What’s On: AA2A

Sarking

25th July – 5th August, 2016

Preview Friday 22nd July.

AA2A students Sian Wright, Mike Bruce, GAST, and Veronica Proud present their work.

mike bruce web4

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Art Talk – Elizabeth Fisher

As part of its Spring season of art talks, The Collection will welcome Elizabeth Fisher – an experienced curator, writer and editor with a specialist interest in C20th and contemporary art.

Her talk will be at 3pm, Wednesday 3rd February.  All are welcome and entry is free.

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Art Talk

As part of a programme of lectures put together by members of the Contemporary Art & Curatorial Practices Research Group, Tracy MacKenna and Edwin Janssen – curators of the current ‘Micromegas’ exhibition in the Project Space Plus Gallery – will be giving an art talk at The Collection from 3pm on Wednesday.

It is free to attend.  For more information, please visit The Collection’s website here.

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In the Abyss of the Infinitesimally Small, by Mark Dorrian

 

 IN

THE

ABYSS

OF

THE
INFINITESIMALLY
SMALL

by Mark Dorrian

In Andreas Cellarius’s mid-seventeenth-century engraving The Southern Hemisphere and Its Heavens, what appears to be a vast globe occupies the centre of the frame.1  The globe is divided symmetrically along its vertical axis by the line that is formed by the spine of the atlas into which the print is bound.  Upon the hemisphere that faces us we can make out landforms – the most prominent inscribed “TERRA AVSTRALIS INCOGNITA” – but they are largely obscured by the pattern of star constellations, below whose array of points a menagerie of zodiacal emblems is vividly rendered, crowding the sky.  It is as if, in gazing at the sheets of the atlas, we are magically transported above the stars in order to look down at a planet upon whose surface swarms a mass of creatures, including the winged horse Pegasus and the splendid sea-monster with gaping maw that occupies the middle of the print.  Within the rectangular frame of the engraving, the globe rests upon a flat surface onto which it casts a shadow.  Above, to either side, cloud-borne arrangements of putti and winged grotesques hold sheets of fabric upon which appears the title of the print.  Lower down, on either side, two groups of figures stand, evidently within a town, as if the colossal globe was physically situated within a square or piazza.  On the right, a turbaned figure points to the base of the globe, past a seated man who is taking measurements with a pair of dividers upon the surface of a much smaller sphere.  On the left hand side a group of figures busy themselves with instruments, most notably a kneeling man who gazes through a long telescope, the end of which seems almost to touch the circular perimeter of the hemisphere at which he is looking.

Jumping forward a little over 150 years, but to another engraving, we find a strikingly similar arrangement, although this time to do with the microscopic.  Again we have a figure that stands outside a circular planet-like form, holding an optical instrument that touches the rim.  The woman, bonnet instead of turban on head, has stopped looking into the eyepiece however, and now – turning toward us – grimaces with horror at what she has seen.  The caption “MONSTER SOUP” tells us that we are looking at a drop of magnified water as it is supplied by the London Water Companies, to whom the print is dedicated.  The etching shows us what the woman has glimpsed through the microscope she holds, but it is also illustrated as if projected upon a wall, as was the case in the solar microscope shows that were hugely popular at the time.  Out of the right hand of our horrified viewer falls a tea-cup, spilling its contents and with it a multitude of hideous animacules of the kind depicted within the monstrous phantasmagoria of the lens’s circular frame.  This “microcosm” is surely a depiction of the microscopic as an alien world.  The obstetrician and palaeontologist Gideon Mantell would make the same allusion when he wrote in 1846 that “the air, the earth, and the waters teem with numberless myriads of creatures, which are as unknown and as unapproachable to the great mass of mankind, as are the inhabitants of another planet.”2

