On April 27, 2020, the US Department of Defense issued a public statement authorising the release of three “UFO” videos taken by US Navy pilots.
The footage appears to depict airborne, heat-emitting objects with no visible wings, fuselage or exhaust, performing aerodynamically in ways that no known aircraft can achieve. The DoD doesn’t use the terms “unidentified flying object” or “UFO” but does clearly state “the aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified’.”
Thoughts about what UFOs are vary widely – from illusions to alien spacecraft. However, a workable, conservative definition is: “intelligently-controlled airborne objects not apparently made by humans”.
Only a small fraction of UFO reports collected globally over the past seven decades seem to describe such objects, but the Navy footage appears to fit the bill. Whether such objects are vehicles of alien invasion or not, their mere presence would seem to indicate a national security threat, which is partly what makes the Pentagon’s recent announcement so puzzling.
This is the first time the Pentagon has publicly confirmed the authenticity of UFO footage. It should have been a momentous announcement, but it seems to have barely moved the needle on the UFO controversy. Why?
The announcement is new, but the videos are not
The three grainy, monochrome infrared videos – one taken in November 2004, the other two in January 2015 – had already been leaked online, in 2007 and 2017, respectively. They also gained international attention after the New York Times published them as part of a December 2017 exposé on the Pentagon’s secret UFO research program, the so-called “Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program”.
That program was allegedly headed by Luis Elizondo, who claims to have been instrumental in the 2017 leaks, although his background has been credibly called into question. After resigning from the DoD, Elizondo immediately joined To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a UFO research collective founded by former Blink 182 frontman Tom DeLonge.
In September 2019, Joseph Gradisher, claiming the title of “spokesman for the deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare,” confirmed the authenticity of all three videos in an email to a well-known UFO blog called The Black Vault. This development was quickly reported by the Washington Post.
The UFO footage in question, then, has appeared less like a shot out of the blue, and more like an echo in the night. Its gradual, staggered confirmation by the DoD mirrors the entrance of the footage itself into the public consciousness.
Whether this happened by accident or design, we may never know. As the technoculture critic Richard Thieme has astutely observed, “the UFO world is a hall of mirrors. The UFO world on the internet is a simulation of a hall of mirrors.”
Not ordinary, but not entirely invented
Despite the maddening refractions of the UFO rabbit hole, we can be certain of one thing. The modern figure of the UFO maintains an uneasy residence on “the margins of the real”.
UFOs are clearly not ordinary objects, like rocks, chairs or smartphones. But neither are they utterly immaterial products of the cultural imagination, like werewolves, vampires or fairies.
If, as historian of science M. Norton Wise has argued, “to make something visible is to make it real, or to try to”, then the question of whether UFOs exist or not largely hinges on debates about representation and authenticity.
When it comes to phenomena that may not fit into our framework of what is real – phenomena like UFOs – what kind of representations of them will we regard as authentic?
More specifically, what would an authentic representation of a UFO look like? Who would have the authority to afford it that authenticity? And how would that authentication proceed?
What would ‘legitimate’ UFO footage look like?
In her widely influential 1977 polemic, On Photography, Susan Sontag observed “the images that have virtually unlimited authority in a modern society are mainly photographic images; and the scope of that authority stems from the properties peculiar to images taken by cameras”.
Within this paradigm, even the poorest photograph is always more “legitimate” than the most refined and accurate painting. The Navy UFO footage is presented as something more than a photograph, however. It is offered as professional data, collected by highly skilled practitioners.
Even if we fail to fully understand everything on the plane’s Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) display, or even how the video was made, it seems data-driven and authentic – an impression reiterated by the grainy, monochrome quality of the image itself.
As observers, we are led to believe that, despite the somewhat visually disappointing resolution, we are watching authentic footage. In a way, the visual disappointment helps to qualify the videos as candidates for legitimacy.
Even though few of us know what such a video “should” look like, we assume that, since UFO encounters are spontaneous and surprising, footage is likely to be somewhat less than satisfactory.
These expectations present a dilemma. If an image of a UFO is too clear it is likely to be read as obviously fake, but if it’s too blurry it could be anything.
A superficial reading of the Navy UFO footage would likely lead to the latter evaluation. But given the nature of the footage (it is infrared, not technically photographic, so establishes the heat signature of the objects depicted), and the institutional context (the Pentagon is not known for producing and distributing fake UFO videos), it’s hard to avoid concluding the footage shows genuine physical anomalies. If that’s the case, it would be worthy of serious scientific and military attention, both of which currently seem absent.
‘A hell of a video’
UFOs can be difficult and uncomfortable to think about. As I have argued elsewhere, one symptom of that difficulty is that individuals and institutions maintain their own ignorance of the situation.
A persistent trope in Western UFO mythology is that every American president is briefed on the reality of the situation on taking office. The current president and commander-in-chief of the US Armed Forces, Donald Trump, commented on the recently released footage: “I just wonder if it’s real. That’s a hell of a video.”
It was a rare unifying statement from a notoriously divisive and antagonistic president, perhaps encapsulating the most likely public reaction to this latest instalment in the UFO mystery: just wonder.
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