Sterile Spaces, Synthetic Humans, and Disentanglement: High Modernism and Our Alienation From Nature, #2.
By Otto Paans
High modernism] is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. (Scott, 1998: p. 4)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. The Center Does Not Hold
3. The Deadly Danger of Playing God: Prometheus and Covenant
4. High Modernist Space: Four Aesthetic Themes
This essay will be published in three installments. This is the second.
And the first installment is HERE.
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3. The Deadly Danger of Playing God: Prometheus and Covenant
The latest movies in Ridley Scott’s Alien series (the 2012 Prometheus and 2017 Covenant) explore the problem of humankind’s ambition to play God. This theme is cinematically approached by posing the question of humanity’s origins. The central issue is that we do not know who or what made us. Are we mere cosmic coincidences, flukes that emerged from the swirling chaos of nature? This question and the accompanying story of alien species and sci-fi action is set off by an aesthetic that is worth analyzing, because it tells us much about one aspect of high modernity, albeit in an exaggerated, dramatized form: it concerns the price of technological control and its diametric opposite, namely the vulnerability of that this progress harbors. Seen from this angle, Scott performs a psychoanalytic reading of the high modernist mindset, and what emerges again is the tension that we encountered in Friedrich’s Wanderer, but this time supercharged and lethal.
Both movies start with an expedition from Earth into space: Prometheus starts from the premise that mankind has found the origin-planet of its creators; Covenant starts with a space vessel that is on route to the distant and promising colony Origae-6. The choice itself is already interesting: the spacecrafts present the hypermodernist answer to hostile outer space. The architecture of the vessels confirms this: inside, we see an ultra-high-tech, sterile, tightly-structured, and functional world, governed by routines, an artificial climate, checks-and-controls, and full-scale high modernist functionality; outside this cocoon looms an uninhabitable, hostile, unpredictable void that is undoubtedly deadly.
Yet, apart from the voyage-centered main theme, Covenant also features a prologue that represents hypermodernity at its very best: the inventor of an artificial human breed (“synthetics”), Peter Weyland, is depicted in his villa, overlooking a desert environment. Together with his most advanced creation, he ponders the future. The architectural space itself is eerily reminiscent of Ban’s House Without Walls. Its spatial orientation is utterly horizontal, offering an unimpeded view of the landscape outside. Yet, its glass curtain wall prevents the outside from physically coming in. It is a mere visual spectacle. No breeze is felt here, nor is rain. Even the light of the space is eerie: it is indirect, yet clearly artificial. It pretends not to be there, but nevertheless, it influences everything.
More than anything, this space is spotless. It is uniformly white — the anti-color of purity. Its whiteness reduces everything within it to a self-contained object, and almost to a disturbance of the generically eternal order. It is a touch of genius that Scott has a selection of artworks included in the scene: two exemplars of Carlo Bugatti’s Throne Chair; a 1470 painting titled The Nativity by Piero della Francesca; the David by Michelangelo; and a Steinway grand piano. When the Synthetic in the scene is asked by his creator what his name is, he walks up to the David statue and answers “David.” Just as Michelangelo’s David physically represents and celebrates the perfect proportions of the human body, so too is the Synthetic perfect in all the ways that humans are not. This point is painfully hammered home in the following dialogue:
Synthetic: “You created me. Who created you?”
Weyland: “The question of the ages. Which I hope you and I will answer one day. All this…all these wonders of art, design, human ingenuity…all utterly meaningless in the face of the only question that matters.”
Synthetic: “You seek your creator. I am looking at mine. I will serve you. Yet you are human. You will die. I will not.”
Weyland: (curt) “Bring me the tea, David.”
Perfection is but a small comfort in the face of finitude. Tellingly, philosophers like Alain Badiou equate ontology with mathematics, and apply this formula: it is mathematically describable, so it must be fulfilling (Badiou, 1988, 2006). But the Synthetic painfully reminds Weyland that he, the Synthetic, is perfect in the unachievable manner that Michelangelo’s David is: such perfection cannot be endured for long, as it not a representation of actual life, but of a static order.
In the background of this tense conversation, this philosophical issue lurks as an unspoken curse: humanity cannot come to terms with what is, in all its suchness. In a fine critique of Badiou’s treatment of mathematics (notably, set theory) as ontology, Roger Scruton remarks that:
[Badiou] sees set theory as ontology, the science that tells us what ultimately exists. But … set theory does not presuppose the existence of anything. It deals only in sets, and all the sets required by arithmetic — all the numbers — can be constructed from φ, the empty set, the set of all things that are not identical with themselves.