The glimpse of the drop of Thames water as a planet participates in the same kind of play of ideas and concerns that motivates Voltaire’s Micromegas.  Not only is the drop presented to us as something that is to be understood as, at the same time, both vast and minute, but it also suggests the idea that the recognition of that immensity is limited by the capacities of our sense organs.  It may be the case that something is vast not because it is large, but because it is too small for us to see and recedes into the limitless magnitude that is described in Voltaire’s text as “the abyss of the infinitesimally small.”3  If, in the 1828 engraving by William Heath that we have been discussing, the circular frame of the image that results from the microscope lens produces a planet-like effect, then when the exiled Sirian, Micromegas, undertakes his inter-planetary journey in Voltaire’s story, we feel almost as if it is a case of travelling between different degrees of magnification and resolution akin to the variations offered by a multi-lensed microscope.  When on the Earth it happens that Micromegas breaks his diamond necklace during a heated discussion with his travelling companion from Saturn.  However, this turns out to be for the good, as the enormous diamonds serve as excellent microscope lenses. It is with the aid of one of these, 2,500 feet in diameter, that Micromegas is able to spy a miniature leviathan, a whale that wriggles below the surface of the Baltic Sea and which, carefully extracting, he lifts up and places on his thumbnail.

Micromegas is gargantuan, a colossal being 120,000 feet high, beside which his philosophical travelling companion, the Secretary of the Saturnian Academy, himself only 6,000 feet tall, appears as a dwarf.  When they stand upon the Earth, they experience its mountains as mere roughnesses that trouble the soles of their feet and Micromegas’s head disappears far above the clouds.  Their circumnavigation of the globe takes 36 hours.  As Micromegas far exceeds his Saturnian interlocutor in size, so too is the latter dwarfed by the Sirian’s sensorium (an array of nearly 1,000 senses, which still leave “a vague longing, a sort of uneasiness, which constantly reminds us how insignificant we are and that far more accomplished beings exist”),4 his longevity (expected to be 105,000 years), and so on.  Yet Voltaire’s text establishes these prodigious characteristics in order to, in turn, immediately relativize and thus deflate them, a gesture signaled in advance by Micromegas’s name (which Voltaire’s critics would in turn apply to the writer himself).5 Throughout the story, the giant beings seem to have an epistemological edge over smaller creatures – and the greater the differential in size, the more marked this is – yet, at the same time, they soon draw up against the limits of their knowedge, as seen in their encounter with a boatload of what are, for the giants at least, literally microscopic philosophers.  Certainly Voltaire uses the equanimity of Micromegas and his somewhat hotter-headed fellow traveller to satirize the assorted philosophical doctrines that are described to them and to emphasize the futility and savagery of the pursuit of wars that are “all about a few lumps of earth … no bigger than your heel.”6  In this way the incredulous travellers, who play the role of bemused ‘others’ not habituated to human violence, act like the Houyhnhnms, Jonathan Swift’s ideal society of horses who are appalled at Lemuel Gulliver’s descriptions of weaponry.  However, through a reversal, Voltaire immediately collapses the distinction that he has constructed.  Outraged at what he hears, Micromegas declares: “‘Oh you wretched people … How can one conceive of such mad fury, such pointless violence?  I feel like taking three steps forward and crushing this whole anthill of ridiculous assassins just like that, one, two, three.’”7

If there is any certainty to be derived from Voltaire’s Micromegas, it is that of the need and necessity of being in a condition of uncertainty. As such, the tale is profoundly suspicious of any assumption of pre-eminence, and this is a suspicion that is inscribed in the contradictory and self-undoing character of the protagonist’s own name.

Moreover, this commitment affects the way the interaction of the senses with the microscopic is narrated in the story, whereby the travellers’ mode of apprehension moves from the optical to the auditory and then back to the optical, although now the direction of the gaze has been reversed and it is the travellers who find themselves the objects of the miniscule philosophers’ instruments.

