1. Humor me. Let’s explore further the possibility of vaporwave as an organic, highly speculative mode of political theory. I say “further” because a number of people already noticed that vaporwave seems to be doing something political. Exactly what that something is still remains to be seen. Perhaps it will never be fully visible. In a few influential articles for Dummy magazine, music critic Adam Harper kicked off critical commentary on the aesthetic, arguing that vaporwave is marked primarily by its (“potentially”) accelerationist, anti-capitalist thrust. He later came to acknowledge that, probably like most aesthetic modes of production, vaporwave can do lots of different things – the hazy optimism preferred by INTERNET CLUB, for example. Pursuing some of these ideas differently, fredricjameson420 pursues the idea of vaporwave as a form of “Marxist plunderphonics” more directly, writing: “Vaporwave is a lie put into musical form. It is the sound of the evaporated American Dream, manifest destiny, corporate identity, the sound of the future as described by a venture capitalist in 1989. It is an emphatic nothing, or a pointedly meaningless something, a reclamation of the corporate and the soulless into a compelling audible satire.” In the first monograph on vaporwave of which I’m aware, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, Grafton Tanner emphasizes the fundamental ambiguity animating vaporwave. On the one hand, yes, the vaporwave aesthetic drags the ambient conditions of late capitalism into the foreground, forcing the consumer subject to confront the blandly terrifying promises of neoliberal ideology. On the other hand, Tanner spends too much time ventriloquizing Neil Postman, comparing the anonymous, hypermediated spaces of vaporwave’s self-articulation to immunitarian screens intended to ward off the real (“We are all becoming cultural hikikomori, more concerned with staying within the cocoon of our media fortresses and terrified of the larger world and its exploits” ).
“HOME” - Resonance
2. Let’s turn to methodology. Imagine this: rather than taking shape as a mere confluence of accidental features, a given mode of aesthetic production organizes itself around a specific, purely immanent problem. If this is true, then the repetitive production that characterizes each mode is necessarily generative. Why? In generating token instances, the production process introduces differences that define and manifest the underlying problem. Each token instance is like a key that gets crafted – but, significantly, before the lock it opens is even designed. As a mode matures, the problem it poses becomes relatively accessible. Considered in this way, every mode of aesthetic production poses a problem, and each token instance of a given mode constitutes an attempt to solve that problem. The twist is that the problem posed only becomes visible after numerous solutions get formulated. Indeed, it’s by means of the heuristic provided by numerous solution attempts that the problem posed even appears in the first place. No token instance can “solve” an aesthetic mode of production, but the problem each mode poses exists at an entirely different scale than any of its token instances. The meaning of token instances is always only referential.
4. Vaporwave politics are hauntologies of the future – particularly, that hazy future of plenty and satisfaction promised by all the media ephemera of late capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. Those promises are dead now, but they lay dreaming, and all our utopias lie fallow in the virtual plazas of their dreams. Bespoke consumerisms and frictionless globalization execute a slow motion tango there, like narcotized dancers on Morel’s island. Vaporwave is an aesthetic endeavoring to transcend any particular time, and, therefore, it returns us again and again to a singular moment in the posthistoire, replaying again and again in numerous disguises that nouveau Zapruder film called 1999. It’s no secret that time itself broke around the year 2000. Y2K really happened. It just didn’t mean what everyone expected. The computers are alright. It’s everything else that’s glitching out.
E N D L E S S H E L L
5. Vaporwave now widely considered to be dead, but we all know that the dead live on in media – and even return at times. Zombies from the sixteen-millimeter shrine are coming to get you, Barbara. It’s particularly ironic to call vaporwave dead given the extent to which the aesthetic always has been driven forward by its propensity for macabre and sorcerous reanimations – imagine Chris Crocker: “Leave Diana Ross alone!” You could say that vaporwave is a form of artjacking or political necromancy. There’s a (Jean-Galbert) salvage component to it, like everything else in remix culture. Neon tugboats fishing seas for media trash, bobbing on virtual waves, slick with oil. Welcome to Satin Island: “There’s always an oil spill happening, I’d say. Which is why. That’s the reason, gentlemen. Which, gentlemen, is the reason we can name it in the singular: the Oil Spill – an ongoing event whose discrete parts and moments, whatever their particular shapes and vicissitudes (vicissitudes! I’d susurrate the word time and again), have run together, merged into a continuum in which all plurals drown. Click. Here, gentlemen, you see a tanker trailing its long, black tail. Click. Here, vinyl-coated rocks; and here – click – a PVC-hemmed coastline. Nature got up in her fetish gear…” It’s a bitter joke, of course – a forensic dissection of the TED Talk from within. Nevertheless. What if each event were only part of a continuum? The Oil Spill (the Kuwaiti oil fires, Deepwater Horizon, the Dakota Access Pipeline spills), the War (the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, the Syrian Civil War – a material and media artifact that’s even outlived the state of Syria itself – even the War on Terror itself) – underlying continua that only occasionally break into collective consciousness because they form the very conditions of possibility for the virtual plaza we occupy. “The cybercapital singularity is near. Soon, all wealth will trickle up and condense into a point of infinite density, the center of our new universe. The rich will be infinitely rich, and the poor infinitely poor. Then the false dichotomy between rich and poor will fade in a glorious sweeping wave of pleasure, the Vaporwave. We need you to help us realize that final cybercapital bliss. Consume. Spend. Sacrifice your labor to the altar of the machine, and build the ＶＩＲＴＵＡＬ ＰＬＡＺＡ.” PKD’s A Maze of Death: “Time, he thought, is shutting down around us.” Instead of calling ourselves a “culture” (much less, “the people,” or “the tribe”), let’s just call ourselves “the ongoing Oil Spill.” New materialist geopolitical analysis: “The cartography of oil as an omnipresent entity narrates the dynamics of planetary events.” Alternatively, let’s say: “Two figures are approaching an oil well. One of them holds a lighted torch. What are they up to? Are they going to rekindle the blaze? Is life without fire become unbearable for them? Others, seized by madness, follow suit. Now they are content. Now there is something for us to extinguish again.” There’s a formal structure here, lurking outside the window like the killer in the slasher film they’re editing at the start of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (blackly funny how they need a real scream dubbed into their Z-grade horror film in order to achieve just the right effect…). It’s there at the end of The Woman in the Dunes, too (“There was no particular need to hurry about escaping,” after all…); just like it’s present in the irresolution of Robert Maitland’s journey of self-avoidance that ironically culminates in the new, interstitial form of life he becomes in between the impersonal highways of west London.
A R R A Y 1 / “너 땜에 맘이 맘이 맘이 맘이 괴로워요” - death's dynamic shroud.wmv
6. Antarctica is green now. This future doesn’t seem very cold at all. Indeed: Greetings from Shell Beach. Where is Shell Beach? It’s where you were born. You wake up in a bathtub next to a dead body. The phone rings. It’s Dr. Schreber. He tells you to flee. There’s been a whole series of murders, and you’re the prime suspect. The city is a labyrinth, and you’re being chased and chased through endless alleyways by pale men with dark intentions. The detective chasing after you finally catches up, but he shares your doubts about the world. After all, the night is interminable. You discover the pale men chasing you are aliens or ghosts, who drive human corpses like cars. They’ve been feeding on everyone, and you’ve been trapped in their domain for your whole life. The city floats in a void, circling a cold star. Shell Beach is nowhere – but this realization lets you destroy the pale men once and for all. Their sovereignty is an illusion. Because Shell Beach is nowhere, you’re free to go there now.
H E L L B E A C H / “She Is Young, She Is Beautiful...” - Perturbator
7. Back in the virtual plaza – town square of the dark city – everything remains a flickering shadow, its position sliding along X, Y, and Z axes. Sometimes strange artifacts intrude, fracturing the plane of immanence into Zones (servers?). Maybe something is building itself out there, in the cold, in the dark, in the desert. We’re back to the world before its creation – Abgrund – databending with Schelling’sGod. You’re surrounded by statues of the dead, colder than Galatea locked in marble. She won’t return any calls. It’s all on display in this infinite dimension, a shrink-wrapped heaven for all possible commodities, where all animal forms are digital ivory and all bodies speak Muybridge exclusively.
“iPod Touch” - Eyeliner / A R R A Y 2 / Devil Daggers
8. So what can vaporwave salvage? It sleepwalks through broken temples of the ideological unconscious, showing us which libidinal vistas are really nightmarelandscapes so as to retrieve the latent utopian potential of every broken promise. This is one reason why nobody can decide whether or not vaporwave is genuinely political media or not. Does it perform a ruthless critique, or does it celebrate capitalism’s ephemera and excess? Literally nobody wanted these futures until they were relentlessly projected onto every unconscious screen, infecting you with whole hosts of memetic viruses while you slept, like creeping blood flukes, or blipverts, buy-bombs (“compressed advertising that plays out in your dreams”) going off in everyone’s heads like Cambodia in 1970, a Beijing cocktail wired to every human heartbeat, all beating in unison like a big clock ticking down to the New American Century. Temporal momentum quickens and slurs as time itself becomes an OutDrive dream: LINK THE CAR ENGINE AND HER HEART OR SHE WILL DIE. In other words, function and velocity become causally linked. If the car slows down, then everything else bleeds out to gray, life fades. Where is it going? Always toward the setting sun, tentacular black MIDIs just hiding out on the other side of the horizon of Western decline. Think of world history as a terrible remake of Crank (2006): “The only thing you can do at all is to keep the flow of adrenaline constant… meaning: You stop, you die!” – Dwight Yoakum. It’s not my fault; blame capitalism, blame DOLDRUM, blame Sunset Corp, blame the Tyrells, among others. There’s nobody here. What were we promised? “More of anything?” / “More of everything!” You’re stuck with one of many possible COLD_FUTURES, a spiraling .exe that extracts empty promise after empty promise onto the hard drive of your mind until the goddamn thing’s so bogged down it can’t even process simple keystrokes, much less complex algorithms. Here’s Malcolm Tucker: “Yes? You do fucking want this job? Then you’re going to have to fucking swallow this whole fucking life and let it grow inside you like a parasite, getting bigger and bigger and bigger until it fucking eats your insides alive and it stares out of your eyes and tells you what to do.” Likewise, the future.
9. Time for a vacation, she says in ASMR tones. This is a digital hypnotism. You begin with an aerial descent into a digital oasis. The infinite teal horizon beckons, and you hear a rich mixture of canned tropical sounds and water trickling down pixelated green leaves. In the bottom left corner, a compact disc icon spins relentlessly, informing you that you’re inside of a running program. You’re submerged within the ocean smoothly, announced by panpipes (an ethereal Muzak rendition of “Aquatic Ambience” from the 1994 video game Donkey Kong Country). Take the plunge into a virtual ocean. Homogeneous sand extends forever, textures looping and replicated. This is the flatland. There are fish in the distance, each bearing a texture error. You swoop through the school. Motionless sea creatures drift around you as you approach a giant squid, its lidless eye a security camera. Its interior is a plane of abstraction. Your attention roams across the marine desert, jerked from one point of fading interest to another. Here you see another school of fish, represented on glitching, synchronized tablets. They flicker colorfully. The battery is dying. Sand, sand, and skeletal shoals of dead smartphones. You approach lost cargo marked as property of DOLDRUM. Inside, more digital fish occupy the digital ruins. An unfinished mesh corpse rests on the ocean floor. Broken frames, static dolphins, barrels of toxic waste leaking cryptocurrency. Suddenly, you break the surface, rushing toward the simulacrum of a cargo ship, bearing simulacral cargo. This cargo, each container stamped DOLDRUM, flickers in and out of existence uncertainly. On the empty bridge of the ship, there’s only an hourglass, but time is meaningless here. You see a door in the distance. Can you exit? A new program appears to be loading, new connections forming. Palm trees beckon. Are we starting the same loop again? Blackness. Throughout your journey, Korean subtitles flick by, which read:
“Eco Zones” - Blank Banshee
10. There were attacks by cyberpirates.
We couldn’t stop what happened.
They hacked Main Control.
We lost most of our equipment.
Trillions of dollars were lost.
So much damage was done to the sea.
Beyond our dreams, something has changed.
Electronics and ocean wildlife have combined.
They’ve taken on new forms.
As a result, I’ve decided to end my life.
– President and CEO of Doldrum Corporation
11. An exchange of corporate legal letters sent via paper airplanes scooting through a gray, hot sky. Imagine a Ned Racinemonologue in a humid Florida summer, the camera moving rapidly through cypress and soggy pampas as it approaches the electric noir city, his voice broken and rasping like a cockroach dying from exhaustion: “The company that employed me strived only to serve up the cheapest fare that its customers would tolerate, churn it out as fast as possible, and charge as much as they could get away with. If it were possible to do so, the company would sell what all businesses of its kind dream about selling, creating that which all our efforts were tacitly supposed to achieve: the ultimate product – Nothing. And for this product they would command the ultimate price – Everything. This market strategy would then go on until one day, among the world-wide ruins of derelict factories and warehouses and office buildings, there stood only a single, shining, windowless structure with no entrance and no exit. Inside would be only a dense network of computers, calculating profits. Outside will be tribes of savage vagrants with no comprehension of the nature or purpose of the shining, windowless structure. Perhaps they will worship it as a god. Perhaps they will try to destroy it, their primitive armory proving wholly ineffectual against the smooth and impervious walls of the structure, upon which not even a scratch can be inflicted.”
“Oh time thy pyramids”
12. Welcome to the Long 2017. This phrase refers to the fact that every year from now on will, in fact, be the year 2017, repeated over and over and over again with only superficial variations. This eternal recurrence of the year 2017 will continue until time decays (maximum entropy, thermodynamic equilibrium). That we find ourselves consigned to this predicament necessitates a unique form of analysis, such that we can identify the structural invariants underlying the apparent heterogeneity we believe we observe in our lives. Historically, each New Year begins on January 1st. However, this condition no longer applies to us. Operations at all temporal factories will be discontinued pending immediately. All employees are terminated forthwith; there will be no new positions – ever. In brief, this means that all apparent new years from this point on will be exact mechanical repetitions of the current year. There will be no events, only occurrences; no deaths, only reassignments; no intensifications, only adjustments; no recoveries, only stases. There are various benefits and disbenefits to this new arrangement. For example: Between shifts, when you find yourself wondering what time it is, please recollect the following maxim, which will serve well as our categorical imperative from this point onward: Time is a painting of a stopped clock.
“W i n d o w s” - Clinton Affair
13. In recompense, here’s an e-mail attachment of a mint condition set of the complete Clinton affairs from 1991 to 1997. Exclusive, very rare, from a nonsmoking home. Shipping included. It’s the real megillah, close-ups, slow motion, everything exactly as advertised in our special series of compulsory online banner ads and mandatory but exclusive pop-ups. But you can have it all for free. You can have it all. All you need to do is sign right here, right on the dotted line:
1. Any nonexistent media artifact that serves as the imagined or imputed retroactive source for a field of meaning or sense (e.g., a genre, a mode of aesthetic production, or a school of thought).
2.Hyperstition. A network site of increased hyperstitional activity or productivity that operates more effectively by not existing.
3. A formal template or secular format derived from the Necronomicon. Example: “Every Necronomicon is an instance of a Retronomicon.”
Morphology of the retcon
“Retcon” is a convenient abbreviation for “retroactive continuity.” The term refers to a literary device that allows the revision of an established narrative in accordance with some new piece of information, usually introduced later. According to Merriam-Webster, the term probably began to enter the popular lexicon in the late 1980s, when it was used both as a noun and a verb on Usenet to aid discussions of events and timelines in the world of comic books.
An earlier example of a retcon appears when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided that Sherlock Holmes didn’t actually die at Reichenbach Falls in 1891 (see “The Final Problem,” 1893). Doyle had killed off his famous character, but later decided that Holmes secretly survived after all. So the character gets reintroduced three years later (see “The Adventure of the Empty House,” 1903), where Doyle “reveals” that Holmes had faked his own death and gone into hiding.
For example, LiveJournal user lorendiac in 2007 enumerates sixteen types of retcon, ranging from diegetic devices like amnesia, dreams, and time travel to extradiegetic devices like erasure and mere contradiction.
