expressing the inexpressible

Trevize is grumpy as hell that he’s chosen Gaia – a superorganism – instead of either the technologically-superior First Foundation or the “mentalic” (psychosocial scientifically advanced) Second Foundation as the future of humankind.

The moment of coincidence took my breath away. I opened Isaac Asimov’s fifth book in The Foundation Series, thinking I would start to read it for a few minutes to shift my mind toward sleep, having just finished watching Maya’s extraordinary documentary on Toekomsten 02068. A futurologist, Maya interviewed people who attended the 01958 World’s Fair in Brussels, inquiring as to their experiences then, their reflections on how society has changed – or not – since then, and their projections another fifty years into the future. Jose interpreted the Flemish for me, gesturing occasionally to supplement the English.

The film confirms and goes beyond the fiftieth anniversary retrospective exhibition at The Atomium, Between Utopia and Reality. I spent an afternoon there last week: incredible. Honestly, walking out of the tram station and catching my first full view of this massive structure was awe-inspiring; it felt alien. As I approached, that impression only intensified. This architectural wonder representing an iron crystal looms into the atmosphere. I wondered if my fear of heights would hamper exploration.

I detailed my enthusiasm about the exhibit to a gang of potential troublemakers, carrying on about how well the exhibit presented the spirit of achievement and optimism of attendees while posing the critical questions indicated by evident contradictions in design and implementation. Specifically, how the constructed sensibility of a joined and shared humanness across fifty-two countries and widely-disparate cultures highlighted the public demise of colonialism and the threatening battle between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The witnesses/participants in Maya’s film confirm the dominance of the Fair’s spectacle over its overt theme,”A World View, A New Humanism,” critiquing the Fair’s overt display of technological prowess and power. Mirroring the implicit message of the Fair itself, the insidious face of nationalism remains largely unnamed by the film’s participants although it is clearly recognized. One man laughs as he recalls the positioning of the U.S. and U.S.S.R.’s pavilions with the Church in-between. The visual production of the film is superb: the subjects speak conversationally in 02008 against backdrops of scenes from the Fair in 01958. The imagery is fantastic: a science fiction tableau that, while sometimes quaint, in other respects still appears futuristic today.

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Listening to the film’s participants muse about what has changed or not over the last half-century is sobering. Almost universally, the bouyant hope that they experienced at the World’s Fair has faded to a grim concern. The most poignant evidence for me involved language. Many of the participants described worsening conditions of today’s society, or at least that there have been no substantive changes, certainly no improvement, since 01958. While recognizing achievements and differences between these two times, the underlying international dynamics remain essentially the same. A man who worked as a translator at the 01958 Fair spoke of how the speed of communication would increase because of all the innovations (e.g., the telephone); while telecommunications may indeed be the single driving factor in the vast transformations of globalization, the apparent need for speed unifies the present with the past.

The impetus for acceleration is accompanied with a selfishness that was variously described by participants in terms of money (for us)/peanuts (for them), abundance/lack, even suggesting hoarding/poverty. A young person of today wondered why we – who have so much – cannot share more with those who have so little? I felt the most telling clue to these dynamics was an instance when a participant shifted from Dutch to English. He was describing the insistent accumulation of “us” (he may have meant Belgians specifically but my sense was the broader white west) in contrast with inequities in Africa (in particular, although again he may have meant the broader underdeveloped world). In the midst of his impassioned speech he described what he perceives as the dominant, individual attitude, abruptly codeswitching to English:

“I don’t care!”

Admittedly, it is a challenge to care about people and places removed from one’s intimate, social, and professional circles. Sometimes it is difficult to care even within these microcosms. I am not sure when, during viewing, that I began thinking of Gaia. Probably at the point of temporal shift in focus, as participants shifted their gaze from reflecting on the past to imagining the future. I recalled the lecture at the University of Massachusetts last year by Dr. Lynn Margulis concerning her theory of endosymbiosis, a variation of the Gaia hypothesis. There is a commonsense-ness to this concept that adheres to the basic scientific principle of simplicity; I am astonished at the resistance in the scientific community to grant much credibility to the hypothesis. Indeed, at the lecture I attended there was not a single question from the audience – a phenomena which occurred only this one time during an entire year’s series of lectures. Of course, the common sense can be wrong, but often intellectual absolutisms are also proven false, or at least contingent. For instance, this incredible notion of “being an individual” as if no interdependence facilitates existence.

