One of the tongue-in-cheek subtitles Walker Percy gave to his 1983 book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book went like this: “Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are beyond doubt the strangest?”
I thought of Percy while I was reading Matt Ford’s “In Defense of the Blurry Black Hole Photo.” Ford is writing, of course, about the remarkable image of a black hole released earlier this week by National Science Foundation. Doubtless you have seen the image, or at least you’ve absorbed some of the online buzz about the image in the day or two after it was unveiled.
Over the last few days, I’ve thought about the image and the varied responses to it. Initially, I was curious whether the image might arouse an interesting digital age variation on the experience of the sublime. The short answer seems to be “no, decidedly not.” Quite the opposite it seems, at least in some quarters.
Ford was not amused by the shrug-emoji level responses he began to read on social media (he was not alone). After citing a few examples, he chided, “This level of cynicism is better understood as ignorance.” Ford then mounts his defense of the image, doing his best to awaken readers from their metaphysical slumber.
“The image itself might indeed seem unimpressive,” he grants. “But,” he goes on,
“judging it as you would any other digital photograph, shorn of all context and understanding, would be shortsighted. One also has to consider the thought and labor behind its creation. The photograph might not depict the horror of galactic destruction as some expected, but it represents something even better.”
What, you ask, could be better than “the horror of galactic destruction.” What could rival the popularity, for example, of the Sweet Meteor O’Death?
In Ford’s view, the wonder of human ingenuity:
Think about it: A group of mostly hairless primates, stranded on a rock circling a nuclear spark, used radio waves to photograph an invisible sun-eater so far away that a person would have to travel for 55 million years at the speed of light to reach it. It’s hard to not feel a frisson of awe at the scale of the feat. This context is vital to fully appreciating the image itself, in the same way that the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is even more impressive when you know that Michelangelo spent three years of his adult life bent over backwards to paint it.
You can feel Ford rhetorically straining to will his readers into an experience of awe and wonder. You can also, it seems to me, feel his efforts falling flat (through no fault of his own, I’d hasten to add). In the context of social media, most forms of naive earnestness are potent anti-virals. It is telling, too, that Ford seeks to save wonder by attaching it to the labor involved rather than to the object itself (more along those lines in this account as well). I suspect that most people moved by an encounter with the Sistine Chapel, when such wonder was still psychically available, did not, in fact, have any need of conjuring up the image of Michelangelo bent over backwards painting it.
An experience of awe or an experience of the sublime, however conceived, is finally an embodied experience. You cannot think yourself into it. I can’t blame Ford for his obvious annoyance with cheeky cynicism of the responses he catalogs, but he may also be asking for too much in turn
Interestingly, toward the end of his piece, he focuses on a properly embodied experience of the night sky and the starry heavens, an experience that, thanks to electricity’s conquest of the night, is unavailable to the vast majority of Americans.
“Our ancestors,” he notes, “had it easier, at least in some ways. They may have lacked radio telescopes to peer across millions of light-years at far-flung galaxies. But they did not need them to grasp their place in the cosmos. They could simply look up at night.” He notes, quickly, certain measurable consequences of light pollution, on human sleep patterns, for example, or avian migration.
“The existential impact,” he acknowledges, “is harder to measure.” Indeed.
Ford goes on: “A blurred photo of a distant black hole can’t fill the void within. It can certainly help, though.” He speaks of the need to nourish “a sense of cosmic wonderment,” and he leaves us with the following counsel: “There’s still a beauty and awe that can be found in the universe’s stark simplicity—if you’re willing to see it.”
I’m sympathetic to Ford’s concerns. I also happen to think that matters are more complicated than what his piece suggests. For one thing, the piece lacks an awareness of the reduction, or, to put it in a less pejorative manner, the reconfiguration of meaning that already preceded and, in fact, constitutes Ford’s perspective on these matters. It also intuits but does not appear to grasp the full significance of the unfolding reconfiguration of meaning driven by the advent of digital media.
The modern world, cultural theorists tell us, has been characterized by the disenchantment of the natural world. In fact, this disenchantment was accompanied by a Romantic enchantment of the social word. Mimesis gave way to poiesis. We can see this more readily when we recognize, following Charles Taylor for example, that enchantment is a matter of meaning as much as it is a matter of magic.
Ford already speaks out of one layer of disenchantment. The kind of cosmic wonderment he wistfully invokes is already a step removed from the pre-modern, pre-Copernican experience of the cosmos: an experience of a certain at-home-ness in the comprehensible cosmos rather than a feeling of smallness and awe at the dark infinity of the universe, the latter experience being a decidedly Romantic attempt to recover a loss that it cannot quite name except by theorizing it as the sublime. Characteristically, then, this experience Ford defends is not simply given, it is something we must to some degree will ourselves to see. And it is a stark simplicity that we are meant to see.
Then there is the present reconfiguration or unraveling of meaning that is neatly encapsulated in James Poulos’s observation: digital disenchants.
Modern technology disenchanted the natural world and enchanted the social world. Meaning was no longer a feature of the world to be merely perceived and inhabited by human beings. It became a subjective reality imposed and fabricated by human beings. We necessarily became artists of the self.
Digital technology disenchants the social world and enchants the technological world. Meaning is no longer subjectively experienced. Claude Shannon’s divorce of meaning from information in digital communication is recapitulated in the human experience of digital technology; it is the founding myth that contains the truth which illuminates the world. Meaning is kicked out of the human realm and displaced onto the technological, from whence it is imposed upon us. We can no longer believe in the romantic project of self-making and self-fulfillment. Poiesis gives way to an inverted mimesis. We no longer imitate, we are the imitated, sculpted in data by algorithmically powered “intelligent” machines.
It turns out then that the image of the black hole was itself consumed by another, albeit digital, black hole whose gravitational pull threatens any enduring experience of meaning or wonder.