by Randall Honold
AS17-148-22727. Not a catchy name, admittedly. But who isn’t familiar with the photograph it refers to?:
In 1994, geographer Denis Cosgrove wrote about the meaning of this image in his seminal essay, “Contested Global Visions: One-World, Whole-Earth, and the Apollo Space Photographs.” Cosgrove’s analysis and “22727” (the nickname we friends share) came to mind last month when this extraordinary scene presented itself to me from 39,000 feet above the southeast tip of Greenland:
I was on the way back home to Chicago from India, having had just co-led a three-week study of environmentalism there with a group of 20 undergraduates. This arresting landscape of glaciers and ice-covered mountains I photographed through the window of a 747 was ostensibly at odds with where I’d just been: the Western Ghats, Mumbai, and Delhi. But as Cosgrove argued, 22727 shows us that the “whole-earth” environmentalism and the “one-world” imperialism of our era are two sides of the same modernist coin. A commitment to modernist universality means nothing is – or ought to be – external to global systems such as climate, the economy, and politics. The irony is, of course, that no one actually sees the earth as the Apollo astronauts did, just as no one can experience global climatic changes, capital flows, or geopolitical power – at least not in the same ways we experience today’s weather, the dispensing of cash from the ATM, or drone attacks. These planet-wide objects (literary critic / philosopher Timothy Morton calls them “hyperobjects”) defy our ability to understand them from out of modernist stances.
I’ll get back to hyperobjects in future posts. In fact, I want to make my way back into to them by continuing the journey I’ve started down the scale from the extraplanetary (22727) to the tropospheric (Greenland). No short jaunt, this, and likely to be circuitous. Really, all want to do here is fill out three recurring and unoriginal intuitions I had about objects while photographing them in India.
We’re always outside objects.
We’re always inside objects.
We’re always next to objects.
These images are not meant to depict a hierarchy of objects nor do they exemplify the basic types of objects that comprise a complete set. They are simply (ha!) glimpses into a few places where we always already are.
I almost wrote “in relation to objects” to finish the sentence just above, but I’ve been weaning myself of this language as part of my experiment of living with objects. Heidegger taught me long ago that putting two mysterious things in relationship doesn’t make the things or the relationship any less mysterious; it only obfuscates the things and confuses what we mean by relation. It’s a hard lesson to remember, however, living in the City that Oprah Built. As my co-bloggers Rick, Anthony, and Christine wrote recently, thinking about objects raises serious questions: how we know them, whether or not we can touch them, who “I” am as a perceiver of them, if representations of objects are just as object-like as when they represent, do they have a moral valence, etc. I’ll defer (again!) the heavy philosophical lifting these concerns entail. Instead I want to think about my photographed objects in terms of the two most common student responses to their experience of India.
“I felt like time and space were distorted there; everything was unexpected and hard to get a hold of. It’s almost like the whole trip was a dream.” Don’t the best travel experiences do this to us? And don’t they – ideally – prompt us to pay closer attention to the people we’re with and the places we inhabit on a daily basis? Isn’t the quotidian right here just as mysterious, wobbly, and disorienting as anything halfway across the world? Do we really know our loved ones, friends, co-workers, and ourselves better over time? Or do all become more complex, nuanced, and multifaceted, therefore more obscure? Do we know what operations are going on behind the walls, just above the ceiling, or in the cracks of the floors of our homes? How much time would we need to know even the most miniscule place intimately?
“Getting on a plane and going through modern airports and a new subway all the way there, made the shock of finally experiencing India so much stronger when we finally got out onto the street.” What is it about placing yourself among strange new objects that’s so discombobulating? We see strange and new every day, don’t we? Does being agog give us privileged access to things? Or does the shock of the new cover over what’s more important to attend to? We knew that one-third of Indians live in poverty, that Hinduism accords respect to animals, and that infrastructure in Delhi is constantly under repair. Why did it shock us to have frail children beg for money, to step over sleeping dogs on the sidewalk and dodge fresh cow manure on the street, or to detour on and off the sidewalk five times in order to avoid stepping in holes – all in the 10-minute walk from the metro stop to the YMCA?
I reckon that my photographs/objects don’t scream, “INDIA!” But they do speak it softly, if “it” refers in some way to the range, scale, and complexity of objects there – or anywhere. The global and the local, the novel and the routine, converge in objects like highway billboards, public buildings, and tangled detritus. But in that convergence the mystery of objects is in no way revealed. The earth, the mountains in Greenland, the highway to Mumbai, a school rec room, and a jumble of trash underfoot, take our best modernist blows and don’t relent. Maybe it takes a few runs up and down the scale of objects to be reminded how humbling things can be. A few weeks in India doesn’t hurt either.