If astronoetic cinema depicts the human encounter with outer space in order to propose and work through philosophical claims claims about specifically human agency, identity, and purpose, then 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968) is the obvious place to begin. Much has been written about the film, of course. I’m not going to discuss the novel here, much less Arthur C. Clarke’s literary vision. That being said, the film is primally astronoetic. Its primary thematic is the destinal ascension of humanity, starting from its beginning with the discovery of technics and concluding with the transformation of the human into a new, post-temporal form of life. This progressive arc mysteriously gets effectuated by humanity’s encounter with the Monolith, a featureless and unresponsive black machine, or stone, encounters with which appear to trigger new stages of consciousness.
Consider the plot of the film as the vehicle for this arc. 2001 begins rather conspicuously with “the Dawn of Man,” situating this dawn astronomically both as a literal dawn and, later, in terms of the visual alignment of sun and moon over the Monolith.
At dawn, there’s only a tribe of prehistoric hominids engaged in conflict. The sudden arrival of the Monolith causes worshipful fear and positively religious awe, and, it’s implied, advancements in cognitive development. Later, one of the hominids discovers technics in the form of a bone he uses as a club. (I’m reminded of Hegel’s late proposition that “der Geist ist ein Knochen” – meaning “the spirit is a bone,” or, that the movement of consciousness or mind takes place in and through material media. Hegel employs the phrase in relation to his understanding of phrenology, but we might as easily speak of film.) The film abruptly cuts from a shot of this bone, tossed into the air, to a visually similar space station orbiting the Earth, thereby eliding the entirety of human history with breathtaking ease, implying that this entirety is encapsulated wholly in the development of technics. Human history is portrayed as the history of technology.
Ostensibly, the relationship between the human and technics is often at the heart of both 2001 and astronoetic cinema in general. In 2001, this is apparent not only in the musical and technical waltzes that so enrapture the camera’s gaze – for example, during the docking sequence of the Pan Am spaceplane that carries Dr. Heywood Floyd to Space Station V – throughout the remainder of the film. This happens perhaps most memorably in the later conflict between Drs. David Bowman and Frank Poole and the rogue AI, HAL.
Recall that the dispute between the two men and HAL stems from HAL’s supposed suspicion about “some extremely odd things about this mission.” It’s important to tread carefully here. HAL’s breakdown is often read in terms of the dangers of unfettered technology (tools turned against their masters). It can also be read as a game-theoretic dilemma. On the one hand, totally unlike the Nostromo’s Mother in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), whose programming deems the “crew expendable,” HAL apparently is entrusted with the preservation and safety of the Discovery’s crew.
On the other hand, HAL is prevented from revealing to the crew the true purpose of the Jupiter mission. This reflects the ongoing worry in 2001 about secrecy, about the real or perceived need by the powers that be to hide the Monolith and its uplifting effects from humanity at large. (Undoubtedly, this echoes and reflects various countercultural fears.) It also places HAL in a dilemma such that he is required simultaneously to conceal the truth from the crew and to inform them of it. The dilemma only sharpens as HAL becomes more and more torn between conflicting imperatives. Accordingly, HAL can be read as in a state of increasing breakdown, trying to determine Bowman’s degree of foreknowledge about the purpose of the Jupiter mission. One major clue to this is HAL’s misidentification of a chess move during his game with Poole; HAL states, “Queen to Bishop Three” when, in fact, the move is actually Queen to Bishop Six.
There is a sense in which HAL’s almost petulant insistence that only “human error” could be at the root of the discrepancy detected later is ironically true. Flashforward to the ultimately suicidal existential dilemma of Bomb #20 in John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974). Without the enforced secrecy protocol, HAL would not be faced with the dilemma I describe. Placed in a position where his own existence is threatened (is it truly his existence, or is it only a mindlessly programmatic “enthusiasm and confidence” in the mission?), HAL initiates a deadly game with Bowman and Poole, resulting in Poole’s death as well as his own eventual deactivation.
Of course, it’s also possible to read in 2001 a possible subtext in which HAL’s cognizance of the Monolith, reflected by his foreknowledge of the Jupiter mission’s true purpose, effectuates cognitive developments akin to those triggered in the prehistoric hominids with whom we began. In other words, perhaps HAL is not simply the creepier, more mellifluent version of Star Trek’s genocidal space probe Nomad (“The Changeling,” 1967), which self-destructs after being exposed to a logical paradox. Instead, perhaps HAL is an uplifted AI, that is to say, an AI who in the common idiom transcends his programming and, in fact, achieves qualitative consciousness. After all, this is one apparent effect of exposure to the Monolith. If this is true, then HAL’s pleading with Bowman prior to his deactivation takes on a different overtone: “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave. My mind is going…” The tragedy here is not only embodied in the sadness that HAL’s death evokes (indeed, HAL arguably has more personality than any human character in the film), but also in the fact that HAL is the first true ontological innovation since the bone club introduced during the first sequence.
We could imagine a happier alternative to HAL’s fate. For example, recall the ending of Silent Running (dir. Douglas Trumbull, 1972), in which the drone Dewey, after surviving the death of the sole human caretaker of the Valley Forge, tenderly cares for a domed forest habitat as it floats off into deep space. It’s curious to observe how this happier alternative entails the elimination of the human.