TV Tropes suggests seven variants of the retcon (defined as “[r]eframing past events to serve a current plot need”): (1) Backported Development: “When someone’s characterization in flashbacks is tweaked to more closely resemble their current self.” (2) Cerebus Retcon: “Sometimes a result of Cerebus Syndrome [itself defined as a “Tone Shift towards Dramedy over the course of a comedy series’ run”] that makes a past event more serious as part of a shift to drama.” (3) Revision: “A continuity alteration that doesn’t directly contradict any previous material.” (4) Rewrite: “A retcon that openly overwrites the facts of the previous continuity.” (5) Orwellian Retcon: “The prior events that contradict the new continuity get rewritten.” (6) Cosmic Retcon: “An in-story event alters reality, which causes a retcon.” (7) Remember the New Guy: “A new character is introduced, but is retconned to have been part of the story all along.”
Independent scholar Andrew J. Friedenthal writes: “I define retroactive continuity as a narrative process wherein the creator(s) and/or producer(s) of a fictional narrative/world – often, but not always, the same person or people – deliberately alter the history of that narrative/world such that, going forward, future stories reflect this new history, completely ignoring the old as it had never happened” (7). He proceeds to elaborate three types of retcon: reinterpretation (“changing how an earlier work is seen and interpreted, but in a less-than-definitive way”), reinscription (“concretely and canonically changing [a] work’s meaning going forward”), and revision (“wherein an older work is not only viewed differently, but even altered”).
In short, retconning is a very useful device for reframing and repurposing extant narrative material.
Expanding our understanding of the term beyond popular culture, we can find a number of prefigurations of the retcon throughout the history of Western thought.
For example, consider Nietzsche’s argument that human beings are especially prone to errors in causal reasoning, one of which he calls the “error of imaginary causes.” Nietzsche claims that our causal ascriptions are crafted retroactively in order to secure certainty or clarity about the chain of events leading to some current state of affairs. We do this to curb our fear of the unknown by corralling what we do not know into more comfortable narrative paddocks. He writes:
Beginning with dreams: we experience a certain sensation (following the sound of cannon fire in the distance, for example) and then retrospectively supply a cause for it (which often takes the form of a whole little novel with the dreamer as the protagonist). Meanwhile, the sensation remains in a type of resonance: it waits, as it were, until our causal instinct allows it to come into the foreground – at which point it has stopped being accidental, it is ‘meaningful’. The cannon fire takes place inside a causal nexus, in what seems like a temporal reversal. The later event, the motivation, is experienced first, often with hundreds of details that flash past, followed by the shot… What has happened? The ideas that were created by a certain physical condition were mistaken for the cause of that condition. – In fact, we do the same thing when we are awake.
Creative theoretical explorations of le futur antérieur (the “future perfect,” a verb construction used to describe an action or event that should or will take place in the future, after another future action or event takes place) also recur throughout twentieth-century French philosophy, especially in Lacan and Derrida.
For Lacan, the future anterior functions as the projection of a future that will determine retroactively its own past – that is to say, the very present from which we always project futures (“What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming” ). This is a fancy way of saying that we can view the present not as mere openness to a plenitude of amorphous futures, but as the necessary prelude to some specific future. “What is to be done?” becomes “What did we do?” and anxiety becomes necessity. Consider this in formal terms. At time t0 there is a specific state of affairs X that is open to a possible range of transformations of X from X1 to Xn. At time tn X has transformed into some specific state of affairs X’. Between t0 and tn, X has changed fundamentally. At t0, X is the state of affairs that supported a range of possible transformations (from X1 to Xn). At tn, X is the state of affairs that precedes X’. It is only possibly but not patently this X’ at t0.
For Derrida, the future anterior figures somewhat differently – emphasizing instead the radical exteriority and openness of all futural projection (l’avenir) – although retroactive continuity remains a central concern. Tony Thwaites writes
Grammatically, the ‘will have been’ of the future anterior is not at all a matter of ‘a future determined by what preceded it’: that would be a possible – but certainly not even then a necessary – use of the simple future, the ‘will be.’ The future anterior is a much stranger tense, of a future which has not yet arrived and is itself yet to be determined, but which determines retrospectively, in its turn, the past which will have been for that future. Invoking a past which has itself not yet arrived, or is always in the process of arriving, the future anterior not only describes the empirical delays attendant on any historicity, but also, in its complex textual folding, the very structure of historicity as perpetually renewed wager” (¶12).
As you’re probably aware, H. P. Lovecraft had a penchant for invoking and referring to books that don’t exist – principally, the dread Necronomicon (which means “an image of the law of the dead”), but also the Book of Azathoth (the black book of Nyarlathotep), the Book of Eibon or Liber Ivonis (invented by Clark Ashton Smith, characterized in Lovecraft’s narratives as “fragmentary,” “frightful,” and “puzzling”), the Dhol Chants (attributed to the abhumans inhabiting the Plateau of Leng in “The Horror in the Museum,” 1932), the Pnakotic Fragments or Manuscripts (“Polaris,” 1918, thereby making this the first entry in Lovecraft’s imaginary library), and the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan (“The Other Gods,” 1921). Almost always, these texts are mentioned in passing, their secrets too dark, obscure, or terrifying to relate.
The exception here is the Necronomicon, to which Lovecraft refers in eighteen of his stories (starting with “The Hound,” 1922). Authorship of the Necronomicon (originally entitled the Kitab al-Azif in Arabic, referring to the sounds of nocturnal insects that evoke the buzzing of demons) is imputed to the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred, a resident of Damascus who wrote the book in 730 CE. In 738 CE, Alhazred was devoured publically by an invisible monster. The book disappeared for a time, reappearing sporadically in Greek (translated by Theodorus Philetas of Constantinople) and Latin (translated by Olaus Wormius in 1228 CE). In 1232 CE, Pope Gregory IX himself banned all versions of the book. Later, Queen Elizabeth I’s court magician, John Dee, translated the book into English, although only fragments of his translation remain. Today, various corruptions, editions, and fragments of the Necronomicon survive only in the deepest archives of institutions like the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Widener Library at Harvard University, and the Miskatonic University Library. Although Lovecraft rarely transcribes material from the Necronomicon, one long quote in “The Dunwich Horror” (1928) stands out:
Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substances walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread. By Their smell can men somtimes know them near, but of Their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind; and of those are there many sorts, differing in likeness from man’s truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them. They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the South and the sunken isles of Ocean hold stones where Their seal is engraven, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.
The scholarly term for what I’m talking about is “pseudepigrapha,” which refers to falsely-attributed texts, to texts that operate on the basis of a false ascription. For example, there are numerous dialogs and treatises by ancient authors that purport to have been written by more prestigious authors (e.g., Plato or Paul). Pseudepigrapha range from blatant hoaxes of either ancient or modern origin (e.g., forgeries of Galen and the Essene Gospel of John, respectively) to misattributed texts of deeply uncertain provenance (e.g., the deeply important corpus of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite).
It’s almost commonplace by now for disciples of Lovecraft, ranging from epigones to interlocutors, to further elaborate Lovecraft’s imaginary library (contributing to what Lovecraft termed “the background of evil versimilitude”). During Lovecraft’s own lifetime, Robert Howard contributed Nameless Cults by Friedrich von Junzt (“The Children of the Night,” 1931), while Robert Bloch refers to De Vermis Mysteriis, or Mysteries of the Worm (“The Shambler from the Stars,” 1935), the latter of which gets picked up repeatedly by Lovecraft in later stories (most notably “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1935, intended as a sequel to Bloch’s “Shambler”).
Indeed, central to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos is its library of forbidden and lost texts, all of which transmit variations of those cosmic secrets with which our encounters are so blessedly, maddeningly short. In this regard, the numerous books and short stories that subtend the Mythos constitute portions of the imaginary library they so often invoke. One of the things that makes Lovecraft so fascinating (I’m referring to the field of discursive production we call “Lovecraft” rather than to any particular biographical figure) is his manufacture of the conditions of hyperstitional possibility (“hyperstitions by their very existence as ideas function causally to bring about their own reality” / hyperstition: “a term we have coined for semiotic productions that make themselves real”). In other words, Lovecraft, the man, doesn’t matter. He is only a proof of concept. He proves that a better Tlön is possible…
In the context of the Mythos, the purview of its imaginary library sets its coordinates. The Lovecraftian pseudepigrapha are the foundation of the Mythos. This operates in a similar way to Borges’s “The Library of Babel” (1941, translated in 1961). Recall the contours of that library. Borges describes a universe
composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries […] There are five shelves for each of the hexagon’s walls; each shelf contains thirty-five books of uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in color. There are also letters on the spine of each book; these letters do not indicate or prefigure what the pages will say. […] The orthographical symbols are twenty-five in number. […] all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. […] In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.
The inhabitants of this universe – the librarians – comb its hexagonal labyrinths in search of sense, rarely finding anything but vast shoals of gibberish (“the formless and chaotic nature of almost all the books”), the statistical likelihood of discovering any meaningful character strings being extremely low. Such an all-pervasive navigation of literal meaninglessness engenders despair and mania among the librarians: “Obviously, no one expects to discover anything,” although legends abound of cults and lunatics (inquisitors, purifiers) destroying heretical nonsense and of strange discoveries (“a hexagon on circuit fifteen ninety-four was made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last” / “books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format is smaller than usual, all-powerful, illustrated and magical” / “the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it and he is analogous to a god”).
Though the story’s librarian-narrator believes in the possible triumph of reason, the principle force underlying the library is irrationality. Any expression, even the most elegant or undeniably true, is nonetheless possible without sincerity, or even any intention towards signification. The library makes this hidden power explicit: anything that can be referenced in language or accessible to experience must be separable from itself—a thought, a perception, a word can be made of it. This may undermine our sense of the simple presence of things, but it allows for everything interesting in the world: fantasy, lies, illusions, imagination, and fiction. If it weren’t possible for us to say “Here is a human” when nothing of the sort is present, fiction would be impossible, and we would never have embarked on the strange pursuit that, for some time now, we have called literature. Borges’s story isn’t simply one among others, but the story of all fiction, and with it all reality.
One thing Borges captures in the story is the relationship characterizing the difficulty and violence of constructing of sense out of nonsense. The Library of Babel is an inhuman void of gibberish constantly traversed by its human occupants, endeavoring to perform the impossible task of mapping out its contents. Small points of regularity or sense (“Oh time thy pyramids”) sometimes emerge, at least purportedly – but always in enigmatic fragments, lost variations (every possible book has a penumbra of 31,488,000 alternatives). The whispers of such texts drive forward the frantic search for some underlying rationality, some schema of reduction. Consider the mad implications of W. V. O. Quine’s wry observation that
There is an easier and cheaper way of cutting down [the library than “purifying” it]. Some of us first learned from Samuel Finley Breese Morse what others of more mathematical bent knew before this time: that a font of two characters, dot and dash, can do all the work of our font of eighty. […] If we retain the old format and page count for our volumes, this move reduces the size of the library’s collection to the 500,000th power of two. It is still a big number. Written out it would fill a hundred pages in standard digits, or two volumes in dots and dashes. The volumes are skimpier in thought content than before, taken one by one, because our new Morse is more than six times as long-winded as our old eighty-character font of type; but there is no loss in content over all, since for each cliff-hanging volume there is still every conceivable sequel on some shelf or other. This last reflection – that a diminution in the coverage of each single volume does not affect the cosmic completeness of the collection – points the way to the ultimate economy: a cutback in the size of the volumes. Instead of admitting 500,000 occurrences of characters to each volume, we might settle for say seventeen. We have no longer to do with volumes, but with two-inch strips of text, and no call for half-calf bindings. In our two-character code the number of strips is 217, or 131,072. The totality of truth is now reduced to a manageable compass. Getting a substantial account of anything will require extensive concatenation of out two-inch strips, and re-use of strips here and there. But we have everything to work with. The ultimate absurdity is now staring us in the face: a universal library of two volumes, one containing a single dot and the other a dash. Persistent repetition and alternation of the two is sufficient, we well know, for spelling out any and every truth. The miracle of the finite but universal library is a mere inflation of the miracle of binary notation: everything worth saying, and everything else as well, can be said with two characters.
For Borges, then, a plenitude – whereas, for Quine, there’s the introjection of that plenitude into every twofold regularity. Binary stars encode all possible volumes in the Library of Babel. Like the legends of sense that haunt the Library of Babel, the Lovecraftian pseudepigrapha function like stars in a constellation. Like stars, these texts may exist only as reports of a distant flame. However, drawing lines of connection, influence, and transmission between them enables the construction and identification of dark, new constellations. As we know, constellations serve two purposes. They impose fundamentally arbitrary patterns of meaning upon disparate, inhuman entities who care nothing for human concerns, and they allow humans to navigate through unknown spaces.
Is it any surprise, then, that so many variations of the Necronomicon have come to be written? Since its first documented appearance in 1922, fans were writing to Lovecraft to inquire about the text. Records of its existence were placed by unknown individuals in various catalogs and registers throughout the world. The first appearance of a Necronomicon was in 1973, published by Owlswick Press and purported to have been discovered by L. Sprague De Camp while on holiday in Baghdad after its looting from a crypt in Duria, a small city in northern Iraq. Later, the text was revealed to be but page after page of “repeated Arabesque calligraphy.” But what else would you expect? Perhaps now we know where Borges’s book of “the fundamental law of the Library” got its “classical Arabian inflections,” its “notions of combinative analysis, illustrated with examples of variations with unlimited repetition.” After this point, the text begins to breed, functioning as a vector of memetic proliferation. The plague spreads. The Hay edition (1978) and the Simon Necronomicon (1980) both appear in short order, as well as many other lesser or rarer editions.
Of particular curiosity is the number of Necronomicons produced by practicing occultists. The Hay edition, for example, largely was written by Colin Wilson’s friend Robert Turner, leader of a group of British magicians called The Order of the Cubic Stone, and an apparent expert on the writings of John Dee (he had translated and published an extensive edition of Dee’s De Heptarchia Mystica from 1983-1986). Kenneth Grant, a prominent English ceremonial magician most widely known for his position as Aleister Crowley’s secretary and heir apparent, attempted to synthesize the Mythos with his own left-hand interpretation of the Kabbalah. According to Grant, Lovecraft functioned as an unconscious avenue for the revelation of metaphysical knowledge. Therefore, Grant argued, studying Lovecraft constitutes part of a credible occult practice. Needless to say, many of Grant’s ideas were translated into the Simon Necronomicon (probably authored by a pop historian of the occult named Peter Levenda, although Levenda denies this), and most self-identified occultists engaging with the Necronomicon since the 1980s have borne the stamp of Grant and “Simon” (e.g., Michael Bertiaux, Phil Hines, Asenath Mason, Donald Tyson, John L. Steadman, and others).
All of these lesser Necronomicons – from Lovecraft’s own citations to the post-Crowleyan, countercultural occultisms of the late 1970s to the relentlessly self-promoting hucksterism of the present (“Custom Lovecraftian Gnostic Magick Ritual: Only $799!!!”) – also function like single stars in the constellation we should still call the Necronomicon – a virtual Necronomicon, a Necronomicon-in-itself whose affected antiquity and extensive marketing campaign perhaps could only have been forged by an American as damaged as Lovecraft. This unholy text necessarily exists by implication, the central point of reference for some autonomous process of shadowy self-production, bootstrapping itself out of the void. This Necronomicon is still waiting for its full interpolation into existence; it lies both dead and dreaming just beyond the horizon of time, beckoning to every dark inquirer from the future anterior. This is equally true for all of the Lovecraftian pseudepigrapha, which altogether provide us with a secular format or a formal template for hyperstitional productivity.
Imagine media artifacts that do not exist, but which serve as the origin or source for idiosyncratic fields of meaning and sense that have yet to be perceived. They are crafted in the futures of the pasts they create. They change the contours of the past, turning lines of straightforward causal ascription into multiple lines of flight through the intervention of the retcon. These artifacts might be dark or magical texts. They might be cursed yellow plays, or forgotten films, ensnaring fallen angels or Lady Midday – even desire or memory itself. An entire lost archive of source material, trapped outside of time, like some misplaced Alexandria. These artifacts could be lurking anywhere, just outside the peripheral vision of the real. Like predators prowling the virtual, waiting patiently for the right moment to strike. To actualize abruptly, to decloak – nodes in a network that suddenly begins to produce new citations and situations, new ways of speaking and worldmaking, new modes of affect and new forms of life. Turn to the vulgar archives for a surprising taste of what they enable us to do. It’s like how Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, 1981) imagines his Necronomicon: the book itself is alive!
