An introduction to the thought of Colin Bennett
Colin Bennett’s rich and lasting contribution to our culture was as a philosopher of anomalies. His thought—full of brilliance, broad humour, lyricism, and vitality, and exquisitely allusive in its breadth of reference—is embodied in three analytical biographies, three highly original novels which went far beyond the contemporary scope that he dismissed as “Jack and Jill in Hampstead,” and in the spread of seminal essays and stories that are here anthologized.
He will be remembered as a thinker who forcefully thrust the aging UFO and unexplained phenomena toward their true place among contemporary theories of media and advertising, quantum theory, politics, and postmodernism.
Bennett was the vanguard outsider-warrior of the movement that he christened the New Ufology. He was not entirely popular with the large movement that he dismissed as Old Ufology, whose work he summed up as “the passive listing of countless case histories from the past.” It must be stressed that Bennett was an individual who nourished and cherished his subjective sense of wonder. He loved footage of moving lights and first person alien encounters as much as anyone. The problem was, however, that the scope of Old Ufology was narrow and dated: “Media does not appear to have arrived. The result is that, for the most part, Roswell is usually investigated as some kind of traffic accident.” He labelled Old Ufologists and a great many literal-minded scientists as “Victorian Station Masters,” a term now spreading through Ufological culture: thinkers obsessed with minor and ineffectual forms of measurement, “their universe conceived as number systems inside railway timetables inside a Rubik Cube”.
Bennett argued that instead, Ufological studies should be integrated with the latest developments in psychology, mathematics and physics, along with contemporary Postmodern views on Artificial Intelligence and image processing:
“Old Ufology must be deconstructed from bottom to top. It must transfer from boiler-house analyses to a new Age where transcendental experience is seen to consist of holistic components. In these elements all information is media, and both language and culture are advertising systems. In such systems, objective “solidity” is the most perfect prime-time performance of all.”
Bennett argued the urgent need for popular culture to form a radical new theory of the anomalous event with the trappings and “troublesome apparatus of traditional occultism” all slashed away. These fading forms he jettisoned to produce—and document—a systems model based on the viral creation, growth, and streaming of information and counter-information, all operating in a cosmos entirely composed of warring fields of advertising structures. In Bennett’s Cosmos anomalies, rather like mutations, crop up as viral phenomena whose existence acts as “cultural advertisements” for potential new ideologies. By so doing they impose system-strains upon the numerous other cultural advertisements that constantly compete in a “bloody war” to grab the “ideological prime time of consciousness.” The workings of these processes he called Story Technology: “the story-teller, with his age-old technology, is still political dynamite.”
Bennett’s innovative, warring, advertising structures differ from the chess-move paradigms of TS Kuhn in that they are virtual dialogues between semi-substantive intermediate states where ideological systems are both live and alive and where “imagination is the third state of matter”. Within this “third grid” of Bennett’s cosmological model there are battles for survival quite different from Darwin’s. Here, live, dominant ideological systems do not destroy their opponents for their own survival but instead persuade their vanquished enemy systems to adapt and transform their ideology in order to survive. It is a process parallel to the Darwinian search for food and environmental advantage but here the law is, “Upgrade or Die”—as Bennett puts it in his short story, “Systems Analysis.”
All Bennett’s originality of thought erupts out of his fundamental conviction that, literally, “when we imagine, we create a form of life.” He describes the powerful process of this story technology: “Stories as advanced, complex metaphors enter and mutate the very interstices of matter, symbol, spirit formulation. Like radiation, they pass through our brains leaving their fertilising signals behind whether we like it or not. Mere bullets cannot do that.” His story “Signal to Noise Ratio” celebrates this mental transformation.
Through this model Bennett urgently defends and resurrects the active imagination, “one of the great banned faculties of the twentieth century.” Ours, he says, is a scientific century where the imagination “must be subject to almost medieval restrictions, as if it were a dangerous radiation.” He laments, “How far the imagination has fallen from Prospero’s idea of it as a magical, transforming faculty to a mere Pavlovian function—the imagination reduced to instant consumer-product pornography.”
