Shape Shift

Altar, Africa, 20th Century

The pleasure provoked by (the) incongruity evokes Georges Bataille’s aesthetics of heterogeneity. Bataille described the similarity he felt between such abject excremental forms as sperm and shit, and the “sacred, divine, or marvelous,” as a byproduct of their shared heterogeneous status as “foreign bodies” relative to our assimilating and homogenous culture. They are both, in a sense, equally taboo. He gives as an example the image of “a half-decomposed cadaver fleeing through the night in a luminous shroud” as one that characterizes this unity. The image of the abject blob-like alien is part of a long history of images of foul heavenly masses, sometimes called “star jelly” or “pwdre ser.” In literary sources and scientific journals spanning the Sixteenth to the early Twentieth Century one may find descriptions of “gelatinous meteors” – falling stars that, when located, reveal themselves as lumps of stinking, white, goo. The evocation of sperm in such accounts is so obvious that such finds were sometimes described as “star shoot.” So, a mythic relationship between the sky and the abject has quite a long history. This conflation of the heavenly with the abject body recalls Bataille’s example of the risen Christ, which simultaneously represents rotting corpse and ascendant being. But, unlike his example, which the social institution of religion has appropriated into culture as a divine image, the abject qualities associated with similar imagery in ufology have maintained their terrifying heterogeneous nature. Ufology always invokes this connection between the heavenly and the abject and, so far, this has not been codified to the point where it could be considered a contemporary religion.

In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre conducts an analysis of the “slimy,” attempting to explain why such a quality is so repugnant. The fact that slime is base, or dirty, is not the issue. That which is slimy is terrifying, primarily, in that it provokes an ontological crisis because it clings; it threatens one’s sense of autonomy, and this is imbued with an uncanny quality. Sartre writes, “. . .the original bond between the slimy and myself is that I form the project of being the foundation of its being, inasmuch as it is me ideally. From the start then it appears as a possible “myself” to be established; from the start it has a psychic quality. This definitely does not mean that I endow it with a soul in the manner of primitive animism, nor with metaphysical virtues, but simply that even its materiality is revealed to me as having a psychic meaning . . .”. Slime’s ambiguous qualities are accentuated by the fact that its “fluidity exists in slow motion”; it makes a spectacle of its instability. Unlike water, which instantly absorbs into itself, slime does so slowly giving one the false impression that it is a substance that can be possessed. Slime is, therefor, read as a deceitful material. Its in-between-ness, its boundary-threatening attributes, provokes a base and horrible sublime experience.

Light, like water, is generally understood as a kind of transcendental formless because its undifferentiated qualities are both unitary and actively kinetic, unlike slime’s earthy weightiness. That is why it has found such favor in religious imagery in the form of the halo, and why fixed heavenly bodies, despite their ambiguous nature and qualities, are not fear inducing. In “documentary” photographs of UFOs this elevated status is threatened and light is imbued with negative and terrifying connotations. For, despite eyewitness accounts that describe “flying saucers” as tangible technical apparatuses, they rarely have been photographed as such. Of the innumerable photographs purporting to document flying saucers collected by the government agency Project Blue Book, very few reveal any recognizable form. Often, these photos only show spots of light floating in the sky.[6] It is not the fact that these photographs image what could be potentially dangerous technologies in the service of unknown beings that makes them terrifying, it is their impenetrable quality that does so. These photographs “picture” that which cannot be seen - cannot be known. They do so by employing the sign of the formless – the blob.

Mike Kelley, from "The Aesthetics of Ufology" (1997), text available here.

Arnold Dreyblatt, Animal Magnetism