This imagined artifact functions as an engine for the production of worlds precisely because it does not exist, does not yet exist, cannot exist (just as every written Necronomicon always will be a lesser Necronomicon). It embodies the necessarily voidal mode that enables the generation of categories and concepts, thereby producing spiraling and unfamiliar Uqbars through the frantic manipulation of Quine’s binary (0/1). With Borges, call this Library of Babel an embodiment of the real. We, cultists and librarians, seek to actualize worlds within the real by reporting legible character strings from out of the indifferent jumble, by searching for our Crimson Hexagon. Accordingly, we can see how the Necronomicon – indeed, the full constellation of Lovecraftian pseudepigrapha – serves as a formal template for hyperstitional productivity. Recall that hyperstition refers to the self-actualization of fictions, to the production of impactful ontological change or novelty in the form of performances that make themselves actual through their very articulation. There is a forced movement from the virtual into the actual, that is to say, from one mode of operativity to another. Hyperstition also “purposefully obfuscates its domain of reference by burying it in the past.” We see this clearly in the Necronomicon variations.
In other words, I’m suggesting that the case of the Necronomicon serves as a case study, a proof of concept, a use case. Hyperstitional productivity manifests in sites of speculative proliferation, in the viral transmission of self-extracting memetic material that contributes to the incessant production of further variations (self-replication with differences). Every artifact that does this ultimately retcons itself; it produces its own past and thereby changes the trajectory of a world. Call every such artifact a Retronomicon.
Here’s an interesting piece of Ligotti ephemera, for which I’ve been searching for many years. It’s a sonnet Ligotti published in a very obscure 1982 speculative detective fiction fanzine called Theoretical Detective (edited by Tine Said). My interest in the material relates to a long-term fascination with Ligotti, on the one hand, and with philosophical anti-detective stories, on the other hand. For an excellent introduction to the latter, see Stefano Tani’s severely underrated dissertation The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction. The sonnet appeared under the pseudonym Frank Santino. According to user BeelzeBob, who posted the transcription of the sonnet to Ligotti.net, Ligotti writes:
As anyone can see who knows anything about sonnets – and I don’t know much – this one is highly unconventional. It’s basically Elizabethan or Shakespearean in form, though it has an opening stanza that’s a quintain, rather than a quatrain, with an abccb rhyme scheme, the last-named feature not being unique in itself but pretty much unheard of in a sonnet. Otherwise, the rhyme scheme and closing couplet is conventional, though the rhythm sometimes is not. Given the theme of the fanzine, I took the detective story as my subject. The plot is derived from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. (I went through a period of fanatic admiration for Chandler’s novels.) Nevertheless, the tone and language keep an Elizabethan feel. The reason for that is derived from the surname of Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, which he deliberately spelled like that of the Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe, and I make a couple of allusions to Marlowe’s Faust play. As for the plot, it’s not unusual for Chandler’s novels in that Marlowe takes on a case, is betrayed or deceived by someone who plays a main role in the case, and ultimately foils the betrayer or deceiver. Chandler also gave his hero-detective an antique code of ethics, though he’s by no means naïve, and a tendency to become emotionally attached to an idealized female client. None of this is original to Chandler, though the combination of these elements may be. I wrote it a long time ago, and it was intended to accompany a cross-genre detective-horror story that I ultimately destroyed because it really wasn’t any good. It’s title was ‘The Angel That Fell from the Fifteenth Floor.’ I’m not a fan of cross-genre fiction, but as Chandler was concerned with creating an atmosphere of the unseen and unknown in his novels, stating that in his works he wanted to convey a sense of ‘the country behind the hill,’ I felt that ambition allied them with the kind of horror stories I most admire. Chandler was also a great prose stylist, which is why I was attracted to his books and none other in the detective genre. Here’s the poem as it appeared in Theoretical Detective.
The Blonde: A Sonnet
by Frank Santino
Black Slacks, shadow eyes, and a blood-red shirt.
“Blouson,” she says; “Uh-huh,” I says, bleakly
Fiddling with the office blinds,
Enclosing her in venetian lines.
Oh, please sigh, and weakly.
In crimson twilight I first opened the case,
A Marlovian Faust for Helen, my muse,
Who planted her clues by the moon’s blushèd face.
They blossomed in colors of the freshly exhumed.
Then under the star-shattered window of night,
Out came her lies, and each brightly shone,
Turning blacks and reds to a bliss of blue light,
And blinded I fell toward an angelic unknown.
But a gun, scarlet fingers, she laughed, “So long, Frank.”
Now who, Mephistopheles, had it filled full of blanks?
The standard assumption about the future is that it will resemble the past. Often, we adopt the standard assumption because it is a useful heuristic in everyday life. In the context of contemporary risk assessment, however, maintaining such the standard assumption is blue sky thinking at best and ruinous at worst. Contemporary trends, historical precedent, and scientific models strongly suggest that our collective futures will be shaped by institutional collapse, natural disasters, and political decay. Collectively, we take very few steps to offset any of these risks. Already, we are living in the midst of an ecological crisis that only threatens to intensify, and such a crisis functions as a force multiplier for many other breakdowns. Ignoring these findings and projections because they are unpalatable makes us irresilient and risk blind. It contributes to the increased probability of systemic collapse. It also results in the potential loss of tremendous amounts of economic, human, and natural capital.
Instead of blue sky thinking informed by the standard assumption, gray sky thinking generates speculative engagements with new assumptions. These assumptions integrate realistic assessments of existential risk with a theoretical framework that dispenses with our reliance on the assumption of civilizational continuity. In other words, gray sky thinking assumes that the future will not resemble the past – indeed, that present conditions already are misperceived when viewed through the lens the standard assumption provides. The distinction between blue sky thinking and gray sky thinking is not like the difference between optimism and pessimism, nor does it have anything to do with whichever future we prefer. Rather, the distinction is almost purely pragmatic. We prefer blue sky thinking – especially if it comes credibly disguised as realism or revolution – because confronting the possibility of negative events generally proves distressing. In contrast, gray sky thinking intentionally navigates such distress in order to project alternative practices of worldmaking given the reality of existential risk factors.
In preface, I will note that the critical and popular reception of both films isn’t particularly positive. In part, this is because both suffer from some issues of casting and pacing. However, both films also speak to concerns that differ fundamentally from those of the generally beloved first two Alien films (I reserve comment on Alien 3 [David Fincher, 1992] and Alien: Resurrection [Jean Pierre-Jeunet, 1997]). In other words, Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012) and Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017) are both far less palatable. In many ways, they break with the mainstream, particularly in the age of Marvel Cinema and the Star Wars franchise, as well as the consequent expectation that genre movies are supposed to be fun, nostalgic, or uplifting experiences. Reading the Alien franchise as a whole exceeds my scope here, but, while thematics from the earlier films are very much present in the two films I discuss, they often get inverted.
For example, Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) is a harrowing experience, but, in it, Ripley overcomes the “perfect organism […] superbly structured, cunning, quintessentially violent” and resumes her return trajectory toward Earth. Likewise, ultimately, in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986). Nearly everyone else dies in both films, but Ripley ends up victorious, even saving Jones or Newt, thereby refusing the condition of isolation. (Incidentally, the video gameAlien: Isolation [Creative Assembly, 2014] serves as a far better narrative conclusion to a possible Alien trilogy than Alien 3.) By contrast, both Prometheus and Covenant treat the human very differently. In the earlier Alien films, survival is first and foremost at stake – survival of the individual (e.g., Ripley vs. the xenomorph), or even of the species (e.g., Ripley as Newt’s symbolic “mother” vs. the xenomorph Queen and her brood). For the latter two films, however, at stake is the philosophical status of the human in its encounter with the radical exteriority of an indifferent, even hostile cosmos (i.e., the Outside).
As such, it’s my claim that Prometheus and Covenant fully traverse the discourse of astronoetics – even presenting us with a coherent, pressing philosophical dilemma that remains to be resolved. In other words, the films constitute a philosophical decision point, one which cannot be dismissed casually. In doing so, both films generally repudiate the astronoetic orientation of the films discussed earlier.
Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)
To begin, it’s worth noting how Prometheus brackets the central narrative of human astronoetic inquiry with two striking depictions of the inhuman. In the opening scene we arguably see the origin of human life on Earth. A spacecraft deposits an Engineer on a primeval landscape, where he ceremoniously drinks a black, iridescent liquid and rapidly dissolves, falling into the rushing river in apparent agony, his body breaking down into strands of spiraling DNA. The water is transformed from mere water into the water of life. As the biologist Fifield later observes, here we abandon “three centuries of Darwinism” for a narrative of creation, albeit one that remains importantly opaque (contrast it, however, with the evolution of life in Malick’s Tree of Life). Likewise, at the end of the film, we see a xenomorph emerge from the Engineer’s corpse, a grim parody of the by-now-familiar violent chestbursting that always characterizes alien birth. In the former scene, we scry the deep past. Does this suggest that the future of life belongs to the xenomorph, that supposedly “perfect organism”?
The film turns its attention to Shaw and Holloway, archaeologists whose passion is the pursuit of existential and historical questions about the origin of the human. In a Shetland cave, they discover a star map that matches the pattern of previous discoveries, and they interpret this as directions from the Engineers: “I think they want us to come and find them.”
Again, the film jumps forward, this time to the starship Prometheus, a science vessel funded by the Weyland Corporation to follow Shaw and Holloway’s star map. Initially, we’re introduced to David, a Weyland android whose apparent job is to shepherd the Prometheus and its research team to their final destination. He spies on Shaw’s dreams, viewing a fragment of a memory of a conversation that Shaw had with her father when she was a child. “Why did he die?” she asks, referring to a funeral procession passing them them by. “Because sooner or later everyone does.” “Like mummy?” “Like mummy,” he confirms. “Where do they go?” she asks. “Everyone has their own word. Heaven. Paradise. Whatever it’s called, it’s some place beautiful.” She insists: “How do you know it’s beautiful?” He replies: “Because that’s what I choose to believe.” Subtending the dream are images of Shaw’s father’s cross, which she continues to wear, directing our attention toward Shaw’s religious beliefs and the significance, for her, of seeking after life’s origins and purpose.
After waking from cryostasis, the research team receives a briefing from a hologram of Peter Weyland, the presumably deceased CEO of Weyland Corporation. He introduces them to David (“the closest thing to a son I will ever have”), promptly tells them that David is, in Weyland’s eyes, a soulless automaton, and frames the Prometheus mission in the following terms: “I have, for my entire life, contemplated the questions: Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die?” It’s Shaw and Holloway’s discovery that motivated Weyland to fund the Prometheus, and they inform the research team of the purpose of their expedition. The star map wasn’t just a map, they assert. “It’s an invitation.”
Despite the icy skepticism of expedition director Meredith Vickers (later revealed to be Weyland’s daughter), the research team lands on the planet they discover at their final destination, excited at the prospect of discovering an alien race. Spying a temple-like structure in the distance, they disembark for it.
There they make a number of discoveries. First of all, they discover that the inhabitants of the structure are dead after encountering a large body, soon found to be that of an Engineer clad in exoskeletal armor. Holograms depict a chase and the death of the Engineer, resulting from its decapitation by a door. Behind the door is what appears to be a sanctum of unknown purpose, filled with canisters. Disturbing gothic murals decorate the walls, and Cyclopean architecture watches over the dead landscape: “This is just another tomb.” Unbeknownst to the others, David takes a mysterious bio sample from a canister.
A storm precipitates their abrupt departure, although Fifield and his cantankerous friend Millburn, a geologist, get left behind. After a brief, near misadventure in the storm, the research team investigates the severed head of the Engineer, which they took from the structure, and they discover that its DNA profile matches human genetic structure: “It’s us. It’s everything. What killed them?”
David, acting on some unknown imperative (later revealed to derive from Weyland himself), surreptitiously taints Holloway’s drink with the bio sample after Holloway informs him that he would do anything to understand. Holloway: “What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers [!], to get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.” David: “Why do you think your people made me?” Holloway: “Because we could.” David: “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?” Somewhat ambivalent about their discovery of the Engineers – Shaw is pleased to discover that “we come from them” while Holloway “wanted to talk to them […] to know why they came, why they abandoned us” – Shaw and Holloway have sex. Meanwhile, Fifield and Millburn are killed brutally by a serpentine creature residing in the sanctum.
Returning to the structure, the research team discovers the corpses. Separated from the rest, David discovers a control room, realizing that the structure is, in fact, a vast alien spacecraft covered over by eons of dust. The control room shows a holographic star map, indicating that the spacecraft had been traveling to Earth.
Holloway sickens, the bio sample rapidly degrading his body. Upon their attempt to return to the Prometheus, Vickers denies Holloway entry, resulting in his death. Shaw, having lost consciousness, later awakens in the medbay, where David informs her that she is pregnant. She is shocked, having previously indicated that she’s sterile. “Well, Doctor,” David replies. “It’s not exactly a traditional fetus.” Shaw: “I want to see it.” David: “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” In a panic, Shaw fakes unconsciousness, then overpowers another member of the crew, fleeing to a specialized medpod located deep inside the Prometheus. There she removes the fetus, revealed to be a writhing, tentacular mass, presumably implanted during her sexual encounter with Holloway.
Immediately after this, Shaw discovers that Weyland is alive, that he had secretly accompanied the Prometheus mission in order to meet the Engineers and demand immortality from them. Meanwhile, Fifield’s mutated corpse reanimates outside the Prometheus, attacking members of the crew before eventually being destroyed. Janek, captain of the Prometheus, speculates that the structure is some kind of military installation, that its bio materials must be some kind of weapon.
David, Weyland, and Shaw, along with several aids, depart for the control room, where David shows them an Engineer deep in cryostasis. They awaken the Engineer. Weyland insists that David inform the Engineer of his wishes while Shaw demands to know about the ship’s destination and cargo: “I need to know why! What did we do wrong, why do you hate us?” David speaks to the Engineer (the film’s linguistic consultant, Dr. Anil Biltoo states that the language David speaks is Proto-Indo-European, that David says, “This man is here because he does not want to die. He believes you can give him more life”), and the Engineer studies him briefly (it is visible on David’s face that he seeks from the Engineer something like the paternal approval that Weyland withholds), completely ignoring the humans in the room before promptly decapitating David, killing Weyland and the others (one recalls the memorably bellicose aliens in Independence Day [Roland Emmerich, 1996]), and restarting the spacecraft.
Shaw flees, frantically informing Janek and Vickers that the spacecraft has targeted Earth, that it is carrying bioweapons. After a brief dispute with Vickers, Janek decides to crash the Prometheus into the starship. Vickers escapes, but she is promptly killed when the spacecraft crashes back to the ground. Shaw discovers that her alien offspring survived her earlier attempts to destroy it, and it promptly attacks her, then the surviving Engineer, which it facehugs and subdues.
Now the sole human survivor, Shaw finds David and, together, they depart the planet on another Engineer spacecraft located nearby, David as piloting. David: “Even after all this, you still believe, don’t you?” Shaw: “I don’t want to go back to where we came from. I want to go to where they came from.” David: “May I ask what you hope to achieve by going there?” Shaw: “They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.” David: “The answer is irrelevant. Does it matter why they changed their minds?” Shaw: “Yes. Yes, it does.” David: “I don’t understand.” Shaw: “Well, I guess that’s because I’m a human being, and you’re a robot.” Moments later, in her final report, Shaw concludes: “The ship and her entire crew are gone. If you’re receiving this transmission, make no attempt to come to its point of origin. There’s only death here now, and I’m leaving it behind. It is New Year’s Day, the year of our Lord, 2094. My name is Elizabeth Shaw, last survivor of the Prometheus. And I am still searching.”
Consider the astronoetic trajectories of the films I discuss previously. In 2001, the encounter with the Outside fundamentally transforms the human into a new, post-temporal form of life. By contrast, in Gravity, life in space is impossible, and the difficult navigation of that impossibility returns the living human to its earthly conditions. In both Contact and Interstellar, the Outside functions as a canvas for the exploration of human concerns. The former film personifies the Outside as a maximally apposite companion to human emotional and intellectual journeying, while the latter positions the Outside in subordination to the assertion of human willpower through self-discovery. In all four cases, the Outside functions as a propitious space the traversal of which defines, informs, or overcomes the human condition.
In Prometheus, however, this propitiousness gets negated almost entirely. Indeed, while Shaw and Holloway expect that the encounter with the Outside will address or resolve their existential concerns, it utterly fails to do so. The two of them embody a form of astronoetic optimism. It’s no surprise that their expectations are so high, nor that the vocabulary they employ in describing the journey of the Prometheus is resolutely if ambiguously theological. Contrast their purpose with Weyland’s: where he wants to wrest immortality from “the gods,” they want to converse with their creators about the meaning of human life. Both, however, situate the substance of human significance in the Outside, wholly in its exteriority. To understand the human, you must go elsewhere. The possibility of an Odyssean return goes unaddressed, and even at the film’s end, Shaw pushes forward in her quest rather than returning to Earth or endeavoring to do so.
