Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Banal Infinitude of the Outward Urge

Darren Jorgensen is interested in the relationship between seriality and space travel. To set the context, he first refers to Kant's writings on cosmography, which argue that the sight of the stars brings about elation because they imply an infinitude not only in nature but also in one's own mind. Kant knows they are far away, but maintains that our capacity to think this distance, to grasp the dimensions of the universe, produces a supersensible pleasure that exceeds the bodily senses. Jorgensen is clearly more interested in Hegel's well known, critical response. Essentially, Hegel regards such cognitive pleasures as domesticating the vast and incommensurable. He describes Kant's mathematical sublime as a bad infinite because it does not really grasp the totality of infinity by making it amenable to the human mind. For Hegel then, the bad infinite is constituted by an endless reproduction of the identical to itself that induces boredom (in other words, a series of differences are turned into simulitude).

Jorgensen then uses various examples to illustrate how representations of space travel transform the infinite into the simulitude of domesticity. To this end, he provides historical contextualization with reference to the work of dissident American sociologists such as C.Wright Mills and William H.Whyte, who critically examined the alienation inherent in the new workplace, associated with bureaucracy, meritocracy and new technologies. Faced with this new cognitive complexity, what is striking about the space program is how its participants typically did not perceive the relationship between their subjecthood and society as exploitative. To the contrary, argues Jorgensen, they chose to interpellate themselves into their social position.  This isolation is produced through the "relation of exteriority between the members of a temporary and contingent gathering" (257). Thus the subject is constituted by relations with a social mass that is external to it. Sartre uses the example of people standing at a bus stop to illustrate this interpellation of the modern subject. Each pedestrian is, in this queue, as much other to themselves as to others, constructed "through Others in so far as they are Other than themselves" (261). He turns Karl Marx's concept of alienation into one of "seriality", in which people choose to be alienated from themselves (262-4). There is no better example of this psychological development within capitalism than false personalization, in which an entire personality is simulated for the benefit of office relations or customer service (Riesman 271). While Riesman wants to set legal limits to the psychic dangers of false personalization, Sartre recognizes that, to some degree at least, the person chooses to become this very lie.

Jorgensen thus suggests that this serial process of self-interpellation complements the "bad infinity" by which space exploration is represented and enacted. He emphasizes in particular the significance of "domestication" in regard to the massive public relations role performed by Life Magazine in its coverage of space travel as a "manly" pursuit- a point not lost on other commentators

Indeed, herein lies the beginning of an explanation for the characteristic "anal retentiveness" of astronauts. To be such a serial "organization man" requires nothing less than a capacity to suppress introspection. In this sense, according to Jorgensen, it is telling that Neil Armstrong is the only Apollo 11 crewmember who has not released an autobiography, and refuses to grant interviews to this day. Armstrong's demeanor was commonly likened to a machine, while Mike Collins reproached Buzz Aldrin as too introspective during the flight, and thereby violating the set parameters of their training. What I found particularly shocking was the extent to which this training meant receptiveness to (serial) repetition rather than to what had never been experienced before by any other human being. Aldrin concedes that "philosophy and emotion" did not figure in the equation, and once they were on the lunar surface they were solely preoccupied with finishing their experiments within the alloted time. Aldrin sounds like he is paraphrasing Baudrillard then when he goes so far as to remark that his time on the moon was identical to the training simulations, and the simulations to the experience of space travel itself. His autobiography also clarifies how this enforced absence of reflexivity eventually took a heavy personal toll, which resulted in assorted intemperate behaviour upon his return (such as marital infidelity).

Jorgensen also notes the parallels between this representation of domestication in Life Magazine and some science fiction. He uses this passage from J.G. Ballard's "Report on an Unidentified Space Station" to illustrate how the sublime is described as the infinite, yet through repetition of the same becomes Hegel's "bad infinite":

"Our instruments confirm what we have long suspected, that the empty space across which we traveled from our own solar system in fact lies within the interior of the station, one of many vast lacunae set in its endlessly curving walls. Our solar system and its planets, the millions of other solar systems that constitute our galaxy, and the island universes themselves all lie within the boundaries of the station. The station is coeval with the cosmos, and constitutes the cosmos. Our duty is to travel across it on a journey whose departure point we have already begun to forget, and whoses destination is the station itself, every floor and concourse within it".

