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Galaxies Cheek by Jowl & Other Tales of Space

Occasionally there's news from elsewhere that has the potential to change our outlook on things. Our stance toward our planet and the biosphere rely on certain ideas that we take as an unquestioned foundation. No news story could undo these foundations; that process takes hundreds of years. But reading planet news from time to time can help keep things in perspective.

We call it “Space” or “Outer Space” because for some reason we believe it to be mostly empty. It's a vacuum, a void, a vast nothingness — it's a stark contrast to the thing-filled existence we partake of here on planet earth. On the other hand the Hubble Telescope photograph of 10,000 galaxies makes the universe seem downright crowded. Depending on scale and perspective, the thing we all “space” might more accurately be called “full”. The cosmic void shows itself to be more of a moral and psychological entity than a feature of the universe. Our imaginations are given a certain kind of shape through the use of the word “space” and its implied emptiness.

We assume we will travel through space to other planets, solar systems and potentially to other parts of the galaxy. And, as movies tell us, we will travel to other galaxies via wormholes in the space-time fabric that will allow us to traverse vast expanses in much the same way that a movie cuts from one scene to another.

One thing we've recently learned is that in these early stages, as we think and plan for extended space flight, we probably don't want extroverts on board. While extroverts make excellent protagonists for movies, they would create unacceptable levels of interpersonal friction on long space flights. It's interesting that a desirable human quality for exploring outer space is a highly developed inner space. When we leave our biosphere, our ecological systems, earth-scale gravity and our social relations to travel within an exclusively technical and pragmatic space craft, all that's left to ground us is our inner space. There's a weird connection between the inner and the outer that seems downright Kantian in nature.

The philosopher Giorigio Agamben, in an interview with Verso, thinks about light that is always already sheathed in darkness for humans. As the universe expands, there exists light that travels towards us, reaches out to us, but will never be seen. It will never reach us. Through our reason, we posit that this light must exist, but we will never experience it. There isn't even the possibility of experience, and yet there it is — an object of our thought. Just as the cosmic void plays a role in our inner ecology, this forever unseen light seems to have a place as well.

Verso: According to you, to be contemporary means to perceive the darkness of one's epoch and not its light. How should we understand this idea?

Agamben: To be contemporary is to respond to the appeal that the darkness of the epoch makes to us. In the expanding Universe, the space that separates us from the furthest galaxies is growing at such speed that the light of their stars could never reach us. To perceive, amidst the darkness, this light that tries to reach us but cannot – that is what it is to be contemporary. The present is the most difficult thing for us to live. Because an origin, I repeat, is not confined to the past: it is a whirlwind, in Benjamin's very fine image, a chasm in the present. And we are drawn into this abyss. That is why the present is, par excellence, the thing that is left unlived.

The adaptability of humans to different environmental conditions on earth seems to our ace in the hole as a species. Even as we permanently reconfigure the climate of the earth through global warming, global trade and agrilogistics, we seem to have faith in our ability to adapt to whatever earth, whatever biosphere that the future holds. We even look toward other planets and speculate about how we might migrate should this earth become intolerable.

One thing we've learned about space and space travel that we don't like to talk or think about is that space doesn't want us. It isn't good for our physical bodies to live in zero gravity. Human bodies are made up of numerous organs, circulatory and sensory systems. Each of these start to adapt to zero gravity in they're own way. They don't coordinate, the body isn't singular in that way. Astronauts begin to experience blurred vision because the eye depends on gravity as an essential part of its functioning. Bones depend on gravity to remain dense and strong. A simple way to think about this is to imagine what a human would look like if it had evolved in zero gravity. For instance, can you imagine what giving birth in zero gravity would entail?

In our fantasies about space travel we've solved the problem of gravity. Somehow earth-like gravitational force is simulated and we can run, jump and throw a punch just like we do on our home planet. In the fantasy of space flight we delete the inconvenient parts of being a human, the non-adaptable parts, and imagine what human-created heaven might be like. Someday soon we may need to think about the limitations of our adaptability. In our movies we imagine this Achilles Heel through unstoppable deadly plagues, zombies, revolutions by intelligent apes and chimpanzees and alien invasions. When there's a solution, it generally involves turning science and technology up from 10 to 11. Somehow our limitations are always erased instead of embraced.

 

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