Some Reflections on Gravity
by John David Ebert
The appearance, in science fiction history, of a narrative like that of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a cultural watershed indicating that the Twilight of the Space Age is now upon us, despite all appearances to the contrary. By contrast, for instance, with the vectors of the science fiction narratives of the 1950s in the novels of Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, in which the earth was always seen as something to escape from into the ecstatic Transcendence of outer space, all the vectors of Cuaron’s narrative point decidedly downward. The earth, in Gravity, is no longer seen as an obsolete artifact of the Age of the Great Mother to be escaped from at all costs into the heavenly realms of the Father, but precisely as what, in fact, it really is: a basin of attraction toward which all bodies fall as a cosmic shelter of protection from the starry vacancies of a hostile Outside. “Life in outer space,” as the film’s opening title card states, “is impossible.” Precisely.
In the pre-metaphysical age (also known as the mythical consciousness structure, according to Jean Gebser), being-in-the-world always connoted being on the inside of a uteromorphic container of one sort or another. For the Egyptians, the earth was surrounded by Nut, the starry goddess of the heavens, and Nun, the watery amniotic abyss which the Mesopotamians called “apsu,” and from which our word “abyss” actually descends etymologically. The earth was always embryonic and the human was always inside the body of the Great Mother, like one of those Gothic wooden sculptures of Mary which open up to reveal the Crucified One in her womb (shown below).
But in the metaphysical age beginning in the Mediterranean with Plato and in the deserts of Judea with the Old Testament, being-in-the-world meant being in the paternal womb of the Great Father, in which the Word as an embryo always lay waiting, ready to resonate a cosmos into being from out of the magical intonations of the creator’s utterance. This was the logocentric age critiqued by Derrida, in which goddesses like Athena were always popping out of male skulls like Zeus’s, and in which Adam gave birth to Eve, rather than the other way around. This was the age in which the Logos, the Word as eidos, was the creative instrument, and in which all material things were subordinated to the power of the Ideas, which shaped them like a magnet organizing iron filings.
It is now a truism of postmodern philosophy that we live in a posthistoric (Flusser), post-metaphysical age (Sloterdijk) in which we are simply thrown, at Heidegger’s insistence, into a shell-less and unprotected world in which all structures are technomorphic and must be man-made as replacements for mythical and Platonic Ideas.
However, in Cuaron’s Gravity, it is significant that the protagonist is a woman, for she is the ancient Great Mother–Demeter mourning the loss of her daughter Persephone–in disguise, tossed into exospheric orbit by the techno-manipulations bequeathed to us by the metaphysical age, still very much present with us, and functioning as the source and root of our conquest of the earth and now the exosphere with satellites. The Great Mother, in this age, does not give birth to anything, for she now finds herself (in a reversal of the wooden Mary sculptures) trapped and encased on the inside of the paternal Mind with all its exoskeletal structures.
The various techno-flotation devices which the Sandra Bullock character hops to, from one to the next, are actually three-dimensional incarnations of the Father’s Platonic Ideas realized upon the grid of perspectival space (via Leonardo’s drawings, in origin) and transformed into floating world islands. In the absence of the protective body of Mother Earth, the Sandra Bullock character finds herself on the inside of the paternal womb and its techno-realized Ideas which attempt to substitute for the natural productions of her bounteous body: i.e. gravity, oxygen, air, plants, food, etc.
In outer space, in other words, it is not the Mother who provides, but the Father. On his world-islands, you are trapped in Plato’s realm.
But in the Twilight of the Space Age, it is the Mother who now becomes the savior, since the arc of escape to the Heavens that began with Plato’s leaving the cave-as-womb behind in favor of the father-as-sun is now in the process of running its course. The aptly named private corporation known as “Virgin Galactic” promises to send us all to Mars by 2028, yet they seem to have forgotten–or pretended to know nothing about–a phenomenon known as the “Kessler Syndrome,” which predicts that the collisions of space debris in orbit about the earth will slowly accelerate and produce more and more debris over time. And since, as the disaster of the Columbia taught us–in which an entire spacecraft was destroyed by a mere two pound piece of foam rubber insulation–it only takes One Small Thing to disrupt an entire mission, the practicalities of leaving the earth behind and flying to other worlds on a routine basis seem increasingly more and more remote.
Let us not forget the collision of two telecommunications satellites that crashed into each other, for the first time ever, in the exosphere in February of 2009 as the ominous prelude to the onset of Kessler’s Syndome which, like entropy, can only ever get worse, producing more and more debris, not less, over time.
The onset of the Kessler Syndrome, of which Gravity is a stunning illustration, marks the beginning of the end of the Platonic Project bequeathed to us by the metaphysical age of using techno-incarnations of the Father’s Ideas as world islands to escape the body of the Great Mother.
Virgin Galactic–a name which promises to use technology to carry the Virgin herself away to the heavens, just as Christ, once upon a time, carried his mother at the moment of her death–can pour all the money they want into space travel, but cleaning the debris out of the exosphere which will pose a perpetual threat to such flights is another matter entirely.
Welcome to posthistory, the age in which Down is the new Up.