domingo, 2 de junho de 2013

The “Mathematical” Science Fiction Technosublime: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.

Although they are somewhat dusty with age, Kant’s two base categories of the sublime are nonetheless useful for interpreting most sf up to the pres­ent. Most sf writers develop both modes in each work. One may prepon­derate, but it is not uncommon for the story to begin under the umbrella of a mathematical/contemplative sublime idea (AIs fuse to create a parallel sen­tient cosmos, social classes have evolved into different species, the physical universe is an aesthetic experiment by an immature demiurge), and to pro­ceed with dynamically sublime narrative and technical devices with a com­pletely distinct provenance.

The mathematical/contemplative technosublime is the less cultivated of the two in sf, largely because of the power of popular narrative forms, com­mercial interests, and the ethos of entertainment that has constrained the de­velopment of sf for most of its career. Works such as Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Star Maker, which develop a theoretical-sublime idea without trying to incite intense emotional involvement in action, are relatively rare. For most works of sf, the mathematical technosublime merely establishes the ultimate questions and stakes — the pretexts for action. If a choice has to be made be­tween the careful philosophical development of a difficult idea and over­whelming action, it will normally be for the latter.

This choice of action is especially true of sf in cinema, where similar con­straints on the medium amplify the effect. In many respects, sf film is a more congenial medium for expressing the technosublime than writing. Cinema is more able to overpower an audience as a medium, and it is always cultivating new devices technologically (special effects [f/x]) to reflect and inspire new at­titudes about the pervasive influence of technological devices on social life:


The phantasmagoria of progress involves a sustained immersion within an artificial, technological environment that suggests technology’s own ability to incorporate what it has generally excluded. If the disappearance of nature is seen as the consequence of a burgeoning technosphere, then utopian technologies will incorporate Arcadia.... If technology is seen as a dehumanizing force that leads to an impoverishment of spirit, then utopian technologies will permit a new emergence of spirituality and cosmic consciousness.... It might even be argued that cinema is the very paradigm of an artificial, technological environment that has incor­porated utopian fantasies of nature, kinetic power, spiritual truth and human connections. 

The vast majority of commercial sf films are committed to the dynamic technosublime. But not all. Cornel Robu has called Kubrick’s 2001 “the supreme expression of the mathematical sublime in sf cinema”, and indeed the film adheres so rigorously to this aesthetic that its sf content can be read as the pretext for the representation of the sublime, rather than the reverse. The film is strictly constructed to articulate what we may as well call an artificial myth (and perhaps even rite) of this sort of sublime. The fundamental Kant­ian struggle between the imagination’s constantly frustrated desire to expand in order to perceive infinity directly, and the cool reassertion of a rational faculty that “proves that the mind has a power to surpass any standard of sense” (Kant, Critique 106), is here no longer a matter of the contemplation of natural order, but of understanding the supersensible as an active, purposive intervention in human evolution. Kubrick personifies the qualities of mind, so that the odyssey occurs not in physical space, but in the virtual, parabolic mental void, where the qualities of the sublime are dominant. The mediation toward transcendence is itself represented in purely geometrical form, via the mysterious, opaque, perfectly formed slab that obscurely catalyzes humanity’s technological progress toward cosmic power.

True to its aesthetic ambitions, the film is systematic in its technique and design. Striving to convey the sense of pleasure in the “plurality collected in a unity,” Kubrick made each element subservient, not to his ostensible theme, but to the aesthetic effect of the sublime. Kubrick radically alters the signifi­cance of the aesthetic by restricting it to technology, and excluding every pos­sible indication of humanity’s interdependence with the natural world. He encloses his cosmos, as he does his production process, in a technological shell. (With the exception of the backgrounds for the “Dawn of Man” se­quence, all of 2001 was shot on soundstages.)

The film’s audience is introduced at the outset, in the credit sequence, to a cosmological perception that is also a symbol: a solar circle rising over a cres­cent world. Here, as it will be again before the “Clavius” sequence, and yet again before the “Stargate,” the composition is part of a series of receding cres­cent worlds, indicating syzygy, a planetary alignment that is also a figure for alchemical and spiritual unions of opposites. The sight cannot be seen except from outer space, from an indeterminate point of view taken from the fictive eye of the camera/viewer, who observes the drama of human technological evolution from a distance, with cosmic detachment. The next time such a figure appears it will be from the hominids’ point of view, with the sun rising over the perfectly straight edge of the monolith: a geometrical dawn.

