In The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny, Susan Lepselter describes the affects and networked logics that surround UFOs in Hillview, a midsize city in the southern United States, and Rachel, a well-known UFO town in Nevada. Her fieldwork was conducted in the 1990s, long before the conspiracy theories and “fake news” that are all too familiar today. Yet her work points to the ways that people read their experiences with power through an understanding of uncanny objects and alien experiences. These stories of the weird not only surface anxieties about UFO experiencers’ inability to control their own lives, but also reveal deeply held understandings of power and the American metanarratives that structure them.
To focus on Lepselter’s ethnography only as a set of concepts, though, would be to overlook the richness of her textual forms and experiments in poetics. Her ethnographic subjects are themselves poets, whose fragmentary texts are braided with Lepselter’s own to draw their experiences together. As the jury noted in announcing The Resonance of Unseen Things as the winner of the 2017 Gregory Bateson Prize, the book invites us “to examine our expectations of the genre [of ethnography] and to explore modes of writing intimately attuned to the subjects we engage.”
In this third annual Bateson Book Forum, Cultural Anthropology contributing editors explore their responses to The Resonance of Unseen Things. Toby Austin Locke performs the uncomfortable, ineffable it at the heart of Lepselter's sense of the uncanny. David Ayala-Alfonso reflects on the ways that Lepselter's book presents transformative narratives without attempting to merge their countercultural desires into the mainstream. Leah Eades writes on the relationship between narrative and power in Lepselter's work, asking after the incongruousness between individual experience and American grand narratives. Julia Sizek offers a story of care for a historical artifact with an unknown story, considering how speculation circulates and accumulates among local historians to create new forms of collective memory.
Lepselter’s response to the essays in this forum reopens the old question of “what is America?” This forum also includes the text of Lepselter’s acceptance speech for the Bateson Prize, which was read at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC.
The contributors to the 2018 Bateson Book Forum are:
Toby Austin Locke is a PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
David Ayala-Alfonso is Curator in Residence at FLORA ars+natura and teaches in the digital humanities program at Universidades de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. He also serves as media editor for the Journal of Visual Culture.
Leah Eades holds a MSc in medical anthropology and will begin a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh in September 2018.
Julia Sizek is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Susan Lepselter is the winner of the 2017 Gregory Bateson Prize and Associate Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and American Studies at Indiana University.