What UFOs Mean for Sovereignty, Seriously

Over at The Monkey Cage, a debate between Henry Farrell, on one side, and Bud Duvall and Alex Wendt on the other in response to Duvall and Wendt’s article in Political Theory, “Sovereignty and the UFO”.  The abstract:

Modern sovereignty is anthropocentric, constituted and organized by reference to human beings alone. Although a metaphysical assumption, anthropocentrism is of immense practical import, enabling modern states to command loyalty and resources from their subjects in pursuit of political projects. It has limits, however, which are brought clearly into view by the authoritative taboo on taking UFOs seriously. UFOs have never been systematically investigated by science or the state, because it is assumed to be known that none are extraterrestrial. Yet in fact this is not known, which makes the UFO taboo puzzling given the ET possibility. Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, the puzzle is explained by the functional imperatives of anthropocentric sovereignty, which cannot decide a UFO exception to anthropocentrism while preserving the ability to make such a decision. The UFO can be “known” only by not asking what it is.

Henry’s response:

I’m highly skeptical of claims that UFOs are interesting in any sense but the sociological, for reasons having to do with the Fermi paradox, and the weaknesses of evidence laid out in John Sladek’s excellent and entertaining The New Apocrypha (the relevant chapter is entitled ‘Will U Kindly F O”). But even apart from the question of whether or not there is something to UFO claims that is worthy of sustained scientific investigation, Wendt and Duvall’s argument is highly unconvincing. They claim that there is something about the possibility of alien subjectivities that fundamentally challenges the principles of sovereign rule and makes sovereign entities go into a kind of halting state (pun borrowed from Charlie Stross) when they try to think about them. Hence, the failure of states to investigate UFOs. But this doesn’t seem to me to hold up as a convincing explanation.

Duvall and Wendt’s rejoinder:

We have said that human ignorance about UFOs is the most fundamental question at stake in the paper, because only if we are right about that is there a puzzle then to be explained (the state’s inaction). Judging from the comments on the Monkey Cage and other blogs in response to Farrell’s post many readers will not concede their ignorance, and as such are unable to take the paper seriously. We remain to be convinced by those who dismiss the existence of the puzzle, and indeed are tempted to interpret the haste and surety of the dismissals as evidence of the very taboo our article sets out to explain. However, to his credit Farrell gives us the benefit of the doubt and moves on to engage our solution to the puzzle as well. Here he makes three basic criticisms of our claim that the failure of modern states to seriously investigate UFOs stems from a metaphysical threat to anthropocentric sovereignty.

Henry’s response to the rejoinder can be found here.