Since we can construct mathematics from no ontological assumptions, it would be natural to conclude that it is not mathematics but physics, say, which tells us what ultimately exists. But no, that is not Badiou’s conclusion. Since mathematics is ontology, he argues, we can conclude that the world consists in multiplicity and the void. (Scruton, 2019: pp. 245–246)
No matter how perfect and ideal mathematical representations are, they are only instruments for describing a reality that fundamentally exists outside them. Glorifying them as the basis of reality amounts to preferring abstraction over reality; ideality over corporality; and calculation over materiality. But when the inherently corporeal and material questions of origin and real existence present themselves, then abstractions provide no comfort and no answer. Even worse, every attempt to answer an existential question with a recourse to formal logic and mathematics only further aggravates the feeling that we are merely scratching the surface of Being.
The artworks in the scene, the unapproachable, mute nature outside, the Synthetic, and the grand ideas: they all outlive the individual human being. Nature has not gifted humans with immortality. The tension between finitude and eternal potential to create gives the entire scene — indeed, the entire architectural space — a strangely awkward atmosphere. Michelangelo’s David almost comes across as threatening. In its massive materiality, its perfect proportions and its anthropomorphic presence, it functions as an anchor-point for human understanding. At the same time, it functions as a reminder: long after its creator had died, it still endures. More than anything, its durability and timeless quality form a static and imposing background for the individual human, whose flame flickers out and whose name is heard no more.
Apart from the similarities between the Covenant prologue and the spatial layout of Ban’s building, there is also a difference. Ban’s House was premised on the ideal of the “universal floor” — that is, the multipurpose horizontal architectural plane on which a variety of functions can take place. Or, in Ban’s own words:
2/5 House and Wall-less House were responses to Mies’ “universal space” — the idea of a fluid space beneath a large continuous roof supported by furniture-like cores and shaped by partitions. “Universal space” may seem quite amorphous or uncontrolled at first glance, but in fact it is composed with carefully positioned cores, partitions and perfectly arranged furniture to create precise yet invisible spatial domains.
By contrast, the size, continuity and quality of traditional Japanese space can be changed by means of the fusuma, shoji, or reed blinds depending on the season or occasion. With or without a roof, the interior and exterior spaces are continuous and the intermediate domain shifts. I call this arrangement the “universal floor,” and the 2/5 House, Wall-less House, and 9 Square Grid House were attempts to realise this arrangement with contemporary materials and methods for everyday life.(Ban, 2003: p. 149)
This is a recurrent theme in high modernist architecture: the emptiness of the space is supposed to invite a certain openness of action.[i] Nevertheless, the ideal of a connection with nature is tangible in Ban’s work, even if it is framed in a modernist conceptual framework. However, in the staging depicted in Covenant, the distance between the “space of Man” and nature has increased tenfold. In hypermodernity, nature exists as a mute background, in a visual format or otherwise.
Likewise, Ban’s description in the quotation above closely resembles the positioning of art objects in the otherwise amorphous space in Covenant’s prologue scene. The “cores” that create precise spatial domains are cues or invitations to interaction. However, one could question how open such invitations actually are. The invitation is maybe not so much an encouragement as an instruction to use (or leave) the space. After all, the modern, white museum instructs the visitor to enjoy art, but carefully sets the terms for doing so. Correspondingly, the spaces of high modernity are instructivist — they command with an almost military certainty and demand. This principle applies when they do so in a self-conscious manner (as the ostentatiously white art museums do), or they may operate more discreetly, nudging and directing a multitude of everyday patterns of behavior with breathtaking precision and efficacy.
Like Prometheus, Covenant features the story of a spaceship that is lured to a planet that could be a potential colony. However, the local life forms attack the exploring crew members, jeopardizing the entire expedition. The few crew members that survive encounter another Synthetic named “Walter” who is stranded on the planet’s surface. Walter turns out to be the Synthetic that was aboard the Prometheus. And here, the very agency of intelligence is the source of cosmic horror. Walter detests the fact that he may serve but is not allowed to create. He is relegated to a subservient role for humans that he regards as inferior. Another way of putting this point is that Walter realizes that is being used as mere instrument by those who claim the liberty to create exclusively for themselves.
In Covenant, the depiction of nature again captures the attention: not unlike the Scandinavian landscape, the planet on which the crew finds themselves is lush, yet raw and dangerous. Nature is present as a continuous threat, a goddess that may erupt in fury at any moment. The hypermodern spaceship used for descending to the planet’s surface provides the only barrier between the comforts and semblance of control offered by civilization, and the raw, overwhelming power of nature. When, during an expedition, alien life forms begin to attack the crew members, and indirectly cause the destruction of the spacecraft, we experience W. B. Yeats’s dictum that “the center does not hold” in its full, traumatic force. All of a sudden, the expedition members are without a center that anchors them to their high modernist achievements. The raw force of nature cannot be stopped by sequences of definite functions and advanced technology, it seems.
Even prior to the scenes in which the crew members are stranded on the planet, we encounter the idea of nature as a representation in another version, in a sub-theme of the storyline. By means of a tragic accident on the spacecraft, one of the high-ranking crew members loses her husband. While mourning him, she opens the tablet on which he sketched out a future dream for them both: to grow old together in a self-made wooden cabin on the side of lake. In an accompanying movie shot with a handheld device, he exclaims that he loves her while he is mountaineering.
