Astronoetic Cinema: An Introduction

Michael Uhall, “Fully Amphibian Transit Application” (digital collage, 2017)

Last year, the human race shot a car into space. Of course, it wasn’t the entirety of humanity who chose to launch the cherry red Tesla Roadster, but a showy representative of the corporate sector. Nevertheless, there’s unintended irony in this, given that we face an ecological crisis largely precipitated by carbon emissions. After all, the automobile is an icon of such emissions, at least in the developed world. How should we read this act, then? Is it intended to be a spectacular, if whimsical display of corporate power, overshadowing humanity’s first footsteps on the Moon and emblazoning the sign of capital on the cosmos? Is it a declaration of independence from the constraints and limitations of terrestrial existence, the first shot in the upwing wars? We already have garbage on the Moon – over 400,000 pounds of it, by some accounts. But cars embody something else, a certain fantasy of human autonomy and literal self-directedness. (Note here the further irony of a car’s total uselessness in outer space [ed. note: and that the electric Tesla Roadster, in form and production, continues to emulate the gas guzzler of yore].) So what does the ejection of this secular icon of modernity’s progress into the black void of the Outside reflect or telegraph about the human condition?

In this series, I explore questions like these through the medium of film. Specifically, I’m interested in how representations of the human encounter with outer space embody, propose, and work through various submerged claims about specifically human agency, identity, and purpose. Call this “astronoetics”: “astro,” from the Ancient Greek ἄστρον (ástron), meaning “celestial body” or “star,” and “noetics,” borrowed from the Ancient Greek νοητικός (noētikós), referring to that which is intelligible. As we will see, astronoetic approaches in film vary widely, ranging from messianic narcissism to cosmic pessimism. Such an approach is particularly relevant in the age of ecological crisis, in which the inadequacy of many of our traditional categories and vocabularies becomes increasingly apparent. In my view, film is a privileged medium for such considerations in part because, at least in the United States today, film remains one of the last few places where you can see a culture publically thinking about itself in philosophical terms (as another example, consider the relentless apocalypticism of post-Cold War cinema, a topic for another series, I’m sure).

Philosopher Hans Blumenberg’s posthumously published Die Vollzähligkeit der Sterne (1997, The Fullness of the Stars) introduces a novel distinction. On the one hand, there is “astronautics,” which refers both to the pursuit of knowledge of the human by extending its purview to the extraterrestrial and to technical applications of that knowledge in the form of expeditions into outer space. On the other hand, there is the discursive field Blumenberg calls “astronoetics” – that is to say, abstract and narrative considerations of the range of limitations, meanings, and possibilities that characterize the domain of astronautics and its concerns. Whenever we’re talking about astronoetics, we’re talking about a discourse that endeavors to articulate, consider, and work through the human condition by forcing the human to encounter the Outside, usually portrayed by some representation of outer space and humanity’s encounter with outer space.

As Blumenberg notes, “‘Astronoetics’ is called so not as an alternative to ‘astronautics’ – to think of instead of actually traveling somewhere. ‘Astronoetics’ also names the thoughtful consideration of whether, and if so just what sense it would make, to travel there.” Much less does Blumenberg’s distinction endeavor to characterize a distinction between practice and theory. Rather, it reflects the probably dialectical relationship between curiosity and care, both considered by him to be fundamental features of the human frame. (Refer to the relevant discussion throughout Blumenberg’s truly beautiful late collection of essays Die Sorge geht über den Fluß [1987, translated as Care Crosses the River].)

Indeed, curiosity constitutes one of Blumenberg’s primary concerns as an intellectual historian. Consider, for example, the chapter “Curiosity Is Enrolled in the Catalog of Vices” in his Die Legitimität der Neuzeit (1966, translated as The Legitimacy of the Modern Age), in which Augustine of Hippo’s classification of curiositas as an originary vice gets considered in terms of its ambiguous impact on the arc of Western epistemology. Curiosity, then – as well as its applications in technics, up to and including the dominant, manic techno-optimism that conditions much of our contemporary discourse surrounding space exploration (e.g., as escape from ecological doom or political gridlock, as fulfillment of some destinal arc of progress) – exists in tension with care. 