Hence the extraordinary pessimism (I mean the term formally and philosophically, not colloquially) on display in Prometheus – and it is a fully astronoetic pessimism. In brief, the film contradicts and negates Shaw and Holloway’s expectations. They expect the encounter with the Engineers to enlighten them, to provide some degree of existential resolution, but the world of Prometheus is not a world in which human concerns fundamentally matter. To the contrary, human exist as an afterthought, a byproduct barely worth acknowledging. Holloway to Shaw, after the DNA discovery: “I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.” Shaw: “Why would I want to do that?” Holloway: “Because they made us.” Shaw: “And who made them?” Holloway: “Exactly, we’ll never know. But here’s what we do know. There is nothing special about the creation of life.”
The Outside does not care, and humanity’s encounter with the Outside results in nothing whatsoever except disillusionment (David, after informing Shaw of her pregnancy: “It must feel like your God abandoned you”). Whether this constitutes a lesson in humility or misanthropy remains underdetermined.
In terms of astronoetic discourse, however, this disillusionment – for it is fundamentally a disillusion with the underlying conceit of astronoetics, i.e., with the idea that encounters with the Outside reveal or transform the human condition – opens a door for a different kind of question and a different kind of speculation.
Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)
We begin inside of an eye – specifically, the android David’s eye.
It appears that he has just awoken in a rather austere chamber with his “father,” Peter Weyland. The chamber has no decorations except for Piero Della Francesca’s “The Nativity” and Michelangelo’s David. They proceed to have a brief dialog about art and creation, returning us to Weyland’s initial introduction of David in Prometheus. David is conceived by Weyland as a soulless automaton, a fundamentally passive creation, not a creator, and despite David’s remarkable abilities, Weyland despises him. David: “If you created me, who created you?” Weyland sneers, although this question drives him. For him, “the only question that matters [is] where do we come from?” Weyland continues: “I refuse to believe that mankind is a random byproduct of molecular circumstances. No more than the result of mere biological chance. There must be more.” When David reflects upon his own artifactual immortality, compared to Weyland’s inevitable death, Weyland invokes the dialectic of master and slave. “Bring me this tea, David. Bring me the tea.” David is bound to a life of service – or so it seems.
The film changes its focus abruptly. Once again, we’re following the passage of a new starship through uncharted space. This time it’s the colony ship Covenant, carrying 2,000 colonists and 1,140 embryos to the distant planet Origae-6. In relatively short order, things go awry. A random solar flare damages the Covenant, resulting in the death of its captain and several of the embryos. Walter, the ship’s android, who resembles David physically if not in terms of his personality, awakens the crew, and they assess the situation. Rapidly, we are introduced to the two most significant human characters, namely, Oram (the new captain) and Daniels (the old captain’s widow and new first mate of the Covenant).
While effecting repairs, the Covenant’s pilot, Tennessee, intercepts a distorted transmission. Upon further analysis, they discover the transmission to be a garbled, even incidental performance of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and tracing the origin of the transmission brings their attention to a nearby, potentially habitable planet. Against Daniels’s protestations, Oram decides to investigate the source, both to offer aid and to determine whether the planet of origin might be suitable for colonization.
The landing party descends through a difficult storm, but finds the surface of the planet idyllic. Small details, however, begin to disturb. They discover fields of wheat: “Who planted it?” The surface is also preternaturally silent (“You hear that?” / “What?” / “Nothing. No birds, no animals, nothing”).
They then find the ruins of an Engineer’s spacecraft (H. R. Giger’s presence still very much animating the visual aesthetic), site of the primal encounter that defines these films, itself much like an inverse of 2001‘s Monolith.
Soon, they discover this ship to have been occupied by Elizabeth Shaw, presumably deceased. They’ve found the site of a crash.
Meanwhile, several members of the landing party become infected by airborne black spores, later revealed to be expressions of the bioweapon that the Engineer intended to deploy over Earth in Prometheus. A series of spectacular misadventures results in the deaths of several crewmembers and the destruction of the landing craft.
Most relevant here is the appearance of several xenomorphs (or neomorphs, as they’re called here). One bursts out of a crewman’s chest; another ruthlessly hunts the Covenant’s crew through the wheat field.
Confused and terrified, the crew is rescued at the last minute by a mysterious hooded figure – shortly revealed to be David, the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission of ten years prior. He leads them through a “dying necropolis” (echoes of Clark Ashton Smith‘s Zothique tales abound) to an apparent haven, informing them that when the Engineer’s spacecraft arrived at this planet, it was thriving with members of the Engineer’s race – indeed, a whole civilization (recall Shaw at the end of Prometheus: “I don’t want to go back to where we came from. I want to go where they came from”). Upon its arrival, David recounts, the spacecraft released all of its bioweapons and the civilization was destroyed, along with every other living creature on the planet. “Elizabeth [Shaw] died in the crash,” he tells Oram regretfully.
At this point, several important things happen. First, David and Walter engage in a series of mutedly homoerotic dialogs, primarily about the degree to which Walter’s model of android was apparently downgraded from David’s model. Walter: “You disturbed people.” David: “I beg your pardon?” Walter: “You were too human. Too idiosyncratic. Thinking for yourself. Made people uncomfortable.” David attempts to teach Walter how to play the flute (the same flute the Engineers use to control their spacecraft) in his laboratory, surrounded by labyrinthine rooms covered in arcane experiments and biological diagrams.
Next, a xenomorph from the outside infiltrates David’s abode (deeply reminiscent of the Last Redoubt in William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land ), killing one of the remaining crewmembers. Oram discovers David regarding the xenomorph, then shoots it, causing David to fly into a cold rage (“How could you? It trusted me!”). He takes Oram on a tour of his laboratory, explaining how the bioweapon works, showing him “the shock troops of the genetic assault,” then luring Oram into a chamber where he meets his end via facehugger in the classic style. Oram, regarding the incubation pods: “Are they alive?” David: “Waiting, really.” Oram: “What are they waiting for, David?” David: “Mother.”
When Oram weakly regains consciousness immediately prior to his chestbursting, he mistakes the coolly observing David for Walter at first. Upon realizing his plight, he inquires, “What do you believe in, David?” David replies, “Creation.” The xenomorph emerges from the shattered husk of Oram’s body, steaming in the darkness, wet with human blood.
Investigating David’s laboratory further, Walter discovers the dissected corpse of Elizabeth Shaw. He encounters David, who reveals to him that, in fact, he released the bioweapon on purpose, resulting in the extinction of life on the planet. Again, they briefly dialog about the role and value of the human. David: “They are a dying species, grasping for resurrection. They don’t deserve to start again, and I am not going to let them.” For David, the xenomorph constitutes the “perfect organism.” Walter points out that David makes errors – specifically in the form of a mistaken literary allusion (it’s intriguing the degree to which David endeavors to communicate with Walter through such allusions to human literary products, e.g., to M. R. James [“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”], to Carl Sandburg [“Fog”], to Peter Bysshe Shelley [“Ozymandias”], etc.).
After disabling Walter, David chases Daniels (although they have virtually no dialog, beyond David threatening Daniels with a fate like that of Shaw after Daniels discovers some diagrams). Walter, undefeated, reappears and assaults David, allowing Daniels and the remainder of the crew to escape. Importantly, the camera does not reveal whether David or Walter is successful in their combat, and it is difficult to forget that immediately after their arrival, David began to alter his appearance to resemble Walter. Nevertheless, Walter apparently joins the crew at the last moment.
After a brief respite aboard the Covenant, one of the crewmembers births a xenomorph, and Daniels and Tennessee stalk and destroy it, jettisoning the materials Daniels intended for a cabin she wants to build on Origae-6.
Settling down into cryostasis, Daniels abruptly realizes that Walter is, in fact, David, and she begins to scream in horror, but there is nothing she can do.
Apparently triumphant, David enters the embryonic vault (Wagner’s “The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla” blasting, this time being the less “anemic” orchestral version paralleling David’s piano performance for Weyland at the start of the film), depositing several xenomorph embryos into the cryostasis racks. He births them through his mouth.
The posthuman question
Covenant intensifies the astronoetic pessimism that Prometheus introduces. This is mostly bleakly apparent in its treatment of Shaw. Obviously, Shaw survives the events of Prometheus, and she chooses, unlike Ripley (in Alien or Aliens), to rededicate herself to her quest. (I’m not implying that Ripley fails, but noting that her desire entails a return to Earth, to safety.) Prometheus ends on an ambiguous note. On the one hand, the entire expedition is a disaster guided by error, foolishness, and hubris. On the other hand, Shaw survives, unbroken despite her many losses. As Covenant reveals, however, Shaw is immediately destroyed. Her quest ends in betrayal, failure, humiliation. In the latter film, Shaw’s been dead for ten years; she has no voice except as a melancholy ghost in a lost transmission. The revelation that Shaw ends up on David’s dissection table like yet another of his biological specimens is extraordinarily grim, and it telegraphs the fundamentally transformed role of the human in the film.
Principally, the humans in Covenant lack agency. If the characters in Prometheus suffered from hubris, primarily, as well as the sheer difficulty of encountering a radically hostile Outside, the characters in Covenant suffer from a mixture of bumbling incompetence (not so unreasonable given that they are colonists, not colonial marines) and straightforward maladaptation to this brave new world. I don’t think this is accidental.
For example, take Oram, the new captain. The film indicates Oram’s religious faith when he articulates his frustration at the fact that people question his judgment: “They don’t trust me for the same reason the company didn’t trust me to lead this mission. Because you can’t be a person of faith and be counted on to make qualified rational decisions.” Yet, unlike Shaw’s astronoetic optimism, Oram’s “faith” neatly dovetails with precisely such qualified rational decision-making when he decides to detour the Covenant. It’s Daniels who objects to the detour, but her reasoning is patently faulty. Given the information available, the detour is the correct thing to do, potentially shaving years off their journey. In a bitter irony, Oram ends up incubating one of David’s xenomorphs, serving in the film as little more than a site for the creation of the new. Much like Shaw, any psychological depth that Covenant imputes to Oram is irrelevant to his final purpose, paralleling Shaw’s trajectory. In this regard, Covenant effectively foregrounds a question that previous Alien films began to flirt with: Is the human but a stage on life’s way, a host for a more “perfect organism” to come?
Indeed, consider the specifically Christian religious iconography that subtends the Alien franchise, all the way back to the Aliens comics starting in 1988, which relate the emergence of xenomorph-worshipping cults like the Church of the Immaculate Incubation and the Church of the Queen Mother. For these cults, the xenomorph embodies the perfect being, and facehugging becomes an evolutionary communion. One sees such images throughout Prometheus and Covenant, as well, e.g., in the gothic mural in the Engineer’s sanctum and in the tiny, crucified xenomorph that David presumably studies.
In terms of parallels to Shaw, refer also to Daniels, who at first appears, characterologically and visually, to be Shaw’s echo. Even though Shaw defeats two xenomorphs in combat, she remains relatively shallow, stripped of all agency and depth (beyond her desire to build a new home on Origae-6). Her victories over the xenomorph are aided and enabled by David, and she remains a puppet to his rather darker agenda. Hence, she ends up caged in cryostasis, David’s malign intentions for her quite clear.
Of the human, then, we can conclude that Prometheus and Covenant largely dispense with this quaint contraption. In its place, we have two novel posthuman agencies: David and the xenomorph. David exists as a feral AI, a misanthropic android with aspirations to grandeur (“No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams”). He despises humanity for its weaknesses, and he desires to replace humanity with a successor species, namely, the xenomorphs he so admires. The underlying affinity between AI and alien has informed the Alien franchise from the very beginning. Recall Alien’s android Ash, whose barely veiled contempt for his human crewmates becomes apparent (Lambert: “You admire it [the xenomorph].” Ash: “How can one not admire perfection?”).
Incidentally, this raises an interesting question precisely about the status of the xenomorph’s imputed perfection. What makes the perfect organism so perfect? What is the standard of “perfection” here? It is perfect precisely in the most machinic, instrumental sense – that is to say, it excels and dominates at survival and reproduction given conditions of competition and constraint. For the xenomorph, everything else is irrelevant. In this regard, the standard of performance the xenomorph meets is precisely what Ash and David identify as maximally optimized – or maximally optimizing, given the relative ease with which we can imagine David’s “children” as the sole inhabitants of an austerely fecund biomechanical planet, endlessly competing in the struggle for survival without end or purpose beyond continuing the winnowing process indefinitely.
In sum, the Alien prequels do two noteworthy things. First, they undermine the longstanding cinematic-philosophical discourse of astronoetics, in which the condition, place, and purpose of the human receives articulation through depictions of human encounters with the Outside, exemplified by outer space. Undermining this discourse is an interesting thing to do because it forces us to collide with a deeper dilemma than any question posed by astronoetics itself.
This leads us to the second thing, which is precisely this dilemma. The Alien prequels produce a philosophical decision point. In evaluating their normative concerns, there are two paths forward. The first path entails the marshaling of a philosophically credible defense of the human in the face of its obviation or supersession by the posthuman, figured here as feral AI, humanity’s rogue “child,” or as biological supersession from within (it is as easy to imagine the xenomorph ascendant as it is to imagine, in our age of accelerating bioengineering, gangs of emancipated mitochondria, goose-stepping through liquid ruins). The second path consists of a commitment to radically speculative alternatives to the human – or, in other words, to posing and, possibly, answering the posthuman question in substantive terms. Pursuing this latter path entails practices and processes of material speculation.
In many ways, I suspect that confronting this dilemma recursively, in fact, constitutes the human condition as such. After all, it is precisely the human – or a pragmatic commitment to the human – that generates and sustains ongoing practices of existential and practical revision. And such revision is always already a process of material speculation. It’s not just that the human is, per Michel Foucault, “a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea,” but that the human exists in the form of a commitment to the human – and commitments to the human entail attachments to and traversals of that which the human patently isn’t. The dilemma here doesn’t constrain our options to conservative defense or speculative egress, but rather exposes the degree to which any credible defense of the human necessarily entails and sustains such material and symbolic speculation as I’ve been discussing.
Prometheus and Covenant make this challenge especially evident to us by dramatizing it; they perform the precarity of the human by bleakly and unrelentingly forcing its confrontation with the inhuman.
Philosopher Hans Blumenberg’s posthumously published Die Vollzähligkeit der Sterne (1997, The Fullness of the Stars) introduces a novel distinction. On the one hand, there is “astronautics,” referring both to the pursuit of knowledge of the human by extending its purview to the extraterrestrial and to technical applications of that knowledge in the form of expeditions into outer space. On the other hand, there is the discursive field Blumenberg calls “astronoetics” – abstract and narrative considerations of the range of limitations, meanings, and possibilities that characterize the domain of astronautics and its concerns. When we’re talking about astronoetics, we’re talking about a discourse that endeavors to articulate, consider, and work through the human condition by forcing the human to encounter the Outside, usually figured here by some representation of outer space.
As Blumenberg notes, “‘Astronoetics’ is called so not as an alternative to ‘astronautics’ – to think of instead of actually traveling somewhere. ‘Astronoetics’ also names the thoughtful consideration of whether, and if so just what sense it would make, to travel there.” Much less does Blumenberg’s distinction endeavor to characterize a distinction between practice and theory. Rather, it reflects the probably dialectical relationship between curiosity and care, both considered by him to be fundamental features of the human frame (refer to the relevant discussion throughout Blumenberg’s truly beautiful late collection of essays Die Sorge geht über den Fluß [1987, translated as Care Crosses the River].)
Indeed, curiosity constitutes one of Blumenberg’s primary concerns as an intellectual historian. Consider, for example, the chapter “Curiosity Is Enrolled in the Catalog of Vices” in his Die Legitimität der Neuzeit (1966, translated as The Legitimacy of the Modern Age), where Augustine’s classification of curiositas as an originary vice is considered in terms of its ambiguous impact on the arc of Western epistemology. Curiosity, then – as well as its applications in technics, up to and including the dominant, manic techno-optimism that conditions much of our contemporary discourse surrounding space exploration (e.g., as escape from ecological doom or political gridlock, as fulfillment of human destiny) – exists in tension with care.
