The image of dark flow, described as 1400 galaxy clusters streaming toward the edge of the universe at blistering speed in the ongoing “afterglow” of the big bang (or something like that), has haunted me ever since I read about it several days ago. Caused “shortly after the big bang by something no longer in the observable universe,” and possibly by “a force exerted by other universes squeez[ing] ours” (umm, a force… doing what?… I can imagine Jon Stewart’s face squinting after hearing that), I can’t help thinking that astrophysicists are arriving at the point where the known universe is being bounded and taking its place amidst a more mysterious space of otherness, where we have no clue (and can’t possibly have a clue) what goes on. So it becomes the realm of poetry, of dreams and nightmares, of haunted imaginings, like the deep sea, beyond the reach of sunlight, that still fascinates us, but even more deep, dark, vital.
Einstein had famously said that “as our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it”; and perhaps the current constellation of events — the economic crisis with its Ponzi schemes, bank machinations, and the West’s growing indebtedness to po-faced and unreadable China, the gradually accumulating reports about climate change, and films about forthcoming apocalypses (2012), zombies and vampires (Zombieland, Twilight Saga: The New Moon), and zombieless apocalypses (The Road) — are conspiring to make us all a little curious, and spooked, about what’s out there in the growing darkness… What god will put the squeeze on us next, and what’s to guarantee he or she will be benevolent?
I’m also recalling a recent set of exchanges between Ben Woodard, kvond, and others on dark vitalism, a thought-stream brewing out of the nature-philosophical wing of speculative realism that Ian Hamilton Grant helped unleash with his Philosophies of Nature After Schelling… which perhaps is a Zeitgeist thing.
Zizek’s account of the Robert Heinlein novel “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” includes a lovely passage where he equates the Lacanian Real, the unassimilable kernel around which subjectivity is formed, with the “grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life” that emerges at the boundary of the known world and the unknown, outside the traveling couple’s car window. The Lacanian spookiness is perhaps what’s missing from Buddhist accounts of emptiness (though it’s hardly foreign to the Tibetan tantrics, with their graveyard nightshift meditations), and, to the goth-loving nature hound, it’s a nice addition. The passage is worth reproducing in full:
“At the denouement of the story, Hoag invites Randall and his wife to a picnic in the country. He tells them that he has at last become aware of his true identity: he is actually an art critic, though of a peculiar kind. Our universe, he says, is only one of several, and the masters of all the universes are mysterious beings who create different worlds, including our own, as experimental works of art. To maintain the artistic perfection of their efforts, these cosmic artificers from time to time send into their creations one of their own kind disguised as a native, to act as a kind of universal art critic. The mysterious committee members who summoned Randall are representatives of an evil and inferior divinity attempting to corrupt the work of the cosmic artists.
“Hoag informs Randall and his wife that, in the course of his visit to this universe, he has discovered one or two minor blemishes which he intends to have put right during the next few hours. Randall and his wife will notice nothing; but on the drive home to New York, they must under no circumstances open the windows of their car. They set off, and the journey is uneventful until they witness a road accident. At first they ignore it and continue on their way; but when they see a patrolman their sense of duty prevails and they stop to report the accident. Randall asks his wife to lower her window a little:
She complied, then gave a sharp intake of breath and swallowed a scream. He did not scream, but he wanted to.
Outside the open windows was no sunlight, no cops, no kids – nothing. Nothing but a grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life. They could see nothing of the city through it, not because it was too dense but because it was – empty. No sound came out of it; no movement showed in it.
It merged with the frame of the window and began to drift inside. Randall shouted, ‘Roll up the window!’ She tried to obey, but her hands were nerveless; he reached across her and cranked it up himself, jamming it hard into its seat.
The sunny scene was restored; through the glass they saw the patrolman, the boisterous game, the sidewalk, and the city beyond. Cynthia put a hand on his arm. ‘Drive on, Teddy!’
‘Wait a minute,’ he said tensely, and turned to the window beside him. Very cautiously he rolled it down – just a crack, less than an inch.
It was enough. The formless grey flux was out there, too; through the glass city traffic and sunny street were plain, through the opening – nothing.
“What is this ‘grey and formless mist’ if not the Lacanian Real – the pulsing of the pre-symbolic substance in all its abhorrent vitality? But what is crucial for us here is the form, or more precisely the place, in which this Real interferes: it irrupts on the very boundary separating the ‘outside’ from the ‘inside’, materialized in this case by the car window. Anyone who has ever been inside a car has experienced precisely this phenomenological sense of discord or disproportion between interior and exterior. Though from the outside the car looks small, from the inside it looks all of a sudden far larger; we feel quite comfortable. The price paid for that adjustment is the decisive loss of any continuity between inside and outside. To those sitting inside a car, the outside world appears at a certain distance, separated from them by a barrier or screen symbolized by the windows. They perceive everything outside the car as a mode of reality which is discontinuous with the reality inside.
“While they remain safely behind the closed windows, however, external objects are as if fundamentally unreal, their reality suspended in parentheses: a kind of cinematic reality, in effect, projected on to the screen of the window. It is precisely this phenomenological experience – the sense of a barrier separating inner and outer, the perception of the outside as a kind of fictional representation of spectacle – that is invoked by the alarming final scene of Heinlein’s story. It is as if, for a moment, the ‘projection’ of the outside world has stopped working; as if we have been confronted momentarily with the formless grey emptiness of the screen itself, with the Mallarmean ‘place where nothing takes place but the place’. (The same dissonance and disproportion between inside and outside are reproduced in Kafka’s stories, whose sinister architecture – the block of flats where the court meets in The Trial, the uncle’s palace in Amerika – is characterized by the fact that what appears from outside a modest structure metamorphoses miraculously on entry into an endless maze of halls and stairways reminiscent of Piranesi’s drawings of the subterranean labyrinths of prisons.)
“It seems that, as soon as we wall in a given space, there is more of it ‘inside’ than appears possible to an outside view. Continuity and proportion are not possible, because this disproportion, the surplus of inside in relation to outside, is a necessary structural effect of the very separation of the two; it can only be abolished by demolishing the barrier and letting the outside swallow the inside. What I want to suggest, then, is that this excess of ‘inside’ consists, precisely, in the fantasy-space – the mysterious thirteenth floor, the surplusspace which is a persistent motif in science fiction and mystery stories. This, equally, is what underlies the classic cinematic device for evading the unhappy ending, in which, just as the action is approaching its catastrophic climax, we undergo a radical change of perspective, and discover that the whole neartragic chain of events has been nothing but the protagonist’s nightmare – at which point we are returned, awakened and relieved, to the ‘real world’.”