For Blumenberg, care takes place primarily and precisely as earthly care. The term is not without latent ecological significance, not to mention the Heideggerian overtones on full display in the original German: Sorge. After all, for the philosopher Martin Heidegger, Sorge refers to the underlying basis of our being-in-the-world. Dasein (translated into French by Henry Corbin as “réalité humaine,” or human reality) always operationalizes itself in terms of Sorge. Humans exist in the world, and navigate it, as perambulatory structures of existential care. Implicit to any particular mode of “being-in” (that is to say, any way of apportioning attention throughout one’s engagement with any kind of project whatsoever) is precisely Sorge. This gets cashed out by Heidegger in terms of specific concerns (Besorgen) and solicitude (Fürsorgen). 

Likewise, for Blumenberg, curiosity and care – translated into the historically idiomatic domains of astronautics and astronoetics, respectively – implicate and traverse each other.  

Curiosity expanded into an all-consuming technics can efface the very conditions of earthly care. Perhaps departing from the terrestrial obviates crucial features of the human condition. Recall some of the earliest lines from political theorist Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), which refer to the successful launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957: “This event, second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom […]” She adds, “Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age [...] end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?” Or, from another part of the political spectrum, consider conservative jurist Carl Schmitt’s speculations in Theorie des Partisanen (1963, translated as Theory of the Partisan) about the penetration of “cosmic spaces” opening up “new possibilities for political conquest” and contestation, to be populated by “cosmopartisans” and “cosmopirates” alike. (It’s interesting to start sketching the astropolitical imaginary here out in multiple directions. On the one hand, we have the fantasies of Schmitt’s admirer, the fascist Francis Parker Yockey, whose projection of an Aryan galactic Imperium is supposed to finalize the trajectory of Western history: “For the West has already embarked upon the greatest adventure in all history – the attempt to conquer Space – the attempt to bring the very Universe under the control of the race!” On the other hand, we have the etiolated pop anarchism of sci-fi series The Expanse (SyFy, 2015- ), in which postcolonial politics gets reworked into the melodrama of troubled relations between Earth, Mars, and the disenfranchised residents of the asteroid belt.)  

Departing from Blumenberg, I intend in this series to explore the paradigm of astronoetics in terms of its expression in cinema. I do not discuss astronautics any further – yet – although it should be noticed that we could trace a similarly weird genealogy, starting with the original films of the Moon landing, as well as the penumbra of conspiratorial contestations of this event, through films like The Right Stuff (dir. Philip Kaufman, 1983), Apollo 13 (dir. Ron Howard, 1995), Armageddon (dir. Michael Bay, 1998), Apollo 18 (dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego, 2011), and The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott, 2015).  

In posts to follow, I discuss some films that traverse the astronoetic imaginary, all of which respond to the following question: What is the relationship between the human and the Outside – between the human and the conditions of radical exteriority that frame and subtend the human condition? In other words, what do our projections of outer space tell us about ourselves? In some ways, the scope of this question is far too broad. After all, depictions of outer space are extremely common throughout the history of science-fiction. Merely depicting outer space isn’t enough to qualify as astronoetics, though – at least, I don’t think so. If the term is to have any use, it needs a much narrower scope. Characteristic of astronoetic cinema must be its explicit concern with the philosophical status of the human, specifically in relation to the enigmatic void of outer space. 

The films I have selected for an initial review, at least are as follows: 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Contact (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1997), Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014). In later posts, I turn to a special discussion of Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels, Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017), both of which have been vastly underrated.  

I have no doubt there are many other examples of astronoetics (e.g., Afrofuturism in particular comes to mind).

* An earlier version of this essay appeared on Michael Uhall’s personal blog (link).