One cultural reason for this great fall in the status and concept of the imagination was that the serious writers of the mid twentieth century took no interest in writing about the “flashy” or “lurid” new phenomenon the UFO and its linked, inexplicable phenomena. Bennett had read English at Balliol College, Oxford, and was able to sketch the panorama of literary apathy:
“The Argentinian fantasist Jorge Borges, alive and well at this time, and not all that far away, would have loved all this had he come across this cutting-edge of a new culture, but if he knew of it, he ignored it. The great writers of [George] Adamski’s day ignored it also. They were absorbed in largely obsolete literary conventions and unaware of the “pan-dimensional” texts these “non-literary” writers such as Adamski were weaving out of myth, popular culture and the newly emerging technological imagination. Thus did the very last generation of great writers miss out on the first wave of quite unprecedented changes in the world. Writers such as Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe are almost contemptuously silent on the flying saucer, as were Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and surprisingly, Timothy Leary.”
Bennett understood that if he wanted to read this calibre of writing about UFOs—of literary quality yet scientifically, politically, philosophically, and technologically aware, richly and rebelliously allusive across many fields—his only solution was to write it himself. His acclaimed analytical biographies of Charles Fort and George Adamski, and his book about both Edward Ruppelt and Project Blue Book invest their subjects with unprecedented literary quality.
Bennett once remarked wisely that “the corner of the eye defeats us if we do not find a language for it.” One crucial task Bennett tackles is that our culture “lacks an effective language to describe events that exist outside the old industrial colonisations of yes and no.” This task is vital because “the way we name things means admission into the spectrum of sanctions.”
He noted that, in trying to locate strange phenomena, investigators “look anywhere but where [Charles] Fort looked: that is, into the conceptual architectures within the descriptive language that governs our reasoning.” It is certainly no use turning to Science for that language, for “Science is about as good at describing non-material phenomena as it is in describing human relationships—namely, nought out of ten.” Among the myriad examples he points out that, for instance, there isn’t an algorithm that can express superficiality. The inadequacy of science as a description of consciousness and the world of experience, particularly when its own “rigorous” tests are turned upon itself, is one theme in his essay “Managing Mystery,” where he points out that a runaway bus on a hill, full of drunk, rioting skinheads, is seen by science as merely a point mass moving down an inclined plane.
Bennett, therefore, builds his own definitions of anomalous phenomena. Anomalies are Half-Forms, “subtle forms of energy suspended between symbol and realisation.” Anomalies are Fast Transient entities or Knife-Edge Systems, which “lack the high-performance repetition rate required for continuous appearance.” And which, as he pointedly suggests, are “just as fleeting as any quark or muon.” He talks of images and their attached “emotional fields,” he describes the competing “live domains of interest” or “fields of belief” that govern our world of experience, with their persuasive “systems animals.” Systems Animals are “forms of pure organisation [which] appear to lie in wait for hunters or buyers and let themselves be captured or bought. Once in place they often capably mimic a complete holograph of authentic life-responses. Once established, they breed swiftly, as if pure information is an unprecedented form of life.”
This system model of Bennett’s is often driven by a rebellious Outsider—whom Bennett redefines and depersonalises as an “advanced prototype”—who, by imagining and communicating, is vital to the process of changing the governing social metaphor, that is, to changing the victorious “cultural advertisement.” And in opposition to this process he identifies “belief sanctions” or implicit “structures of not-seeing” and denial, which are firmly planted within the victorious governing paradigm. His essay “Managing Mystery” centres on the “mythological engineering” of such implicit denials through a process of Wonder Management, with its “channel restrictions” and “machinery of explanation” and its “explanations as products.”
Bennett throws away the old two-state view of anomalies with its polarities of “true/false,” “yes/no” or “1-zero.” He replaces it with a model of a grey scale of cultural or cosmological allowances, or as he occasionally calls them, “octaves of appearance.” Within this fuzzy grey scale, “belief and scepticism are reality controls: their inputs and outputs sculpt, programme and eventually construct what we decide to experience. They are the differentials that generate our systems of mental navigation.” They influence our “collective not-seeing” of evident anomalies such as discs and chemtrails, and provoke the challenge, “what shall we allow ourselves to experience?”
