Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Singular Adventure of Mr Kenneth Arnold

Kenneth Arnold

By Martin Shough
www.martinshough.com
© 6-1 2010 (revised July 2010)

The author would like to acknowledge in particular Mary Castner, Barry Greenwood, Patrick Gross, Jean-Pierre Pharabod, Don Ledger, Tom Tulien, Brad Sparks, Joel Carpenter, Bruce Maccabee & Andy Coupland for valuable discussions, encouragement and information during the course of this inquiry.
Introduction

     Mysterious Objects Fly Across Sky at Incredible Speeds, Pilot Says (Heading Med) - San Antonio Express 6-26-1947In one sense it would be true to say that this seminal sighting of nine "peculiar looking aircraft" over the Cascade Mountains of Washington on June 24 1947 (see Appendix 1) needs little introduction. As a result of it pilot and businessman Kenneth Arnold acquired a fame and notoriety far beyond anything he could ever have envisaged when he took off from Chehalis, Washington, and set a course for Yakima in his little CallAir plane that sunny afternoon. News of what the press dubbed "flying saucers" instantly captured the imagination of the world, and reports of things seen in the sky have ever since continued to fuel one of the 20th century's - and now the 21st's - most widespread, most persistent and most influential popular mythologies.

Yet that mythology has effloresced into many extraordinary forms, most of which the Kenneth Arnold of 1947 would hardly have recognised as having anything to do with his own puzzling but straighforward observation. And it is necessary to record that despite more than 60 years of sometimes scholarly debate about this hydra-headed mythological monster, its origins remain not well-understood, its meanings controversial, its ultimate cultural value uncertain.

Simply by being the first,² Arnold's experience enjoys a unique position of pre-eminence in both the history and the semiotics of saucerdom, ensuring that his narrative has been retold and repackaged innumerable times. Tracing the progress of that one narrative in its transactions with the coevolving meta-narrative of our times becomes a social history in itself, one which few historians have tried conscientiously to unravel. Instead, Arnold's narrative or some version of it has all too often been exploited, to the detriment of history and objectivity, as a mere didactic fable enlisted to serve conflicting ideological agendas.

A survey of the literature reveals a good deal of inaccuracy and even misrepresentation. Such is to be expected in parts of the enthusiast literature. But all too often it comes from otherwise wellinformed and sensible critics from whom one expects better. Perhaps in some cases this reflects the significance of the Arnold sighting as a laboratory for testing our theories about the psychosocial roots of the UFO myth - the issues are exposed with unique clarity, and the stakes are that much higher, the temptation to find confirmation of our prejudices that much greater.

Of course most of science and society today remains aloof from the question. Keeping a cautious distance is understandable - a too-impressionable intimacy with the facts has undoubtedly left many enthusiasts in thrall to the myth itself. In-depth studies with no agenda do exist, but they are few and much published material is undeniably discouraging. The unhelpful result is that our opinion-formers by and large keep so prudent a distance from the myth that they cannot clearly make out the nuclear facts at all, leaving the rest of us relying with scant confidence on popular rumour.

So there is still a need for a rigorous re-examination of what Arnold said he saw, as well as a mature understanding of the ways in which his story reflected, and was reflected by, the contemporary culture. Obviously no individual analyst can hope to have the 'final word' in such a complex and difficult area. It is an ongoing project, in which the present study is offered as a contribution. Inevitably many of the issues addressed here have been broached by others; but not always fairly, and, when fairly, not always thoroughly or in an integrated way. I hope the reader will also find some fresh perspectives here on what remains a fascinating historical mystery.


2) Not the first sighting of something puzzling in the sky, of course, but the first widely-publicised report of unidentified flying machines in the modern post-war era, and the unarguable trigger for the social phenomenon that ensued.



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