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Holy Fudge It's Been Two Months Since I've Updated This Newsletter
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Well, hello there.
It’s me again. And I’m back on my porch and on my bullshit.
I’m your host Stephen and this is the Trenchant Edges. A newsletter that still exists.
It’d be cool if I had some interesting explanation for why I disappeared for two months. Exhaustion from my former day job helped, as did getting real sick for a week or two around Easter. Oh, and maybe some seasonal depression from the anniversary of my father’s death.
But mostly it was the fact I unplugged from the project and haven’t really plugged back in yet.
So let’s talk about plugging back in.
Necromancer in a Graveyard of Abandoned Projects
That’s a fun phrase. It’s how I feel though.
I figure the way to make this work is to pick off some projects and start crossing them off.
First up is the collection of a popularity bracket I ran a few years ago. “Who’s the most psychedelic?” It was a fun introduction to 30 or so figures in and around psychedelic culture.
This is first because I don’t have to do much in the way of creating more content. I just need to organize it and eat the ebook publishing learning curve.
It’ll also be free, as I promised it would when the pandemic started (whoops!).
If you want to be a beta reader for this let me know.
Second, the first collection of this newsletter. I’ve got a pretty… wide opinion on the quality of what I’ve published in this newsletter. A TON of it needs serious goddamn editing and I don’t even know if all of it would make sense as one volume.
So that’s gonna take a lot of heft.
Right now I’m expecting this to mainly be an ebook as well. A print copy will have to come with a Kickstarter to pay for publishing costs, so I’ll probably only do that if a lot of people want them.
Last, this newsletter is about to hit its 3rd year in June.
It’s mutated a bit and I want to keep writing it. But I also don’t know necessarily how I want to keep writing it. Do I still want to associate with substack? Do I want to keep this name? Last year I didn’t, now I’m unsure.
Lots of smaller questions as well.
I figure the best way to fully plug back into this work is to just do a bunch of it.
Working out how to manage my pokemon collection of mental and chronic illnesses is obnoxious, but that’s the game I guess.
So I’m going to repeat my move from last year: Just writing a ton about topics I think are interesting and we’ll see what y’all think of them.
While the idea of only publishing stuff when it’s done sounds good, it doesn’t work well with whatever nonsense that is my motivation.
I live in this weird bind where it feels like I have two motivational systems: 1. Work for others and resent it a little more every day until it becomes unbearable or 2. Do whatever catches my interest and pretty much no other way.
Sucks, but I do feel like I’m getting less bad at dealing with them.
The tweak I want to make from last year is doing more prewriting & planning of topics. Which should at least make for content a little more structured than last year’s freewriting.
Alright, that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about something interesting:
Last year this newsletter sort of reignited my interest in UFOs, cryptids, and other weird stories. I’ve gone through a few dozen books on the subjects since and have kind of decided there are a few lenses or frameworks worth considering.
#1 is pretty obvious. All that folklore shit is people who are lying, deluded, confused, or otherwise wrong even if they’re sincere and most of them aren’t.
I know a lot of people with experiences with folklore are put off by this but I think it at least deserves a seat at the table. Consensus reality isn’t ever really arbitrary, there’s always some utility to someone and it pays to figure out what’s useful about a paradigm before trying to replace it.
Don’t really think we need to spend any more time going over this section. We all know what scientific materialism is.
#2 A longstanding fact of the world is that “official” narratives and folklore often disagreed about what happens and why. This was as true for academic doctors and folk healers a thousand years ago as it is today.
Nowadays that manifests in the great tension and cycle between fringe thinkers and the US national security state. I’m sure this happens elsewhere, but I’m way less familiar with those situations.
I’ve read reports, and I need to hunt them down to be sure of the sourcing, of the CIA infiltrating UFO groups as early as 1953. Needless to say, there’s been a lot of waters muddied by the state on the subject since they’ve often claimed to have no interest in it only to eventually reveal elaborate programs to study the organization.