When Harry Lime delivers his famous monologue from the top of Vienna’s Prater Wheel in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), it is prompted by the experience of a non-reciprocal visual relationship in which the black marketeer, who deals in diluted penicillin, looks down upon people in the fairground far below that have, through distance – a distance that immediately takes on an ethical consequence – been reduced to specks: “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving for ever?  If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money?  Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend – free of income tax, old man, free of income tax?”  This is a theme with a longstanding lineage, and it resonates through the history of forms of elevated and technologically-distanced visuality, whereby an apparently transcendent vantage-point is gained and a relation of dispassion instituted.  This effect is powerfully conveyed in a passage from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s memoir of his experiences as pilot during World War II: “All I can see on the vertical are curios form another age, beneath clear, untrembling glass.  I lean over crystal frames in a museum; I tower above a great sparkling pane, the great pane of my cockpit.  Below are men – protozoa on a microscope slide … I am a scientist, and for me their war is a laboratory experiment.”8

These fantasies of pre-eminence are founded in what is a purely visual relation that drains the beings that it sees of any subjectivity, reducing them to objects, and stimulates a sense of omniscience on the part of the observer.  This dominance of the visual in the experience of small things is an issue that we find foregrounded in Susan Stewart’s perceptive reflections on the miniature, although here the emphasis falls on the estrangement of the viewer from the miniaturized world upon which he looks down, an estrangement that is, as it were, the reverse side of pre-eminence.  Miniature things, she argues, conjure dreams of interiority, timelessness and – in their objecthood – a deathliness that is beyond death.  According to Stewart, the miniature places the observer in a transcendent position in relation to it and thus, as she puts it, “all senses must be reduced to the visual, a sense which … remains ironically and tragically remote.”9  Thus, she notes, when Swift’s Gulliver visits Lilliput, it is his eyes that are most frequently threatened and in hazard, this being emblematized when the verdict of execution is stayed and commuted instead to blinding.

What is striking then, when we turn back to Voltaire, is the way in which the ear and its powers of hearing – aided through an ear-trumpet made of a thumbnail clipping, the auditory equivalent of the diamond microscope – destabilizes the prior assumptions made by the eye and ushers in a recognition of the agency of what had hitherto been seen as “mites”.  And, as already noted, this leads to a noteworthy reversal of subjection: “‘A thousand fathoms!’ cried the dwarf [the Saturnian]!  ‘Good heavens!  How can he possibly know my height? A thousand fathoms!  He is not an inch out!  What!  Measured by an atom!  He is a geometer, and he knows my size while I have only a microscope to observe him with, and I do not yet know his!’”10  What is very small has suddenly expanded to become strangely large.

At the end of the story, the two travellers collapse into convulsions of laughter on being told by a theologian that the cosmos has been made uniquely for man.  Not only does their laughter deflate yet another presumption of pre-eminence, but it is a response that expresses the mixed and contradictory status of Micromegas and his friend.  Voltaire tells us that they laughed “that irrepressible laughter which, according to Homer, is the portion of the gods.”11  But this seems to slyly mislead us for, as Charles Baudelaire would later point out in his essay on comic form, laughter – which is alien to the absolute (Baudelaire observes “that the sage of all sages, the Incarnate Word, has never laughed”)12 – is a property of contradictory creatures, which are both elevated and abject: “it is at one and the same time a sign of infinite greatness and infinite wretchedness.”13  When Micromegas recovers to feel “a trifle vexed to see that beings so infinitesimally small should have a degree of pride that was almost infinitely great”, it is a vexation that to some degree tells against himself as well.14

The final joke is of course the book of philosophy that Micromegas promises to give to the terrestrial philosophers, which will set out for them “what was what”.  But when it arrives at the Academy of Sciences in Paris, it appears to consist only of blank pages.  Given the themes and events of Voltaire’s story, we are led to imagine the possibility of some micro- (or even macro-) logical script that, in some way, exceeds the powers of perception. But perhaps, more pertinently, what Micromegas delivers to the savants is in fact a treatise that is grounded in a commitment to uncertainty, and that consequently takes its most radical and rigorous form.