The camera sweeps over the rough landscape, revealing jagged peaks and the play of the howling wind. Nature in full force — but again caught on a screen, as a harmless digital representation. Throughout the movie, nature-as-such emerges in a number of guises: as the lurking, unpredictable alien life forms nearby; as an idyllic, faraway dream; and as a digital spectacle on a screen. In all these cases, the undercurrent is broadly Romantic. Nature is depicted as a source of equal fascination and dread; and at the same time — in its idyllic form — as an ideal. Even though the alien life forms are a futuristic element, they nevertheless fulfil the role of the demonic that the Romantics played with: the water nymphs, the goblins, and the unsettling figures of the vampire and the undead. All these represent aspects of nature that cannot be controlled, understood, or tampered with. And if the hapless human encounters such entities, the results are often fatal.
In the traumatic figure of the Synthetic, however, the neat distinction between high modernist spaces and raw nature is blurred. The resulting fusion is not a solution, but instead it brings only more trouble. Not coincidentally the appearance of Walter is bound up with a fourth appearance of nature: the ruin of civilization and its associated material culture. In the scene in which Walter rescues the crew members, he guides them to a ruined city. We learn that Walter found out that humanity’s creators, the Engineers, lived here. In a grandiose gesture, Walter destroys the entire city using a biological weapon that the Engineers left behind.
The Engineer’s creation turned itself against them in an act of willful defiance, or — as Walter might have thought — creation. Amidst the ruins, the crew members slowly realize that Walters intentions are questionable to say the least, since he turns out to have little love for humanity. The depiction of the ruined city is chilling and highly reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting, Monastery Graveyard Under Snow. Like Friedrich’s monastery, the ruined city shows us how nature gradually but inevitably eats away at civilization if it is not continuously maintained. The former grandeur of the city can be grasped dimly, but it is clear that it will succumb to nature in the course of time. This insecurity marks high modernity through and through. If humanity is not there to sustain civilization, then…. So, nature in its threatening guise is re-invoked.
Again, it is a Romantic literary masterpiece that drives the plot, but this time, it is a section of Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, approvingly quoted by Walter:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Shelley, 1818)
The ruined city is indeed a “colossal Wreck,” but above all it is a Friedrich-style ruin: it expresses the relentless work of the forces of nature on civilization. If anything, the ruined city hammers the point home that humanity is finite and insignificant in the greater scheme of things. When all is said and done, human civilization is as mortal as we are individually.
In a gesture that is as grandiose as it is futile, high modernity conceived of alternative spaces — heterotopias in Foucault’s sense of the word — that would negate the encroaching and intimidating power of nature in a bid to circumvent mortality and finitude. In that sense, the opening scene of Covenant captures the dilemma perfectly: humanity cannot cope with its limited existence and is prepared to do anything to avoid death. Modernity’s heterotopias promise another form of being. Technology serves to cheat death, to cheat our finitude by means of mechanical tricks. The figure of the “posthuman” or “transhuman” is the most recent incarnation of this fantasy: a quasi-human creature that’s released from human mortality and from the pressing burden of its impending end. The Synthetics represent just this technological solution. But instead of being a success, they turn out to be a disaster: in the mirror image of the Synthetic — no matter how anthropomorphic — finitude and mortality do not disappear. On the contrary, they are re-emphasized and hammered even more painfully home for the human onlooker.
The very perfection of technology highlights the shortcomings of the organic human body with its propensity to inevitable degeneration and decay. In the face of this predicament, the very spaces constructed by high modernity serve as an ideological counterweight to our finitude, a pure environment cleansed of the traces of real nature, in which we live, and move, and have our being — and then die.
So the high modernist grudge is once again that nature has forsaken us, and that our own, organic bodies are testimonies to her treacherous ways. The remedy is technology, and if that technology can be derived from nature itself, that is even better. For example, recent developments in organoid technology and the program of “organoid intelligence” (OI) are driven by an essentially high modernist impetus: the control and mastery of nature by means of technology, and in this case, digital technology (Smirnova et al., 2023). The trouble here, however, is the brute dual fact (i) that “intelligence” in the sense in which we’re intelligent, is necessarily organismic, not mechanical, and (ii) that the history of human cruelty, oppression, violence, murder, torture, and warfare amply demonstrates that, by and large, we are spectacularly unable to use our intelligence successfully for the benefit of humankind. A perfect example is the invention of the atomic bomb. Therefore — unless of course we simply refuse to pursue the OI program — in all likelihood, it will be no exception to the all-too-human propensity for using our intelligence to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (Hanna, 2023; Kinderlerler, 2023).
[i] I’ve discussed the similar case of Plein, 1953, in the neighborhood of Pendrecht, Rotterdam, NL, in (Paans, 2019).
[ii] Shelley’s Ozymandias was published in 1818, the same year as the creation of Friedrich’s Monastery.
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