Remembering in the Aftermath
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: The Resonance of Unseen Things
Something was wrong.
The anxiety couldn’t be placed at first, until one day everything clicked. Some found Communion, a memoir of an alien abduction, and sometimes just the cover was enough to make them “remember things they had already known, and, over time, forgotten.”
The Resonance of Unseen Things is about remembering. UFO experiencers gather together to remember their experiences and locate the resonances that make the stories powerful. “The built-up weirdness of normal things” amass not into a series of coincidences, but a feeling of the uncanny that narratively resonates to become a hardly-glimpsed “secret meaning.” A web forms between these events, all leading back to a design by a yet unnamed power, the power that is the source of the feeling that something is wrong.
Resonance between stories gives a larger narrative shape and power, but Susan Lepselter’s work deftly shows the ways that stories are informed by the fallout of history as the metanarratives that previously defined American history begin to collapse. In the stories she tells alongside her interlocutors, the supposed holism of the past falls apart as it appears uncanny to UFO experiencers. UFOs are the new powers that be that replace the metanarratives of colonization and the pioneer West, as those who colonized that West feel like they are no longer its victors. UFOs offer a new read on history and a way to fit together uncanny experiences into new kinds of collective memory.
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The fear of forgetting is central to projects of historical preservation. This is especially true in remote areas of southeastern California’s Mojave Desert, a region commonly understood to be without history. On trips with local historians, I am greeted with suspicion—the fear that I will usurp their history and claim it as my own without giving them credit or gratitude. They long for recognition that the Mojave is worth something and that their stories will not be forgotten.
One beautiful December day, I toured parts of the Mojave with a brother and sister. Both in their sixties now (making them young in the local historian crowd), they’ve been touring the desert since Henry got a job in the desert town of Hesperia in the 1990s. One of their favorite books is a self-published pamphlet by a longtime desert resident, which lists mysterious and fascinating sites in the region. The pamphlet is a favorite among local historians, as the book both guides readers to destinations and validates sentiments about the historical value of local places. Today, we are doing a loop of about ten sites in the East Mojave portion of the pamphlet, which features sites that range in age and type from the so-called Malcolm Rogers rock alignments (which bear the name of the archaeologist who put them on the map) to mysterious modern rock structures near a spring.
As we stop the jeep to see the different sites, Henry tells me that it’s a shame that these sites are advertised in the pamphlet as interesting, but not historic. As we drive up and over the old railroad berm (now without rails and ties), he tells me about one site that he is particularly interested in: the Desert Speaker.
While driving up the dirt road, I read aloud from the pamphlet: “Someone had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to fabricate this heavy object. It must have taken a great effort to get it to the top of the mountain and permanently install it into the rocks. For what reason? I asked the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and no one had gotten a permit to install an object like this. The BLM has no idea what it is.” Henry tells me that someone put an advertisement in the paper to try and find out more about it. The search yielded nothing, so no one knows what the site really is other than a welded, conical hunk of metal on top of a hundred-foot rock scramble, next to the berm and not too far from known petroglyph sites.
As we drive the dirt roads to return home, we talk more about the Desert Speaker and what it’s doing out there. This, like many other sites in the area, is clearly something, but it’s not clear what. The pamphlet doesn’t answer that question. As we reach the interstate, we discuss this as a problem of how we will get these sites protected as part of the area’s local history. Henry predicts: “People will ask ‘what’s the integrity of this? what’s the significance?’, and we won’t be able to tell them. No one cares about these sites because we don’t know anything about them.” We run through the theories that circulate around the Desert Speaker to see if we could convince ourselves of something that would convince the public, but none of them seem right.
* * *
“Here,” Lepselter says of the weird stuff that indexes UFOs, “the ground you explore is part of your experience that you can’t tell anyone else.” Henry tells me: “I’m so glad that you’re doing this project and that you’re here to listen—maybe you can find out more about the Desert Speaker in an archive somewhere.” He’s already tried asking BLM officials and has poked through their collections unsuccessfully.
Henry wants to know what the object is, but he recognizes that it doesn’t matter if it’s a railroad artifact or a military one. What is important to him is how the pamphlet identifies objects of shared history, making common ground for the forms of historical care and speculation that characterize membership in a local historical society and in the desert.
Visiting, knowing, and talking about the Desert Speaker and other objects makes it possible to become a local—to Rachel, Nevada, or to the Mojave—without having lived there forever. You become a “desert rat” through sharing memories that circulate around these objects and through talk about them. Like stories around UFOs, they accumulate. The Desert Speaker tells the story of a bored railroad man, a military installation, Native Americans, and a miner who found it after years of driving past while looking for rare rocks of the Mojave. These stories overlap and resonate with each other through the figure of the Speaker itself, forming a real that is truer than each of the stories individually.
This real is a web dense with connections, both a means to understand relations of power and to cope with the end of the American West as frontier. New stories contend with constant destabilizations—not only artifacts speaking against perceived emptiness, but reminders from Native American tribes of their continued existence and resistance in a supposedly unoccupied land (see Simpson 2014). Lepselter rightly points us toward the questions that haunt not only the West, but America today: what are the stories we tell after the critique of colonization, in the wake of our own histories?
Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Border of Settler States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.