Our Very Own Cargo Cult

By Wagner, Roy | Oceania, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Our Very Own Cargo Cult


Wagner, Roy, Oceania


Possibly the best place to begin with an understanding of 'cargo cults,' millenarian movements, and with the imitation of such phenomena in the very attempt to comprehend them, is with the idea of persuasion, or perhaps the will to persuasion in modern life. 'Belief' is less promising, in that it does not carry the credentials for its own conviction. But the fact that persuasion, from the days of Aristotle onwards, never works as it is intended to and has its greatest effect on the persuaders, qualifies it automatically for the role of arbiter. What does this mean? To the extent that the vast, worldwide communications industry, the media, the internet or Web, the ubiquitous 'sensory' modes and guidance-circuitries use 'information' or 'communication' as code-words for what is really going on, we live in a world that is actually created by the failure of persuasion. This means that we live in a world of information-stealth -- the half-truths of our lies and the lies of half-truth -- or what the CIA, or at leas t its critics, would call disinformation. I wouldn't be kidding you, now, would I?

Disinformation has a far more ambiguous or ambivalent effect than persuasion ever could have, and is both more informative and communicative than its buzz-word surrogates. Its works on a 'leakage' principle, partial truths leaked out in the telling of deliberate lies, and deliberate lies leaked in the telling of partial truths. It is motivated by goals and objectives that have nothing directly to do with either belief and conviction on one hand, or doubt and cynicism on the other; disinformation offers 'deniability' with both hands. 'It is either half true,' as the Viennese aphorist Karl Krauss said of the aphorism, 'or one-and-a-half times true.' So our modern version of it could well have begun in Vienna, possibly with Sigmund Freud. It is the essence of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy, and of Neitzsche's anti-philosophy, and of what we most suspect about ourselves. We are unconvinced (e.g. 'Apathetic') on one hand, and overconvinced on the other, and the middle ground is the most contested of all.

So the classic cargo-cults would not necessarily have been from New Guinea, though they might be sighted there. Unidentified Flying Objects, UFOs, cut a very curious profile, regardless of what they might represent in modern history of persuasion, and one that is roughly coterminous with it. There were those enigmatic 'flying machines' with flashing port and starboard lights that appeared to midwestern farmers in the 1890s, crewed by ordinary human beings ('from upper New York State'), who claimed to have just invented them. There were the 'foo-fighters' and 'gremlins' of World War II. There was the Roswell Crash, the formation of saucers over Washington, D.C., there were the cylindrical craft that shot down MIGs over the Soviet Union. Later there were 'close encounters of the third kind,' disclosures about the beings inside the craft and the government's alleged abuse of them, unexplained suicides and telepathies. And of course there were the inevitable Conspiracy Theories -- those layman's equivalents of p ostmodern theory in anthropology. 'It is, or was, or will be only a trick,' but who could tell who was tricking whom? Famous astronomers, journalists, and psychologists were brought in to explain why UFOs couldn't exist; famous star clusters and suspicions about the universe were invoked to indicate why they must.

By now we have all kinds of phototrophic evidence for the various kinds of UFOs, and could publish a spotter's manual if necessary (like for enemy aircraft, except in this case we would have to know exactly who the enemy really is). We know exactly how they work (like the Starship Enterprise, if an account by Dr. Robert Lazar is to be believed), and we know so much about what their occupants look like that you can buy model kits. And if we do not give a damn for any of this knowledge (so remarkably like 'science,' so adroitly like mysticism), it is because the only issue that really matters is that of who is responsible for them. …

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