Instead of the two-state system Bennett makes anomalies part of a three-state system where the third state “works—but not very well.” This “third grid” of activity occurs in a liminal territory that is “a conceptual region parallel to our modern ideas of internet cyberspace.” This liminal territory is in some ways the “lost hinterland between fact and fiction” and in other ways the domain of “the lost relationship between mind and nature” where significantly, accuracy itself is considered to be just another myth among many. Rather, it is “the peculiar nature of our virtual world conceived of as hologrammatic” that determines that fictions and facts can be true by gradations such as “fairly true” or “barely true.” Bennett’s third grid is also emphatically a Quantum region:
“In modern quantum theory a description is an experience and more than sufficient for a temporary reality. In these terms any observer, real or imagined, any character created—or indeed met—is involved in Jung’s participation mystique of experience and observation.”
In Bennett’s system it doesn’t matter if the spaceman Orthon that George Adamski encountered is real or imagined, but only that he has been described. Such descriptions are advertisements for systems animals, challenging the dominant ideological cosmos for primacy. With this view of information itself as a teeming form of life, the alien is not real or unreal, so much as “under construction”—the subject of his notable essay in this collection.
“Contact may not be in terms of either “greys” or spindly War of The Worlds machines spouting laser death rays, but in the cool form of that powerful suggestion-virus called the advertisement … “Advanced” life might be indeed as vaporous as a mere power metaphor that dines on belief batteries as cattle chew the cud.”
Of course the many UFO devotees and hobbyists deeply absorbed in trying to capture empirical proof that UFOs are “real,” were not going to be satisfied with Bennett’s proving an alien presence in our world by this method. For many such people, simply seeing the word ”postmodern” is an instant Pavlovian reaction to not understand—even before they start to read the theory. Thus in the field of Ufology Bennett became a controversial, polarising force, such as when he described Carl Sagan as “the John Delorean of Old Ufology.” Certainly Bennett’s stimulating view enriched, overturned and irrevocably expanded the Ufological frame of reference.
Bennett placed the imagination first in the pantheon and argued for it as the prime mover of our Cosmos. The active imagination that is, not the passive, for he absolutely and eloquently opposed the infinite, passive, societal absorption of media images and star “personalities”—be they the Kennedys of Camelot, Elvis, Monroe or Lady Gaga—whose images stream in and degrade the imagination into a mere passive receptor. This destructive conflagration he identified as the political, metaphysical and existential control system or phenomenon which he called Entertainment State.
Entertainment State, he emphasised, is a culture with absolutely no “off” switch, one where humans, even without an earpiece or a phone, are still forced to participate. Bennett’s concept of Entertainment State is in one aspect a political model, one which documents
“the birth of an age that would have surprised both Marx and Fort: an age of media and entertainment in which the old visible ruling class and the old industrial equations vanished into the powerful alchemy of political conspiracies with the entertainment/glamour complex as the controlling programme … an age ruled and controlled not by fact but by image and advertising, and the deep-laid plots of the military-technological-entertainment establishment.”
His piece “Non-Cerebral Systems as Weaponry” observes that “hot” methods of social control are obsolete now that all that is required from the mass is the purchase of a screen to watch: “passive viewers become mere image-processors in the supermarkets of ideologies.” In this age of “mass TV inoculation,” all levels of perception are “bent in this strong Camelot image-field.”
As a result Bennett argued that human beings—or as Bennett sometimes satirically called our species, “Viewers”—do not reason by facts: “from Jesus to Monroe, from Michael Jackson to Orwell’s Big Brother, people reason by inspirations provided by such big dolls of one kind or another.” Big Doll Culture, Bennett called this. Ultimately these dolls—“massive, savage dolls laying waste to what was once called intellect”—are images that can be regarded as intelligent, non-carbon lifeforms in themselves, so that personalities like Elvis Presley actually operate as Systems Animals “whose indestructible and self-replicating images possess utterly whole and entire world populations.”
