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On the Roof: Cloud City

Bruno Latour

The word “network” has become a ubiquitous designation for technical infrastructures, social relations, geopolitics, mafias, and, of course, our new life online.1 But networks, in the way they are usually drawn, have the great visual defect of being “anemic” and “anorexic,” in the words of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who has devised a philosophy of spheres and envelopes.2 Unlike networks, spheres are not anemic, not just points and links, but complex ecosystems in which forms of life define their “immunity” by devising protective walls and inventing elaborate systems of air conditioning. Inside those artificial spheres of existence, through a process Sloterdijk calls “anthropotechnics,” humans are born and raised. The two concepts of networks and spheres are clearly in contradistinction to one another: while networks are good at describing long-distance and unexpected connections starting from local points, spheres are useful for describing local, fragile, and complex “atmospheric conditions”— another of Sloterdijk’s terms. Networks are good at stressing edges and movements; spheres at highlighting envelopes and wombs.
Of course, both notions are indispensable for registering the originality of what is called “globalization,” an empty term that is unable to define from which localities, and through which connections, the “global” is assumed to act. Most people who enjoy speaking of the “global world” live in narrow, provincial confines with few connections to other equally provincial abodes in far away places. Academia is one case. So is Wall Street. One thing is certain: the globalized world has no “globe” inside which it could reside. As for Gaia, the goddess of the Earth, we seem to have great difficulty housing her inside our global view, and even more difficulty housing ourselves inside her complex cybernetic feedbacks. It is the globe that is most absent in the era of globalization. Bad luck: when we had a globe during the classical age of discoveries and empire, there was no globalization; and now that we have to absorb truly global problems…

1. Saraceno’s galaxies forming along filaments

So how can we have both networks and spheres? How do we avoid the pitfalls of a globalization that has no real globe in which to place everything? In a work presented at the Venice Biennale in 2009, Tomás Saraceno provided a great, and no doubt unintended, metaphor for social theory. In an entire room inside the Biennale’s main pavilion, Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web (2008) consisted of carefully mounted elastic connectors that produced the shape of networks and spheres. If you were to avoid the guards’ attentive gaze and slightly shake the elastic connectors—strictly forbidden—your action would reverberate quickly through the links and points of the network paths, but much more slowly through the spheres. This is not to say that spheres are made from different stuff, as if we must choose between habitation and connection, between local and global, or indeed between Sloterdijk and, let’s say, actor-network theory.
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2. Who Owns Space and Time?

To explore the artistic, philosophical, and political questions raised by Saraceno’s work, it might be useful to turn to another locus classicus—not the sphere versus network debate, but the debate over who owns the space in which we live collectively. There is no better way to frame this question than the bungled dialog (well, not really a “dialogue,” but that’s the point) between Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein in Paris in 1922. Bergson had carefully studied Einstein’s theory of relativity and wrote a thick book about it, but Einstein had only a few dismissive comments about Bergson’s argument.4 After Bergson spoke for thirty minutes, Einstein made a terse two-minute remark, ending with this damning sentence: “Hence there is no philosopher’s time; there is only a psychological time different from the time of the physicist.” While Bergson had argued that his notion of space and time had a cosmological import that was to be carefully meshed within Einstein’s remarkable discoveries,

Einstein argued that there was only one time and space—that of physics—and that what Bergson was after was nothing more than subjective time—that of psychology. We recognize here the classical way for scientists to deal with philosophy, politics, and art: “What you say might be nice and interesting but it has no cosmological relevance because it only deals with the subjective elements, the lived world, not the real world.” The funny thing is that everyone—including, in a way, Bergson—was convinced that he had lost, and that indeed the whole question was another episode in the gigantomachy of objective reality versus subjective illusion. To the scientists, the cosmos, and to the rest of us, the phenomenology of human intentionality. So the answer to the question “Which space do we live in?” is clearly: we live in a subjective world with no reality for physics. Einstein: winner.

But this was the beginning of the twentieth century. Can we do better at the beginning of the twenty-first century? In other words, is it possible to give Bergson another chance to make his case that, no, he is not talking about subjective time and space, but is rather proposing an alternative to Einstein’s cosmology? To explore such a possibility, I decided to rely on the fascinating genre of the reenactment. As many artists have shown, especially Rod Dickinson in the amazing staging of Milgram’s experiment, reenactment is not a mere facsimile of the original but a second version, or a second print of the first instance, allowing for the exploration of its originality.5 This is why, in a series of lectures at the Pompidou Center in June 2010, I invited, among many others, the artist Olafur Eliasson and two scholars, a historian of science, Jimena Canales, and a philosopher, Elie During, to reenact the famous debate by allowing the conclusion to shift somewhat, thus reopening a possibility that had been closed in the twentieth century.6