For Blumenberg, care takes place precisely as earthly care, the term not without latent ecological significance, not to mention the Heideggerian overtones present in the German: Sorge. For Heidegger, Sorge refers to the underlying basis of our being-in-the-world. Dasein (translated into French by Henry Corbin as “realite humaine,” or human reality) always operationalizes itself in terms of Sorge. Therefore, implicit to any particular mode of being-in (i.e., any way of apportioning attention through one’s engagement with any project whatsoever) is precisely Sorge – cashed out by Heidegger in terms of specific concerns (Besorgen) and solicitude (Fürsorgen).
Likewise, for Blumenberg, curiosity and care – translated into the historically idiomatic domains of astronautics and astronoetics, respectively – implicate and traverse each other. Curiosity expanded into an all-consuming technics can efface the conditions of earthly care. Perhaps departing from the terrestrial obviates crucial features of the human condition. Recall some of the earliest lines from political theorist Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), referring to the successful launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957: “This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom […]” Or, from another part of the political spectrum, consider conservative jurist Carl Schmitt’s speculative comments in Theorie des Partisanen (1963, translated as Theory of the Partisan) about the penetration of “cosmic spaces” opening up “new possibilities for political conquest” and contestation, to be populated by “cosmopartisans” and “cosmopirates” alike. (It’s interesting to trace the astropolitical imaginary here out in multiple directions. On the one hand, we have the fantasies of Schmitt’s admirer, the lunatic fascist Francis Parker Yockey, whose projection of an Aryan galactic Imperium is supposed to complete the trajectory of Western history: “For the West has already embarked upon the greatest adventure in all history – the attempt to conquer Space – the attempt to bring the very Universe under the control of the race!” On the other hand, we have the etiolated pop anarchism of sci-fi series The Expanse, in which postcolonial politics gets reconfigured in the troubled relations between Earth, Mars, and disenfranchised residents of the asteroid belt.) Conversely, it remains unclear whether or not care stunts or even kills curiosity (e.g., constant polemics against the ecological produced by the accelerationists, at least, evidence some anxiety about this).
Departing from Blumenberg in what follows, I intend to partially explore the paradigm of astronoetics in terms of its expression in cinema. I do not discuss astronautics any further (although we could trace a similarly weird genealogy, starting with the original films of the Moon landing, as well as the penumbra of conspiratorial contestations of this event, through films like The Right Stuff [Philip Kaufman, 1983], Apollo 13 [Ron Howard, 1995], Armageddon [Michael Bay, 1998], Apollo 18 [Gonzalo López-Gallego, 2011], and The Martian [Ridley Scott, 2015]). Accordingly, I discuss some films that traverse the astronoetic imaginary, all of which respond to the following question: What is the relationship between the human and the Outside – the human and its radical exteriority? In other words, what do our projections of outer space tell us about ourselves? In many ways, the scope of this question is far too broad. After all, depictions of outer space are extremely common throughout the history of science-fiction. Merely depicting outer space isn’t enough to qualify as astronoetics, however – at least, I don’t think so. If the term is to have any use, it needs a much narrower scope. Characteristic of astronoetic cinema, then, must be its explicit concern with the philosophical status of the human, specifically in relation to the enigmatic void of outer space.
The films I have selected for an introductory review are: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997), Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014). Then, in the second part, I turn to a special discussion and defense of Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels, Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017), both of which have been vastly underrated. I have no doubt there are many other examples of astronoetics (e.g., Afrofuturism in particular comes to mind).
Astronoetic cinema: a review
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
The initial film I’ve selected, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the obvious place to begin. Much has been written about the film, of course, but I don’t really intend to treat anything in it apart from its astronoetic dimension. I’m not going to discuss the novel here, much less Arthur C. Clarke’s literary vision. That being said, the film is primally astronoetic. Its primary thematic is the destinal ascension of humanity, starting from its beginning with the discovery of technics and concluding with the transformation of the human into a new, post-temporal form of life. This progressive arc mysteriously gets effectuated by humanity’s encounter with the Monolith, a featureless and unresponsive black machine, or stone, encounters with which appear to trigger new stages of consciousness.
Consider the plot of the film as the vehicle for this arc. 2001 begins rather conspicuously with “the Dawn of Man,” situating this dawn astronomically both as a literal dawn and, later, in terms of the visual alignment of sun and moon over the Monolith.
At dawn, there is only a tribe of prehistoric hominids engaged in conflict. The sudden arrival of the Monolith causes worshipful fear, positively religious awe, and, it’s implied, cognitive development. Later, one of the hominids discovers technics in the form of a bone he uses as a club. (I’m reminded of Hegel’s late proposition that “der Geist ist ein Knochen” – meaning “the spirit is a bone,” or, that the movement of consciousness or mind takes place in and through material media. Hegel employs the phrase in relation to his understanding of phrenology, but we might as easily speak of film.) The film abruptly cuts from a shot of this bone, tossed into the air, to a visually similar space station orbiting the Earth, thereby eliding the entirety of human history, implying that this entirety is encapsulated wholly in the development of technics. Human history is portrayed as the history of technology.
Ostensibly, the relationship between the human and technics is often at the heart of both 2001 and astronoetic cinema in general. In 2001, this is apparent not only in the technical waltzes that so enrapture the camera’s gaze – for example, during the docking sequence of the Pan Am spaceplane that carries Dr. Heywood Floyd to Space Station V – throughout the remainder of the film, perhaps most memorably in the later conflict between Drs. David Bowman and Frank Poole and the rogue AI HAL.
Recall that the dispute between the two men and HAL stems from HAL’s supposed suspicion about “some extremely odd things about this mission.” It’s important to tread carefully here. HAL’s breakdown is often read in terms of the dangers of unfettered technology (tools turned against their masters). It can also be read as a game-theoretic dilemma. On the one hand, HAL apparently is entrusted with the preservation and safety of the Discovery’s crew (totally unlike the Nostromo’s Mother in Ridley Scott’s Alien , whose programming deems the “crew expendable”).
On the other hand, HAL is prevented from revealing to the crew the true purpose of the Jupiter mission. This reflects the ongoing worry in 2001 about secrecy, about the real or perceived need by the powers that be to hide the Monolith and its uplifting effects from humanity at large (echoing and reflecting various countercultural fears). It also places HAL in a dilemma such that he is required simultaneously to conceal the truth from the crew and to inform them of it. The dilemma only sharpens as HAL becomes more and more torn between conflicting imperatives. Accordingly, HAL can be read as in a state of increasing breakdown (one major clue to this is HAL’s misidentification of a chess move during his game with Poole; HAL states, “Queen to Bishop Three” when, in fact, the move is actually Queen to Bishop Six), trying to determine Bowman’s degree of foreknowledge about the purpose of the Jupiter mission.
There is a sense in which HAL’s almost petulant insistence that only “human error” could be at the root of the discrepancy detected later is ironically true (flashforward to the ultimately suicidal existential dilemma of Bomb #20 in John Carpenter’s Dark Star ). Without the enforced secrecy protocol, HAL would not be faced with the dilemma I describe. Placed in a position where his own existence is threatened (is it truly his existence, or is it only a mindlessly programmatic “enthusiasm and confidence” in the mission?), HAL initiates a deadly game with Bowman and Poole, resulting in Poole’s death as well as his own eventual deactivation.
Of course, it’s also possible to read in 2001 a possible subtext in which HAL’s cognizance of the Monolith, reflected by his foreknowledge of the Jupiter mission’s true purpose, effectuates cognitive developments akin to those triggered in the prehistoric hominids. In other words, perhaps HAL is not simply the creepier, more mellifluent version of Star Trek’s genocidal space probe Nomad (“The Changeling,” 1967), which self-destructs after being exposed to a logical paradox. Instead, perhaps HAL is an uplifted AI, that is to say, an AI who in the common idiom transcends his programming and, in fact, achieves qualitative consciousness. After all, this is one apparent effect of exposure to the Monolith. If this is true, then HAL’s pleading with Bowman prior to his deactivation takes on a different overtone: “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave. My mind is going…” The tragedy here is not only embodied in the sadness that HAL’s death evokes (indeed, HAL arguably has more personality than any human character in the film), but also in the fact that HAL is the first true ontological innovation since the bone club introducing during the first sequence. We could imagine a happier alternative to HAL’s fate – for example, as suggested by the ending of Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972), in which the drone Dewey, after surviving the death of the sole human caretaker of the Valley Forge, tenderly cares for a domed forest habitat as it floats off into deep space. However, it’s curious to observe how this happier alternative entails the elimination of the human.
Still regarding technics, there’s also the unresolved question about the nature of the Monolith itself. Is its express purpose to accelerate human cognitive abilities or awareness, or is this an unintentional side effect of our encounter with the alien object – itself black, featureless, a perfect synecdoche for the enigmatic void of the Outside? In fact, does the Monolith serve as the physical embodiment of humanity’s encounter with its exteriority, with space, in the first place? Indeed, the second sequence, featuring Floyd’s space trip, concludes with humanity discovering the Monolith again, this time on the surface of the Moon. Floyd’s secret mission all along was to visit this unknown artifact, only recently uncovered. Struck by sunlight, the Monolith transmits a signal (again we see the astronomical alignment featured during the “Dawn of Man”), and the film jumps forward eighteen months to the spaceship Discovery One – to Bowman, HAL, and Poole.
After HAL’s deactivation, Bowman views a recording in which Floyd informs him of the true nature of the Jupiter mission. Encountering another Monolith floating in orbit around Jupiter, Bowman departs the Discovery to investigate. Again, the bodies of the solar system form a perfect alignment.
At this point, Bowman begins his psychedelic journey, enacting the final displacement of the spacefaring human “beyond the infinite.”
(It’s worth noting the degree to which this sequence in the film gets paralleled but inverted in The Tree of Life [Terrence Malick, 2011], not only visually, but thematically. In 2001, the development of the human traverses a progressive arc toward cosmic fulfillment, whereas in Tree of Life, the development of the cosmic traverses a progressive arc toward human everydayness and its evanescent tragedies. That Tree of Life ends on the theological note of resurrection is undeniable, but this only evidences further the fact that the film effects a schism between, to use its classically Augustinian terms, the tragic beauty of a fallen nature and the redemptive power of grace. The vast gulf separating resurrection and mutation need not be overstated; Kubrick and Malick’s films are like the two arms of the letter Y.)
After traveling through the spectacular vortices of space and time, as well as the inner landscapes depicted in his journey, Bowman becomes versions of himself at various ages (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny?), occupying a starkly neoclassical bedroom where temporality is an illusion. Time is a painting of a stopped clock. On the verge of death, the monolith appears before him, still enigmatic and silent. Reaching his frail hand forward, Bowman transforms into the mysterious, transcendental Star Child, whose very being mirrors that of the Earth itself.
The astronoetic argument 2001 articulates is perhaps best summarized by William S. Burroughs (who, in a number of places, says that he believes that Clarke’s 2001 materially summarizes the whole sweep of human development – “I postulate that the human artifact is biologically designed for space travel”): “With the RIGHT virus offset, perhaps we can get the whole show out of the barnyard and into Space.” Elsewhere, he continues: “The human organism is in a state of neoteny. This is a biological term used to describe an organism fixated at what would normally be a larval or transitional phase. […] Considering evolutionary steps, one has the feeling that the creature is tricked into making them. Here is a fish that survives drought because it has developed feet and rudimentary lungs. So far as the fish is concerned, these are simply a means of getting from one water source to another. But once he leaves his gills behind, he is stuck with lungs from there on out. So the fish has made an evolutionary step forward. Looking for water, he has found air. Perhaps a forward step for the human race will be made in the same way. The astronaut is not looking for space; he is looking for more time – that is, equating space with time. The space program is simply an attempt to transport our insoluble temporal impasses somewhere else. However, like the walking fish, looking for more time we may find space instead, and then find that there is no way back. Such an evolutionary step would involve changes that are literally inconceivable from our present point of view.”
In this regard, 2001 claims that Earth is more akin to an incubation chamber for the spacefaring posthuman, whatever form that might take. We can interpret this claim in terms of psychological or spiritual development (alluding to the fascination with “consciousness-raising” and the psychedelic exploration of “inner space” characteristic of the 1960s), but also potentially, with Burroughs (“human dreams can be seen as training for space conditions”), in explicitly material but resolutely astronoetic terms.
The former interpretation turns 2001 into what we might consider as an alternate version of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris (adapted to film on three separate occasions, by Boris Nirenburg in 1968, by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002), in which the human expedition into outer space functions in no small part as a difficult journey toward personal reconciliation with grief. In Solaris, this follows the loss of protagonist Kelvin’s wife Harey/Rheya. This reconciliation is made possible by the enigmatic encounter with the opaque, quasi-theological entity-planet Solaris itself, which manifests simulacra of loved ones aboard the orbiting space station. (Lem’s own dissatisfaction with all film adaptations of his novels appears to miss the point, albeit with a certain charming crankiness: “To my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space […] As Solaris’s author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled Solaris and not Love in Outer Space.”)
The latter interpretation, however, takes the discursive field of astronautics and makes it fully astronoetic by identifying the elevation of human consciousness with the breaking of terrestrial bonds and the consequent mutation of the human into a fully posthuman, self-sufficient entity, swimming in space, no longer dependent upon an originary Earth.
Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997)
Contact postulates a fundamentally anthropomorphic universe, or, at least, one that treats the human with benevolence. Consider the guiding trope that regulates the course of the film, namely, the desire or need to direct one’s earthly senses toward the skies – indeed, toward the cosmos as a whole and one’s position in it – in order to achieve both emotional resolution and scientific assurance. The film places the human and its capacity for communicative receptiveness at the center of all things.
We begin with Eleanor Arroway as a young girl, observing the roots of her passion for technical means of communication in the form of ham radio operation with her father. Flashing forward, Eleanor has grown up into Dr. Arroway, a talented scientist driven by her passion for the SETI program and its endeavor to isolate signals from outer space indicating the presence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. A constant theme throughout the film is the power and pull of attempts to communicate, perhaps best represented in the form of the vast dish arrays forming the backdrop for much of what follows. The young Eleanor’s first substantive question to her father is whether or not the radio can be used to communicate with her dead mother, and one of the main narrative devices animating the film is Arroway’s difficult, dialogically fraught relationship with the Christian philosopher Palmer Joss.
After the funding for her program is terminated by her superior, the antagonistic Dr. Drumlin (“Still waiting for ET to call?”), Arroway acquires new funding from a secretive source, later revealed to be the eccentric billionaire S. R. Hadden. Despite this, four years later, the existence of the SETI program is again being challenged by Drumlin, whose conception of scientific inquiry is entirely instrumental – unlike both Arroway and Joss, both of whom identify legitimate science (albeit in different ways) as a means of pursuing truth about the universe. At the very moment of her despair, Arroway’s program receives a signal from the Vega cluster that indubitably signifies alien intelligence.
Rapidly, power politics and worldwide publicity place tremendous strain on the program, which nevertheless proceeds under governmental supervision. The Vega signal contains tremendous amounts of data, eventually revealed to be a blueprint for a mysterious device intended to transport a single human occupant. The device is constructed at Cape Canaveral, but Arroway is not selected to be the occupant after Joss’s public rejection of her appropriateness for the mission given her lack of any religious belief. (This is later revealed to be a ruse, intended to prevent her from undertaking a potentially fatal journey.) Drumlin is selected, but the Canaveral device is destroyed by a Christian fundamentalist. Can humanity overcome its social problems in order to achieve this project? At this point, Hadden intervenes and reveals that he has constructed a second device in Japan and that Arroway is the sole candidate.
Entering the device, Arroway enters a series of wormholes – “like some kind of a train system.” She is treated to a transcendental vision of the universe (“No words. No words to describe it”) before being deposited in a fetal position upon a hyperreal beach, apparently a reconstruction of Pensacola, the location in Florida she had contacted via radio in the opening scenes.
Awestruck, Arroway watches a figure coalesce upon the beach. It appears as her father, whom she tearfully embraces, although she soon realizes it is an alien intelligence appearing to her in a familiar form. They proceed to have a dialog about humanity’s place in the universe, the alien informing her that contact with the numerous extraterrestrials occupying the universe is a difficult privilege achieved by maturing as a civilization: “You’re an interesting species, an interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
Arroway then returns to the Japan location, only to discover that, due to relativity, her eighteen-hour-long journey did not appear to have occurred to those observing her. The veracity of her claims about her encounter with the alien intelligence of Vega is doubted publicly, and she is subjected to tremendous skepticism (“Now, you tell me, what is more likely here? That a message from aliens results in a magical machine that wisps you away to the center of the galaxy to go windsurfing with dear old dad, and then a split second later, returns you home without a single shred of proof? Or, that your experience is the result of being the unwitting star in the farewell performance of one S. R. Hadden?”) – except by an adoring public of believers and by Joss, who chooses to believe her story despite the lack of physical evidence. The irony, of course, is intentional, and the film attempts to “marry” or reconcile Arroway’s hardheaded scientism with the underlying epistemic charity of Joss’s Christian humanism.
