Apollonian Heroics

6 September 2011

Tuesday


The Apollo Moon Missions and

The paths left by astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on both Apollo 14 moon walks are visible in this image. (At the end of the second moon walk, Shepard famously hit two golf balls.) The descent stage of the lunar module Antares is also visible. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU)

The Heroic Conception of Civilization


In the Pantheon of Greek gods, Apollo held a special place. While not the equal of Zeus — “Father of Gods and men” (Πατὴρ Θεῶν τὲ καὶ Ἀνθρώπων) and pater familias of Olympia — Apollo represented those moral, aesthetic, and epistemic ideals that were central to ancient Greek civilization, and which still define classical ideals of harmony, order, proportion, and grace.

Apollo

Thus when the US moon missions of NASA were named “Apollo” the ideals of that early exemplar of Western aspiration to truth, beauty, and goodness were implicitly transferred to this great Cold War effort to best an ideological rival. Some at the time were critical of the space program because of its transparently ideological purpose (Bertrand Russell, for one, was roundly critical of the space program and dismissed it as mere Cold War posturing), but the Apollo program was one of those clear-cut instances in history when competition between political entities has given rise to something that transcended its time. This was no vulgar monument with flowing hair, drapery, and flashing swords; this was a singular achievement.

Regrettably a singular achievement in at least one sense, which is that it was singular — it was not followed by any comparable and sustained exploration of space, much less a significant presence in space (excepting Skylab, Mir, and the International Space Station). It took only sixty-six years from the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk to the US landing men on the moon. Many people (my material grandmother and my paternal grandfather included) lived to see both events, making this a remarkable period in which to be alive. At one point, hopes ran high that the next sixty years would be similar eventful, experiencing comparably exponential leaps of technology and achievement. But the subsequent forty-plus years have been anticlimactic. Twenty years from now, once another sixty-some years have elapsed, it is very likely that nothing much will have been accomplished in space travel.

The Apollo program is in the news again because the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has taken high resolution photographs of the surface of the moon that reveal in detail the moon landing sites. So we are reduced to looking from a distance at our accomplishments of forty years ago. I am the only one who finds this a little pathetic?

As I wrote above, hopes once ran high that the coming years would yield new wonders and achievements of technology; these hopes were the staple of late twentieth century futurism, which, as I have discussed elsewhere, ultimately became laughable and now is a source of camp humor when we look at the paintings of flying cars and jet packs that didn’t happen. Of course, other things happened in the meantime, but the high technology and computers, although it has changed the way the world works, has contributed little to human hopes and aspirations, and in so far as computers and automation have magnified the sense of a society distinguished by soulless, anonymous bureaucracy, recent technological advances have been counter-productive for human hopes and aspirations.

In a couple of posts, The Heroic Conception of Civilization and The Iterative Conception of Civilization, I attempted to delineate the contours of two very different attitudes to civilization that are to be found to a greater or lesser extent both in extant civilizations and in individuals who represent these civilizations. The exigencies of mass civilization sufficient to keep six billion people alive are such that it is the iterative conception of civilization that is most prevalent today, but glimpses of the heroic conception of civilization occasionally flash forth.

In my discussion of the heroic conception of civilization I quoted Sir Edmund Hillary as an exemplar of the heroic conception:

…Churchill was like Sir Edmund Hillary, who was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.” …an heroic feat — whether winning a war or climbing a mountain — once achieved loses interest, so that future heroes must look to other accomplishments. The unheroic character of our time, on the contrary, views accomplishments as a proof of concept, upon which an algorithm can be constructed and the achievement iterated for the benefit of the masses.

While Sir Edmund Hillary was wrong about it being unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt at climbing Everest, he might well have been talking about the Apollo program: if humanity fails to make the transition to being a spacefaring civilization, then it is unlikely that anyone will ever make another attempt at a moon landing. Thus the Apollo program, rather than being the template for an iterative civilization that late twentieth century futurists believed it to be, may be instead a singular heroic achievement, and in this sense a late and perhaps last flicker of the heroic conception of civilization.

In so far as the elite classes of our time busy themselves with refining their position as macro-parasites rather than formulating a vision for the future in which all can see themselves playing a part, this will be the template for a quasi-feudal order of society in which each class jealously guards the privilege it possesses, so that the non-elites will be as jealous of their middle-class luxuries as the elites are jealous of their private jets and private fixers.

Medieval feudalism was at least relieved by the heroic pretensions of the elite classes, who staged magnificent coronations, pageants, tournaments, and jousts at which the rabble could gawk and get drunk. In this sense, even the most marginal members of medieval society could see themselves as participating in the mythology that structured their world. With the barren and utilitarian feudalism of modernity, we are deprived even of vicarious participation in the spectacle of power, which is increasingly kept behind locked doors, security guards, and fortified buildings.

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