The Resonance of Unseen Things

Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny
Susan Lepselter
An interdisciplinary study of how conspiracy theories and stories persist and resonate among different Americans


The Resonance of Unseen Things offers an ethnographic meditation on the “uncanny” persistence and cultural freight of conspiracy theory. The project is a reading of conspiracy theory as an index of a certain strain of late 20th-century American despondency and malaise, especially as understood by people experiencing downward social mobility. Written by a cultural anthropologist with a literary background, this deeply interdisciplinary book focuses on the enduring American preoccupation with captivity in a rapidly transforming world. Captivity is a trope that appears in both ordinary and fantastic iterations here, and Susan Lepselter shows how multiple troubled histories—of race, class, gender, and power—become compressed into stories of uncanny memory.

“This is the kind of book that takes your breath away. Susan Lepselter is among the very best writers and thinkers whose work purposefully leaks out of academia into the heady, half-formulated, and wildly resonating senses of home and the uncanny, freedom and captivity, that constitute the American ordinary now. She, alone, dwells in this evoked space with such beauty and wit.”
—Kathleen Stewart, The University of Texas at Austin

“We really don’t have anything like this in terms of a focused, sympathetic, open-minded ethnographic study of UFO experiencers. . . . The author’s semiotic approach to the paranormal is immensely productive, positive, and, above all, resonant with what actually happens in history. In my opinion, this is what American history really looks like deep down. Or, perhaps better, really looks like when it surfaces in the enigmatic dreams and troubled visions of the country’s astonished citizens.”
—Jeffrey J. Kripal, Rice University

“Lepselter relates a weave of intimate alien sensibilities in out-of-the-way places which are surprisingly, profoundly, close to home. Readers can expect to share her experience of contact with complex logics of feeling, and to do so in a contemporary America they may have thought they understood. This is Lepselter’s gift of ethnographic theory and insight—that coming from compassion for those on alert to their own capacities for contact with extreme foreignness, she keeps her keen mind firmly grounded in the realities of contemporary social wayfinding. The writing is luminous; the argumentation rigorous. World-making has never been more deeply understood, or more transporting.”
—Debbora Battaglia, Mount Holyoke College

“An original and beautifully written study of contemporary American cultural poetics...The book convincingly brings into relief the anxieties of those at the margins of American economic and civic life, their perceptions of state power, and the narrative continuities that bond them to histories of violence and expansion in the American West.”
—Deirdre de la Cruz, University of Michigan
Susan Lepselter is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and American Studies at Indiana University.

Praise / Awards

  • "This is not a book about UFOs, nor indeed really about the people who see UFOs, even though their stories are told sympathetically and with deep humanity. It is about the world in which these stories – accounts, narratives, witness statements, call them what you will – arise and thrive."
    --Magonia Review of Books
  • "The author's hypnotic writing style defies genre conventions and scholastic expectations to conjure up for the reader a sensory experience of the uncanny."
    --American Ethnologist
  • Winner of the Society of Cultural Anthropology Gregory Bateson Prize

News, Reviews, Interviews

Read: Susan Lepselter interviewed on WBUR's On Point Link | 1/2/2018

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 192pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07294-1

Add to Cart
  • $54.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05294-3

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  • $27.95 U.S.

  • Open Access
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-90065-7

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  • UFOs, ethnography, conspiracy theory, American, interdisciplinary, captivity, fantastic, memory, twentieth-century, history, race, gender, class, power