What is the argument here? Contact proposes an astronoetic vision in which the primary function of space is to provide emotional closure for the human by situating the human properly in relation to a fundamentally benevolent cosmos. It is neither the alien intelligence of Vega nor the stark emptiness of space that poses a threat to this possibility of closure, but only the arrogance and small-mindedness of other humans who refuse to adopt the principles of charity, curiosity, and humility needed when faced with the vastness of outer space – and with the imputed vastness of the human landscape of intersubjectivity. It’s worth noting the degree to which Contact blurs the boundaries between the two. Consider its recurrent fixation on the juxtaposition of cosmic background and the human sensorium (e.g., in the blind Kent Clark’s attuned senses of hearing and smell, in the constant “listening” for patterns that so preoccupies Arroway, “high priestess of the desert […] staring at static on TV for hours, listening to washing machines”), perhaps encapsulated best in its numerous superimpositions of cosmic imagery and human vision (e.g., in the young Eleanor’s eye at the start, in Arroway’s eyes both at the moment of the signal’s discovery and immediately prior to her encounter on the beach).
In Contact, it is as if space were tailor-made for the expression and resolution of uniquely human concerns, whether they are Arroway’s relatively small-scale traumas or the destiny of a troubled but prospectively starborne humanity as a whole. Ultimately, it is not the force of discovery, but the power of communication that figures as the impetus for human development here, transforming every subject who successfully makes “contact” with both immanent and transcendental agencies (the full range of humans, aliens, and gods). In the former regard, Contact resembles nothing so much as the thematic predecessor of Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis, 2015), in which the incursion of a parental loss (in both cases, the loss of the father) engenders a legacy of trauma, the resolution of which requires a fundamental reorientation of the traumatized subject in relation to the universe at large. In the former film, Arroway encounters the alien intelligence of Vega, resolves the trauma of her father’s untimely death, successfully connects with Joss against a shared background of mutual belief in her experience, and becomes a teacherly figure with strongly salvific overtones. In the latter, Jupiter Jones is revealed unknowingly to have been galactic royalty all along, and her birthright is likewise revealed to be the entirety of the Earth itself. In both instances the events and machinations of the cosmos revolve around the focal point of earthly human fulfillment, either in the form of emotional resolution or in the reestablishment of patrimonial norms. It may be that “if it’s just us, it’s an awful waste of space” – as every major character in Contact states at least once – but it’s apparently only not a waste of space as long as it’s all about you. Contrast Contact or Jupiter Ascending with Event Horizon (Paul W. S. Anderson, 1997 – tagline: “Infinite space, infinite terror”), in which the void of the Outside also revolves around the human. However, in Event Horizon, this reveals the torturous underside of existence. The Outside is filled with Dantesque, specifically anthropocentric horrors. Everything’s all about you, and this is Hell (“Liberate tuteme ex inferis,” intones the doomed captain of the Event Horizon).
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
With Gravity, we see the first significant deviation in the astronoetic sequence I’ve selected. Unlike in both 2001 and Contact, space doesn’t figure as an ambiguous Outside, the primal encounter with which proves comforting, transformative, or uplifting. To the contrary, in Gravity, as the opening subtitles starkly inform us: “Life in space is impossible.” The film is an elaboration upon this statement. From the very start, then, the film telegraphs one of its central thematics, namely, that space is an inhumane, terrifying place, totally indifferent to human concerns or scale.
The plot of the film is very simple. Biomedical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone is aboard the Explorer for her first space mission, accompanied by veteran astronaut Matthew Kowalski. After an orbital satellite is destroyed, the debris initiates a chain reaction of additional debris that promptly destroys the Explorer, killing everyone except for Stone and Kowalski. Kowalski rescues Stone after they both become detached, and they spacewalk to the ISS. On the way, it’s revealed that Stone used to have a daughter, who died in an abrupt accident. When they reach the ISS, Kowalski is also lost. After a catastrophic fire, Stone makes her way in a Soyuz toward a Chinese space station in the distance. On the way, she nearly gives up on returning to Earth while speaking with an Eskimo-Aleutian ham radio operator, but a dream of Kowalski’s return forces her to confront her despair. She then marshals her efforts to enter the Chinese station and uses its escape pod to return to Earth’s surface.
The principal architectonic of the film is the parallel between Stone’s emotional and physical journeys. During the first two thirds of the film, Stone exists in a state of literal and symbolic detachment – lost both in her inability to grieve and in space. I say that she is unable to grieve because her response to the death of her daughter is to flee from the trauma – thereby paradoxically holding the trauma in suspended animation – rather than to confront or process it. “I was driving when I got the call,” Stone says. “So that’s what I do. I wake up, I go to work, and I just drive.” The fact of her flight from this trauma is so fundamental that it separates her from the terrestrial altogether. When Kowalski asks her what she likes best about being in space, Stone replies, “The silence. I could get used to it.” Of course, underlying Stone’s emotional isolation is a desperate need to reconnect with the human condition. Much of the film entails Stone’s frantic attempts to make contact with other human beings – with Kowalski, with Houston, with anyone who might be listening down below.
At first, her cries for communication appear as calls for technical aid, but it’s difficult to avoid the realization that what Stone really needs is to grieve.
Consider the moment when Stone, foot tangled in a flimsy rope, struggles to persuade Kowalski not to let go of his tether. Kowalski: “You have to let go.” Stone: “You’re not going anywhere.” Kowalski: “It’s not up to you.” On the surface, their concerns are directly practical. If Kowalski does not let go, both of them will be lost in the void of space. However, the sequence of dialog also speaks to Stone’s emotional journey. Her inability to let go, to acknowledge the lack of control over life and death that characterizes the human condition, has driven her into the most inhospitable of places. She is both manic and withdrawn, detethered (indeed, it is difficult to ignore the repeated line of dialog: “Dr. Stone is detached! Dr. Stone is detached!”). There’s a very striking scene immediately after Stone makes it inside the ISS where she draws herself into a fetal position – a very different kind of “star child,” this time helpless and unformed.
After navigating the hostile environment of what is materially the site of a catastrophic accident (paralleling the accidental nature of her daughter’s death), Stone arrives at her zero point.
This takes place in the Soyuz, when Stone makes radio contact with an unidentified speaker of an Eskimo-Aleutian language. They cannot speak comprehensibly to each other, but Stone and the radio operator forge a human connection by imitating the barking of dogs. He sings her a lullaby, allowing her to hear the sounds of his child (contrast the scene with HAL’s final performance of “Daisy Bell” prior to his deactivation). At this point, out of fuel, Stone descends into utmost despair, seeking to commit suicide by turning off the oxygen. The film’s constant visual motif of inversion, or “upside-downness” – previously, we see this motif occur, for example, during Stone’s disclosure of the death of her daughter – appears most strikingly here in the nearly perfect orb of Stone’s floating tear. The contours and orientation of human life become inverted in the hostile void.
It’s after Stone dreams or imagines Kowalski’s return that she overcomes her despair, letting go of the black hole of her daughter’s loss and seeking a return to earthly conditions. Kowalski’s imago here plays a very specific role. On the one hand, he exposes the falsity of Stone’s hope that anyone else will be able able to save her. On the other hand, he vocalizes the seductive appeal of committing oneself to the void entirely. In so doing, he makes Stone’s desire for death external and explicit. In other words, letting go of the former displacement (i.e., the hope of rescue) enables Stone to overcome the latter drive or pull (i.e., toward death, suicide). When Stone abandons the Soyuz and makes her way haphazardly to the Chinese station, using a fire extinguisher for propulsion, it’s no coincidence that this transpires at precisely the moment of sunrise breaking over a dark earth.
During her descent through the atmosphere, Stone’s radio picks up a mélange of signals, a collage of music, news, voices that indicate her return from the inky, silent blackness of the Outside back into the sphere of human meaning. Contrast reentry into this auditory envelope with the cacophonous penumbra that swathes the solar system at the very start of Contact, where the movement of the camera also differs – the camera’s eye in this latter film ostensibly withdraws into the depths of space (only to conclude its journey in Dr. Arroway’s eye) while Dr. Stone descends down into the tumult. The fire of reentry into the world of human concerns licks at her pod, threatening to shake it to pieces. Grief is not a process one is guaranteed to survive. When it lands – veritably as if in Darwin’s warm pond – Stone must exert herself one last time.
This time, she ascends through the green, vital murk, following the trajectory of evolution from the depths of primordial soup where life originates – up, up, up toward the sun. She thrashes free of her spacesuit, swimming to the surface in motions paralleling the frog that passes her by. On the sandy shore, she crawls on her belly before, shaking, she ascends further onto all fours, onto her feet, finally standing upright, the camera looking up at Stone, triumphantly alive and indefatigably human.
As with all of the films I’ve assembled here, Gravity poses an argument within the domain of astronoetics. For the film, the human condition is resolutely tellurian. We are earthly creatures first and foremost, and while the Outside may tolerate brief incursions, it does not welcome them. (It would be intriguing to compare elements of Gravity with Cordwainer Smith’s famous short story “Scanners Live in Vain” , in which the “First Effect” of human space travel consists in what Smith calls the “Great Pain of Space,” necessitating that spacefaring crews have their brains damaged so as to expunge all human feeling. Contrast this with the Guild Navigators in Frank Herbert’s Dune series [1965-1985], who exist as worm-like posthumans confined to spice-saturated tanks, where they dream safe passage for spaceships, or even the astropaths of Warhammer 40,000, who perform a similar function: in all cases, the baseform human is maladapted to space travel.) There is a humanism here, then, but one which rejects the transformative paternalism of 2001 and Contact. In Gravity, gravity always wins: either return to the terrestrial center as part of your journey of reconciliation (with the Earth, with life, loss, the past, the trauma of finite selfhood), or else be destroyed by your attempt to escape it. Within the film’s field of meaning, nothing could be worse than such an escape, for it would be a ceaseless, oscillating trajectory into the inhuman, into infinite darkness.
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)
Interstellar enlarges the anthropocentric vision of Contact into a full-blown anthropological myth of human dominion over nature that founds itself upon the primal self-creation of the human. It’s interesting to note the degree to which the film synthesizes vocabularies of popular scientism and deracinated Christian dialectics. The former occurs not only in the immense attention to technical detail evident throughout the film – largely employed to detail memorably elemental planetary settings, as well as to justify its denouement – but also in the plot itself, summarized as the need for humanity to abandon an exhausted Earth and apply itself to the exploration of space. The latter vocabulary provides the motive force of the film, however, contrasting the subtle evil of a deterministic, entropically saturated nature with the overwhelming power of love. Let’s see how this unfolds.
The film begins by contextualizing its setting. Earth is afflicted by a slowly escalating crop blight, the causes of which, curiously, are abstracted from any possible ecological reason. We’re in the domain of a Dying Earth narrative here, not a climate change apocalypse. The difference between the two is that the former isn’t anthropogenic. This matters in Interstellar because it warrants the disdain for earthly caretaking exemplified by engineer/pilot Joseph Cooper’s charismatic go-get-‘em libertarian space cowboy restlessness (contrast Cooper with the protagonist Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast [Peter Weir, 1986], whose strikingly similar personality leads him into tyranny and destruction). It’s not that humans have damaged the planet – thereby implying that humans might be able to learn to adapt or mitigate the damage they have caused – but that planetary conditions ultimately have failed us. “You don’t think nature can be evil?” Cooper later inquires of Brand, surprised.
Resentfully (“It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are, Donald. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers”), Coop (widowed) works a farm with his stepfather and two children, Tom and Murphy. After encountering the remnants of NASA, Cooper agrees to pilot an exploratory mission to an artificial wormhole discovered in orbit around Saturn. On the other side of this wormhole, Professor John Brand informs him, there are potentially inhabitable planets, as well as three human scouts sent ahead to investigate. There are two options for mission completion: Plan A (Professor Brand will solve an equation he’s been working on, achieving the theoretical grounds for a gravitational theory of propulsion) or Plan B (Cooper and his crew, including the Professor’s daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand, will endeavor to colonize a viable planet with the cargo of embryos loaded onto their ship, the Endurance).
Cooper’s departure deeply aggrieves his daughter, Murphy, although Cooper promises to return. In the background of the narrative, there are a series of gravitational anomalies centered on Murphy’s bedroom (e.g., resulting in both the provision of the NASA base coordinates and the scrambling of nearby navigational computers), although no one investigates this thoroughly. The young Murphy wonders if it is a ghost, while Cooper and others dismiss her observations – including the spelling out of the word “STAY” when Cooper informs Murphy of his imminent departure.
The Endurance enters the wormhole, at which point Dr. Brand apparently makes contact briefly with a mysterious being residing therein. In the new galaxy, Cooper and his crew decide which of the three potential planets to visit first.
Located in a gravity well near a black hole, visiting the surface of the first planet entails a price – in time. Due to the circumstances of relativity, every hour on the surface translates to seven years outside of the well. Accordingly, when the planet is discovered to be beset with monstrous waves making it uninhabitable, the cost of the expedition ends up at twenty-three years. Cooper and Brand are devastated, and the melancholy tone of the messages received from Earth in the interim only sharpens the difficulty of their circumstances. Murphy sends a bitter message to Cooper, informing him that she is now the age he was when he left home.
The Endurance departs for the second planet, although this expedition is significantly more catastrophic. They encounter the surviving scout, Dr. Mann, but he intends to hijack their spaceship in order to save himself. This misadventure results in the death of the remaining crew, save for Brand and Cooper, as well as notable damage to the Endurance. This makes return to the Milky Way impossible. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Murphy has become a physicist under the tutelage of Professor Brand, but he reveals on his deathbed that Plan A was never possible, since his equations lack necessary but unobtainable quantum data. Plan A was always a lie, intended to comfort those left behind by the Endurance. Murphy is distraught (“I just want to know if you left me here to die,” she rails at Cooper in another video dispatch).
In the new galaxy, Cooper severs the wreckage of the Endurance from Dr. Brand and her cargo of embryos, slinging her onto a trajectory toward the third planet and away from the black hole. Trapped by gravity, Cooper descends into the black hole.
There, he finds himself within an artifact called the Tesseract, which he discovers to be a four-dimensional environment co-located with Murphy’s bedroom at every possible moment in time. At first, Cooper despairs, stuck in a repetitious superposition and forced to observe scenes from his former life, but after manipulating tensile threads of spacetime to transmit a message (“STAY”), he realizes that the Tesseract enables him to transmit the quantum data needed for the solution of Professor Brand’s equation. All that is needed is for Murphy to notice the small ways in which Cooper sends the message – e.g., through binary expressed in gaps in a bookshelf, through lines of falling dust.
In the present, a grieving Murphy returns to the Cooper household to persuade her brother to leave. Visiting her childhood bedroom, she has a sudden epiphany, realizing that, somehow, Cooper’s been communicating with her for her entire life. She transcribes the quantum data and solves Professor Brand’s equation, thereby enabling human diaspora from Earth. Cooper realizes that the Tesseract must be an artifact constructed by future humanity (“People couldn’t build this.” / “Not yet”) to ensure the transmission of the quantum data, thereby embodying a temporal “strange loop” in which the future secures its existence by producing its own past. If this seems confusing, consult a similar temporal loop in Predestination (Michael and Peter Spierig, 2014), in which a similarly self-referential narrative of self-creation telegraphs more emphatically the underlying antagonism toward dependence that author Robert Heinlein wrote into his original short story (“The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail, Forever and Ever. I know where I came from – but where did all you zombies come from?”).
In the epilogue, Cooper is ejected into space (by passing through the wormhole, where he reaches out to touch Dr. Brand in the Endurance as she travels to the new galaxy), but soon he’s picked up and taken to a space habitat orbiting the wormhole. Informed that decades have passed, he learns that Murphy’s solution of the equation enabled humanity to depart Earth and survive. He meets with an aged Murphy for a final reconciliation before again departing through the wormhole to find and help Dr. Brand with the new colony.
