Sunday, July 22, 2007

Without Us


Philosophy’s fantasy that science could ever expose to vision the natural world as it would exist without the viewer is something that critical theory has learned to analyze as egotism and aggression. While the fantasy is contradictory, and often egotistical, it’s also about something more sympathetic, an imaginative effort to set in perspective what now goes under the name of human value. Benjamin’s saying that one would have to walk forward all the way around the world in order to gain it as it once was, belongs to this line of thought, as does Kant’s mental exercise of trying and failing to conceive a noumenal world as a way of realizing, in effect seeing for the first time, the one that has been given as appearance to human beings. Werner Herzog’s Wild Blue Yonder (2005) is a reading of German philosophy on this theme. The contradictory impossibility of the fantasy is emphasized since the film is narrated by Brad Dourif, who claims to be a strung-out alien from Alpha Centauri. He explains that Alpha Centaurians were forced to leave their planet and come to earth because of an environmental crisis. This journey is impossible because the time it takes to cover the distance dwarfs any conception of species. A group that set out for earth so that its descendants could settle there would be inbred beyond madness and recognizability by the time it arrived (he, the supposed product of the madness, says—Brad Dourif, in ordinary aspect). Most of the film consists of long, slow, silent, deep underwater shots that putatively represent a liquid helium environment on Alpha Centauri. Meanwhile, back in the narrative, human beings are beginning to explore deep space for their own colonization project. Although the Alpha Centaurian project is unsuccessful, the human astronauts, discovering an exception to the exigency of travel time, are able to return to Earth, and find that while they’ve been gone everyone has left to live somewhere nearby (Mars or the moon, I don’t remember) and now use the earth only as a vacation ground and nature preserve. The last shots of the film are of this green Earth of only plants and animals, and they are euphoric. The megalomania here can be related to Herzog’s other cinematic fantasies of demented heroism and excitement at disaster, as well as to an interpretation of German philosophy in which Brad Dourif meets the Kantian limitations of space and time. What’s moving is the little displacement at the end of the film, in which we’re told that human beings have only “gone away.” We know that human beings would more likely have perished than migrated. What the film manages to capture, at the price of suppressing that idea, is how good that would be for everything else—what an image of happiness from every perspective but the human one. (Meaning, in practice, the animal perspective, as well as that of anyone in Brad Dourif’s position.) The unsayable secret of the “world without us” fantasy is that if one were given the chance painlessly to vaporize all human existence with the touch of a button, leaving everything else unharmed, it would be difficult ethically not to push the button. One thing you can say for human beings, on some level we know that, and only wish we could be around to witness (what would be for us) the beauty that will follow once we’re gone.

Image: Wild Blue Yonder, 2005

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