Monday, June 11, 2012

Realms: Space

Asking, "What is space?" is like asking "What is heaven?" The information we have on the actual facts of space are just fragments of facts. Those fragments come down to most of us through institutions that debate the validity and meaning of data in order transform it into some sort of understandable abstraction. It's not even like those fragments make us nod in enlightenment, it makes us want to know more, to want to go and see it for ourselves. All we know about Space are just slivers of the infinite unknown.

That Pale Blue Dot

The American obsession with space was conceived during the enlightenment,  developed with manifest destiny, and matured during the Space Race. Due to the cancellation of several NASA programs, space has morphed into this higher realm. It's important to understand that our Space does not mean the same thing to us as it did several decades ago. Space was not always idealized and it defiantly was not Romanticized as much as it is now. Our previous experiences with it, however, does inform our views on it today.

  1. The enlightenment promoted reason, fact-based approach to our world. The American forefathers, who fought for America's basic ideals, were deists; they did not believe in a God who influenced our daily lives and they believed in scientific facts. Therefore, the space above our heads is not filled with angels or pearly gates, and God does not look down from there at you. 
  2. Our manifest destiny as Americans is to explore the unknown. Since we're built on enlightenment principles, we explore not just for capital gains, but scientific discovery. That's why the government sent Lewis and Clark to explore, not trading companies. The government goes beyond the profits.
  3. The Space Race directly used manifest destiny as a excuse to carry the cold war to space. It was America's right to explore the unknown, not Soviet Russia's. It also gave scientists access to government funding (which was just about inexhaustible).
  4. After the end of the cold war, the threat of being out-smarted waned and American ideals have changed (more on this in the future, its a whole new animal). NASA's budget is a fraction of what it was, and their directive has been completely changed. Essentially, the death of public space exploration.  
The privatization of space exploration means: space is no longer just a source for scientific discovery, space is no longer accessible to everyone, space no longer has a face/identity here on Earth. In a sense, it's more unreal than it ever was because we know so little about it but know that it has so much potential. Space is the new 'great unknown', the place beyond life that holds all the answers, where everything has reason as well as mystery, where everything and nothing exists all at once.

Because space holds this heavenly perception in our minds, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly it is for two reasons. First, American perception of space is currently in flux; we haven't quite redefined it. Second, since it is a heaven/higher realm it's not exactly a place of conflict, and therefore doesn't show up in movies or television. (Note: Foreign planets are not space. i.e. Prometheus did not take place in space at all, but rather in "the west" of another planet) I've found space, or rather references to space, mostly in short narratives (songs and commercials), parts of movies or television shows, and of course documentaries.

Symphony of Science arranges science show clips and autotunes them to make beautiful, catchy songs. Onward to the Edge captures the idea of space so perfectly. The song bases itself on the hard facts of science, but elaborates it with idealism of Neil Degrasse-Tyson. It conveys our romantic idea of space travel as a higher, divine mission not just for power but understanding. Particularly, this song/the lecture acknowledges a limit of human potential. They still believe on pushing past that point, but what will that mean for those who reach beyond the edge? What will they become and will they return?
"When I reach for the edge of the Universe, I do so knowing that along some paths of cosmic discovery, that there are times ... one must be content to love the questions themselves." 

This is not the best commercial, but it illustrates how ad agencies can use space to sell you products, rather than a spaceship. The over-voice' rhetoric has carefully been chosen to align with Almighty: "Inspiration in the details," "a light that welcomes,"  artificial/divine "intelligence," "illuminating the world around you." Even the car's name, "Infiniti," implies it comes from an endless expanse. The visuals obviously show that the car is space (rather than space ship) through the fade out of stars and the moon. Most interestingly, the car drives around a curve, almost nodding toward the city, but leaves it behind in the dark to return to the beyond it came from. This lack of people implies anyone can own the car, and drive off into the unknown.

We'll end on a awesome tone:
WALL-E (2008), and perhaps all of Pixar's films, has some of the best examples of New American Mythology. This scene has the two main characters in space without any sort of protective gear; they are completely in space. As you can see, the robots 'dance' around in complete bliss and happiness. EVE does not fail her purpose life and WALL-E has finally found his.  One of the humans, now awakened to the awe of the universe, stares out at the space in wonder. In her excitement she bumps into one of her fellow travelers and enlightens him as well. The captain researches his cultural background, excited in wonder at simple knowledge. Complete and uncomplicated Love, of course, facilitated all these wondrous revelations in space.

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