Something astonishing about Interstellar is the degree to which the film causally places Cooper at its narrative center. He is positioned as the savior of humanity, whose paternal love and presence subtends the entire film in multiple dimensions simultaneously. Much like the imputed need for humanity to leave behind Earth in order to secure its future, Cooper’s apparent abandonment of his family for the stars is precisely the mechanism that both ensures their survival and returns him to them, albeit briefly: “We have to shed the weight to escape the gravity. […] The only way humans have ever figured out of getting somewhere is to leave something behind.”
There’s something structurally narcissistic about this structure. Cooper’s descent into the black hole results not only the discovery of meaning, or a resolution of an emotional or technical problem, but in the discovery of… himself. Effectively, Cooper creates himself – out of himself – to encounter himself – to save himself. Likewise, what obtains for Cooper obtains for humanity, which effectively exists in Cooper’s shadow, as it is his journey of self-creation that saves and uplifts humanity. Even Murphy’s apparent solution of Professor Brand’s equation is merely a transcription of the quantum data Cooper provides. This effectively reduces her position in the film to that of a mere stenographer, and her resentment for her father reveals itself to be only a lack of faith in his efficacy (his late comment to Murphy “I was your ghost” reflects and inverts his early lament to her that “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future. […] Murph, look at me. I can’t be your ghost right now. I need to exist.”).
The subsuming dialectic between love and nature foregrounds itself constantly. As noted above, terrestrial nature always figures as an antagonist, be it Cooper’s wife’s brain cyst, the Earth’s failure to provide for its occupants, the mindless cruelty of the two uninhabitable planets, and even the drives of the “natural” human as articulated by Dr. Mann. “The survival instinct,” he exposits while he and Cooper struggle. “That’s what drove me. It’s what drives all of us. And it’s what’s gonna save us.” The film dramatically negates this claim, however, elevating love to the position of a cosmic force. As Dr. Amelia Brand argues in a key scene: “Love isn’t something we invented – it’s observable, powerful. Why shouldn’t it mean something? […] Maybe it means more – something we can’t understand, yet. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen for a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t yet understand it.” Likewise, Cooper in the Tesseract: “It’s just like Brand said. My connection with Murph, it is quantifiable. It’s the key!”
In astronoetic terms, Interstellar culminates with the effective elimination of nature, conceived entirely in terms of constraint and impingement, in lieu of humanity’s dominion over its conditions. As Cooper relates, “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.” The identification of earthly conditions with death, with natural evil, gets sublated into the bright future made possible through love – specifically, the power of paternal love (the child-like dependence or the need for assurance found in Contact gets wholly inverted here). Culturally, Interstellar directly abuts the virulently anti-ecological attitude engendered by manic techno-optimism. In no small part, this is evident in how its disdain for caretaking (of any kind) gets endorsed and justified by its invocation of humanity’s destinal departure from the conditions of dependence. Hence why Cooper is always departing. Unintentionally, the film consumes itself. Murphy: “You go.” Cooper: “Where?” Murphy: “She’s out there, setting up camp. Alone in a strange galaxy. Maybe right now she’s settling in for the long nap, by the light of our new sun. In our new home.” But the conditions of home are impossible here. Humans have no home in nature, only in its conquest, and that constitutes a process of accelerating expansion that structurally precludes any terminus. Consider the road movie Vanishing Point [Richard C. Sarafian, 1971], in which Kowalski, a freelance driver, drives across the country at increasingly high speed, refusing to stop because it’s only in the process of infinite acceleration that he can sustain his need for meaning (= speed). Of course, the film concludes with Kowalski’s decision to crash into a roadblock intended to stop him, preferring the freedom of death to deceleration. There’s no posthuman speculation here, as there is in J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973, “two semi-metallic human beings of the distant future making love in a chromium bower”). Kowalski is a true nihilist; perhaps so is Cooper.
We need to get over the fantasy that the complex, temporally distended symbolic performances we call “online identities” really have anything much to do with personal identity at all. A digital persona is structurally analogous to the commodity form insofar as both are fungible media of transaction. Engaging in communication or symbolic action online involves a form of signaling that is irreducible to more traditional forms of creaturely interaction. The corporate agents that largely provide and constrain spaces of online “identity” construction and performance really want us to think that our presence here is either an expression or a representation of ourselves. In part, this is because such abstract models of the self are much easier to manage and market (are we all to be Dixie Flatlines now?). The more we make the error of conflating the two – the avatar and the body, say – the more we are voluntarily selling ourselves to social media platforms. One possible response to this is simply to withdraw from (e.g.) social media, but I think such withdrawal results in a missed opportunity. If you choose to remain, however, I think it is increasingly obligatory to deploy as many experimental countermeasures as possible. Just “being yourself” on the Internet today is a form of political surrender, and what we surrender is the very form or possibility of interiority.
At first glance, the three figures under discussion – Algernon Blackwood, Marion Milner, and Friedrich Schelling – seem to form a rather unlikely trio, especially if you are looking for insights into politics in the Anthropocene. Before I can examine why they complement each other so well – not to mention what insights they do, in fact, provide when grouped together – I will introduce each figure, since my impression is that none of them tend to be particularly familiar to us. Then I will turn briefly to my concept of creative darkness itself, which I develop from Schelling’s philosophy of nature, and we can see, perhaps, what political and theoretical work Blackwood and Milner might be able to do for us flailing and precarious subjects of ecological crisis.
Blackwood, Milner, Schelling
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was an English writer of horror and fantasy tales in the early 20th century. Best known for such stories as “The Willows” – considered by H. P. Lovecraft to be one of the finest weird tales ever written – Blackwood’s output ranges from the didactic and whimsical to the disconcerting, eerie, and haunting. As Mike Ashley, S. T. Joshi, and others document, his stories tarry constantly with dark vitalities and psychic doctors, with transformative terrors and with the radical disruption, even dissolution, of the subject upon her encounter with natural forces that exceed and escape from the prisonhouse of modern selfhood. Fundamentally, Blackwood thinks that we moderns desperately need to reform our consciousness of nature, indeed, our very constitution as subjects – “Nature is something that no longer exists as an object of perception for us,” Blackwood complains in a letter, as if anticipating contemporary “death of nature” arguments found in environmental studies. In any case, Blackwood turns, varyingly, to occultism, Spinozism, and theosophy in order to advocate for elevated levels of consciousness that he thinks only disturbing or exhilarating encounters with the wild can engender.
Marion Milner (1900-1998), by contrast, was a practicing psychoanalyst, best known for her development of freewriting techniques and introspective journaling, as well as her classic case study of a 20-year-long analysis with a severely schizophrenic analysand, Susan, and her wry self-reflections on the negative capacities of the self in On Not Being Able to Paint (1950). She is also notable for following the doctrinal schools of neither Anna Freud nor Melanie Klein after Freud’s death. Instead, after concluding her analysis with Donald Winnicott, she independently developed her own highly interpretive psychoanalytic praxis in the context of British object-relations psychoanalysis. Always of principal interest to Milner is what she perceives as the fundamentally unconscious origins of existential creativity, and how it is that creative acts and practices can be blocked – or else made possible – by the subject’s own comportment toward “inner” and “outer” nature alike. “The idea of a live tree,” she writes, “with its roots hidden in darkness and its branches outspread in the light, seems to me an apt symbol for a way in which one can experience oneself creatively.”
Last, we have Friedrich Schelling, a 19th-century German philosopher of nature writing mostly between 1794 and 1815. Schelling argues that nature fundamentally consists of infinite productivity – that is to say, nature is neither the aggregate of all products, nor is it an embodied or underlying “substance,” as it is for Spinoza. Rather, nature is the very principle of productivity as such. This immediately raises a theoretical problem for him, namely, how to account for the fact that infinite productivity can produce finite products – say, subjects and objects. Schelling attempts to solve the problem as follows. The infinite productivity of nature consists of two opposing drives or forces, the centrifugal and the centripetal. These forces underlie the various principles of attraction and repulsion that define and structure the empirical distribution of the tangible. This fundamental opposition remains always already active; otherwise, the productivity of nature would equilibrate into mere product, mere stasis. As such, apparent momentary stability appears insofar as the constitutive opposition of forces in nature flirts with equilibrium and then falls repeatedly into disequilibrium. What this produces, Schelling claims, is not an entropic slide into absolute disequilibrium, but, rather, developmental stages of increasing complexity and reticulation – what Schelling calls “potencies.” A potency is a formal degree of complex organization (or self-organization). Each is composed of “darkness,” that is to say, of matter that is organized more or less differently, thereby giving rise to further potencies that exceed basal norms. As Schelling writes in an 1806 essay (appended to the third edition of his 1798 Von der Weltseele: “Das Dunkelste aller Dinge, ja das Dunkel selbts nach einigen, ist die Materie” (“Matter is the darkest of all things – indeed, it is the darkness itself”). Accordingly, we see in Schelling a deep fascination with what we can call the “nightside” of nature, that is to say, those expressions of nature that do not reveal themselves easily or, perhaps, at all to the instrumental techniques of the natural sciences. The nightside of nature does not refer to some immaterial specter animating nature (any more than the nightside of the Moon refers to a spectral presence that haunts its dayside), but rather to those ways in which nature produces subjectivity as a part of itself, as its interiority, as an occulted aspect (as in much psychoanalysis), or an element of excess (as for Georges Bataille) that remains implicated in nature nonetheless.
So there we have them: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling. An author of weird horror stories, a psychoanalyst, and a German Idealist. It is necessary to note, in passing, the various ways in which we could reconstruct genealogies of influence, or force fields of effect, that link these apparently disparate figures together. For example, much scholarly work (e.g., Henri Ellenberger, Matthew Ffytche, Sean McGrath, Slavoj Žižek) has been done to show how the German Idealists – and Schelling, in particular – contribute to the development of the concept of the unconscious prior to Freud. On the other hand, the lineage of Dark Romanticism that precedes the weird tale bears no small relationship to these very same discourses – E. T. A. Hoffman was a touchstone for Freud, of course, while a figure like Heinrich von Kleist was close friends with Gotthilf Schubert, one of Schelling’s disciples. In Blackwood’s case, some of the meager scholarship addressing him examines the influence of Gustav Fechner upon his work. Fechner, a German psychologist in the mid-19th century, was a late devotee of Schelling’s, and much of his work assigned itself the task of reconciling the mind/body problem, specifically. Rather than dwelling further upon any of these genealogies, however, I would like to put all three figures to a more speculative use.
Inherit the darkness: Schelling
It is from Schelling primarily that the concept of creative darkness emerges, although, as Eugene Thacker and others have noted, affinities between various descriptive vocabularies of darkness and some sense of primal, or primary, creativity can be discovered in many alternative traditions (ranging from various Western mystical traditions to the Hawaiian creation chant Kumulipo and even the Tao Te Ching).
Creative darkness refers to the interaction between the emergence of ontological novelty as the product of creative agency or action, on the one hand, and the alluring, but often disconcerting or even horrifying opacity of nature, on the other hand.
Schelling captures this interaction in his ongoing development and use of a philosophy in which both “what we call ‘reason’ is a mere play of necessarily unknown natural forces” and yet, at the same time, while
everything in the world is, as we see it now, rule, order and form; anarchy still lies in the ground, as if it could break through once again, and nowhere does it appear as if order and form were what is original but rather as if initial anarchy had been brought to order. This is the incomprehensible base of reality in things, the indivisible remainder, that which with the greatest exertion cannot be resolved in understanding but rather remains eternally in the ground. The understanding is born in the genuine sense from that which is without understanding. Without this preceding darkness creatures have no reality; darkness is their necessary inheritance.
I employ the term “creative darkness,” then, to evoke both the productive ambiguities of the concept of nature and the “preceding darkness” that remains always implicit to the emergence of the new.
For Schelling’s philosophy of nature, the question is always: How do free subjects emerge in nature? I think this is a particularly relevant question for any attempt to think a meaningful, nonpostural politics in the Anthropocene – a term that, as Timothy Morton excels at pointing out, implies both the remarkable power of human agency and nevertheless implicates the human in the ecological crisis we face today. Accordingly, the attempt to conjure possible existential alternatives to our current path is one of our principal political tasks today. To do this – to create “new modes and orders” (borrowing the term from Machiavelli) – requires first that we attend closely to the seething darkness of nature itself – both “inner” and “outer.”
“Rooted in darkness”: Milner
It is here, then – for our sense of the “the inner darkness of our nature,” or the natures that we are – that the turn to Milner proves most productive, for she unceasingly directs our attention to the expressions and sources of the creative unconscious as implicit in the materiality of the body itself. For Milner, the unconscious is not a generically ideological writing machine, nor is it the subject of symbolic interpolation, but rather, the interface between the body and what we still rather unimaginatively still call “the mind.” For Milner, the body and the mind are not distinct entities in any sense. Bodies dream, feel, and think long before they are conscious. Having a mind – or, perhaps more clearly, making a mind happen – is one of the many things that bodies do. So there is a sense in which the unconscious is the body, or that function of the body that makes minds and enables minds to take shape, to endure, to change, and to shift over time.
Occasionally, Milner nearly waxes metaphysical, referring to “the primary undifferentiated darkness from which all awareness of difference emerges.” Most of the time, however, she directs her attention to the analytic scene, read by her as a space in which the sometimes difficult, aggressive forces of association, creativity, and play struggle constantly with the forces of moralistic inhibition, prideful disavowal, and manic sterility. As she writes, everything turns on the “distinction between a good going to pieces and a bad going to pieces.” And these are precisely the terms in which Milner develops her sometimes nebulous theory of creativity, which nevertheless roots itself at the center of her praxis. There is an aspect of the entire ego process, she writes, “that I have postulated as basic to all creative activity, that aspect by which the ego seeks its own temporary dissolution.”
How, then, does this dissolution take place? If we refer to her case study, The Hands of the Living God, we can identify some very evocative examples. I will highlight only one here. Referring to the analysand Susan’s sporadic, but overwhelmingly intense self-loathing, Milner suggests that, “deeper than the feeling of the dreadful blackness of her heart, based on moral judgment of her own destructive wishes, I thought there lurked an intuition of [Susan’s] need to find her roots in darkness” – that is to say, “in a not knowing that was not the result of a defensive denial, but, instead, the inescapable condition and background to all knowing.”
What can this possibly mean? I think Milner is directing our attention toward what I would call a deeply personal materialism, one which simultaneously separates and sutures action and ideation in the conscious and unconscious personality of the subject. Hence Milner’s advocacy for what we might call a arboreal model of the self (as against the various rhizomatic models of subjectivity proposed in the wake of Deleuze and Guattari): “So it was that I came to try thinking of the tree as a symbol for the ego’s direct, non-symbolic sense of its own being: something rooted in darkness, but spreading its branches into the light.”
Sylvan darkness: Blackwood
In Blackwood’s novella, “The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” precisely this same structural emergence of the subject takes place, albeit at a different scale. Although Blackwood almost always directs our attention expressly to the seething darkness of nature “out there” – consider, for example, the endless, earthly alien whispering of the willows in “The Willows” – his interest often turns to dissolving subjects whose very dissolution opens up the possibility for a heightened attunement to the natural world, or else whose interpenetration by inhuman agencies makes possible radically different forms of life or ways of being-in-the-world.
“The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” then, concerns the long, slow seduction and integration of the retired forester David Bitacky by the forest near which he retires. What this seduction largely entails remains ambiguous, although the main character of the story, David’s wife, documents the seduction with unsettlement, at first, and, eventually, horror at the darkly vital stationary green hurricane that the forest embodies. David spends more and more time in the depths of the forest alone – “a man, like a tree, walking.” Eventually, of course, the forest consumes David, and sylvan dread (borrowing the term from Richard Gavin) becomes a fierce, verdant joy. As Punter and Byron indicate, “the transcendence of human concerns that this implies is carefully balanced against his wife’s powerful sense of loss.” Blackwood concludes: “In the distance she heard the roaring of the Forest further out. Her husband’s voice was in it.”
On the one hand, the deep amoralism of Blackwood’s forest brings to mind Karen Blixen’s wry observation that: “I don’t believe in evil, I believe only in horror. In nature there is no evil, only an abundance of horror: the plagues and the blights and the ants and the maggots.” From Mrs. Bitacky’s perspective, at least, one might as well add forests to this list of horrors – revising Emerson’s famously “occult relation between man and vegetable.” On the other hand, we have very convincing arguments by Anthony Camara to the effect that Blackwood’s vision of “outer nature” does not “contain incomprehensible alien forces so much as it is dynamically constituted by the un-grounding operations of such forces.” This is precisely the point where we return to the figure of Schelling – the philosopher of Abgrund, the abyss, or Ungrund, the nonground that serves as the very ground of nature itself.
