In Memory of Laika: cosmonaut bitch
Dreaming transmissions from a cosmonaut bitch
‘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).
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_
*** ‘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).