In November 1886, an essay by the director of the Lick Observatory, Edward S. Holden, appeared in Overland Monthly magazine. Holden, an astronomer and professor of mathematics (and former employee at the Washburn Observatory at UW Madison) devoted significant column space to the experimental promise of photography in the discipline of “physical” astronomy, soon to be called astrophysics: “We can hand down to our successors,” writes Holden,” a picture of the sky, locked in a box.”
On the one hand, astrophotography, particularly when one considers instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope, makes representational fidelity the highest of methodological obligations in standard disciplinary practice. Instruments like Hubble are capable of putting terrestrial metrics of time and space into sobering perspective. Indeed, star birth, supernovae propagation, solar system accretion, black hole formation, cosmic inflation, and dark matter anisotropies are rarely studied in real-time. The events span temporal durations and spatial dimensions of millions and billions of miles and millions and billions of years. Such numbers can surpass our powers of imagination. There is an enormously, perhaps terrifyingly, expansive gulf between our respective frames of reference. As Pascal wrote in his Pense: “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened… The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me…“
How might astrophotography be a means of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates the human from the cosmic? More, are these images capable of doing so in a way that avoids mapping the cosmological onto existing and familiar anthropocentric perspectives of material environments?
Susan Stanford Friedman notes that “human [constitute] a mere parenthesis within nature’s ;” on a cosmological scale––when so-called deep-structure processes include everything from stellar to the earliest formations of galactic clusters from dark matter density fluctuations––even the planetary or reference frame is rendered restrictive. And yet the Anthropocene, defined by the actions of shaping the Earth at a global scale, preconditions us to entrenching formal ecological models which privilege a relation between humans and their environmental surroundings; “the Anthropocene,” alleges Heather Houser, “bespeaks human self-regard.” As both a geological earmark and environmental analytic, the Anthropocene reinforces a binary in which humans are separate from and acting upon nature while privileging an anthropocentric , one overdetermined by ecological processes on the Earth in isolation and underdetermined by the planet’s place in a dynamic, generative, and interconnected universe.
When the surrounding environment changes and new challenges arise––such as the challenge of, for example, envisioning the cosmos as an ecological entity beyond the Planet Earth––there is a disjunction between existing modes of thoughts and the present need for an alternative ontological model, one aimed at attaining a truly interstellar perspective. Heuristics which acknowledge the current geologic age as the epoch of the Anthropocene are valuable conceptual instruments for scoping the patterns of, most obviously, anthropogenic climate change. However, the anthropocentric gaze is not only insufficient, but ultimately distortive, when faced with the task of (image) scales of time and distance bearing comparison to the size and age of the universe. Observational capacities, whether facilitated by scientific provisions or not, which privilege an anthropocentric authority buttress what is ultimately a new-fangled , one no longer rooted in planetary mechanics but encoded in mindsets where the human gaze constitutes the measure and standard by which the methods, validity, and scope of knowledge is constituted.
My aim as both anand a scholar of the environmental humanities is, ultimately, to get a clearer fix on what is at stake when we reflect on theEarth’s place in thevastness of the universe, and to investigate the ways in which astronomical imagery and astrophotography is capable, implicitly, of re-orientating and re-scaling ecological models heretofore only aimed atthe effects and influences of the Anthropocene. Astrophotographs, I argue, are capable of manifesting visually an encompassing, evaluative perspective that transcends the parochial, anthropocentric eyepiece. The interpenetration of interstellar and intergalactic time-space topologies with artistic traditions rooted in the astronomical image both predicate upon and support the need for a critical cosmological estrangement,a post-anthropocentric shift away from the geocentric epistemes that privilege terrestrial metrics of time and space.
The penultimate chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses captures the vitality of cosmic rootlessness when the author writes of “…the parallax or parallactic drift of fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years…of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.” These images, by virtue of the estrangement the medium itself necessitates, shatter our expectation of a single perspective on the universe, and provides a means by which to journey alongside these “wanderers” in navigating an ecologically-mediated cosmos, to conceptualize, on the journey, phenomena of an inhuman time precipitated out of an inhuman space.
-Kaitlin Moore, Ph.D. Student in Literary Studies | University of Wisconsin – Madison