Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Exploration as Sacrifice

Rudy Wiebe has Sir John Richardson put it succinctly: "They must want more than they have. That is civilization." For centuries now, western societies have been dominated by the economic system and philosophy of capitalism. Capitalism holds it as an article of faith that everything can and must grow; as a result, the majority of all profits must be plowed into expansion, to make more things, and thus more profits. Such a system depends, of course, on things such as cheap labor, and at some point -- later if not sooner -- will run aground should it ever produce a prosperous global community with no one left to exploit. But of course, by then, everything will be done by robots -- right?

But there has been another way of dealing with profit, that is whatever is excess, "more than one needs," and that is to destroy it. The French social theorist Georges Bataille, in his masterful but little-known magnum opus, La Parte Maudite (The Accursed Share), looked at several human societies in which the value of labor and/or goods was deliberately, sometimes spectacularly, sacrificed. The Mayan civilization that raised pyramids to the sun also raised human hearts, freshly ripped out of human chests, to that same deity. They also took many of their most precious jewelry and ornaments and threw it into pits, from which modern archaeologists have reaped a treasure. Bataille's second example are the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, such as the Kwakiutl, with their tradition of potlach or "give away." Wealth, for these people, consisted of how much one was willing to give away; to give away everything and impoverish the self was the ultimate measure. Thankfully, those who were thus self-made destitutes had only to attend another potlach to recover at least some of their former belongings. His third example is the culture of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism (prior to the Chinese takeover). In Tibet, nearly 25% of the population were monks and nuns, and another goodly share of the populace were involved in directly or indirectly supporting them. With such a significant population producing no food, durable goods, or other services, what was sacrificed in Tibet was, essentially, labor itself.

Bataille associated sacrificial cultures with an ancient awareness of the superabundance of the sun, but also observed that western civilization, prior to and up through the industrial revolution, also valued sacrifice in various ways. War, for one, could be regarded as a form of sacred sacrifice, one raised to a horrific level of perfection in the trenches of World War I. Even the domestic "war effort," in WWII, loudly proclaimed the virtues of sacrifice -- both by direct measures (ration stamps and restrictions on raw materials) and ideological ones (the planting of Victory Gardens, scrap metal drives, and (in Australia) a campaign against too much spending, led by the swastika-branded "Squander Bug.")

It's fascinating to see exploration in a similar light. True, in the colonialist tradition, early modern exploration was followed by -- if not directly constituting -- the exploitation of the people and resources of the newly "discovered" territories. And yet, as the various empires of the world covered its surface with their flags and maps, there remained a few places where -- precisely because it did not appear that there was anything of value -- exploration could resume its proper beneficent scientific place. The millions of pounds that the British government spent on Arctic expeditions fits this bill, as does similar expenditure (some of it indirect) on the quest for the pole. But perhaps best of all, the exploration of space -- which involves vast sums, and very little prospect of remuneration -- constitutes a sacrifice of this kind.

And exploration has one other feature that resonates with the need for sacrifice: loss of life. Franklin's expedition is the most potent example, but it was a rare Arctic voyage that did not lose at least a few good men; the U.S.-led Greely expedition (1881-1884) lost all but six of its 21 men, with widespread allegations of cannibalism.  The US and Soviet space programs suffered a number of casualties, beginning with the Apollo 1 command module fire fifty years ago (3 dead), followed by the 1986 Challenger disaster and the 2003 disintegration of the shuttle Columbia on re-entry. The speech -- written by Peggy Noonan and delivered by President Ronald Reagan -- memorializing the Challenger astronauts is widely regarded as one of the finest speeches of its kind; Noonan's choice to evoke the earlier voyager Francis Drake firmly cemented it within both the tradition of "knights-errant" of the sea, and that of sacrifice:
I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.

1 comment:

  1. After reading this all I could think about was how sci-fi literature and film has unquestionably been a contributed to the mythologization of space expedition. Even though science has played a role in the mythologization of space dating back to Babylonian astronomers, science has overgrown the religious roots from which ideas and attitudes about space originally stemmed. Even with the insanely vast field of space sciences continuously contributing to our understanding of space, sci-fi lit and film make up most of what people think about space, and not just in technological advancements. If “the Arctic is where sublime masculinity” was constructed, than space-expedition has redefined masculinity by constructing sublime intelligence. It’s not enough to be driven, brave, curious, have strong instinctual survival skills, willing to challenge mental and physical limitations, one must possess a vast amount of knowledge before their adventure, which is why teams are so valuable and often present in sc-fi lit, it’s not like you can hire a guide to show you around another planet. Even the most heroic solitary character is portrayed by the loss or abandonment of/by their team, think Interstella (2014), The Martian (2015), Gravity (2013). Space expedition is usually seen as commercially insignificant, but integral to the survival of the human species, which is why colonization is often a major concern/aspect/motivation. Usually, it is after space has been colonized that commercialism and capitalism come into play—Rebel Stars Series (2014-present), Red Rising Trilogy. Risk is always a given in space exploration because of the unknown and the probable chance of something going wrong. Astronauts are willing to sacrifice their lives, their family, their friends: Armageddon (1998), Mission to Mars (2000) (I am on a movie kick). Yup.