The Symbolism of UFOs and Aliens

By John Fraim

One of the subtle mega-trends in American culture in the second half of the twentieth century has been UFOs and alien symbolism. Whether the early events centering around Roswell, New Mexico and such groups as Project Blue Book are true or not, what is a fact is that interest in aliens came onto the "radar screen" of American culture around the late 40s.
Carl Jung was one of the first to try and analyze these "blips" on the "radar screen" in a symbolic way. As early as 1946 he started collecting data on UFOs and reading every book on the subject. In a 1951 letter to an American friend he wrote, "I'm puzzled to death about these phenomena, because I haven't been able yet to make out with sufficient certainty whether the whole thing is a rumor with concomitant singular and mass hallucination, or a downright fact."

An event in 1958 led Jung to conclude that it was more desirable for people to believe UFOs exist than to believe they don't exist. One of his final works, Flying Saucers, was an attempt to answer why it was more desirable to believe in their existence.

Jung came to the conclusion that UFOs were examples of the phenomena of synchronicity where external events mirror internal psychic states. As usual, he saw the UFO situation in a broader perspective than most. For Jung the UFO images had much to do with the ending of an era in history and the beginning of a new one. In his introductory remarks to Flying Saucers he writes about the UFO events:

" As we know from ancient Egyptian history, they are manifestations of psychic changes which always appear at the end of one Platonic month and at the beginning of another. Apparently they are changes in the constellation of psychic dominants, of the archetypes, or 'gods' as they used to be called, which bring about, or accompany, long-lasting transformations of the collective psyche. The transformation started in the historical era and left its traces first in the passing of the aeon of Taurus into that of Aries, and then of Aries into Pisces, whose beginning coincides with the rise of Christianity. We are now nearing that great change which may be expected when the spring point enters Aquarius."
In a similar manner that the medieval alchemists projected their psyche into matter, Jung felt that modern man projected his inner state into the heavens. In this sense, the UFOs became modern symbols for the ancient gods which came to man's assistance in time of need.
The need perhaps was for wholeness again out of the increasing fragmentation of the modern world. In the early 50s and the beginning of the Cold War, when UFOs began to infiltrate popular culture, there was a great fragmentation in the world. Jung writes, "At a time when the world is divided by an iron curtain...we might expect all sorts of funny things, since when such a thing happens in an individual it means a complete dissociation, which is instantly compensated by symbols of wholeness and unity." It was very relevant to Jung that the shape of the flying saucers was round, the shape of the ancient Mandala, symbol of wholeness throughout history.

The UFO events of the 50s which Jung turned his focus on have certainly not gone away. In fact they seem to increasingly dominate contemporary American popular culture. In the almost half century along the way they have gone a long way towards creating and boosting the literary/film/television genre of science fiction, as well as creating a huge marketing empire and a division in culture between the believers (contactees) and non-believers.

In the process, UFOs and aliens have moved out of cults and into the mainstream of popular culture, their symbolism continually evolving. An important investigation into the current symbolism of aliens and UFOs is political scientist professor Jodi Dean's Aliens in America. Dean sees aliens as repositories for the fears and phobias of our segmented, cyberculture rather than merely another broad-based cult phenomena.

These fears center around the inability to distinguish truth from fiction and the fact that many contemporary political matters are simply undiscipherable. The conspiracy theory which fuels them offers a type of conflicting symbolic duality to that of consensus reality. As Dean notes, "The claim to truth and its challenges to our practices for establishing it are what enable the alien to function as an icon of postmodern anxieties." She notes that aliens are cultural icons in which the new conditions of democratic politics at the millennium can be seen.

But in the end, aliens are really modern Americans and our feelings of alienation. As Dean says, "We have too much data, but not enough to make any decisions because we are uncertain about the contexts and networks into which we might integrate this information. Enabled by technology we become aliens, connected outside the state." And, just as often, "we're abducted by the same technology." In this strange new world, Dean notes that our neighbors are aliens. "Assimilation has been discredited as an ideal, and multiculturalism hasn't become much more than a marketing strategy...Better to forget the neighbors, go inside, and enjoy cyber-citizenship on the World Wide Web." And alien abduction, notes Dean, "narrates the predominant experience of the familiarity of strangeness in the techno-global information age."

The symbolism of alien abduction is very different than the old one of colonization dominating much of the nineteenth century. "Unlike metaphors of colonization that presupposes borders to be penetrated and resources to be exploited," Dean notes, "abduction operates with an understanding of the world, of reality, as amorphous and permeable." Dean adds that colonization moreover brings with it the possibility of struggle, of emancipation and independence. Abduction, however, recognizes the futility of resistance even as it points to other possible freedoms. Colonization implies an on-going process with systematic limitations. Yet abduction involves the sense that things are happening behind our backs. A great paradox is perhaps at the end of this symbolism as Dean concludes her book with the following: "To fight colonization, we take control. We don't fight abduction; we simply try to recover our memories, all the while aware that they could be false, that in our very recovery we participate in an alien plan."

Copyright 1998 John Fraim.