A theme of Bennett’s essay “Manchurian Candy” is the artificial creation and manipulation of prototypal media-dolls, from Sylvia Plath to Jon-Benet Ramsey, all of whom exist in a liminus between fact and imagination, and who are sometimes psychologically contained in the literal sense by authority-induced trance-states: “America first gave birth to this brood, and all its assassins share similar characteristics.”
In Entertainment State, Bennett points out, “Cartesian measurement and indeed facts mean practically nothing.” Cerebral functions are utterly dismantled by these entertainment images without a drop of blood being shed. Therefore Science, that sober, methodical, responsible and ontologically overwhelming paradigm, as an ideological system in the bloody battle for cultural control, has surprisingly met its conqueror in the most unexpected, banal and frivolous of places—and all by virtue of underestimating it.
“The basic scientific assumption is that the limitless absorption of countless powerful images through various media means that nothing [functional] happens of any importance at all with regard to the physical objective world as structured and conceived. That images are forms of intelligence which continue to develop long after the finite moment of perception is again hardly recognised by science, since this would upset all the objective machinery set in place for political, intellectual, and cultural domination.”
In his day-to-day life Bennett was fascinated and delighted by science, technology, and electronics. His flat was a crowded archive shrine to the material and scientific world—great lathes and old oscilloscopes, hammers and clamps, telescopes and Revoxes; and sometimes he drew and etched his own circuit boards. His short story “Milteer’s Rooms” is his nostalgic technological obituary for one dying era of the junk workshop of science. “Green Screen Time” is one term he used for that era before all the obsolete computers with green type on screens were dumped on corners of his street. An aching nostalgia for dying technology and military technology is one outstanding and original motif in both his fiction and prose, and this is one of his attractions as a highly original thinker.
But, ultimately and ruthlessly, Bennett saw Science as just a paper hoop paradigm to leap through towards an ever-expanding liminus of understanding beyond. To Bennett, Science was just one more cultural advertisement among many, caught in a bloody battle for what he called the “prime time of human consciousness”. He viewed science “not as lies but rather as an array of game possibilities that are liable to exhaustion and decay,” and he believed it was in decline as an ideology and currently deteriorating to become just a technical support base for Big Media: “It started perhaps with the great vision of Star Trek and it ended with insect vehicles crawling around sterile planetary deserts. Hammer-and-anvil science won’t compete in the image-evolution race.”
“All cultures collapse in time because their advertisements fail to sustain their product range. The word nuclear—still used by some ufological physicists as a badge of honour and achievement—is now a badge of shame. From Chernobyl to Fukushima, from Three Mile Island to Fallujah, it is doubtful if the world will recover from such devastation caused by nuclear physicists and their satanic manoeuvres.”
Crucially, he points out that “since well over 170 years after Michael Faraday’s discovery of the electromagnetic induction, still no one knows what a magnetic or electrical field is, exactly.” Therefore to Bennett the proudly “real” structure of science is based on acts of metaphorical faith just as much as are any religious or even occult beliefs of those who experience anomalies. In his earliest essay in this collection, “Science as Showbusiness,” Bennett captures Science in the process of re-advertising itself in order to compete with other similar occult sales-campaigns—specifically, through the New Cosmology of the 1990s whose statements—for instance, this below by George Smoot—are just as fantastic as claims of green humanoids in Bradford:
“By a ten-billionth of a trillionth of a second inflation had expanded the universe (at an accelerating rate) a million trillion trillion times, and the temperature had fallen to below a billion billion degrees.”
To Bennett Science is first and foremost a political ideology, and this is his contribution to political theory. “Science is a political control over the world of appearances and as such cannot help but align itself with massive institutionalised authority.” Science is a censoring form of control, where “facts” do not operate for honest demystification but are the propaganda technique of the ideological “live domains of interest” of rationalism and scepticism. “The patronising social policies of science (essentially about stability, rule, formula, good behaviour, and predictability) are reflected completely in its lower middle class practitioners,” he comments mischievously: “its deeply conformist mythological engineering is actually a political conspiracy against wonder, innocence, love and all imaginative transcendence.”