Who owns the concepts of space and time? Artists? Philosophers? Scientists? Do we live in the space-time of Einstein without realizing it, or, as Bergson vainly argued, does Einstein, the physicist, live in the time of what Bergson called duration? Those questions, it seemed to me, were just as important for physicists, historians, and philosophers as they are for an artist like Eliasson, who has populated museums and cities around the world by publicly demonstrating, through many artful connections between science, technology, and ecology, that there are many alternatives to the visual experience of common sense. The art form—or forum—that I chose consisted of asking the three of them to conjoin their forces in presenting films and photographs to set the stage for this famous debate, with Eliasson “refereeing” the debate through his own work.7

It may seem silly to ask an artist to adjudicate a debate between a philosopher and a physicist—especially a debate whose pecking order had been historically settled once and for all: the physicist speaks of the real world, and the philosopher “does not understand physics”; the artist is irrelevant here. But that was precisely the point, a point shared by Saraceno’s heterarchy: that it is now possible to complicate the hierarchy of voices and make the conversation between disciplines move ahead in a way that is more representative of the twenty-first century than of the twentieth. No discipline is the final arbiter of any other.

That is exactly what Elie During did in a brilliant piece of philosophical fiction in which he entirely rewrote the 1922 dialogue as if Einstein had actually paid attention to what Bergson had told him. In the end, Zweistein—that is, the Einstein of 2010—was not, of course, convinced (that would have been a falsification, and no longer a fiction), but he had to admit that there might be more philosophy in his physics than he had claimed in 1922. Where Einstein had won, Zweistein had to settle for a draw.8 So now we have a more balanced situation: the space and time in which we live—experientially, phenomenologically—might not be a mere mistake of our subjective self, but might have some relevance for what the world is really like. Instead of accepting the divide between physics and philosophy, this reenactment was a means of answering Alfred North Whitehead’s famous question: “When red is found in nature, what else is found there also?”9 Likewise, is it possible to imagine a world where scientific knowledge is able to add to the world instead of dismissing the experience of being in the world?

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I remember hearing a story about the construction of a telescope…The first day we build a telescope of small dimensions…we look through it and we cannot see anything…Then we build a bigger telescope, four times as big. We look again and…nothing. So we build an even bigger telescope and we keep going…The telescope gets bigger and bigger. Still…nothing. But there is a moment when the telescope gets so big that others can see our telescope first, rather than us seeing them through it.

…welcome on board spaceship earth, Buckminster Fuller might have said…and Don Pettit, on board the International Space Station, could reply…….. “Ironically, when earthlings can see us, we cannot see them. The glare from the full sun effectively turns our windows into mirrors that return our own ghostly reflection.” As Daniel Kahneman says, “Nothing in Life Is As Important As You Think It Is, While You Are Thinking About It in The Focusing Illusion.” Telescopes turn into microscopes. and all universe fits into it …

 

Orbiting minutes that the International Space Station will be in sight and visible with the naked eye, above the rooftop of the Met……..

8th of June, 20:46:56 – 16th of June, 20:48:57 – 11th of August, 20:25:38 – 24th of August, 18:49:22 – 25th of August, 20:22:55 – 6th of October, 19:51:53 – 12th of October, 19:48:27 – 13th of October, 18:43:15 – 13th of October, 20:21:05 – 19th of October, 18:41:39 – 20th of October, 19:12:25 – 26th of October, 19:05:01 – 27th of October, 19:36:11.

 

…. And from Don Pettit (on board of ISS)

“From my orbital perspective, I am sitting still and Earth is moving. I sit above the grandest of all globes spinning below my feet, and watch the world speed by at an amazing eight kilometers per second (288 miles per minute, or 17,300 miles per hour).

This makes Earth photography complicated…… difficult aspect of Earth photography is capturing a specific target. If I want to take a picture of Silverton, Oregon, my hometown, I have about 10 to 15 seconds of prime nadir (the point directly below us) viewing time to take the picture. If the image is taken off the nadir, a distorted, squashed projection is obtained. If I float up to the window and see my target, it’s too late to take a picture. If the camera has the wrong lens, the memory card is full, the battery depleted, or the camera is on some non-standard setting enabled by its myriad buttons and knobs, the opportunity will be over by the time the situation is corrected. And some targets like my hometown, sitting in the middle of farmland, are low-contrast and difficult to find. If more than a few seconds are needed to spot the target, again the moment is lost. All of us have missed the chance to take that “good one.” Fortunately, when in orbit, what goes around comes around, and in a few days there will be another chance.
It takes 90 minutes to circle the Earth, with about 60 minutes in daylight and 30 minutes in darkness. The globe is equally divided into day and night by the shadow line, but being 400 kilometers up, we travel a significant distance over the nighttime earth while the station remains in full sunlight. During those times, as viewed from Earth, we are brightly lit against a dark sky. This is a special period that makes it possible for people on the ground to observe space station pass overhead as a large, bright, moving point of light. This condition lasts for only about seven minutes; after that we are still overhead, but are unlit and so cannot be readily observed. Ironically, when earthlings can see us, we cannot see them. The glare from the full sun effectively turns our windows into mirrors that return our own ghostly reflection.”

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