1 Andreas Cellarius, Atlas Coelestis seu Harmonia Macrocosmica (Amsterdam, 1660).
2 Gideon Mantell, Thoughts on Animacules; Or a Glimpse of the Invisible World Revealed by the Microscope (London: John Murray, 1846), p.7
3 Voltaire, “Micromegas: A Philosophical Story” in Candide and Other Stories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 89-106; 100.
4 Voltaire, “Micromegas”, p.92.
5 “It must, indeed, be confessed, that his character was like his talents, unequal, and that the expression, little great man, which he made use of in his Micromegas, to ridicule Fontenelle, was applicable to himself both as a man and a writer”: L. M. Chaudon, Historical and Critical Memoirs of the Life and Writings of M. de Voltaire (Dublin: L. White, etc., 1786), p.267.
6 Voltaire, “Micromegas”, p.103.
7 Voltaire, “Micromegas”, p.103.
8 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Pilote de guerre (Gallimard: Paris, 1942), cited in Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (Verso: London, 1989), p.71.
9 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003), p.67.
10 Voltaire, “Micromegas”, p.101.
11 Voltaire, “Micromegas”, p.106.
12 Charles Baudelaire, “Of the Essence of Laughter, and Generally of the Comic in the Plastic Arts” in Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp.140-161; 142.
13 Baudelaire, “Of the Essence of Laughter”, p.148.
14 Voltaire, “Micromegas”, p.106.

This text was commissioned as part of MICROMEGAS > POWERS OF 10, the first in a series of 7 publishing projects and mobile exhibitions curated by Tracy Mackenna & Edwin Janssen in response to Voltaire’s story Micromegas (1752).

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Dog Star, by Emma Bolland

In Memory of Laika: cosmonaut bitch

Dog Star*

Dreaming transmissions from a cosmonaut bitch

Emma Bolland

 

‘his name was Micromegas, a most suitable name for all great men’†

 

It was cold out there, and lonely in the vast olfactory silence.  The only smell was that of my own fear.  You thought I burned and boiled: evaporated on the margins of your horizon.  Did you pat my head before you launched me on a fist of flame?  Did I cock my ears and raise a paw?  Woof Woof.  I am Laika and I did not burn.  Instead I slipped the leash and spiralled past the pewter planets of the Kuiper belt, through the fractoluminescence of the asteroids and the comet clouds of icy moons to sail far, far out into the starry deeps.  And in my loins I felt its tug, the sweet stab that pulled me on through space, through time.  Sirius.  Dog Star.

Crouched and taut with wonder, I watched the 1969 moon landings on my grandfather’s television.  Spaceship and time machine, tiny screen embedded in a walnut console, glass as thick and heavy as a spyglass lens, the clouded images a Via Lactaea in and of themselves.  Such was the intensity of the experience that I almost believed that the moon was a place where I had been.  A few years later, still an uncritical child, I learned of Laika.  In October 1957 the Soviet Union had launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik One.  Less than one month later Sputnik Two was launched, its passenger the dog Laika, the first living creature to orbit the Earth.  The Laika of my imagination was the Laika of postage stamps, comic books, her head silhouetted against a sparkling deep blue sky; her little red spacesuit a modernist seduction of minimalist chic.  For weren’t cosmonauts always so much sexier than astronauts?   Whilst the Americans were presented dumb-faced with patriotic grins, the Soviets stared enigmatic and unsmiling at the camera.  Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space and pilot of Vostok Six, is pictured gloomy, Dietrich-moody and narrow-eyed, in the man-tailored khaki jacket-and-tie of the Red Army.  But I digress, perhaps in order to distract myself from the inevitable revelation of Laika’s true fate.  Whilst I imagined her as pirate queen, mistress and commander of her craft, intrepid star-traveller, ears pricked and paw-hands dexterous at the wheel, the reality was somewhat different.  Never intended to survive, chained down to prevent her from moving inside her 113kg flying coffin, she died from overheating and panic just a few hours after take-off.  Plucked as a stray from the streets of Moscow, a dispensable component of a great experiment by great men, medical sensors recorded the stuttering SOS of her heartbeat in the abstract figures of dispassion.  Questions have victims too.

