The Satellite Collections
Eugene Cernan, an astronaut describing the moment of seeing Earth from space for the first time, is reported to have said: “You can see from pole to pole and across oceans and continents and you can watch it turn and there’s no strings holding it up, and it’s moving in a blackness that is almost beyond conception.”
The “strings” that he half-expected to find, or rather the lack thereof, would have been difficult to see from any other perspective than his, the same way it is difficult to palpate the precariousness of something unless it’s against the backdrop of nothing or juxtaposed against the possibility of its nonexistence. For example, people are often unable to grasp the full weight of their lives until just before dying. Otherwise we live from day to day in a routinely contextualized existence. We’re held up by strings, and so is our world.
But the view of something from the perspective of nothing, of life from the perspective of death, is often shatteringly vivid, revealing both the beauty and precariousness of the object in view. Life is short, and the world is small, but in this moment, we see more detail in both than we perhaps ever could or had cared to. What we see may resemble nothing of the world we thought we knew.
In 1790, a man named Xavier de Maistre was put under house arrest for six days for his involvement in a duel. During those six days he wrote Journey Around My Bedroom, which chronicles his expedition around, through, and across the room:
“My room is situated in latitude 48° east, according to the measurement of father Beccaria. It lies east and west, and, if you keep very close to the wall, forms a parallelogram of thirty-six steps round. My journey will, however, be longer than this; for I shall traverse my room up and down and across, without rule or plan. I shall even zig-zag about, following, if needs be, every possible geometrical line.”
Centuries later, Robert Smithson noted that “a crack in the wall, if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. Size determines an object, but scale determines art.”
Changes in scale can unlock infinite possibilities in the very same subject matter. From the perspective of a satellite or a microscope, those elements of our environment which we took the most for granted suddenly appear fantastical, outlandish. A shift either way forces us to reexamine the object; we might observe a stadium the same way we would a rare beetle, while an electron microscope turns skin into a lunar landscape. A room may become the universe. For a person with a deadly virus, life itself hangs in the balance of things too small to see. To slip between and across scales is to make the somewhat terrifying observation that one thing can be hugely meaningful and totally arbitrary, beautiful and ugly, etc., at the very same time-- in essence, that no thing has a fixed meaning and that our observations are never finished.
shift / ruptureIn the 2011 film Exchange by Eran Kolirin, the protagonist, a PhD student whose life consists of a rather pedestrian routine, experiences a subtle but completely fundamental shift due to almost nothing at all. He realizes that he’s forgotten something at home and returns to his apartment in the middle of the day, only to find his apartment strangely unfamiliar. (We have all had this experience-- having come upon something quite familiar from a slightly different angle, in a barely different shade of light or time of day, or arriving at the same destination via an unusual route.) In the next room he sees his girlfriend taking a nap, unaware of his presence. He looks at her like she is a stranger, visibly unsettled by the idea that she continues to exist when he’s not there. Taking a seat on his couch carefully, like a guest, he examines a paperweight on his coffee table as though it were a rock from outer space. Then, ever so slowly and with total fascination, he pushes it across the table until it falls with a thud onto the carpet.
The rest of the film sees him going deeper and deeper into minute explorations of the most banal, overfamiliar places – the bus he takes every day, the parking lot of his building, the elevator – appearing increasingly mad to other characters. But it’s worth remembering that we were, in fact, born this way . Any world-weary commuter taking a train or subway onto which a class of small children has suddenly erupted, pressing their faces against the windows in awe and screaming with delight every time the train makes a small turn, momentarily experiences a rupture in the layers of familiarity into which we have settled. For us, faced with the task of getting through day-to-day life, there are only so many things we can really look at. The train does not usually make it onto that list.
If there are things we are not seeing, if there are parts of experience that we abbreviate, the question then is not only what we’re missing (in terms of curiosity), but what’s at stake in this abbreviation. There is, firstly, the information we are missing. But perhaps more important is what it would mean to look without knowing, without preconception.
A visual example: when you look at a wall, your eye takes several points on the wall, which it perceives to be flat and continuous, and extrapolates the rest. If you draw a line and hold it up so that part of the line is in your natural blind spot, the line will appear continuous even through the blind spot. But if you draw something – a star, a blob – on that line, and move it so that it’s in your blind spot, the line will still appear continuous with nothing breaking the line. Missing information about what was in the blind spot, your eye made the logical conclusion that since there is a line on both sides, the line probably continues through the blind spot. And this is what you see.
Our blind spots, both literal and figurative, are a matter of survival; they are a way of processing information. But there are moments when we should be curious as to what it is that’s been filtered away. And we should also be wary of larger blind spots, as when assumption becomes a way of forgetting to consider the world. Observation is work and we are often lazy. What stands to be seen, though, could be not only interesting but life-saving.
What would it be like to perceive without assumption, without extrapolation– to look into the blind spot? William Blake ventures this: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to be as it is, infinite.”
world of things...because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things, and things would be a heap of unrelated articles, a non-world, if they were not the conditioners of human existence.
The satellite view of earth is unique in that it allows us to see our once-familiar environment from an utterly inhuman point of view. In a human day-to-day context, elements of our environment – swimming pools, baseball fields, airplanes – are simply what they are and have always been. But as with any change in angle or scale, the satellite view invites us to reconsider and look at them more carefully. In this case we can begin to see how specific they are, how intricate, how molded to the way we have come to exist. Tangles of water slides are carefully engineered for the sole purpose of entertainment. Spindly transmission towers conquer entire mountain ranges just so we can turn on the lights. And sprawling landfills, out of sight from the ground, appear like gray amoebas in whose indistinct mass lie the millions of individual things thrown away by someone, somewhere.
It seems that it’s only from up here, from an extra-human perspective, that our own humanness becomes readable as such (where buildings are human structures built for human reasons). But it’s not impossible, once having seen the specificity and the fragility of our world from a distance, to keep some of that salutary alienation in our view even on the ground. If we have the will and the stamina to keep from sliding back into habitual ways of (not) seeing – back into a world held up by invisible strings – then this fantastic, specific, bizarre world is always available to us.
All of this is to suggest an extra-habitual way of looking: a slower, more intrepid way that takes nothing for granted. This way of seeing has real consequences for the present and future.
Speaking about “dialectical images,” Walter Benjamin gave the example of the image of a bomber plane superimposed on da Vinci’s drawing of a flying machine – which da Vinci (heartbreakingly in retrospect) envisioned using “in order to look for snow on the mountain summits, and then return to scatter it over city streets shimmering with the heat of summer.” Such a superimposition shows simultaneously the origins of the plane in da Vinci’s utopian dream and its eventual weaponized outcome. Seeing both at the same time reflects the ways in which history is not linear, with each moment existing in a field of possibilities, and furthermore how those often utopian possibilities were betrayed over time and in the present. Things are not the way they are because they “had to” turn out this way, just as time is not a plodding series of pre-determined events but rather a collection of present moments each existing at the center of an infinity of potential directions. At all times, everything was possible.
And it still is. Benjamin hoped the recognition of utopian potentials at all points in the past could directly awaken us to the utopian potential of the present. “As flowers turn toward the sun,” he wrote, “by dint of a secret heliotropism the past tries to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history.” In other words, to reopen the field of possibility in the past is to reopen that same field in the future. This is why it matters to really look. Casting aside our habitual ways of seeing and fixing meaning, freshly oriented toward things so familiar we have forgotten to look at them, we can just begin to see it: all of the things the world has not become and, most importantly, all of the things it could become.