The usurpation of Authority by Science was called by Bennett “Factual Authority,” where Science becomes our “cultural interrogator.” In this system, anomalies play the politically subversive role of viruses or “hackers in the mainframe system of reference,” which attack to reveal that science is “a system doomed in ideological time.” Science all the while advertises itself as a force for stable enlightenment with its myth that, as he puts it, “the new experiments in the new, shining laboratories will surpass the old experiments in the old laboratories.”
Bennett’s view that ideological systems are literally live, swift-breeding and warring systems of propaganda has powerful ramifications for individual and group liberty. On the subject of coercion Bennett argues that the contemporary media era disproves the Orwellian narrative by showing that pleasure, not torture, is the form of political control that has seized the “Prime Time cultural slot.” This victorious paradigm he calls “Entertainment State.” Entertainment State uses our saturating junk culture to exploit “non-cerebral systems as weaponry” where “changed minds are more useful than battlefield corpses.” Here “passive viewers become mere image processors in the supermarket of ideologies” and thus their individuality and autonomy then experience “death by a million carparks.” Entertainment State is central to his novel The Entertainment Bomb (1996) where “trash systems operate as effectively as dreary rational ones.”
However Bennett’s stabbing exploration of propaganda extends beyond Factual Authority to its brute opposite, the political movement known as Exopolitics. Exopolitics was founded by Dr Alfred Webre and is propagated by groups such as the Centre for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Bennett’s essay “Child Brides from Outer Space” examines Exopolitics as the study of the political implications of alien life when it even extends to a situation where certain UFO communities talk matter-of-factly about “existing, full relationships with alien intergalactic communities as if they were describing a session at the UN.” Bennett quips, “Do they ever stop to fry a sausage?”
In his own view, then, Bennett is an occultist who attacks the dominant occult system of his time: “the flat Cartesian control signal of so-called mechanical objectivity.” Humanity is just a form of “unwitting plankton” swallowed by Science which, like all governing cultural advertisements, generates immense “implicit denial systems.”
Implicit denial systems are the process that interest Bennett far more than any explicit conspiracy theory. He was preoccupied with the concept of the “implicit conspiracy theory.” This conspiracy begins innocuously in the very natural fact that “lawyers tend to talk first to lawyers and doctors talk first to doctors.” But it quietly develops into a new implicit system of censorship where the restrictive governing paradigm creates pre-existing socio-political structures of “collective not-seeing” that prevent both the individual and the mass from experiencing anomalies that occur right before their eyes.
Bennett’s Theory of Explanations mines this dynamic form of censorship where “explanations become products,” both as phenomena and in their sheer matter or substance. Explanations are “cultural deceptions” which are forms of political control. The function of explanations is now to conceal more than reveal so that “in the information society, the last thing you can expect to receive is information.” Those who try to explain away anomalies are part of a larger system he called “Wonder Management”. Here, Science becomes “a massive public relations exercise” and is as much about data-suppressions as revealing factual truth: such are “the great aging evidence-games of Western culture which strip systems of all anomalies until the equations work, then equate the results to wonderful reality.” For instance, he argued that mythological thinking, propagandized by science as lies, “is the most powerful and ancient means of communicating with the collective unconscious.”
Such cultural editing of experience damages the spirit and the mind, while creating floods of petty factual data that swamp and eliminate transcendent thinking and vulgarize our intellectual response: “the modern brain turned into endless corridors lined with filing cabinets of sterile facts.” Thus as well as editing our world of experience, the proliferation and pollution of these irrelevant facts is another means of putting humanity to sleep: “factual systems are labyrinths in themselves, ghetto alley death traps in which all proper identity is exterminated by being cut off from all sources of magical transformations.”
The cosmological extensions of Bennett’s Wonder Management are that it implies a cosmos always recalculating and searching for one crucial, shifting equilibrium point, an “acceptable level” of wonder. The credibility and factual “reality” of phenomena are always regulated by Science where anomalies are validated by their cosmic distance from us, by their atomic scale and by their rates of repetition. “Fast Transients” are what he calls those anomalies that lack a high performance repetition rate necessary for their continuous appearance. For most scientists, he comments, will reach a rationalised crisis of focus where the credibility of phenomena is strictly a function of scale. Science is prepared to accept all kinds of quark-like degrees of strangeness deep within the atomic structure or else out in the super-macro-cosmos, an immense distance from earth, but never in daily life: “It is in the normal scale of the working kitchen world—it is in this scale of experience in which scientific denials most cluster.”