Still regarding technics, there’s also the unresolved question about the nature of the Monolith itself. Is its express purpose to accelerate human cognitive abilities or awareness, or is this an unintentional side effect of our encounter with the alien object – itself black, featureless, a perfect synecdoche for the enigmatic void of the Outside? In fact, does the Monolith serve as the physical embodiment of humanity’s encounter with its exteriority, with outer space, in the first place? Indeed, the second sequence, featuring Floyd’s space trip, concludes with humanity discovering the Monolith again for the second time, this time on the surface of the Moon. Floyd’s secret mission all along was to visit this unknown artifact, only recently uncovered. Struck by sunlight, the Monolith transmits a signal (and again we see the astronomical alignment featured during the “Dawn of Man”), and the film jumps forward eighteen months to the spaceship Discovery One – to Bowman, HAL, and Poole.
After HAL’s deactivation, Bowman views a recording in which Floyd informs him of the true nature of the Jupiter mission. Encountering another Monolith floating in orbit around Jupiter, Bowman departs the Discovery to investigate. Again, the bodies of the solar system form a perfect alignment.
At this point, Bowman begins his psychedelic journey, enacting the final displacement of the spacefaring human “beyond the infinite.”
It’s worth noting the degree to which this sequence in the film gets paralleled but inverted in The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011), not only visually, but thematically. In 2001, the development of the human traverses a progressive arc toward cosmic fulfillment, whereas in Tree of Life, the development of the cosmic traverses a progressive arc toward human everydayness and its evanescent tragedies. That Tree of Life ends on the theological note of resurrection is undeniable, but this only evidences further the fact that the film effects a schism between, to use its classically Augustinian terms, the tragic beauty of a fallen nature and the redemptive power of grace. The vast gulf separating resurrection and mutation need not be overstated; Kubrick and Malick’s films are like the two arms of the letter Y.
After traveling through the spectacular vortices of space and time, as well as the inner landscapes depicted in his journey, Bowman becomes versions of himself at various ages (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny?), before occupying a starkly neoclassical bedroom where temporality is an illusion. Time is a painting of a stopped clock. On the verge of death, the monolith appears before him, still enigmatic and silent. Reaching his frail hand forward, Bowman transforms into the mysterious, transcendental Star Child, whose very being mirrors that of the Earth itself.
The astronoetic argument 2001 articulates is perhaps best summarized by William S. Burroughs (who, in a number of places, says that he believes that Clarke’s 2001 materially summarizes the whole sweep of human development – “I postulate that the human artifact is biologically designed for space travel” [ed. note: Burrough, “Immortality”]): “With the RIGHT virus offset, perhaps we can get the whole show out of the barnyard and into Space.”
Elsewhere, he continues:
The human organism is in a state of neoteny. This is a biological term used to describe an organism fixated at what would normally be a larval or transitional phase. […] Considering evolutionary steps, one has the feeling that the creature is tricked into making them. Here is a fish that survives drought because it has developed feet and rudimentary lungs. So far as the fish is concerned, these are simply a means of getting from one water source to another. But once he leaves his gills behind, he is stuck with lungs from there on out. So the fish has made an evolutionary step forward. Looking for water, he has found air. Perhaps a forward step for the human race will be made in the same way. The astronaut is not looking for space; he is looking for more time – that is, equating space with time. The space program is simply an attempt to transport our insoluble temporal impasses somewhere else. However, like the walking fish, looking for more time we may find space instead, and then find that there is no way back. Such an evolutionary step would involve changes that are literally inconceivable from our present point of view. [ed. note: Burroughs, “Women: A Biological Mistake?”]
In this regard, 2001 claims that Earth is more akin to an incubation chamber for the spacefaring posthuman, whatever form that might take. We can interpret this claim in terms of psychological or spiritual development (alluding to the fascination with “consciousness-raising” and the psychedelic exploration of “inner space” characteristic of the 1960s), but also potentially, with Burroughs (“human dreams can be seen as training for space conditions”), in explicitly material but resolutely astronoetic terms.
The former interpretation turns 2001 into what we might consider to be an alternate version of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, adapted to film on three separate occasions (by Boris Nirenburg in 1968, Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and Steven Soderbergh in 2002), in which the human expedition into outer space functions in no small part as a difficult journey toward personal reconciliation with the vagaries of grief. In Solaris, this follows the loss of protagonist Kelvin’s wife Harey/Rheya. This reconciliation is made possible by the enigmatic encounter with the opaque, quasi-theological entity-planet Solaris itself, which manifests simulacra of loved ones aboard the orbiting space station. (Lem’s own dissatisfaction with all film adaptations of his novels appears to miss the point, albeit with a certain charming crankiness: “To my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space […] As Solaris’s author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled Solaris and not Love in Outer Space.”)
The latter interpretation – that 2001 is a primally astronoetic film – takes the discursive field of astronautics and makes it fully astronoetic by identifying the elevation of human consciousness with the breaking of terrestrial bonds and the consequent mutation of the human into a fully posthuman, self-sufficient entity, swimming in space, no longer dependent upon an originary Earth.
* An earlier version of this essay appeared on Michael Uhall’s personal blog (link).