The View from Afar

Hello All,

Today I am getting back into the blogging spirit by posting something new that i’ve been working on. I have been pondering the strange correlations between space exploration and the long history of deep revelations brought about by a view from afar. Please do let me know if you have any thoughts you’d like to share, since it is early days for a new project. I started off with what is effectively creative writing to get me started, and this is what i’m sharing with you today. It’s how I like to get the ideas flowing. I hope that you enjoy reading the extract below, and my best to you all.

The View from Afar

In 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe took a photograph that would prove to be one of the most humbling visions of terrestrial insignificance generated by the space age. The Pale Blue Dot, taken from a record distance of 6 billion kilometres from the Earth, reveals a tiny fleck of colour in an endless expanse of space. The astronomer Carl Sagan took the image as visual mantra, the central focus for the new contemptus mundi of the modern age as well as a popular monograph. The history of science has been a breeder of anthropocentric hubris and a breaker of human pride in equal measure. As breeder and breaker, it strengthens claims to exceptionality while simultaneously eroding them. The image of the dot, alone and miniscule, elicited an extraordinary and powerful affective response.

The Pale Blue Dot – Public Domain courtesy of NASA

The photograph provokes a symptomatic wavering in confidence. Sagan feels this insecurity, and presses upon the weak point. Derived through the artifice of science, his cry is vanitas vanitatis for the space age. All the strivings of our precarious history cannot cancel out certain inevitabilities. We are not so special as we were led to believe, no matter the source of our claim to exceptionality. Sagan, through science, taps into a deep well of even deeper insecurity. Thus, Sagan:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot…our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.[1]

For me, this statement is accompanied by the sound of a thousand modern dreams shattering like plate glass, confident ontological drive down the fast lane of progress violently arrested. A vision of gleaming rocket ships and scientific mastery engulfed by the endless black. In the face of such power, what is the meaning of human endeavour? For what do we strive? For the medievalist, Sagan’s depiction of the peculiar clash between visions of human importance and an ultimate insignificance in relationship to a greater power will not be unfamiliar. A man of science, pulled by the powerful rip tides of explanatory impulse, has found recourse to ekphrasis. Like Scipio dreaming above the world, Alexander the Great (or his romance persona) pulled aloft by griffins, and the would-be aeronaut Eilmer the monk glimpsing new worlds the second before falling to injurious ruin, Sagan has responded to the irresistible need to re-evaluate in the face of a radical new perspective. After all, what use is somnambulant prescience, mastery of the known world, the lost arts of Icarus, or a camera on a distant space probe if it does not provoke ontological repositioning?

British Library MS. Harley 334 f.34v – Detail of a miniature of a God creating the world with compasses. Open Access.

The age of space travel has generated a series of tropes focused upon the fragility of life on Earth, a tiny blue-green orb suspended in the blackness of the void. Only when we are able to view our tiny world from the overview perspective of space, the idea continues, are we able to truly value the precarious nature of life. Since we have been locked within the conceptual prison of our mundane life, we have been unable to fully grasp the full perspective of the world from above. There are those who have travelled into orbit and have been sharply reminded of this reality. Having returned to Earth and descended into the conflict and lack of perspective that characterises modernity, they have come to an insight shared by many through a route known only to a privileged few. Founded by a group of astronauts and cosmonauts who have gazed upon the world from above, the Overview Institute proposes to remind the war-torn world of the beauty and singularity of the Earth. In their 2012 mission statement—an appropriate title for a group of former space travelers—the Institute describes the perspective that they wish to share:

[The Overview Effect] refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.  From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.[2] 

Medievalists may be forgiven for experiencing a moment of déja vu when reading this statement. Admirable as the sentiment may be, it is not a novelty brought about by the manifold technological contrivances of the Cold War. It is a perspective that has found new voice in the space age, but has long formed a key element of the constructs deployed to imagine life on Earth. Take, for example, the well-known example of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, well known to medieval commentators through the commentary of Macrobius. In the dream, Scipio Aemilianus floats above the world guided by the shade of his grandfather Scipio Africanus, viewing its variegated colour, its insignificance in the cosmic schema, and its partitions:

On which [Scipio] Africanus said, I perceive that you are still employed in contemplating the seat and residence of mankind. But if it appears to you so small, as in fact it really is, despise its vanities, and fix your attention for ever on these heavenly objects. Is it possible that you should attain any human applause or glory that is worth the contending for? The earth, you see, is peopled but in a very few places, and those too of small extent; and they appear like so many little spots of green scattered through vast uncultivated deserts. And those who inhabit the earth are not only so remote from each other as to be cut off from all mutual correspondence, but their situation being in oblique or contrary parts of the globe, or perhaps in those diametrically opposite to yours, all expectation of universal fame must fall to the ground.[3]

Sagan, Scipio, and the Overview Institute all seek to place life in perspective, to different ends and framed by different epistemes, and yet each participates in a long sequence of desperate grapplings with the ultimately facile conclusion that human life has no meaning. Any indication of human insignificance is equally a claim that human actions are significant. Bleak realities engender moral reaction. The question is endlessly complex: where does the meaning reside? Meaning for whom? And perhaps, most importantly, where can we reside in order to shift our perspective, to see new meaning in old, and old meaning in new? 

[1] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, New York, Random House, 1994 [1997], pp. xv-xvi.

[2] See http://www.overviewinstitute.org/index.php/about-us/declaration-of-vision-and-principles

[3] The Dream of Scipio, see http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/cicero-republic6.asp

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