‘Our traveller had a marvelous knowledge of the law of gravity and the power of attraction and repulsion; he used them so efficiently that, with the help of the odd ray of sun, and a convenient comet or two, he travelled with his entourage from one globe to the next like a bird flitting from one branch to another.’‡

The Dog Star burned white hot and I howled into the void when I saw I could not land.  A turning took me to a colossal planet, with air to breath and water to lap, and meaty scraps the size of mountains that I wolfed at till I nearly burst.  In the sky above I saw my star and that was enough.  I was alone but I was happy there, scratching and running and sniffing.  Memories of those cunts, those duplicitous cunts, those rational observers that tricked me with promises of food and love, left far behind.  Time passed and all was good.  Then one day, travelling further than was usual on my daily jaunts, I encountered Micromegas.  Too big for my eyes, I knew his size and nature through his stench, mapped his shape and cocked my dog-ears to his voice. Here was a man that liked to talk.  An insufferable litany of facts and propositions, that would have had the bitches of his world counting the excruciating seconds and yawning behind their hands.  Dispassionate calculator.  Tedious philosopher.  Scientist.  Prater.  Prig.  All the fury of Moscow rose in a murderous blaze against him and his kind.  So it was that when he announced his plans to leave on a voyage of discovery I decided to follow him, to dog his every step.  My little rocket was a speck of dust beside his clumsy craft, and despite his thousand senses he never once knew I was there. Size, it seems, really isn’t everything.

Spacemen are heroes.  Aren’t they?  Pioneer.  Frontier.  Conqueror.  Summit.  Virgin soil.  A flagpole.  ‘Because it is there’.§ ‘We choose the moon’.**  The construct of the heroic lays claim to the validation of tradition, or at least an idea of tradition that is outside of any specifics of history, and that depends upon a notion of the individual untainted by the constraints or imperatives of ideological or economic interest.  According to the dominant narrative, to the history that was (and is) ‘written by the victors’, the 1969 moon landing was a project embraced and endorsed by one and all.††  However, US nationwide polls of 1967 showed that the majority of Americans, regardless of race, prioritized a national fiscal focus on solutions to the growing problem of environmental pollution, job training for unskilled workers, and tackling poverty, over spending federal funds on the Space Race.  In 1968 Newsweek wrote that: ‘The U.S. space program is in decline.  The Vietnam war and the desperate conditions of the nation’s poor and its cities – which make space flight seem, in comparison, like an embarrassing national self‑indulgence – have combined to drag down a program where the sky was no longer the limit.’‡‡

In 1970 the poet, musician and novelist Gil Scott-Heron (1949 – 2011), released his debut album A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lennox.  Most famous for its opening track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, side two contains the proto-rap jazz poem Whitey on the Moon, whose opening stanza reads: A rat done bit my sister Nell / With Whitey on the moon / Her face and arms began to swell / And Whitey’s on the moon.  Against the backdrop of a momentous world event, watched by millions of people, with an official price tag of $25.4 billion (over $150 billion in today’s terms), we are given a historically insignificant but personally devastating account of a child with a rat bite – in itself an indicator of poverty and social marginalization – and the subsequent infection for which the cost of medical treatment is impossible for the narrator to meet: You know I just about had my fill / Of Whitey on the moon / I think I’ll send these doctor bills airmail special / (To Whitey on the moon).  The poem, with its focus on the small, the personal and the local, questions whom new technology is for, and challenges the idea that advances in and of themselves are universally applauded, and of universal benefit.  Alex Madrigal wrote in his obituary for Gil Scott-Heron that Whitey on the Moon ‘changed the way I thought about the space race forever.  It anchored the flight into the heavens, tethering it to the persistence of racial inequality, and pulling it out of the abstract, universal realm in which we like to place our technical achievements.  Though I still think the hunger for the technological sublime crosses racial boundaries, it destabilized the ease with which people could use “our” in that kind of sentence.  To which America went the glory of the moon landing? And what did it cost our nation to put whitey on the moon?’§§  Madrigal’s abstract realm is the one where technological aspiration is presented as apolitical and heroic, and where, in a chronological collapse that verges on time travel, the future is framed by nostalgia.  It is the realm where the casual callousness of the self-interested victor gets to define the concepts both of ‘giant steps’ and of ‘mankind’.***

