West Virginia University

Gray Barker Project Description


A secret history of the 20th Century. UFOs are screens for the national imaginary. The space race and cold war tensions of the 1950’s meant UFOs could not simply be dismissed as hoaxes or delusions. By 1980’s, UFOs competed with the government’s own “Star Wars.” The recent popularity of “one world government” conspiracy theories, with their eerie parallels to contemporary US foreign policy, see UFOs as sightings of the government’s hidden technological capacities and ambitions. In short, the cultural history of UFOs shadows the shifting perceptions of America’s view of itself, of the gaps between public discourse and actual mechanisms of power, and of the impossible desire to grasp the shape of the global system of politics.

The dream of science. UFOs test the ends of science. The catchphrase “they knew too much” is paralleled in the X-Files “the truth is out there”: both becomes epistemological statements on the ends of knowledge. If science desires to know the structure of things, and in its hypothetical completed state would be a discourse of truth, then UFOs mean both the completion and denial of this state. UFOs supply the answers to science’s questions but also ridicule the aspirations of science. The fascination with UFOs works on the mythic substructure of science itself, revealing science’s ends as both metaphysical and purely cultural. The Gray Barker archive is suspended between the desire to know the truth that is out there and the implications of knowing “too much.”

The ultimate postmodern novel. Gray Barker’s work is a act of literary self-creation. If the postmodern novel troubled the notion of authorship, of intertextual relations, and of the margins between text and context, then the Gray Barker archive is the most extensive, successful, and aporetic postmodern novel ever written. Individual texts in the archive present complex interplays of truth, interpolation, and invention. At the same time, the archive’s insertion into public memory and the space of debate causes a seismic disturbance in the very concept of the archive. By definition, UFOs are a question of evidence. We seek evidence of their existence, but also find that all evidence produced poses questions on the nature of evidence itself. The Gray Barker archive presents no end of evidence, presents the author as trickster, and presents text asa self-reflexive and pastiche.

Appalachia in Outer Space. In many ways, the Gray Barker archive is a uniquely West Virginian resource. Not simply because Barker was from Clarksburg, nor simply because the State has more UFO sightings per capita than any other – this is true enough – but because the combination of belief and hoax seems a mirror of West Virginia own historical ways of telling about itself. The veneer of government conspiracy and Hollywood spectacle are simply the packaging of Gray Barker’s work, works cite the form and intent of a much older genre: tall tales, moral fables for those who know too much – or think they do.


First stage: Cataloging. Currently the archive consists of many papers, books, lettersp, photos, and other items. The organization and indexing is minimal at best, and there is no comprehensive index of the materials. As a result, it is extremely difficult to study the archive systematically. Probably the best resource is the memory of the archivist David Houchin. A comprehensive index and tagging system would allows us, for the first time, to retrieve any individual item, to search across multiple items (i.e. all items referencing the “men in black,” and so on), and to see the complete shape and size of the archive. Using Dublin Core or a similar metadata system, all items would be physically tagged and the data entered in a database.

Second stage: Website. We will create a website devoted to the archive. The site will include information about the archive, access to the searchable database of items, and a rotating exhibit featuring selections from the archive around a particular topic. In the long run, the site will be a portal for scholarly writing on the archive around the four themes set out above.

Third stage: Scholarly presentations and publications. We will propose a UFO panel at the 2006 Society for Literature and Science conference. The point will be to push the academic discussion the topic, as well as to announce our particular project. We will then propose similar panels at other converences, and work towards academic publications emerging out of the archive and the four themes. Similarly, we would use the rich visual and texutal resources – filtered through the four themes – to organize installations at WVU’s Mesaros Galleries.