Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo Moments

A Moment on the Moon, from For All Mankind (dir, Al Reinert, 1989)

The two principal characters in Don DeLillo’s science fiction short story, “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), watch a non-nuclear war from their safe vantage point in space. They are in a cramped spacecraft, a “recon-interceptor” with the ability to fire laser beams at the Earth’s surface. Locked into a current geostationary orbit, they watch a global conflagration unfurl before their very eyes. Air battles swarm the skies below, columns of tanks and infantry crawl against landscapes – an otherwise distant, abstracted view of the world below occluded by artifacts of war. A ground control center below gives them a live commentary feed of the events below – information that only they receive. They are part of a fully automated weapons system. A signal from their ground control thus commands them to perform a rote test of their laser weapon. While testing this weapon, they even begin to ruminate on the various “human moments” occurring below on the Earth’s surface. The narrator thus describes the scene below:

It satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars, whatever obsessions eat at the night side of his mind, whatever sweet and dreamy yearning he has ever felt for nameless places faraway, whatever earth-sense he possesses, the neural pulse of some wilder awareness, a sympathy for beasts, whatever belief in an immanent vital force, the Lord of Creation, whatever secret harboring of the idea of human oneness, whatever wishfulness and simplehearted hope, whatever of too much and not enough, all at once and little by little, whatever burning urge to escape responsibility and routine, escape his own overspecialization, the circumscribed and inward-spiraling self, whatever remnants of his boyish longing to fly, his dreams of strange spaces and eerie heights, his fantasies of happy death, whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings, lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space -- all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.

The Earth, then, becomes a repository and collector of events, desires, and other examples of human existence. But more importantly, such things are described as moments.

Does the finding of such moments qualify as a historical view? It is, in the sense that the astronauts are not only experiencing an accumulation of events, but also in that they are performing an act of interpretation. They observe and record the war occurring below, their end result being a collection of human moments. In training their own their own powers of observation on the terrain below, the astronauts acknowledge how the surface of the Earth becomes a repository for all these human moments. The terrain below becomes a site of interpretation and analysis.

The idea of moment, taken from the title of DeLillo’s story, gives us some interpretative leverage. We are accustomed of thinking of a moment in temporal terms. A moment can be an event, an occurrence of brief duration. Yet “moment” also has a scientific definition. In physics, then, we use the term “moment” to describe rotational force. A moment is therefore a measure of the force produced by an object at a distance. This is an interesting take on the definition not only because it complicates the title of DeLillo’s short story, but also because it describes the act of narration occurring in the story. The narrators impart their own views (and lasers) onto the surface below – it is then quite possible that the “human moments” talked about in the story are a measure of the force acted upon the surface of the Earth by the astronauts aboard the military spacecraft. But “moment” also suggests circular motion. The moment could very well then describe the force of the orbit around the Earth.

Periods. Cycles. Such words describe the passage of time. They are concepts with visual analogs – the circular shapes and logics of orbits, rotations, et cetera. They are constructions in the sense that they demonstrate the assigning of words to natural concepts. Historian of science Peter Galison identifies two types of constructions, each a discontinuity coded to a specific type of practice: “To the historian, the choice of periodization (discontinuity in time) roughly parallels the cartographer’s choice of map type (discontinuity in space).” But there is a way to construct continuity, a way to undo these discontinuities implicit in periodization and cartography, but using these very same processes to arrive at a slightly different understanding of landscape. To put it another way, it is a process not unsimilar to age-old unities of time, action, and place as iterated in Aristotle’s Poetics.

Contemporary discourses in the field of landscape often mention the process of “recovering” landscape. This process of recovery usually invokes the restorative potential of criticism and history – a way of reclaiming time and space. In his introduction to Recovering Landscape (1999), James Corner considers this project of reclamation as the gathering of “memories, places, sites, ecologies, and potential futures.” On one hand, It is possible to frame the above-mentioned continuity in terms of restoring time and space. On the other hand, the above concepts – periods, orbits, cycles, rockets, and spacecraft – can yield a different understanding of the landscape below. This understanding, of course, is the point of DeLillo's quote.

But turning the camera eye in the opposite direction towards the heavens provides us with a similar experience. Al Reinert's For All Mankind (1989) features a remarkable assemblage of footage taken by NASA astronauts. The lunar landscape, as one astronaut remarks, is a ashen oasis amidst the most brilliant sunlight and the blackest void of space imaginable. Amidst this far outpost, Reinert presents us with a collection of material artifacts floating and drifting in space and on the moon. Sitting through For All Mankind's 96-minute running time, one will see ... stuff. Capsules crammed with papers, food tubes, cassette players. An astronaut dropping a hammer and feather on the surface of the moon (to prove Galileo's famous theorems). Paint chips flying away from a massive Saturn V rocket hurling into the atmosphere. Panels and bulkheads separating away from the third stage rocket. A singular glove flying away from the cockpit of a Gemini capsule. And finally, an astronaut's face peering through the clear visor of his helmet, his face taking in the rays of the sun without the protection of smoked plexiglass ... a reminder of human moments in outer space.


Jack said...

great post.

enrique said...

Thank you! I appreciate the kind thoughts.