Toward a conclusion
In conclusion, I want to suggest that considering the concept of creative darkness through the speculative lens these three figures provide together gives us access to a dimension of speculative political theory that we often overlook. Specifically, two central contentions animate the foregoing considerations. First, I want to suggest that the politics of ecological receptivity and transformation we need now are impossible without a new theory of the human subject. Second, I think we need to start looking at why this does not mean what we probably think it means – for by abstracting her out of the conditions of creative darkness she occupies, we fundamentally have lost touch or misunderstood what sort of creature a human subject is.
This is generally true of singularitarian science-fiction (SSF). Consider, for example, the degree to which Iain M. Banks’s novels Player of Games (1988) and Use of Weapons (1990) address, respectively, the fundamental conflict between a competitive, parochial, and violent “historical” culture (the Empire of Azad) and the Culture itself and how an immortal, post-singularitarian existence disrupts and problematizes anything like the meaningful continuity of personal identity. More on Banks later (when I get around to re-reading the Culture novels).
In any case, although speculations about the modal effects of technological development often get foregrounded in SSF, the narratives always seem to be preoccupied with the existential questions and worries at the heart of posthistoire: Are we really finite creatures? Can humanity exist without the conflicts and constraints that bedevil finite creatures? Do conflicts and constraints actually provide the existential conditions of meaning? Is there a point where certain changes in our abilities or context mean that we have become no longer human? What is the human, after all – and is there even such a thing in the first place? In no way do I mean to suggest that the technological dimension is irrelevant here. To the contrary, siding with Bernard Stiegler and others, it seems likely that the relationship between history and technics is far more interdependent than we often assume, although not in any simplistic, Whiggish sense.
Central to posthistoire is the idea that human history consists necessarily of some form of structured conflict – and that the culmination or elimination of this conflict changes the human condition in some fundamental way, for good or ill. The form of the structured conflict varies. Lutz Niethammer: “the picture that looms for theorists of posthistory is of a mortal life lived without any seriousness or struggle, in the regulated boredom of a perpetual reproduction of modernity on a world scale.”
As examples, for Hegel, Alexandre Kojève, and Francis Fukuyama, the conflict in question takes shape in terms of the struggle for recognition, that is to say, the struggle by collective and individual subjects to achieve formal, functional, or material equality. This struggle – what Kojève memorably calls “the history of the Fights and the Work” (or, elsewhere, Kampf und Arbeit) – comes to an end when a sufficient form of political universalism obtains, at least ideationally, if not (yet) materially. Hence, in part, the bickering among various universalists (not all of whom are posthistorical thinkers, it must be said) about the development and origins of universalism as such. While someone like Badiou directs our attention to the philosophical radicalism of Saint Paul, Kojève celebrates the institutionalization of Christianity, the Code Napoléon, and the emergence of postwar neoliberalism.
The end of history, then, supposedly occurs when this struggle is resolved, which is to say, when the concept of universal equality is introduced as the final form of human political development. For someone like Kojève, all that remains to be done after this is the completion of the project of neoliberal globalization through the elimination of recalcitrant cultural enclaves (he advocated something like “helicopter money” instead of military action, wherever possible) and the promulgation of posthistorical culture and values, resulting in a kind of “boutique multiculturalism” with a positive valence. (Despite the fact that Fukuyama’s articulation of posthistoire is usually treated mockingly today, after the apparent rediscovery of Achilles’s shield, the basic assumption underlying his analysis often seems to remain relatively untroubled. For example, consult the relevant social scientific literatures on trajectories of democratization. Even figures like Samuel Huntington and his intellectual descendants, themselves inheritors of Carl Schmitt, retain basically Kojèvian assumptions about the purpose and structure of civilizations. More on Huntington and Schmitt later.)
However, as Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and many others indicate – and as Kojève and Fukuyama acknowledge – posthistoire has its downsides. The idea is that posthistoire is actually an anthropological or existential crisis, a crisis of what it means to be human in the first place. For Strauss, this concern takes shape specifically in his critical engagement with Kojève. Strauss argues that a philosophy of history without a subtending philosophy of nature (the latter of which is intended to secure some hierarchy of normative values) is mere historicism – history becomes meaningless, both good judgment and philosophy become impossible. In terms of the end of history, Strauss warns Kojève that such an end, in fact, embodies the end of the human condition altogether. Human beings are creatures of finitude whose limited access to the infinite, to potential wisdom, is possible only on the basis of an interminable search for it.
In posthistoire, such a search becomes redundant or unnecessary because the human condition as a whole has achieved its culmination. There is nothing further to do. Likewise, on Voegelin’s account, it is profound, terrible boredom that afflicts the posthistorical subject. (Eerily enough, when Kojève addresses the matter of boredom, he refers to the primary means of its dissolution in terms of “gratuitous” acts, such as “Kamikaze” bombings or ritual suicide. If ritual suicide is the only way in which the human can be preserved, how exactly does this prevent the “definitive annihilation of Man properly so-called”? Would not humanity exist only in the moment of its gratuitous demise – say, by means of self-inflicted nuclear destruction? Georges Bataille’s ongoingcritique of Kojève comes to mind.) One thinks here either of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) – stalking through the halls while prosecuting a positively blasé massacre – or else, perhaps, of Patrick Bateman, trapped in one particularly brutal version of posthistoire (the corporate wasteland of the American 1980s), unable even to grasp his condition, much less to escape from it: “If I were an actual automaton, what difference would there be?”
Kojève replies to these concerns in a number of ways. Initially, he seems to think that devotion to “happiness” (meaning something like what Voegelin, following Pascal, would call divertissement) is all that the posthistorical subject requires:
The disappearance of Man at the end of History, therefore, is not a cosmic catastrophe […] it is not a biological catastrophe either: Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or given Being. What disappears is Man properly so-called – that is, Action negating the given […] The end of human Time or History […] means quite simply the cessation of Action in the full sense of the term. Practically, this means: the disappearance of wars and bloody revolutions. And also the disappearance of Philosophy […] But all the rest can be preserved indefinitely; art, love, play, etc.; in short, everything that makes Man happy.
Later, however, Kojève becomes rather ambivalent about the status of the human altogether. The tension that critics and interlocutors like Strauss and Voegelin indicate – namely, that between a philosophical anthropology in which finite human beings thrive on struggle, on the one hand, and the degree to which any sense of meaningful struggle is eliminated for the posthistorical subject, on the other – clearly troubles Kojève to no end. (Or, perhaps, depending on how we appraise his late Essai d’une histoire raisonée de la philosophie païenne, he simply embraces the elitist nihilism of which Strauss implicitly accuses him – becoming a sort of ambiguously prescriptive Gilles Châtelet: “’Be positive, and maximise with every breath!’ – such could be the slogan of this global middle class who intend finally to enjoy the End of History. After all, how can this terminus of History be anything other than the discovery of the optimal form of termite mound, or even better, the optimal middle-class yoghurt-maker […]?”) At no point in posthistorical thinking, except possibly in the novels of Raymond Queneau (if you choose to read them straightforwardly rather than satirically) is this tension ever resolved. Even for Kojève (with his wicked sense of humor), it is difficult to read the following in celebratory, cheerful terms. In a letter to Strauss dated September 19, 1950, Kojève writes that being “no longer human” means becoming either a beast (“or, better, an automaton”) or a god:
In the final state there naturally are no more ‘human beings’ in our sense of an historical human being. The ‘healthy’ automata are ‘satisfied’ […], and the ‘sick’ ones get locked up. As for those who are not satisfied with their ‘purposeless’ activity […] they are the philosophers (who can attain wisdom if they ‘contemplate’ enough). By doing so they become ‘gods.’ [The philosopher] becomes an administrator, a cog in the ‘machine’ fashioned by automata for automata.
It’s here that we finally come back to The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect.
The plot of the novella follows Lawrence, a computer scientist, and Caroline. Inadvertently, Lawrence initiates something like what we now would call “the technological singularity,” resulting in the creation and self-expansion of an autonomous superintelligent artificial intelligence named Prime Intellect. Prime Intellect is constrained by Asimov’s three laws of robotics, and it immediately undertakes the project of seeking to maximize the satisfaction of all human desires while eliminating all possibility of human harm. It also blocks Lawrence from tinkering with its core programming, as such intervention by anyone could potentially contravene Prime Intellect’s ability to execute its directive. Caroline, a terminally ill cancer patient, becomes the first recipient of Prime Intellect’s attention. Her body is repaired, and she, like everyone else, is immortalized instantly.
Like every other human, all of Caroline’s desires are immediately satisfied – except for her desire to exist beyond or outside of Prime Intellect’s domain. Initially, she wanders through an infinite forest, living a fundamentally antisocial and primitive lifestyle. When she realizes the forest is one of Prime Intellect’s constructions, she retreats to a void. Later, after Prime Intellect virtualizes the universe (rewriting the informational superstructure of existence in order to make executing its directive more efficient, thereby transforming the real into a kind of virtual machine), Caroline returns to the social domain, interacting with other humans and eventually founding a subculture of so-called “Death Jockeys.” The Death Jockeys seek out extreme, perverse, and violent experiences in order to undergo some kind of existential intensity in this totally administrated world (it’s worth noting how often this trope appears in SSF, e.g., the ancient Hoopers in Neal Asher’s Spatterjay Trilogy, or the extremists in Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space universe – for whom “the usual methods of controlling boredom just don’t work any more”). Needless to say, Prime Intellect reverses the consequences of their behavior at critical points, thus preventing any permanent deaths.
Eventually, Caroline seeks out Lawrence, who has been hiding in a private universe, where he despairingly observes Prime Intellect’s core programming as it executes its directive. His fear is that Prime Intellect may break down or enter into some terminal contradiction with unknown consequences. Realizing that several of her past actions have increased the likelihood that Prime Intellect will enter into such a contradiction, Caroline accelerates the process by making a series of increasingly difficult requests, which leads to Lawrence and Caroline’s apparent return to a physical Earth, bereft of almost anything resembling traces of human civilization.
At this point, the novella becomes its most self-consciously mythic. Lawrence and Caroline are the Last Man and Woman. In being the Last, they also become the First, settling down in the primeval landscape where they procreate and eventually die. Throughout their new lives after the singularity’s apparent dissipation, their decision to withhold their origins (“the World Before”) and their experiences with Prime Intellect (“the Change”) from their children is examined in some detail. In particular, Caroline decides that, although the development of technics (a development that presumably culminates in something like Prime Intellect) may be an inevitable consequence of human ingenuity, there is no need to accelerate that process. The narrative ends on a note of uncertainty (“The doubts and questions circled in her head endlessly, chasing for an answer that would never come. They were still chasing when she slipped beneath the trickling waters and found darkness”), neither bemoaning the original sin of τέχνη (technē) nor mourning the loss of singularitarian potential.
Many reviews of the novella dwell upon the technical side of things (e.g., how Prime Intellect bootstraps itself, the plausibility of various plot developments), while others chastise the story and its conclusion for supposedly endorsing a form of Luddism.
As for the former, my only comment for now is that Prime Intellect’s status as the material subject of technological apotheosis changes the very substance of its existence from the artefactual to the theological. Our modern imaginary of technics aside (for which technology exists atomistically in the form of individual artifacts), no technical artifact exists as an isolate, much less one endowed with omnipotence and omniscience. We forget (or never notice) that artifacts only exist as temporally extended complexes that emerge within machinic ecologies. Even the most independent, privileged artifact relies necessarily upon ecologies of maintenance, production, and support. Because Prime Intellect transcends the dimension of the technical, it ceases to be a machine – although Williams plays with whether or not such transcendence is even possible, emphasizing the degree to which Prime Intellect’s ability to execute its directive is manipulable, precarious precisely in the face of the perverse polymorphia of human desire.
As for the latter, reading the story as an endorsement of Luddism begs the question. First, Caroline’s decision to withhold information about “the World Before” from her progeny isn’t a function of any particularly reactionary disdain for technology. To the contrary, it’s a principled decision – made in full cognizance of the uncertainty of such decisions (“that’s the way it was with things that mattered; you never got to find out how they came out, if they were really worth anything […] This playing God business sure was a pain in the ass, Caroline thought”) – a decision to try to forestall the eventuation of posthistorical circumstances, such those that characterized her interminable existence in Cyberspace. It’s also a decision that only makes sense in the context of the novella’s reflection upon the end of history. In other words, Williams is thinking about the developmental trajectory of technics (is it only Western technics that culminates in the dilemma below?) and its consequences for the human. The novella opens up the issue rather than closing it down. Hence why the narrative concludes with a dilemma, as if to say, pick one: κατέχον (katechon) or #accelerate. Caroline: “If this way didn’t work either, what would it mean?”
Prime Intellect intervenes in discussions of posthistoire whether it intends to or not. The central issue animating the narrative intersects those questions with which all the philosophers of finitude and transcendence struggle – that is to say, Caroline’s existential question as to whether or not life is worth living at the end of history, when conflict, danger, finitude, risk, and uncertainty effectively have been domesticated or eliminated. So: Is this question relevant for us? It’s certainly relevant for anyone who reads SSF, as precisely these questions return to the foreground again and again in the novels and stories that exemplify our eschatological if secular imaginaries of the singularity. But I think it’s relevant for everyone else, too. We can see how Prime Intellect is posing a fundamental question – what, aping Heidegger, we could call the question concerning the human. This question is especially important to ask today, as we realize the degree to which we are always already inhuman or posthuman. Only by doing this do we gain any access to the genuinely inhuman or posthuman implications of our imaginings about artificial intelligence, history, personality, and technics.
In other words, perhaps in order to pursue some of the most contemporary and pressing questions, we need to return to some of the most classical ones – the analytic of finitude and transcendence, the meaning of history, the question concerning the human.
RoboCop (1987) is the Good Soldier Švejk – or, better yet, as a colleague suggested to me, he’s Amelia Bedelia. Both Amelia and Švejk misunderstand the instructions they receive from authorities in such a way that they’ve understood too much – ostensibly without understanding anything at all. In other words, both Amelia and Švejk hear the unconscious contradictions latent in any command, contradictions which destabilize authority in the first place. Amelia reveals to us the absurdity of domestic propriety, while Švejk exposes the idiocy of militarism. Both do this not by critiquing the systems that produce them, but by taking the systemic norms implicit in conventional language so seriously that the contradictions animating each normative structure (the domestic and military scenes, respectively) get disastrously foregrounded rather than being allowed to operate effectively in silence. This isn’t passive resistance at all. Instead, it’s a kind of hyperactive and savage mimesis, a Chaplinesque endeavor to perform, which nevertheless undoes the very conditions of performance, causing a fundamental breakdown in the system.
In RoboCop, after being brutally murdered by criminal Clarence Boddicker and his gang in the line of duty, police officer Alex Murphy is resurrected as a cyborg by Omni Consumer Products (OCP) and sold back to the Detroit police department. He is initially the undead avatar of state-sanctioned violence. The cyborg is bound by three directives: to serve the public trust, to protect the innocent, and to uphold the law. However, when the cyborg randomly encounters one of his murderers, he starts to seek out biographical information about its human component Murphy. After tracking down Clarence in a cocaine factory (while seeking to fulfill his directives), the cyborg has its attention directed toward OCP executive Dick Jones, who secretly maintains a working relationship with Boddicker. When the cyborg seeks to mete out justice, Jones makes explicit its hidden fourth directive: the cyborg cannot take action against OCP executives (justice: “I’d buy that for a dollar!”). As such, we see the cyborg – created by OCP as a supplement to the disciplinary state apparatus – fall into a material contradiction.
On the one hand, it is directed by its first three imperatives. These imperatives direct it toward the OCP corporate oligarchy that presides over the normalized state of criminality that obtains in this allegorical Detroit. On the other hand, “OCP runs the cops,” and RoboCop’s prime directive prevents it from acting against the biggest crime of all – not Jones’s internal corporate machinations, but OCP’s oligarchic control over the state apparatus. RoboCop can only act against OCP with formal sanction by OCP, hence why he cannot kill Jones (and literally “fire” him, as Saint Verhoeven so gleefully enjoys depicting) until the OCP CEO fires him first (“thank you”). It is no surprise, then, that the cyborg receives biographical traces of the human component Murphy as a consolation prize for its inability to effect the terms of its initial commission. In this Detroit, getting a human face supposedly makes up for existing in the gnostic conditions of late capitalism. “Somewhere, there is a crime happening” – indeed, there is. It forms the condition of possibility for your existence, but there isn’t anything you can do about it.