MAN APPEARS TO BE A FORWARD-LOOKING CREATURE, perhaps because an inevitably complex and always ambiguous past tends to evade understanding. The typically uncertain present, similarly, is prone to render man fatigue, given its insurmountable autonomy. The future, however, inspires a sense of hope in observers, yielding impetus for action.
Apart from its mobilizing function, the future serves a unifying purpose. Past and present affect us differently, and thus turn into the narratives of some and others, but scarcely of us all. By looking ahead, and by speaking of the future rather than a future (as one of many possibilities – however probable) we erect unifying narratives that evoke species-consciousness.
When the world man navigated still resembled an enigma – a puzzle beyond completion, whose meaning had to be induced rather than derived – epics captured the hearts and minds of man. Religious scripture, regardless of who we believe its author might have been, and tales passed from one generation to another across cultures, enabled man to identify – or rather to determine – his place amid the vastness within which he found himself.
Centuries of discovery illuminated maps, scientific advances along with technical and technological progress demystified phenomena, intellectual and material sophistication evoked individualism. In brief, the world of man was rendered rational, and came to be perceived as a playground for the traversal of man at his will and in his fashion.
A world so configured – disenchanted, as Weber once noted – is one in which past, present and future are swept beneath the lure and promise of the momentary and transient. In other words, the death of epics – rooted in mystery – denoted the birth of commerce and democracy, in which the individual rises above all else.
Ironically, such a disenchanted world is anything but rational. On the contrary, its roles, procedures, systems, processes and values render it the more complex, and entail myths of their own. The grand persistent epic of the industrial era is, of course, the notion of infinite universal improvement, attainable through technicalities derived through reason. Though elaborate in appearance, the ins and outs of our world have been cast in different attire, but really remain unchanged.
The absence of epics, in the midst of an era ruled by the momentary and transient, generates and sustains an evermore perilous void. With billions inhabiting this planet, with billions affecting intricate ecology, with billions rushing to the offerings of border-less conglomerates – upheld by the desires of few and the labor of many – unconscious of the liberties forgone thereby, man deprives himself from the very feature that forms his competitive advantage: intellect.
Problematically, man will neither ruminate about his habits nor adapt them until catastrophe is imminent. The few voices of caution that cut through the fog of the here and now, have long become incomprehensible, due to disciplinary knowledge in its overwhelming depth, mind-numbing technicality and crooked lingua franca. Until Manhattan floods, 1984 becomes a work of non-fiction, and “The Matrix” proves to be a self-induced state, man will remain at ease, and rest idle.
In order for intellect to allow for crises to be suspected and mitigated, the imagination of man must be sparked. Epics have, and can continue to serve this purpose. While neither Hollywood, traditions or the history of political thought produce or reveal the epics man direly necessitates, the idea of exploring space – if not of a multi-planetary existence – has this capacity.
Taking notice of, and beginning to think about the universe – in its ungraspable vastness (90 billion light years across, home to 500 sextillion stars, and organized into 80 billion galaxies) – may have a twofold effect. First, by leading man to think beyond the contours of this planet, it evokes species-consciousness and a sense of purpose that transcends the momentary and transient. The idea of venturing into the unknown promises to yield the hope and competition that have proven to be the seed of mankind’s greatest achievements. Second, this taking notice and thinking about the universe, may again draw man’s sight to the planet on which he has dwelt for at least 200,000 years. Since the universe – as the other – is most easily pictured in relation to Earth, and as its seemingly pristine vastness may diminish hopes of ever populating it, the preciousness of this planet and the life it harbors may become evident and a source of commitment to its preservation.
“Interstellar” may capture the imagination of viewers for 169 minutes, but is – apart from a few cases – unlikely to prompt questions about mankind’s present and possible futures. A wholehearted commitment to teaching our young about what lies beyond this planet, so that they come to value this one, and begin to recognize their common fate, is thus essential. Philosophy, despite the pivotal history of thought it reveals, will not guide man through an evermore complex present and always-already uncertain future; it lacks the capacity to raise the sight of habitual, forward-looking creatures. The mere idea of venturing into the unknown, in contrast, may be the bedrock of our future. “Interstellar” will not save, but can inspire us.
While mere ideas are in fact sorry comforts in an unmanageable situation, they can be the beginning of demands, projects, even utopias, that enable people to organize in new ways to pursue them. – Jedediah Purdy, in “Imagining the Anthropocene“