11.04.2019

Space Taught Me Everything




On the eve of my 50th birthday, I found myself blissfully alone at ocean's edge — Stinson Beach, to be precise, just north of San Francisco, a slice of the coast tucked behind some earthly swells at the end of a stretch of windy-as-fuck Highway 1. Which is to say, while it is a well known beach, it is not so casually visited. There were no lit high schoolers with bonfires, no toddlers shrieking, no families arguing. It was just the infinite and me — and a freakish number of pelicans. I love pelicans — they're pterodactyls! — and they were kind enough to put on a show just for me.

Anyway, it was hours before the near full moon rose and, as the sun set, the sky became denser and denser with this and that. As I reckoned it and it, in turn, reckoned me, I could feel the cosmic embrace, the fullness of it surround me. And I realized that the key realizations in my life have been about space which, while seeming to contradict each other, actually conspire to offer a view on existence that informs my life at every turn, in every way.


My step father was an astronomer who studied the atmospheres of other planets. Perhaps this is what had me looking up at the night sky at a young age. But, unlike him, I wasn't interested in planets. Nor was I interested in stars, galaxies, asteroids; I never cared for the names on moons or constellation. I still don't know which way is north. No, I was interested in space itself, that infinite regress. (I wrote about that here).

And this, the infinity of space, is what transformed me starting at a very young age. To quote myself (what an odd and beautiful thing to do, to quote oneself, to see one's writing for what it is, fodder out there, no more mine than yours): "Lying alone at night tucked into my safari sheets, I'd track the movement in my head from the bed outwards — past my ceiling and roof, past the trees, through the clouds, past the everyday blue sky and moon, past the sun and planets, past the stars. What I loved was that the movement didn't end...." I found this experience at once intoxicating and erotic in a pre-sexual way: my nine year old body would quiver, the limits of my mind giving way as layer after layer of existence vanished in the rearview mirrior — past the ceiling, clouds, atmosphere, past the solar system, past all those stars — woosh, woosh, woosh until my mind and body became one continuous woosh! I became  verb, a will to infinity, pure becoming.

This was my first awakening: space is infinite. It's not just so-called gods and ideas, morals and concepts, that are temporally infinite. The stuff of this world — the world itself! — is infinite. Extension, which everywhere seems limited, has no final limit. Oh yes.
 
And as space is infinite, there's no fixed position, no final orientation of anything — no center, no up or down. This radical decentering of my existence was exhilarating. I never found it upsetting or disorienting: I found it liberating, ecstatic — the ecstasy of vertigo as I imagined myself hurling through the cosmos. In such a vertiginous world, you're always where you are, a relative position that is nevertheless absolute precisely because you're not closer or farther from a center. You are the center just as no one is ever the center. 


But then there is this second realization I had about space much later: space is shaped. It is relentlessly inflected, bending this way and that. We can see it when we look up at the sky and see the curvature, see the bends. Space, then, is not a neutral backdrop in which planets and other things move about. Space is itself something — a fabric, a flesh, so much stuff. It doesn't take an astrophysicist to see this. Just look up. You can see the shaping of space, its bends and curves, its swirls. I could sure see it, feel it, know it that night at Stinson. I could see, feel, and know the very texture of the cosmos — not as black abyss, not as a nothing, but as an all this

A few days later, I was talking to my parents, sharing this very couple of insights. And my mother replies: "Well, that's a contradiction. Shapes have limits so can't be infinite." This, I'm willing to bet, is a common perception of both shape and infinity: shape is bound, infinity is unbound.

But that's confusion born of a series of interconnected mis-readings of things. We assume infinity is a generality, a concept rather than a function, an operation, or a trait. I knew as kid that there must be difference between the infinity that exists between numbers 1 and 2 and, say, the infinity of space. Sure, conceptually we can say they're both infinite and be done with it. But this disregards a very strange aspect of infinity: it's particular. There is not just one infinity — except as a concept. There are infinite infinities.

Consider the number Pi. It's infinite. And not only is it infinite, it's non-repeating (which means it's not 3.14141414...). It's an infinite number that is absolutely particular and unknowable before experiencing it: it is infinite along this trajectory and this trajectory alone, according to such and such rules that are continually playing themselves out. There are teams of scientists dedicated to finding the next number in Pi. So Pi is, indeed, infinite and has limits. After all, it doesn't sprawl in every direction as it becomes every number. No, it stays very much itself — unto infinity. It is a becoming, much like me lying in bed, my mind moving towards the infinity of space. We're all wooshes. Or, better, we're all wooshing.

This is all to say, there is no neutral ground, no backdrop, no nothing. All there is is something(s). The world is full of itself, a plenum. There is no vacuum per se. And everything is in the mix. We may look at the planets and stars but we look at space, too. And space is not nothing; on the contrary, it is something — the interstellar and intergalactic medium of plasma and such. Space is not a tablecloth on which we set the table. It pushes and pulls, it careens and swirls, bending light, gasses, bodies, moods, and minds.

We know this as we make our way through the world, walking down streets. Every moment is something, full and rich, brimming with sense, affect, light, gas, smell, dreams, dust. We tend to focus on ourselves and the petty nonsense that defines us — job, shopping, dinner, dates. But despite our best efforts to act like actors on the backdrop of the world, this backdrop is nudging us this way and that. All these swirls of mood. (The first three "Pirates of Caribbean" films perform this well: in the first, there are actors on a boat; in the second, the boat is alive; in the third, the ocean is alive until the whole thing is a gaseous mess, beautiful and unwieldy.)

This double whammy of ideas that came to me looking at the sky has informed everything I think and am:
  • Infinity is a dimension of extension as much as a dimension of thought.
  • This means there is no fixed orientation, no up or down. We are all free floating, the ecstasy of vertigo.
  • I am the center; there is no center; everything is the center; nothing is the center.
  • There is no such thing as neutrality; everything is inflected.
  • The infinite is inflected; there are infinite infinities.
  • A thing, including each person, is a particular infinity: Pi(n)
This is how I see the world: all these becomings becoming unto infinity, all these Non Terminating Non Repeating Decimals, all these inflections of space, all this stuff I'm swimming in and swimming with, all these eddies and streams of affect and thought and gas, all swishing every which way as we hurtle and plod and saunter through a shaped cosmos that is always becoming along an infinite trajectory. It's a messy every-which-way world and it's confusing and beautiful and asks very different things of us than perhaps we'd previously  thought. Sometimes, we may even have to, together, turn the whole damn thing upside down.




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