Somehow I've always thought about Samuel Beckett like this. Along with the profundity, the sadness and the humor–there was at bottom, the detective.
The theme music is from the classic television show “The Streets of San Francisco.” It was composed by Patrick Williams and features a killer lead saxophone by Tom Scott. This is what television sounded like in 1972. It's worth listening to the whole thing.
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.
It used to be called the “new new thing.” That next piece of networked hardware or software that was going to blow open new vistas in human experience and open the wallets of people all across the land. Every once in a while the pundits decide that it’s virtual reality gear. Oculus Rift and MS Hololens are the current standard bearers of this particular dream. Virtual reality is an externalization of interior space. It’s a technology that’s meant to take things we imagine and pipe them directly into someone else’s imagination as a product you can buy.
We call it “virtual reality” because very little suspension of disbelief is required. The audience member shouldn’t have to interpret or fill in pieces of the dream. The dream itself provides all the fidelity of a “real” experience. Of course, this is a very naive view of how reality is experienced by humans.
Once the uncanny valley is traversed, the importance of the hardware will fall away. That means technology will have defeated the human sensory system’s ability to distinguish between a created reality and a given reality. It then becomes a question of what virtual reality you desire. When you escape this world and enter a predesigned world-like experience, what will you choose?
The model, Kate Upton, plays a character in a video game called “Game of War.” Celebrities can sell the specifications of their likeness, and create filmed segments, that put them inside these virtual reality experiences. It won’t be long before individual game players actually pay to have all of their personal data uploaded into the game engine so that they too can be rendered into the virtual world. There’s only one real Kate Upton, but in virtual reality everyone can participate in a story with the model (or a model of the model).
Interrogating these fantasies becomes a key not just to the potential future of the technology, but to the minds behind the effort. The San Francisco-based theater group, The Collected Works has taken on the challenge by deciding that now is the right time to produce Jean Genet’s “The Balcony.” In the play, clients in a brothel pay to play the roles of figures of authority while a rebellion unfolds in the city around them. Many meta-narratives ensue for the characters. Even the audience is implicated in the play’s layers of reality and illusion. Genet gives us virtual reality without the technical apparatus.
The character of the Chief of Police wishes nothing more than to enter the secret desires of the brothel’s customers. He hopes that a customer will choose to impersonate him in their secret virtual reality sessions. One can easily imagine the technologists of virtual reality (the nerds, the geeks) hoping that the audience will choose to enact the role of the creator of technologies It’s always the next step for the latest edition of the “masters of the universe.”
Sometimes a theatrical performance is timed to play with themes coursing through the culture. In this case, the venue couldn’t be more perfect. It’s San Francisco’s Old Mint. You know, the place where they used to print money. The Collected Works has the opportunity to open up the beating heart of the zeitgeist, raise it above their heads, and show it to us in performance.