But the fact is that UFOs continue to pop up and that means that nation-states will continue to have an interest in understanding them for good or ill.
Since the 50s, we’ve gotten intermittent peaks into UFO/Intelligence crossover, from the horrific Richard Doty/Paul Bennewitz/Mirage Men situation to the reveal that US intelligence kept several UFO A-listers on the payroll.
I know there are other examples of this kind of thing but I don’t have others well documented and I’m not sure there’s a reliable source for the phenomena as a whole.
Before we can move on, we need to mention right-wing nutjob Bill Cooper, who helped promote a UFO conspiracy alleging the government was collaborating with UFOs. I don’t want to get into the details but it’s relevant here because by the time Bill got his last radio show in the early 90s he’d repudiated his UFO beliefs.
Cooper came to believe that the entire UFO phenomenon was created by the government as a ploy. Put an, uh, pin in that.
At least we come to #3, very relevant to this newsletter.
As we defined it last year, high weirdness is a kind of ontological quicksand. The kind of shit you think is impossible when it’s happening and looking back doesn’t seem likely.
Cliches until they’re happening to you, like taking a lot of LSD and finding out you’re god.
But, you know, the fact that it’s looking back at you large as life makes things harder to deal with. Contrasted with low weirdness like outright fiction and middle weirdness like group hallucinations or mass psychosis, high weirdness bends the tired old rules of the world.
Or maybe it’s just another delusion. One shouldn’t believe too hard there. Many have broken themselves simply by believing their experience too much. Best hold it lightly.
High weirdness is extremely liminal. A crossroads between two systems with a great deal of ambiguity. Creative tension.
Awe and terror, of course.
The researcher most known for this view is John Keel of the Mothman Prophecies, who reported a whole slew of strange bullshit in the lead up to discovering the warnings the strange entities he talked to were giving him about the collapse of the silver bridge.
Keel’s view of the world of contactees was filled with reactive phenomena apparently trying to confirm his perceptions, to the point where he ended up doubting his own conclusions again and again. Unlike Cooper who believed the government was using UFOs to manipulate the public, Keel concluded (with some indeterminate irony), that something was manipulating everyone human for inscrutable reasons.
Both men often cascaded into a mess of paranoia.
I don’t really have an opinion on which one is correct. As an utter outsider to the field, I find most UFO experiences sound like bullshit to me. And if you try and trace the popular elements of them it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of social contagion involved.
IE: Alien Abduction stories were rare until the Betty and Barney Hill story blew up and then it became pretty common and set a fairly consistent template for future stories.
That said, there may well be *something* going on. But I don’t think it’s going to be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction any time soon.
Maybe it’s just a glitch in human brains that generates outlandish lost time scenarios. I do find the suggestion that modern UFOs are a continuation of a long-running phenomenon that used to be explained with more classical mythology: Elves or little people, monsters, fairies, witches, etc compelling.
But I’m not sure what the outcome would be desired from that. Trade relations with the Fair Folk? If there are Others, it seems they’re in charge of our interactions and are probably getting what they want out of them.
So unless someone finds a way to level the playing field that seems unlikely to change.
Now, there are a few other frames I find less useful. There’s a Jungian/Freudian/psychosocial lens that attempts to extract therapeutic insights from the experiences, and that’s all well and good as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go anywhere that interests me.
There’s also Alien Realism, which just takes everything at face value and drags a person into a convoluted mix of beliefs. The number of cracks you need to paper over to assume technologically advanced aliens are here and have avoided all meaningful detection is just beyond my credulity.
I could be wrong about that of course. It’s not impossible, just unlikely.
Oh, there’s also, “Yeah it’s all Satan”. But I largely fold that into weirdness, but the Christians who promote it wouldn’t appreciate that.
Anyway, all of that brings me to the X-Files.
The Truth Is Out There
So, the X-Files (as you probably know) are an episodic thriller/horror procedural from the 90s. Following Manic Pixie Dream Fed Fox Mulder and Partner Doctor Dana “Please, Fox, will you at least try to help me lie to our bosses” Scully.