Bennett was a committed follower of the writer Charles Fort (1874 – 1932) whose New York Times obituary identified him as “the foe of science.” It is an important contribution from Bennett that he brilliantly explicated and re-conceived Fort as a modern operational philosopher—and an early postmodern commentator on the cultural preoccupations and developments of the new millennium and contemporary science, media, politics, and popular culture. “As soon as I began to read Fort’s works,” Bennett recalled, “I knew his views were a foundation for developing my own.” Strangely, therefore, Fort was both Bennett’s muse and his protegé. Fort viewed the universe as an organism. Bennett transformed this view via modern technological awareness into his own conviction that the essential organisms of our universe are all information systems, systems that are indestructible, self-replicating animals fighting for ideological preeminence.
Charles Fort’s theory of continuity, where everything exists in an intermediate and transient state, was developed by Bennett into a cosmological vision where belief and scepticism are the dominant reality controls and exist in a continual state of flux—“they are the differentials that generate our systems of mental navigation”— where the subtractive tension between belief and skepticism gives rise to the half-forms or anomalies. Bennett’s model, combined with post-modern ideas of persuasion and advertising, gave rise to his essay “The Alien is Under Construction.”
Fort owes Bennett an immense debt for his rehabilitation, for Bennett radically transformed our contemporary understanding of Fort and our sense of an irrevocable debt to him. Bennett’s biographical classic Politics of the Imagination champions Fort as a prescient prophet for the new millennium and our exponentially-uncertain future. Previously Fort had a passionate niche following among bohemians, occultists and science fiction writers. But Bennett detected a distinct strain of conformist facetiousness in some Fort followers and he fought this, declaring that “Fort was not just an amusing and eccentric purveyor of sea-serpent stories.”
Fort was perhaps the first to speculate that moving lights in the sky might actually be crafts from outer space; while Bennett championed the UFO at a time when the established Fortean editorial coterie were resolved to ignore it as a possibility; Bennett did so because he felt the Fortean movement had been infiltrated by skeptics whose undermining beliefs were diametrically opposed to Fort’s own.
Bennett showed that Fort had pioneered the concept of paradigm shift many years before T S Kuhn. Bennett expounded—and himself expanded—Fort’s argument for a new humanism based on intense subjectivity to show that Fort’s territory was a precursor to that explored by Sartre decades later. And in contrast, Bennett also related Fort’s ideas back to classical philosophy in his piece “A Late Disciple of Lucretius.” Further, Bennett’s grasp of our modern conspiratorial mysteries, our ambiguous assassinations, our systems analyses, and our nuclear follies enabled him to weave Fort’s ideas through all these currents in his satirically-paced essay, “Lee Harvey Oswald as Fortean Man.”
Bennett showed the modern relatability of Fort’s ideas to the thought of Dawkins, Hawking, Edelman and Penrose, thus planting signposts for future writers to explore these relations in greater depth; and he also related Charles Fort’s “intermediate states” to fuzzy logic. And, unlike many narrow writers on anomalies, Bennett’s time as a scholar of English at Balliol College allowed him to draw attention to Fort’s valuable literary technique and themes, to relate his “wounded syntax” and comic stream-of-consciousness to the revolutionary style of his contemporary Joyce in Ulysses, to the anarchic style of Sterne, and to Surrealism. Bennett’s fascination with European culture, modern military history and technology meant he could also connect Fort with the powerful themes of Mann, Solzhenitsyn, and Kafka, A N Whitehead and McLuhan, Borges, and Barthes.