‘Intelligent atoms that you are, in whom the Eternal Being has been pleased to manifest his might and skill, you must doubtless enjoy the purest of pleasures on your globe, since you contain so little matter and seem to consist of nothing but spirit.  You must spend your lives in loving and thinking, which is the true life of blessed spirits.  Nowhere have I seen true happiness, but assuredly it must be here?’†††

RRRRRRRRRAAAUUGH!!!  I despise the great men who never look behind them, who never turn their heads.  Micromegas.  The dandy.  The dilettante.  An interstellar grand tour.  This was the man who deemed himself above the pointlessness of war, allied himself to the realm of thought whilst ‘un-thinking’ the war of violent indifference he himself waged.  On Earth I tracked his stinking shadow, and wept my dog tears in the wake of his annihilatory tread.  Villages, towns, cities – all erased by the casual steps of his leisured circumnavigation.  Flesh pulped, bones crushed. A fine red mist soaking the powdered stones: collateral damage of a pompous excursion.  Within the kill-zone of his footprint, no living soul was left.  Gentleman – that most dialectical of words.  Empiricism – a stupid means to a stupid end.

Both sides presented the so-called Space Race as a pure endeavor of courage and the sublime.  John F Kennedy, invoking Mallory in his famous speech of 1962, proclaimed that ‘space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.  And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.’ ‡‡‡  In fact it was a spectacular and costly manifestation of the Cold War that followed the end of World War II.  The USA and the Soviet Union, former allies against the Third Reich, about-faced to begin the process of an escalating stand-off between the ideologies of capitalism and communism, both of which were being comprehensively corrupted by their governing forces.§§§  In secret operations, both sides began extracting captured German rocket scientists from detention to enable their embryonic space programmes.  President Truman stated publically that only scientists that had not been members of the Nazi Party, and were not implicated in any war crimes, would be allowed into the country.  However, the U.S. Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency created false documentation that erased any such stains, clearing the way for the importation of the minds deemed most valuable to the great endeavor.  The most prized of these belonged to Wernher von Braun, an honorary Major in the SS.  The eventual architect of the Apollo missions, he himself designed the Saturn V rocket that propelled the first men to the moon that day in 1969.  During World War II von Braun had been the head of the German V-2 rocket programme.  The production plants were hellish, essentially concentration camps, using prisoners as slave labour.  Those who did not die from exhaustion, malnutrition and the toxic conditions, died from beatings, torture and hangings.  It is estimated that 12,000 people died building the rockets – far more than were ever killed by them in war. Awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 1969, the Civitan International World Citizenship Award in 1970, and with a crater on the moon named in his honour, it seems that there are no hands so bloody that they cannot be washed clean.  Of course, it was ever thus.  In an Orwellian ballet of interchangeability and doublespeak in which our enemy’s enemy is our friend, governments and global financial forces shape the monstrous ‘other’ with the clay of their convenience.****  Just one example of this is the narrative trajectory of what we now call The Taliban.  Currently a feared and reviled enemy of the West, it has its roots in the mujahideen who, against the backdrop of the Cold War, were trained in northern Pakistan and bankrolled by the United States and Saudi Arabia in order to support the Afghan resistance in their struggle against occupying Soviet forces.††††  Great men.  Secret meetings.  Collateral damage.  The greater good.  Millions and billions and trillions of dollars.  How small this can makes us feel, how powerless.

