Azzara, Monique: Questioning An Ethnographic Text: Lepselter, Susan: The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity and UFO’s in the American Uncanny


The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity and UFO’s in the American Uncanny by Susan Lepselter

What is the text about – empirically? What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics? The book draws out what Lepselter calls the American uncanny which she analyses through the trope of captivity, tracing the “recursion and resonance between uncanny memories, hauntings, conspiracy theories, captivity narratives, and tales of everyday life” (1).

Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy? A majority of the ethnographic data for this book was collected throughout the American Southwest in the 90’s. Lepselter collected data from Hillview (Pseudonym) UFO experiencer’s group, another group dedicated to the scientific study of UFO’s, as well as stories from people in Rachel Nevada who resided close to Area 51.

What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount? Lepselter ties the stories she collected to the role that captivity narratives play in the story of the U.S. and colonization. Trauma and collective memory play a central role in tying the uncanny to this history through stories that produce imagery of Native American genocide, slavery, Nazi medical experiements, racism, precarity, and the everyday experiences of hegemony often beyond the ability to articulate.

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale?  This book operates on multiple scales, the first being the emphasis on the language of narratives. Related to the storytelling is a focus on affect which is central to the connection of stories and the meanings they produce. At the meta scale is the focus on the dominant discourses of power.

Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example? A majority of the people in the text believe that aliens and UFO’s exist and that the U.S. government covers it up. Some actors believe they were abducted..

What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? The author begins at a period of the early 90’s when UFO’s and aliens exploded in popular culture. She describes the period as “like an eye in a hurricane” where the first Gulf War had just ended and the next wars against Iraq and Afghanistan had not yet begun. The U.S was in a recession. Lepselter also points to events like Waco as reaffirming conspiratorial thinking around government cover ups and violence.

What cultures and social structures are in play in the text? Primarily white, lower class Americans on the fringe of society. 

What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds? The actors in the text are primarily telling their stories. Storytellers experience apophenia “as a way to begin seeing those things that have become invisible”(3). Parallels and resemblance between stories create a sense of resonance. Tied into these stories are experiences of race, class, gender, and loss, and it is “the parallels between these stories about power that become the subject of many uncanny stories”(19).

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described? Technology and mass media contribute to conspiratorial thinking.

What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text? U.S. Histories of colonialism, violence, racism that continue to haunt collective memory and shape the tropes of the narratives.

How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? For Lepselter, the sense of uncanny conspiracy people discussed in their narratives was expressing something of the way they were actually experiencing power.

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? The narratives were collected from more than one location, and different actors experiences are similar. 

What is the text about – conceptually? Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims? The goal is to both challenge and extend the ways we think about the relationship between power, affect, and narrative.

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? She does explicitly state that the book is about power but it is mostly performed throughout the text through the narratives she weaves together, rather than explicitly analyzing the way power operates.

What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument? Uncanny, apophenia, resonance, captivity, release

How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument? She uses the narratives of the people she studied and creatively organizes them in the text as poems.

How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged? It could be challenged by bringing about a different aspect of the nation’s narrative.

How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text? The politics behind the way the text itself is witten and how the narratives are organized into poems.

Modes of inquiry? What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text? Conspiratorial thinking, historical trauma.

What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? The author assumes a connection between historical memory and individuals experiences.

What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained? ethnographic data collected through discussions and interviews.

If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews? Open ended conversations where the questions often seem to be about the story the person is already telling.

How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? I inferred it would have been a discourse analysis in order to think about and draw out the tropes in the narratives.

How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories? The U.S. as having a national/historic/collective memory. Experiencers, those who study UFO’s, the government.

What additional data would strengthen the text? Data from another region of the U.S. How different would the narratives be from outside the Southwest?

Structure and performance? What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? The first chapter introduces the communities where data was collected, the sociohistoric context, as well as the key conceptual terms such as uncanny, resonate, captivity.

Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? Bakhtin, Freud, Baumon and Briggs, Jakobson are woven into her discussion throughout the text.

What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided? Historical experience vs lived experience

How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development? The book is showing how historical events inform people’s contemporary experiences

How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text? It is evoked through tropes that are both historical and present in the stories people tell.

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text? Experiencers, government, the nation

How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? Their stories are woven throughout the entire text

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described? The focus of the text is not on science and technology, but this is still relevant to the history and collective memory of the U.S. and experiences of the everyday.

How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers? Centralizing the storytelling and poetically displaying it.

What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument? Its layout is thematic, moving from the trope of captivity and ending with that of release/escape.

What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect? No pictures used (at least in the digital version I have) because I think the focus is purposefully on the artistic display of the narratives as poetry.

What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes? Notes about people and places being pseudonyms as well as additional info on citations.

How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? Implicitly criticizes the notion that marginalized individuals can’t be artful and intellectual. She performs this through the form of the text.

How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not? The author ends with a coda which illustrates her own experience of apophenia.

Circulation? Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences? The text is likely for an academic audience but is also very readable.

What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope? College students, People interested in American culture, people interested in literature

What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious? This notion of the American Uncanny could be central to other work that focuses on affect.

How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research? It lays the groundwork for those that incorporate affect seriously into their research. 

What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? I believe part of it was on the politics of our own writing and how we talk about the people we study through our text. She put a lot of effort into the layout of her book and the literary and poetic aspects.

Other modes of expression? Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? 

One idea would be to do a poetry reading of the stories Lepselter collected.


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Contributed date

October 13, 2019 - 7:38pm

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019.

Cite as

Anonymous, "Azzara, Monique: Questioning An Ethnographic Text: Lepselter, Susan: The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity and UFO’s in the American Uncanny", contributed by Monique Azzara, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 13 October 2019, accessed 18 July 2024.