Bennett’s book on Fort is a dazzling exposition of his own philosophy. It won the appreciation of Nobel Laureate John Nash who was beyond all else a thinker immersed in an inner cosmos of outrageous propositions. He wrote privately to me in his customary unusual phrasing, “The book of Fort by Colin Bennett is really very stimulating and its derived theme-concept [the essay “Skepticism as Mystique”] that the British do not appreciate their own geniuses, seems valid.”
With regard to the study of psychology Bennett comments, “Our reaction to anomalies sheds light on how we think and organize our concepts.” The “cultural advertisements” that Bennett identifies as battling to become “the prime-time advertisement within human consciousness” are attempting an insidious control over the autonomous mind. His is a highly original relation of the mind to systems theory, where the mind is viewed as a mainframe constantly challenged by viruses, and moreover, where the mind sometimes actually introduces these viruses itself to become a self-subverting system.
One reason why, in the relatively short modern period, the objective mechanical experience has prevailed culturally is our censoring psychological need for reassurance, as well as narcissism: “When humans research, we expect to find that high seriousness which is a compliment to ourselves, and the reward for all our exertions.” Therefore, as he observes in his essay “Putting the Noise Back Into the System,” “the conception of mind as a complete mess and not a set of grocer’s rules is not a politically correct view.” Bennett observes that models of mind which are developed reflect the censoring scientific view of mind as composed of work, worth and studied application. “Scientists want a digital brain, and electronic digital at that. The messy wetness of the Brain’s bio-soup is out this season.” These models exclude the psychological operations of play, deception, anarchy, insincerity, inefficiency, and time-wasting; deviance and fantasy are dismissed as pathological instead of interwoven with the model.
However such failures of vision are of course very natural, he writes with human understanding: “Science is the human view which would valiantly wish nature into being a completely serious, coherent, well-directed, fair-playing entity that has a clearly definable direction and purpose.” The fact that both the individual psychology and the “mass mind” accept this view implicitly without questioning is an example of our “collective not-seeing”.
And yet the functional importance of waste in both mind and models of mind is crucial. Bennett’s own model is a modern digital one of the information dump, the information stream and the virus. Anomalies are illustrations of his model in operation: “Such terrifying visions are a fragmented waste … dumped information fields gradually decaying, like the contents of the waste-bin of a hard disc. The idea of mind needing such vast rubbish dumps is only starting to enter AI discussions.” Such waste materials, “rather than false in terms of old iron-age industrial logic, are more profitably looked at as forms of possible world-models, partial sets of almost-realized instructions which can behave like live tissue … in the most sensible, alert humans.”
Bennett identified one irrepressible essence in human psychology: the hardened, willful, voracious self-programmer. Humans are not just animals who reason, he argues, they are craving “animals who willingly form countless, outrageously speculative systems of reference.” To Bennett, we are “the only animals who can rapidly and consciously program and deprogram ourselves to reach a wide range of goals and group agendas.” In his essay “Managing Mystery” he comments, “Be it psychic phenomena or cinema screens, advertisements or quasi-religious mass-suggestion, no animal other than the human needs such a massive input of structured reality.”
Man’s compulsive, self-programming, discursive consumption of ideological structures conflicts with another part of his psychology which is his devastating appetite for the very passive absorption of visual images and their “attached emotional fields.” This devastating but dormant mental appetite has erupted into life with the rise of Entertainment State. Media has accelerated a primal compulsion in humanity to live in and to reason or progress by images and Story Technology: “This vast semiconscious theatre within us makes nonsense of the theory of evolution.”
Bennett’s story “The Lanternslide Girl” takes place at the very first moment of this eruption which, for Bennett, creates a bloody and fluctuating battle, waged between the healthy active imagination and its foe the contemporary mass mind which is “controlled not by measurement but by images, live and immaculately-structured, countless billions of which enter the human brain at every moment of the day and night.”
This flow is a chaotic mental torrent that has to be absorbed by our dualistic psychology in a process where, Bennett observes, we are severely split between our conflicting needs both to feel and to censor magical wonder: “the much-propagandized quest to know is counterbalanced by the human need not to know.” He argues in his essay “Skepticism as Mystique” that scientists and skeptics who dismiss anomalies and UFOs as “psycho-social fantasies” are “people who have a terrible problem with wonder.”