The “Dawn of Man” sequence illustrates a principle of the mathematical sublime in its “primitive” form. The freeze-shots and slow pans of the desert display an originary world that could not be further from a desire-saturated Edenic garden. The earth here is hostile, deadly, and vast—unlike a walled garden, or even a harboring forest for semiarboreal apes—with no end in sight, a void of nearly lifeless stone. The hominids are not yet human, so there are technically no humans for the audience to connect with emotionally in this sequence. We are presented with the primal scene of our own species, a memory so far back in the past it might as well be the infinitely distant past of myth. But we can’t let it go at that. The pain of recognizing ourselves in these abject beings is countered by the pleasure of recognizing that one of our deep­est mysteries will be solved, at least aesthetically: how “Ape” became “Man.”

The ancestors at first can barely distinguish themselves from the comical tapirs. A leopard’s attacks first on a hominid, then on a zebra, seem mundane and squalid. The appearance of the monolith introduces a formidable tension. Visually, the scene contrasts chaotic rock formations, all clearly shaped by the forces of erosion over millennia, with the perfect geometrical solid, so pol­ished that it should be a mirror, and yet so matte that it won’t yield any reflec­tions. Ligeti’s aleatoric soundtrack represents the little horde’s confusion. Chaos is made clear in relief against the slab’s embodiment of geometrical perfection.

The monolith is the novum, and we are witnessing the first apocalyptic transformation point dividing the past from the present and future. The op­eratic use of Strauss’s Zarathustra while the Alpha male forms the concept of the bone-tool, imagining a future action as a present one, entrains the action and the viewer. For the first time an intentional action occurs according to a rhythm. The ape gains power. The camera places him in high heroic ecstasy, shot from below, nearly filling the sky. The slain tapir of the imagination is it­self seen as enormous and heroic, a veritable felled ox, compared with the mild and unassuming quasi-pigs we saw earlier. The social evolutionary steps fol­low quickly, once the idea of weaponry has been formed: first overpowering for their meat the animals who had competed with them for forage, then over­powering their own kind.

Kubrick excludes any representation of desire in the “Dawn of Man,” as he will throughout the film. Indeed, 2001 works as a consummate example of cognitive estrangement, to the point that it becomes unclear what the cogni­tion is truly for. The hominids are not driven by animal drives or human lust; and even the moment when the Will to Power — evoked explicitly by the strains of Zarathustra —appears to catalyze the Alpha male to make the first technological discovery and invention, there is very little will involved. The discovery of the bone’s usefulness appears to come out of the Alpha’s idle play. We know these beasts are always hungry, as they can’t even chase their com­petitors away from their meager food sources, but it is not hunger that moti­vates the Alpha. The leaps to a higher level of awareness, where the future can be seen as plausibly as the present, are instigated by two tools: the monolith and the bone. The hominid is merely the vehicle of their intersecting forces.

It would have been difficult for most artists at the time to resist linking this moment of the technobirth of humanity to some appropriate version of the Fall, since the defining technological-conceptual moment is the invention of a weapon and the acquisition of mediated force to do effective violence. These hominids have no art, no skill at making shelter, not even potent displays. Kubrick excludes any sense of power other than the instrumental. Progress is not a matter of moral or cultural advancement, but of the ability to extend technological power. The famous cut, bone-to-spaceship, bypasses all human spiritual attainments, and all human violence against the biosphere. Nothing is permitted in the story that is not “mathematical” in the sublime sense. Human history is reduced to the steps of a technoconceptual progress: from the natural, to the artificial, and ultimately, to the mysterious stage after cos­mic artificial insemination.

In design terms, the long middle section displays what might be the paro- distic design of human technical civilization as an expression/imitation of geometry. The space between earth and moon is filled with spaceships that imitate unicellular forms synchronized with the musically geometrical waltz, a dance predicated on the constant motion of circles within circles. Through­out this section, the visual compositions are dominated by bilateral symmetry, the two sides distinguished only by smaller geometrical instruments, panel screens, rectangles and circles, and the illuminated diagrams manifesting series after series of data. Human behavior is banal, utterly conventional, amoral, business-American. Automatic actions are performed within environments of opaque panels and furniture, in space articulated only by the requirements of weightlessness — all indicating that the human world has created its second nature in imitation of the infinite series, without originality, without tran­scendence, without horizon. Everywhere we perceive symmetrical construc­tions, series, conventional phrases, the lack of natural color or shade.