Whilst writing this text I was interviewed by DIVA magazine for an article about memories of the women-only peace camps at the RAF Greenham Common military base in Kent, set up in response to the British government’s decision to allow the US Air Force to site Cruise nuclear missiles there.‡‡‡‡  I was taken by my eldest sister (thank you Gail X) to some of the mass protest days, and on 12th December 1982 I was one of approximately 30,000 women and girls who held hands around the 6 mile long perimeter fence.  I had not thought about this in thirty years, and yet that experience changed so much for me.  It changed the way I saw the relationship between the citizen and the state, and it left me with a strong conviction that protest is a process, and is not undermined or delegitimized by a lack of obvious or short-term success.  It made me see the power of stubborn, peaceful and muscular anger.  30,000 women: shouting, laughing, singing.  Howling at the moon.

‘The Sirian picked up the little mites again, still treating them kindly, though inwardly rather annoyed that such infinitely small creatures were so almost infinitely arrogant.  He promised to produce a splendid volume of philosophy, written specially for them, which would tell them everything about everything, and he did in fact give it them before leaving.  They took it to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, but when the secretary opened it, he found nothing but blank pages.’§§§§

Uuuüüüüüüüuuuuooooöööüüöö!  Uüüü!rrrra!chra!  Rha!  Rraaaachrchrchrrra!ra!ra!rachgrach.  Rrüüürraöüüghgh!  Rrragh!rr!rrr!raggh!  Rrragghh!  Rragggh!raaowaaowwaaaaaaaaöööööüüööüüööüüööüü!!!  Oouououoh you dangerous fools with your books of logic.  Why are the pages blank Micromegas?  Why is there nothing there?  Because I squatted down and pissed them clean.  I’ll always be here snapping at your heels.  Fuck The Enlightenment! (Sometimes).

Postscript

The invitation to write this text, to write whatsoever I liked in response to Voltaire’s Micromegas (first published in 1752, though probably composed in the 1730s) arrived in an email from Tracy Mackenna and Edwin Janssen on January 6th 2015.  The following day, January 7th, the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were subjected to an attack by what the media described as ‘Islamist terrorists’ that left 12 people dead, both at the offices and across the city. In the immediate aftermath of the murders a groundswell of protest erupted across what we like to define as The West, with people taking to the streets of Paris and other major cities, the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’ – I am Charlie – appearing everywhere, on placards, in print, in the mainstream and social media.  Voltaire (the anti-Semite, lest we forget), was quoted everywhere: the poster boy for free speech and for that triumph of the West, The Enlightenment.  At first it seemed unthinkable that my text would not talk about Charlie Hebdo, but the more I thought about this the more impossible it seemed.  I thought about the cruelly caricatured physical attributes of the figures depicted in so many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, such as the hooked noses given, ironically, to both Muslims and Jews alike.*****  I thought about the sexualized nature of the imagery, too often reliant on homophobia and misogyny, and I wondered if I really wanted to be Charlie?  I thought about racism.  I thought about the intertwined trajectories of The Enlightenment, imperialism and colonialism.  I thought about the massacres and atrocities carried out by the French, the English, the Americans and others in the Middle East, in Africa, in their own countries and across the world.  I thought about the continued legacy of these actions in these places. (Mea culpa).  I thought about the almost sacred status of what we unquestioningly and lazily call ‘free speech’, as opposed to the far more risky and rooted business of ‘speaking truth to power’.†††††  I thought about all the paragraphs I would have to waste reassuring the enlightened that despite these thoughts I did abhor the barbarity and cruelty of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo before I could start to write anything of real clarity or integrity (yes, I thought about the terror of being called out, one by one, by name, watching your colleagues die, the pleading, the chaos, the bowels liquid with fear, knowing that your turn would be soon).  I thought about the pieces that have and will be written about Charlie Hebdo that are better than anything I could provide.‡‡‡‡‡  And I thought about the Voltaire that has been most widely quoted these past few months, the Voltaire that said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.  But of course Voltaire never said it: it was written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the genderless pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in her 1906 biography The Friends Of Voltaire.  And I thought, on this matter, right now, that’s all, that’s all…

