encounters of one sort or another.  What are some of the resonances you suggest these folks’ experiences touch and evoke, especially the historical trenches they mine and the aspects of collective memory they sound?  How do history and collective memory become threads in alien encounter experience?

 The foundational narrative of our nation is a story of freedom, but so many of our compulsively told narratives are about captivity.  Captivity was a major weapon in colonization and genocide here – the reservation, the boarding school. There was this enormously popular genre about Indians capturing whites during colonization, but the work of Pauline Turner Strong made me realize there were all these undertold, invisible captivity narratives about whites capturing Indians, as well. And I’m operating from a pretty Freudian sense of the uncanny– it reveals memories that have been partially forgotten because they’re too disturbing to recall completely. It’s an incomplete repression, a partial return. And here we see historical traumas that haven’t yet been fully dealt with. The fact that alien invasion is a story of colonization, and has tropes of terrifying assimilation or genocide, and the fact that alien abduction is a story of captivity by an invader, is pretty striking. But that wasn’t the whole thing. What happened here was that the intensity of feeling in these conversations about alien invasion and abduction, came from the poetics of conspiracy theory: that is, that something more is always going on than anything you can hear in one story. It’s the connections, the intertextual similarities, the overlaps, that seem real. So here, in these stories, all sorts of trauma become a sort of uncanny palimpsest: you get imagery from scientific racism, from Nazi medical experiments, from ecological precarity, from slavery, from the containment and genocide of Native Americans, and from the often impossible-to-speak ordinary experiences of everyday hegemony, all piled up together. The uncanny story compresses and intensifies all these histories and memories, like a poem would, and they are revealed as iterations of a common power, as a connected kind of force of history. And that sense of connection feels true to many of us both inside and outside official critical theory.

Of all the explanations for the recent presidential election out there in the blogworld/social media circuits/punditocrasphere, I find Resonance the most satisfying, even though (obviously) it wasn’t intended as such.  Could you talk about what you think your research might offer to people who are perplexed at the depth of support for the winner of that election?

When I did the bulk of my research in the 90s, the vast conspiracies, the sense of the government as evil, the intensified feelings of resentment and loss, were affects gathering at the margins of power. (This doesn’t mean that alien abductees were all working class, or that they were all conspiracy theorists — it’s much more complicated than that, of course.) And even though of course there’s a long history of American conspiratorial thought, this specific affect was at the time an emergent one. But in many ways, over the last two decades, various neoliberal effects in everyday life made the emergent affect, which I explore as something that was still on the stigmatized margins, into something more tangible, into something the center could seize on and exploit.  Using conspiracy as a perspective, inflaming it with racism, appropriating affects about power to infuse the dominant… ironically, the “they” already in power on the right and in the right wing media pounced on the inkling of a hidden “they.” I really was not surprised.

 

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