The affect is oppressive and exhausting, as if technology were reproducing sublime magnitude, but schematically, merely repeating the forms of the an­cient technogeometrical gift. There is no concern for human social applica­tions, only for forms. The exploration of the moon is presumably motivated by curiosity (the ideological alibi of most sf), but the skillful explorers seem to have no passion for it. They operate in obeisant gangs as did their prehuman ancestors. Humans are reproducing the mathematical/geometrical without any thought of its origin in the supersensible. This potentially endless, aimless repetition of forms can halt only when an obstacle appears that imagination cannot handle. The monolith waiting for this technical attainment stands in sharp contrast, with its uniqueness and burst of radio signals, now not to the passive natural forms of the mock-Olduvai, but to the repetitions and lack of purpose of the Space Age.

The Jupiter mission sequence continues many of these design motifs: pan­els, rectangles and circles, geometrical solids, screens, automatic astronauts, conventional discourse. There is not a trace of a natural substance. All is surface, exhausting and empty repetition, jogging in circles, making the rounds. Symmetrical doublings appear on all levels: Poole and Bowman, hu­mans and HAL, two EVA missions, two earth broadcasts, instrument panel reflections on visors, and so forth. We do not know—any more than the crew does—what the Discovery’s mission is. The ship, too, is a mathematical being, composed of combined solids, but now evoking a stylized human skeleton and a spermatozoon. The context has changed, and the characteristic negativ­ities of the Burkean sublime come to the forefront. Vastness, loneliness, dark­ness, and silence, all combined, come to a climax of privations in the extended sequence depicting the salvaging of Poole’s body from the abyss. The drones and pings of the interior of Bowman’s pod alternate with the complete stillness of outer space (surely one of the most prominent uses of dead air in cinematic history). With the stark light and dark contrasts on the surface of the Discov­ery, the traditional sublime qualities of magnitude and extremity are brought together in a formal ensemble. Bowman’s heroic act of self-preservation car­ries great symbolic weight. Forced to survive for precious seconds in the vac­uum, Bowman must actually prove he can survive without air, like an inor­ganic machine.

“Beyond the Infinite,” with its Kantian title, propels Bowman through an­other display of symmetry, the Star Gate; only this one is rich with color and speed. Neither Bowman nor the audience understands what is happening (even the term “Star Gate” is from Clarke’s novel), only that Bowman is now, sud­denly, moving extremely fast, probably at several Gs. The symmetry gradually yields. First we witness kaleidoscopic macrocrystals (symmetrical still). Then follow the first quasi-organic visual displays since the opening sequence: super­novas, galaxies, comets indistinguishable from shooting sperm, a red zygote reminiscent of astronomical photographs of nebulae. These images invoke sex unambiguously. The exterior of space and the interior of the body are mixed together. Are we inside a cosmic body, observing an artificial insemination, or are we just another futile body in the void? The pseudo-Empire-style bed­room is the first surprising surrealist break with the rigidly held technocondi­tions of the film’s design, but here too we detect the conventionality, symme­try, geometry, solitude, and emptiness.

The film 2001 is the visually sublime expression of a spiritually exhausted sen­sibility for which all evolutionary progress is technical. It is deeply ironic about the absence of the supersensible connection between the universe and the human mind. The mediation of the geometrical embodiment, an object like the cone in Borges’s “Tlon,” does not promise anything outside the mathematical- technical. It has only such qualities. The results of its “teaching” demonstrate nothing more: deadly weapons, aimless spaceflight, and a transfiguration into a cosmic infant. Why should its potential for spiritual transcendence be any greater? (Here is where Kubrick breaks most emphatically with Clarke’s prob­lematic novel.)

Kubrick incites the sense of this artificial infinity and magnitude in the au­dience, so we look for a higher meaning behind it — the artist’s intention, the overdetermination—by reading symbolically. There are not, however, enough stable and dramatically closed signs to allow interpretability. The series and symmetries won’t lead to a stopping point. It is power without purpose. There are no maternal consolations of Nature in 2001, no safety and aesthetic per­ception, beauty, or pleasure outside the technological shell. The dynamic sub­lime is simply banished: even in the prehistoric age, there is no weather, no precipice. There are three dynamic events: the discovery of the bone weapon, when the Alpha transcends everything around him, set against a clear sky; Bowman’s defeat of HAL; and Bowman’s trip through the Star Gate. Twice the human demonstrates that it can be a machine — for which it is rewarded with an involuntary ride into a mystery it cannot comprehend, from which it re­turns to earth as a mysterious fetus.