I’m watching it more or less for the first time, having only caught a few episodes when it was on and never having delved much deeper than the first season.
I ran out of steam watching it around the 4th season but enjoyed a good bit of it.
Having read Bill Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse and John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies just before starting it was kind of funny to find how much influence the two had on the pilot.
There’s a great sense of paranoia to the whole thing and the lighting is genuinely on par with the best color film can do.
I wanted to bring it up here because of how it draws on the canon of Fringe Americana. Like many postmodern projects, it tries to mix genre tropes into something that feels bigger than the old cliches and it often succeeds for an episode. Watching it with access to whole seasons is kind of janky because the rules for reality change with each episode.
Since fiction often shades into reality or expectation and because it’s kind of the big name in Pop conspiracy horror, I thought it’d be interesting to rewatch from a 2022 perspective.
Also, I hoped it could recapture a little of the innocent joy I had about conspiracy theories before I found out how many of them grew out of antisemitism.
But since the main plot of this show feels copied almost wholesale from Bill Cooper, one of the many right-wing propagandists to print the Protocols of the elders of zion to boost their ideas, well, let’s just say that hasn’t happened.
Not to say the X-files is antisemitic, just that borrowing so many details from a guy who published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion makes it hard to feel carefree about.
One thing that surprised me is how much more I liked the monster of the week episodes than the alleged plot. Until near the end of my viewing, the vague government conspiracy didn’t have enough meat on it to be really interesting.
Until they revealed the bee colony people with clones of Mulder’s sister, anyway.
At some point maybe I’ll go back and figure out what’s going on there.
But I assume it doesn’t go anywhere because the X-Files isn’t really a story or a plot, it’s a vibe. And it’s a really good vibe. But it only lives on the knife’s edge between paranoia, actually finding proof and the half-light of being universally disbelieved.
So it doesn’t have much to really say beyond rehashing some obvious facts and cliches about how you can’t always trust the government. OK, well, that’s true. But it also doesn’t have anything to say about that.
Because they can never conclusively prove anything, nothing in the show can move forward. This works for the show as a media product of the 1990s, but makes trying to extract any meaning or value from it other than its own logline, “The Truth Is Out There” impossible.
In a way, watching the X-Files was exhausting. They can’t ever resolve anything because the show is about Finding The Truth, not confronting the truth or deciding what the fuck we’re gonna do about it now.
And because its paranoid vibe only works when you don’t have the whole picture, nothing can really happen. It can’t detail the conspiracy and then actually do anything about it because that would end the show. Scully and Mulder simply wouldn’t exist in a version of this story where they’d succeeded.
Ultimately, the show isn’t about finding the truth behind Mulder’s family or revealing government secrets it’s about giving the audience a handjob.
When watching the first season I was kind of shocked to find out that every episode includes fairly definitive proof that the supernatural (or at least *highly* unusual) is real.
It seemed to me that if you had a show about the X-Files, you’d want to play up the tension between knowing the Truth was out there and the long slog through bullshit to find it. But they don’t.
Instead, they show time and again that whatever weirdness is involved is just true. Even if they couldn’t materially prove it.
And perhaps that’s the lesson in creating a fringe cult classic: Telling your audience how smart and cool they are for their skepticism. For ignoring the paper Scully’s in their own lives. For knowing the Truth Is Out There.
It all comes back to reassuring people they’re right and good. Tedious.
What’s the point of a search for truth that doesn’t change you?
So I’ll leave you with a quote from the Hebrew Bible’s Ecclestiases 1:14
I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity, a futile grasping and chasing after the wind.'
And Ecclesiastes 1:17:
So I set my mind to know wisdom and madness and folly; I learned that this, too, is a pursuit of the wind.
But hell, chasing after the wind is a good time.
Sometimes, though, you’ve got to decide what to do when you’ve caught it.
See y’all soon.
P.S. Let me know if you want to be a beta tester for the ebook.