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Jose summarized the overall gist of people’s articulations in the film. The older people, she explained, can attribute some meaning, some vision to the future, while the young people in the film are at a loss. Perhaps, she mused, when you are young you have not yet accumulated enough experience to be able to project ahead. Reflecting on her own life, she said the hype and hope of the 01958 World’s Fair lasted until 1965, and then something changed. “You could feel it in the air,” she said. “Maybe things were not going to be ok.

Returning to Asimov, Trevize has decided he must re-discover Earth. Twenty thousand years into the future, Asimov imagines a universe in which the planetary origin of humanity has become lost in antiquity. “How is it possible,” Trevize wonders, “that we have all forgotten?

Memory depends on what we say and don’t say, which stories we tell, and how we tell them. Perhaps the future does, too.

Near the end of the 02068 documentary, reflecting on its message and projecting its potential meaningfulness, is a quote by Fred Polak about an emerging sustainable vision for the future. He qualifies: “our images of this future are still very fuzzy, very poorly defined” (translated into English, 1961, The image of the future). I found info on Polak from Merrill Findlay, On the fluttering of butterfly wings, a member of an organization called Imagine the Future Inc.

Findlay describes Polak as

“a Dutch sociologist who, in the late ’40s, wrote a book about how we humans simultaneously live in the present and that Other place, the future. About how we imagine that mythic Other Place to explain our present and how our images of that place, the future, then ‘act as magnets on our behaviour in the present’ to precipitate social change.”

I’ll adapt Findlay’s question (posed in 1994) to the narratives in Maya’s film, encompassing the challenges left by the shifts in attitude from a pervasive belief, a mere five decades ago, that ‘things will get better’ to today’s stark pessimism that ‘we may not even make it.’

What sort of future are these words and images drawing us toward?

The thing is, we can use language to remember what we need – not just what we want. We can use words and stories to motivate and propel trajectories that lead us to the sustainable future so many of us believe is possible.
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One thought on “expressing the inexpressible”

  1. I read the email to the UMass CAmpus Community regarding Dr Lynn Margulis’ death with sadness and respect for the work she accomplished in her lifetime.

    “To the Campus Community:

    Lynn Margulis, an internationally renowned evolutionary biologist and one of the most prominent and distinguished members of the UMass Amherst faculty, died yesterday at age 73. Her passing is a great loss for the entire campus family.

    Lynn was best known for her theory of symbiogenesis, which challenges central tenets of neo-Darwinism. She was also cited for her contribution to the Gaia hypothesis, the concept that the Earth and its living beings function as a self-regulating system.

    She leaves us a legacy of academic accomplishment brought about by her original thought and tireless inquiry into multiple field of science that look at how the world functions and how that magnificent world has developed over time.

    Her scholarship earned an international reputation for her as a thinker and writer dealing with complicated ideas and complex theories. Her work brought numerous accolades and awards both to her and to UMass Amherst.

    Lynn was appointed Distinguished University Professor in 1988 and was a member of the geosciences faculty at the time of her death. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983, and received the National Medal of Science in 1999 from President Bill Clinton.

    Her numerous awards and honors included the 2009 Darwin-Wallace Medal, awarded at 50-year intervals by the London-based Linnean Society for significant advances in the study of natural history and evolution. She also received the Nevada Medal, Sigma Xi’s William Proctor Prize, a NASA Public Service Award, the Miescher-Ishida Prize and the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques de France.

    In 2009, she was among the seven honorees at the Faculty Convocation who received the Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity given to nationally recognized faculty members. She previously received the Chancellor’s Medal, the campus’s highest award for service.

    As we observe Thanksgiving tomorrow, let us reflect on Lynn’s contributions to UMass Amherst and the quest for knowledge, for which we are grateful.”

    Robert C. Holub
    November 23, 2011

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