This is promising as a subject for an Oedipal reading. Without any signi­ficant feminine or nurturing presence, there’s not much tension in the accept­ance of the phallic law. (There are no women even among the cryogenically suspended crew members in their technosarcophagi.) It’s as if there never was anything but this law: no earth or home to place it in tension with, no natural materials or food whose reworking would create questions about aura, mana, or some irreducible quality of life that insists on its gravity and power. Indeed, except for the first twenty minutes, every action in 2001 occurs suspended in weightlessness or in artificial gravity, enclosed by spacesuits or spacecrafts, or a stylized symbolic room.

The film itself is just such an extreme, enclosed environment. With no real­time location shots, the hermetic, technical enclosure of the soundstage seals out the mundane, and all accidents. It is purified of earth. The only obstacles to the full acceptance of the geometrical law are the void itself and HAL’s ma­chine pride (and error). Kubrick sets himself free of any contingency of the real world in which the filming took place. Every angle, illumination, and diegetic stricture is just as suspended, weightlessly manipulable on the sound­stage and in the f/x camera, as the action depicted. Kubrick was thus free to construct the action with formally pure evocations of the sublime, shriven of familiar mundane groundings, of dirt. The history of humanity passes in the blink of an eye. The interplanetary velocity of the spacecraft, by contrast, is made to seem motionless.

Finally, in the obscure ending, we witness Bowman being pulled—again, by a will to power that cannot be Bowman’s own, for he lacks will and power in the journey through the Star Gate — assuming dominion over things only once in the film: in disconnecting HAL. Indeed, HAL is the obstacle. Tellingly, he is more natural in his pride, more disturbed by the potentially sublime col­lision with the limits of his own imagination, than are any of the human char­acters, who do not act as individuals. An old-school humanist might wish to see his disconnection as the triumph of the individual will over artificial intel­ligence, but there is no real warrant for this. Bowman is liberated to complete the mission, the very thing HAL wished most to do, but was thwarted in by his own pride and simulated humanity (to err is human). Bowman, more flexible in order to be even less fallible, continues until he is pulled to the new worlds beyond the Infinite. These worlds are no more concrete than any before them, and neither the audience nor Bowman can penetrate the conceptual obscu­rity. The galaxies are made to serve symbolic functions, as fetuses, sperm, zy­gotes; the dramatic landscapes-in-negative are not (as I thought when I was young) on Jupiter, nor on Earth as we know it. The room, so formal and con­trived, could easily be a prison cell, for all we, or Bowman, know.

There is no reason in the end to believe that the Starchild is more morally evolved than humanity. There is no reason why we should even take the Starchild as a literal space fetus, and not, for example, a symbolic representa­tion of a soul returning to Earth for a new incarnation. After all, we have seen spaceships appear like sperm cells, galaxies like zygotes; why should we not perform a similar analogical transfer with the space fetus? Kubrick refuses to provide any support external to the system. Although Clarke’s stories are explicitly about a materialized transcendence, Kubrick’s could lead in pre­cisely the opposite direction. The relentlessly self-referring system of techno­logical adventure, lacking any motivation from morality, history (indeed, any humanistic or critically positive discourse) leaves us with a purely technical cosmos, where technical mastery is the only occasion, instrument, and pur­pose of intelligent existence. Perhaps the fact that the Starchild still resembles an organic being is a sign that Kubrick prefers the living to the artificial. But I am not sure; until that point in the film the living have shown their flexibil­ity and originality only in technical problem-solving.

In 2001, we expect a sublimated transcendence in vain, or we supply the il­lusion ourselves. In the technomathematical sublime, the recoil comes be­cause of willingness to venture into a mysterious cosmos after alien gift-givers who have given us nothing but tools of knowledge, and no reasons or operat­ing instructions. A world almost without nature, mothers, families, female co­hort, animals, plants, memories of underdevelopment, or history. Why should we expect our next incarnations — and our universal reason—to be any less remote, instrumental, and alien?

In: The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middeltown, Connecticut, 2008, pp. 162-170.

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