Fintan O'Toole has a piece in a recent New York Review of Books called, “Beckett in Love.” He starts the piece, not with love, but with failure. Not an uncommon gambit when ruminating about Samuel Beckett. O'Toole begins with the point of contact most familiar to the person least familiar with the author. It's a favorite quote of the entrepreneurial set because it resonates with a strategy of dogged determination.
The quote is from the late work “Worstward Ho.” In an age where we thirst for “context,” except when it doesn't suit our purposes, O'Toole goes on to explain the larger context of the quote.
“Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.”
The popular form of the quote is plucked from Beckett's “Worstward Ho” in an attempt to turn failure into just another strain of pre-natal success. Beckett, on the other hand, only found his own voice by delving deeper and deeper into failure, loss, exile, and poverty. It's fair to say that Beckett found a form of humor in these depths, but it isn't the free and superior laugh of the successful entrepreneur — the master satisfied with a job well done after several setbacks. Nor is it the comedy of bringing the high and mighty to earth, rather it's the laughter of the lowest when the epiphany strikes that there may not be a “bottom” to hit.
One imagines the corporate team building exercise where the high-priced enthusiasm consultant leads the bright-eyed group of employees through a visualization.
You know that dream where you're falling? Take yourself to that place right now. You're falling and falling. You begin to panic. Surely you'll stop soon. Perhaps you'll begin flying. But no, you fall and fall. What happens when the bottom comes? Terror sets in. It will be the end. It doesn't come. The exquisite disorientation of falling continues on and on. Numbness. And then, a moment when the absurdity of your situation emerges. You smile inwardly as you consider the notion that there may be no bottom to hit.
The New Inquiry's publication of an essay by Sam Kriss called the “Manifesto the Committee to Abolish Outer Space” really caused something click into place. I'd been thinking about the way that science uses concepts from romantic poetry to create enthusiasm and “buy-in” for its mission. When scientists use words like “beauty” and “awe” to describe natural phenomena they borrow from the romantic poets. The “love” of science is not at all scientific. There is no scientific theory of beauty; even scientists would acknowledge, it's not a proper subject for scientific inquiry.
Here's Kriss on what it means to abolish outer space.
We said earlier that for us to abolish something does not mean to destroy it. Once the cosmos was thought to be painted on the veil of the firmament, or to be some kind of divine metaphor, a flatness inscribed with thousands of meaningful stories. Since then it’s become outer space, a grotesque emptiness. Space is a site of desecration, an emptiness in which one moves, and moving into space means closing down any chances for Earth. C.A.O.S. is not interested in setting up limits. We want to create a future, not one of tin cans dodging rocks in a void, but a future for human life. To do this we must abolish outer space with all its death and idiocy, and return the cosmos to its proper domain, which is mythology, so that when we look up it will be in fear and wonder, and the knowledge that we live in a world that is not possible.
Sam Kriss makes clear that we've traded one mythology for another, but this new mythology is stamped with the imprimatur of science. Our new mythology equates outer space with adventure, bravery, ultimate knowledge, beautiful images of nebula and galaxies, and a vast new frontier for human exploration (and exploitation). In the back of our minds, we hold the possibility we may need a new planet if things go too off the rails on this one. Outer space is the source of a “reset button” for human-habitable planets.
The reality of direct human contact with outer space is instant death. Despite what you may have been told, outer space doesn't want us. Human bodies evolved on this planet with its atmosphere, rhythms of day and night, its particular gravity, and the many plants, animals and our other co-habitants. To survive in outer space we must replicate a minimum set of earth's qualities that have a necessary relationship to human life. Outside of normal earth gravity, we eventually turn into gelatin. Up and down, heads and feet, opposable thumbs, and the consumption of food, these are concepts that have no purchase in the vast expanses of space.
The beauty of outer space is created in post-production. It's like an using an Instagram filter to make your life look more interesting. For instance, the Hubble Space Telescope doesn't use color film–or any film at all. The distant light is recorded in shades of black and white. The color is a educational and promotional tool, not a direct perception of an object. Here's what hubblesite.org has to say about their use of color and seeing things that can't actually be seen by humans.
The colors in Hubble images which are assigned for various reasons, aren't always what we'd see if we were able to visit the imagined objects in a spacecraft. We often use color as a tool, whether it is to enhance an object's detail or to visualize what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye.
Our idea of outer space is that it's over there–far away. We imagine ourselves to be Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, Charles Darwin or Dr. Livingstone in search of the undiscovered territory. For the most part, outer space is empty. There's nothing to discover. It's even emptier than “flyover country.” As Kriss notes in his manifesto, we lose nothing when we abolish outer space because “there's nothing there already.” Astronomers recently issued a report saying that based on data from the Kepler spacecraft their could be as many as 8.8 billion earth-sized planets capable of supporting life. What they neglected to say was that no human from planet earth will ever set foot on any of the those planets. While our imagination is infinite, our physical manifestation in space-time is nothing but finitude. Just like producing images of astral objects that can't actually be seen by humans, we create a catalog of planets, obscure unattainable objects of desire.
And while scientism ridicules the cosmology of others, it is still geocentric at the bottom of its thinking. We are already in outer space. Earth itself isn't outside of the universe. We are spinning, orbiting and hurtling through outer space. I already live in outer space.
We only seem to talk about big data in terms of predicting buying patterns and targeting consumers. This kind of data analysis is about making invisible patterns visible and transferring information from much larger scales of existence into the scale of human understanding. Climate and the warming of the biosphere may be the most important way we use big data techniques. Amidst the report from the NY Times that 2014 was the hottest year since 1880, when they began to keep records, was this observation:
“February 1985 was the last time global surface temperatures fell below the 20th century average for a given month, meaning that no one younger than 30 has ever lived through a below average month. The last full year that was colder than the 20th century average was 1976.”
We've marked the successive generations based on cultural markers and consuming patterns. But this under-30 generation is the first to experience a specific kind of earth. In this earth, there are no “below average” temperatures. Of course, no one experiences an “average temperature.” One day will be colder than another, and a particular day will be the coldest one ever experienced. But this generation will live out their lives in a fundamentally different possibility space.
What the data tells us is that the set of possible temperatures is slowly moving into a higher range. It's something we can can contemplate in our understanding, but not something we can directly experience. This is the difficulty of direct action with regard to global warming. When we drive our cars, or build a fire in the fireplace it appears to have no effect whatsoever on climate. It's only when you scale it up to the whole human species across the entire planet that the effects are visible. And only then indirectly, using a complex array of sensors, a large historical data set, and a sophisticated simulation of earth's climate.
Hollywood teaches us that there is supposed to be a large explosive event that marks the turning point with climate. We perpetually imagine that event to be in the future, as though it were a ticking time bomb. There's always time for the hero to intercede and change the course of history. One day, we look up from our newspapers and realize that every human under 30 years of age is already living in that permanently changed world. The possibility of that particular kind of cold day has been foreclosed. It wasn't ever a change that we would directly feel or experience that we should have been looking for; it was a change in what it was possible to experience.