* The Dog Star is the colloquial name often given to Sirius: the brightest star in the sky, part of the constellation Canis Major (the Greater Dog).  Voltaire’s eponymous hero, Micromegas, is described as an inhabitant of a planet in Sirius’s orbit.  Twenty-four thousand feet tall, his mind ‘one of the most cultured that exists’, the possessor of nearly a thousand senses, and inventor of many things, he might indeed be said to be a ‘great man’.
† Voltaire, Micromegas: A Philosophical Story.  In Micromegas and Other Stories, trans. Douglas Parmée, London: Alma Classics, 2014.
‡ Voltaire: ibid.
The mountaineer George Mallory, on being asked by The New York Times in 1923 why he persisted in his attempts to climb Mount Everest, replied ‘because it’s there’. Mallory died on the mountain during his 1924 attempt.
** ‘We Choose The Moon’ is the title by which John F Kennedy’s 1962 speech about the USA’s space project has come to be known.  Throughout the speech Kennedy employs a rhetoric that stresses the pioneering heritage of the (white) American people, and positions space as the ultimate frontier. http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm
†† The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ is often attributed to Winston Churchill, British prime minister from 1940 to 1945, during World War II.  However, its origins are unclear and it has also been attributed to Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the German Luftwaffe during World War II.
‡‡ The relevant Gallop poll data and the Newsweek and other contemporary press content are found in Roger Launius’ paper ‘Public opinion polls and perceptions of US human spaceflight’: http://www.academia.edu/179045/_Public_Opinion_Polls_and_Perceptions_of_US_Human_Spaceflight_
§ http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/gil-scott-herons-poem-whitey-on-the-moon/239622/
*** ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’ were the words spoken by Neil Armstrong as he set foot on the surface of the moon on July 21st, 1969.
††† Voltaire: ibid.
‡‡‡ ‘We Choose the Moon’: ibid.
§§ Yanis Varoufakis, finance minister for the newly elected SYRIZA party in Greece discusses the position that these failings have left us in today in ‘How I became an erratic Marxist’. Published as an essay in The Guardian on 18 February 2015, the text is adapted from a lecture originally delivered at the 6th Subversive Festival in Zagreb in 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist
**** In George Orwell’s novel 1984 (published in 1949 in the formative years of the Cold War), the world has been divided into three ‘super-states’, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, who wage a perpetual war, forming and breaking alliances as is convenient.
†††† My summary of these events is crude.  For a more nuanced and in-depth perspective on the political shaping of Islam by the West and the money markets, and the ‘states’ we now find ourselves in with particular reference to Afghanistan, watch Adam Curtis’ superb meditative documentary Bitter Lake. It is currently available to watch online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p02gyz6b/adam-curtis-bitter-lake
‡‡‡‡ Catherine Murray, Greenham Became Home, DIVA, February 2015.
§§§ Voltaire: ibid.
***** Edward Said, in his groundbreaking 1978 book Orientalism, a founding text of post-colonial studies, writes extensively on the irony of the same set of physical racial stereotypes being ascribed to both ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’ by the West.
††††† SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence was a 1955 treatise published by the American branch of the Quakers, or Society of Friends, a pacifist and social justice campaigning Christian organization originating in mid 17thC Northern England.  The document states that ‘Our title, Speak Truth to Power, taken from a charge given to Eighteenth Century Friends, suggests the effort that is made to speak from the deepest insight of the Quaker faith, as this faith is understood by those who prepared this study.  We speak to power in three senses – To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace – To the American people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority – To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on Twentieth Century life. ’  The phrase is now widely used to mean speaking out to those in authority, and is associated with social justice and human rights activism.
‡‡‡‡‡ I recommend Teju Cole’s ‘Unmournable Bodies’, written for The New Yorker two days after the Charlie Hebdo killings http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/unmournable-bodies and Christopher de Bellaigue’s ‘Stop calling for a Muslim Enlightenment’ published in The Guardian on February the 19th 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/19/stop-calling-for-a-muslim-enlightenment.

This text was commissioned as part of MICROMEGAS: VAGABOND FLUX, the second in a series of 7 publishing projects and mobile exhibitions curated by Tracy Mackenna & Edwin Janssen in response to Voltaire’s story Micromegas (1752).

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