Such chronic cultural skepticism is ultimately “a dangerous intellectual allergy” because it destroys other, equally important psychological needs and experiences, so that “all proper identity is exterminated by being cut off from all sources of magical transformations.” The primary importance of the active imagination to psychological and spiritual completeness is crucial: “Without our autonomous imagination the brain, like the planet, will become a televised car park of infinite episodes.” When science and media reduce the imagination to passive entertainment only, the outcome is one of Bennett’s great themes: the death of profundity, concentration and the intellect.
It is their uncensored cosmological imagination that allows Outsiders like Lee Harvey Oswald to behave anomalously: “Somewhere within the vast interiors of the Outsider there has been a failure of the kind of cultural colonisation intended to convince that one sort of thing is unreal and another thing is real.” Outsiders who seem to walk through walls can do so because “they live in perspectives we have long discarded.” Human awareness of the active properties of the imagination within the cosmos is and awareness vital for our existential self-empowerment, freedom, and will. The fantasizing Outsider is an existential Walter Mitty who takes up again his lost autonomous fancies and uses them to seize the Prime Time cosmological paradigm in “the mainframe of cultural realisation.”
This is the final, central axis of Bennett’s philosophy—which is also a natural philosophy—that the imagination is the third state of matter; that “when we imagine, we create a form of life.” This fertile, irradiating “lost interaction of mind and nature,” Bennett observes, was in previous centuries taken entirely for granted: for instance in any two-character Shakespearean scene there is always a third character: the System. It may be Elsinore, it may be Lear’s blasted heath. It is this two-way traffic of mind and landscape that Bennett depicts in his essay on Keel’s Mothman, “Invasion of the Doll People.”
Subversion is intrinsic to Bennett’s unique cosmological model where “Mind and World are very often subversive and paradoxical in their complexity” and may broadly consist of self-subverting systems that constantly remind us that the cosmos is bigger than our finite philosophy. In an emphatic tour de force Bennett’s essay “Putting the Noise Back into the System” creates a very telling anthropological analogy for our difficulty in comprehending UFOs and anomalies: where primitive Pacific islanders encounter WW2 Forces and then in later years, these islanders with total bewilderment are forced to accommodate, within their jolted mythology and cosmology, the arrival of the commercial film crews for war movies, all repeatedly recreating the same encounters and battles with shot “corpses” that get up and walk again afterwards. Bennett’s wise and smiling analogy is one that irrevocably reveals to us the infinitely expanding, ontological fractal of levels and degrees of our human struggle to perceive cosmology and the anomalous.
For this is the problem with scientific cosmological models: they generally ignore that “the world will just not sit still long enough to be nicely photographed as a finished product in central focus.” They do not accept that “irrational fears and equally irrational loves” may actively help to shape the world, or that “the universe, and truth, may be wholly comic and absurd.” Bennett therefore thumbs his nose at “such blatant sales-campaigns as the scientific new cosmology” by selecting metaphor and not measurement as the basis of his universe. His daring to propose a cosmology based on—let us be blunt—an aesthetic structure or phenomenon is not just courageous but outrageous, as he knows: “a mechanics of metaphor as causality would be regarded as a gross intellectual indecency.”
In this cosmos of Bennett’s all information is media, all language and culture are advertising systems, and “a rationalist is just another mythological performer like everyone else.” This is a cosmos characterised by his wholesale, straight-faced dismissals such as, “CERN, Lady GaGa, George Adamski, the Palomar Observatory, and Big Science are now best seen as product spectra within the general consumer syndrome.” Here, indeed, all mechanical forces “are just the masks of metaphysical elements” – where “the myth of accuracy” is overwhelmed by torrential image and information flows; where instead of accuracy we have “an endless stream of splintered and bitmapped approximations to that [certainty] we call the absolute.”
Quite possibly the future will view as the most laughably naïeve, “flat earth” assumption of our era, the rationalist’s emotional insistence that the imagination has no material causative effect. When that day comes, and in particular through these collected essays and stories, Bennett will ultimately be viewed as the thinker who fought his own age for the sake of a greater cosmos.