Messages from the event horizon of knowledge
People say that first impressions really matter. In the case of intelligent, extraterrestrial entities capable of abstract thought, that may potentially learn about human civilization, that first impression might originate from a golden record. In 1977 NASA sent shining, gold, circular volumes of auditory and visual data into space with the space probes Voyager 1 and 2, as a testament to our species: our planet, our culture, our language, our environment, and our scientific achievements — but tactfully omitting our wars, transgressions, crimes, ideologies and self-destructive tendencies. An idealized, distorted image.
First impressions matter - we do not want to be deemed homicidal and exploitative. Quite the contrary: we aim to be portrayed as beings of cultural and scientific prowess; self-aware, empathetic and enlightened; as explorers and discoverers. Five years before the launch of Voyager, scientists — among them Carl Sagan — sent the Pioneer space probe on its endless journey with plaques on board. Aside from a controversial depiction of a man and woman, the engraved message focused especially on symbolic representation of natural scientific findings: the position of the sun relative to the center of the Milky Way, a schematic depiction of our solar system, the hyperfine structure of the hydrogen atom. Universal knowledge for the universe.
No man-made object has ever ventured further than the Pioneer and Voyager space probes. Over 20 billion kilometers from the sun, Voyager now travels through interstellar space, through the final frontier, as pop culture would have it. And even though popular science and science fiction have been committed and ambitious in trying to acquaint mankind with the notion of infinity, numbers and dimensions still defy the imagination: before its expiration date, the space probe will oat through the gigantic void that is the universe, through planetary and dark nebulas, interstellar dust, and the remnants of supernovas for 500 million years. In 38,000 years it will approach another star for the first time, at a distance of 1.7 light years: AC+793888, located in the constellation Ursa Minor.
It is an idea as tantalizing as it is unlikely: the space probe one day being found by extraterrestrial life forms, possibly having embarked from their home planet in the local supercluster, which encompasses within its 200 million light year radius 2,000 galaxies just like ours. Embarking on a quest to explore new galaxies, new life forms and civilizations. At this point in time, mankind has likely ceased to exist. To acquaint oneself with the essence of mankind could mean to contemplate it through its relics, as an interstellar archeologist. The first impression of man: a life form of symbols and formulas.
But how universal is a symbolic depiction of an atom? How accessible are the schematic depictions and signi ers of human mathematics, physics and chemistry — a circle, wavelengths, an orbit, a planet — if the contextual distance is as far as a galaxy? How fragile is knowledge, acquired over thousands of years, in relation to the infinity of the cosmos? How anthropocentric is science, not to mention the semantics and semiotics of our language? Are history, psychology, reason — and the lack of it — adequately expressed through our fragmented remnants?
The experience man gathered as he shaped and explored the world, the knowledge arduously acquired and produced; that he categorized and catalogued; squeezed between book covers into lexicons, anthologies and encyclopedias; that he protected and defended from self-created myths and religion; and used in preparation and justification of savagery, annihilation and destruction; that was expressed in movements of both emancipation and counter-enlightenment; that he condensed and compartmentalized into areas of expertise, and finally deconstructed and thus questioned and challenged all over again — what if this decadence of knowledge vanished completely? What if it became a flickering, whirring buzz of symbols in space, a variation of statements devoid of meaning, a toolbox of shapes and forms only serving the aesthetic?
This fundamental, ever-present human fear of decay and decline does not concern the curious outside observer. And as the self-declared, human polymath dreads the fragmentation of the branches of cultural and scientific discovery; as scientists fear the ever-impending refutation of their theses, and advocates of canonization fear the free appropriation, accessibility and production of empirical knowledge; the resident of the local supercluster — unversed in the human cultures of writing and language — would encounter an almost infinite aggregation of signs, symbols, diagrams, schematic depictions, images and sketches. The division of the discourses of art and science that is so characteristic and essential to human culture — a concept not older than the centuries that passed since the enlightenment — might appear strange and negligible to him. Presupposing the physical and sensory ability to do so, the visual depiction of mankind may present itself as a playground, a place to frolic and playfully recombine the symbolic ingredients of human knowledge.
What if the cosmos of human knowledge — hard-earned, elaborated, revised, discussed, discarded, compartmentalized and re-compartmentalized, sometimes fatal — from the viewpoint of the resident of the local supercluster — lost all meaning? Without the subtitles of language and script, interpretations of meaning — much like the perception of a child — may vary wildly upon each viewing. The remnants and artifacts of our civilization would be recombined, similar to the gears of a clock, assembled in a different order: seemingly a clock, but not a clock at the same time. Imitation is an endeavor to gain insight into an alien world. If so, would the very essence of human cultural and scientific achievement, its dialectics, ambivalences and contingencies, rise to the surface and reveal itself? Is the susceptibility to regressive mythology, reificatory thought and ideologically determined forms of society inherent and palpable in the artifacts of human discovery, creation, production and distribution?
And while mankind strove to demystify the world, a rearrangement of these relics would restore that mystery. In Benjamin Dittrich’s exhibition “Lokaler Superhaufen” (“local supercluster”), that curious, enlightened grasp on our mysterious remnants, that may characterize the viewpoint of an extraterrestrial anthropologist, is arguably similar to the viewers’ perspective. The inconceivable, non-palpable properties of our world resurface through a playful processing of a shattered symbolism of science; and through an ironic appropriation of its logic and ethos that once strove to zero in on the meaning of our existence and inevitable transience, and who exposed themselves as cults — useful as well as potentially dangerous — through fragmentation. What will happen on the dissolving edges of a knowledge resting on a foundation of rationalism and intersubjective comprehensibility; what will happen on the event horizon of science and its symbols? What happens if, through re-layering of common knowledge — once a sign of allencom- passing learnedness, new meaning is generated in a realm where religious and scientific piety, where knowledge for the sake of control and economic paradigms of utilization are sidelined for a fascination and celebration of the infinite?
And finally: What would happen, if after our civilization ceased to exist, the golden record carried by Voyager and Pioneer guided alien life forms to our empty, forsaken planet — what would they make of our symbols and languages, our books and libraries, our anthologies and encyclopedias? Maybe — as man may envision from the vantage point of humanism — they would be admired and pondered as artifacts, by curious viewers somewhere in the center of the local supercluster.
Maximilian Haase (translation: Lukas Holldorf & Kathleen M. Krol)