As Jorgensen puts it, "This incredible image, of an endless series of transit lounges and concourses, captures the conjunction of the infinite within the historically specific space of the foyer or the waiting room". In another piece describing the "mediocrity" of Arthur C. Clarke's fiction, Jorgensen adduces further examples of such juxtapositions of the mediocre and the sublime, with particular reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The banality of the daily routines of the crew and other travelers are presented at a very deliberate pace (which detractors have referred to as "overlong" and "boring"), until Dave Bowman passes through the Stargate, only to then find himself in a bourgeois interior that brings to mind Jorgensen's description of Ballard's short story. Domestication indeed! Lest you need a reminder:

Another virtue of Jorgensen's work is that it provides a readymade explanation for the willingness of the serial character types in Clarke's fiction, unencumbered by psychic complexity as they are, to accept their own deaths in space:

 "It is from within this contrast of the mediocre and extraordinary that Clarke returns to his role as propagandist for space travel. In his extraordinary scenes of characters dying in outer space, the contrast works to minimize the dangerous aspects of interplanetary and interstellar travel, as if ending one's life off the Earth were a trivial matter. In 2010(1982), a taikonaut is facing death alone on Europa, an ice moon of Jupiter. His ship has been destroyed by a giant life-form that unexpectedly crawled out from the ocean beneath the ice. The taikonaut recognizes the significance of his discovery of life on another world, and calls back to a Russian spaceship making its way into Jupiter space: "I've only two requests to make, Doctor. When the taxonomists classify this creature, I hope they'll name it after me. And - when the next ship comes home - ask them to take our bones back to China" (50). The name of this character offers the continuity deprived him by death, as it extends infinitely and immortally with civilization into outer space. Mortality is subsumed by this concern for the greater potential of technology that has carried him into outer space".

How different this all seems when compared to one of the stories in John Wyndham's The Outward Urge (which ahuthnance alerted me to, thank you). Wyndham depicts a nightmare scenario in which a manned flight to Mars is plagued by psychological problems, one surmises, because they were apparently unable to just readily switch into Kantian "supersensible" mode. All but one of the crew disappear, and he is so disoriented he struggles to find his way back to the landing point. With no possibility of redemption-- no altruistic suicide here-- he confronts an inevitable, meaningless death in a remote, alien location. This is obviously much closer to Edmund Burke's conception of the sublime and Lovecraft's "cosmic horror". 

So, just imagine reclining on the surface of Mars or one of Jupiter's moons,Io, replete with dense plumes of volcanic vapor, as well as its sheer proximity to Jupiter itself offering a sublime experience. Sure,you would quickly succumb to radiation exposure on Io, but perhaps you could still momentarily savour some sense of the terrible beauty you were witnessing by constructing an interior monologue-- something like Batty's epitaph in Blade Runner-- ironically though, because there would be no one to share the experience with, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe", and then, "all gone now, like tears in rain".   

I imagine this would constitute the true limit case, notwithstanding the fact that even the proponent of cosmic horror himself, H.P. Lovecraft, privately allowed the following as justification for continuing existence in the face of the cosmos' abysmal purposelessness:

 "I am perfectly confident that I could never adequately convey to any other human being the precise reasons why I refrain from suicide—the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthensome quality. These reasons are strongly linked with architecture, scenery, and lighting and atmospheric effects, and take the form of vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory- impressions that certain vistas, particularly those associated with sunsets, are avenues of approach to spheres or conditions of wholly undefined delights and freedoms which I have known in the past and have a slender possibility of knowing again in the future."

Of course, once circumstances are such that there is not even a slender possibility of future "delights", it becomes more difficult to say which inner resources one could draw on for compensation. I have to remind myself, especially after reading Jorgensen, that I cannot play out this scenario in my mind to an imagined soundtrack, however appealing it may be to try to come up with a fitting "desert island disc". I could imagine Lustmord's The Place Where the Black Stars Hang, an Elliott Smith ditty or whatever, piping through my space helmet, but even they would be a comforting aesthetic sentimentalization in the context in question- or rather, what Jorgensen would call a "domestication" of infinitude. You know, kinda like the domestication in the final scene of Space Cowboys:

Even so, that won't quell my musings or prevent my listening habits from stimulating further reading. For now at least, I'll sign off with some Chris Butler pics and a few other things that illustrate both sides of what I've been discussing here.