Norman Mailer was especially touched and perplexed by the problems of the astronauts. “They were virile men,” Mailer writes in Of a Fire on the Moon,

    but they were prodded, tapped into, poked, flexed, tested, subjected to a pharmacology of stimulants, depressants, diuretics, laxatives, retentives, tranquilizers, motion sickness pills, antibiotics, vitamins, and food which was designed to control the character of their feces. They were virile, but they were done to, they were done to like no healthy man alive…. On the one hand to dwell in the very center of technological reality … and yet to inhabit — if only in one’s dreams — that other world where death, metaphysics, and the unanswerable questions of eternity must reside, was to suggest natures so divided that they could have been the most miserable and unbalanced of men if they did not contain in their huge contradictions some of the profound and accelerating opposites of the century itself.

    To Mailer, alienation was the century’s theme, and Apollo was but a grand fugue played on it. Certainly, the revelatory power of the moon was at risk: astronaut Pete Conrad admits to Mailer that having “dreamed” of going to the moon for years, as an astronaut “now the moon is nothing but facts to me.” Convinced he had discovered a unique existential state, Mailer announces the need to found a new psychology: the “psychology of Astronauts, for they were either the end of the old line or the first of the new men.” In fact, they were neither the beginning nor the end—they were in the midst of a change older than the century, more comprehensive than machines. And it was system, not machine, that introduced the alienating power (and technology is at most system’s handmaiden). System is what deranged Melville’s Bartleby and Kafka’s dreaming, hapless clerks—and system, not machinery per se, is what made Apollo. The machine, despite all its mercilessness, its coolness, its implacable thingness, is no obstacle to dreaming. Mailer imagines an American male regarding the moon shot:

    He has worked with machines all his life, he has tooled cars to the point where he has felt them respond to his care, he has known them and slept beside them as trustingly as if they were hunting dogs, he knows a thousand things about the collaboration between a man and a machine, and he knows what can go wrong. Machines — all the old machines he has known — are as unreasonable as people…. He has spent his life with machines, they are all he has ever trusted…. He will see a world begin where machines are king and he does not know whether to cry from pride or (from) the all-out ache that he does not really understand the new machinery.


    The third of fourteen posts on the cultural legacy of the Apollo program and its era. The original essay can be found at HiLobrow.com, where it originally appeared on the 23rd of June, 2009.

  2. 16:36 9th Jul 2014

    Notes: 2


    The craft the Apollo astronauts rode to the moon was a capsule of contradictions: an engineering marvel and a jury-rigged bucket of bolts; a pill-like pod of corrugated metal contrived to give its aviator-cum-astronauts the feel of flight in an airless environment; a symbol of existential enigma and loneliness in which each system, no matter how minute, had its operators and monitors and simulation-ready counterparts on Earth. The command module would travel further from home than any vehicle theretofore, its subtlest changes watched and scrutinized to an unprecedented extent. Apollo was a congeries of machines and systems and personnel aimed not only at the moon, but at one of modernity’s primary questions: to what extent will the tools we create come to dominate us?


    Instead of answering that question, the Apollo program staged a performance of derring-do and machismo—one which involved a massive assemblage of stage machinery and special effects. The astronauts came from the world of test pilots, the testbed of machismo and consummate skill, the attitude depicted by Wolfe in the Right Stuff. But even for these skilled and talented men, the Newtonian knottiness of space flight proved too complex. The calculations required to maintain attitude even in the simplest trajectories were at once elegant and mind-boggling in their permutations, and the speed with which they needed to be carried out was beyond human possibility. And yet the astronauts demanded control —for the sake of their safety, and for reputation’s sake as well—and they had their swagger, the adulation of the public, and the fact the wager of their own mortality to back up the argument. In the end, Apollo’s systems were designed to produce a simulacrum of control, responding to their instructions, their movements of sticks and switches, while making adjustments at the speed of electronic calculation.

    It’s an intoxicating notion, piloting across the star-studded reaches of space. The mechanical and perceptual challenge of the Apollo landings—all of which, in the end, were accomplished under manual override of automatic systems—was evoked by the classic Lunar Lander video game. But Star Wars offered a full measure of the challenge, which was an existential and spiritual as well as mechanical one: when Luke in the climactic battle of Star Wars turns off his targeting computer and dives at the Death Star with eyes closed, The Force merges with The Right Stuff. In fact, Apollo’s computers aided the intuition of their pilots, figuring out in milliseconds how to do what the astronauts wanted to do. 


    This is the second of fourteen posts; see the original essay in full at HiLobrow, where it first appeared on June 23, 2009.

  3. 22:02 8th Jul 2014

    Notes: 1


    (In 2009, on the fortieth anniversary of the first manned moon landing, I published an essay on HiLobrow about the lingering cultural effects of the Apollo era. Five years, on, I’m going to share it in installments over the next couple of weeks, correcting, updating, and dilating as I go.)


    …Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
    beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
    and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

    would not, from all the borders of itself,
    burst like a star: for here there is no place
    that does not see you. You must change your life.

    — Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” translated by Stephen B. Mitchell

    WHEN HUMANS FIRST made their mark on the moon forty-five years ago, it was a moment that attracted the fascination of millions. And yet today its impact seems as remote as the flags, landing stages, and footprints left on Earth’s satellite by successive missions — footprints that no wind will wither. For all the optimistic hopes — that by the scope and grandeur of the Apollo program we would overcome our species’ many foibles; that through its mixture of Promethean energy and humble industry we would domesticate space itself — it was an ineluctably human endeavor, suffused with the tensions of myth, a moment of transcendence shot through with one species’ peculiar habits of sense and attention. Even the choice of destination was parochial and impulsive; the moon, after all, is an insignificant body by any measure but our own. Watching the progress of Apollo, many boggled at the distances and speeds involved, the incomprehensible abysses we could now leap with our machines. And yet didn’t we discover, looking back home over the desolation of the moon’s horizon, that even such distances were as nothing in the vastness of space? that even with great expenditure of energy — colossal, flagrant, unparalleled in history — we were still stuck in our own backyard?

    From today’s vantage, the moon landings seem the work of some island culture that flourished briefly and then vanished, leaving only ruined towers, ritual costumes, and incomprehensible glyphs. Apollo was always more a work of art than an expedition; it was the prototypical space opera, the only one carried out on the very stage itself. Next to it, all subsequent manned endeavors in space have been akin to sideshow or vaudeville, and NASA’s ambitions for manned space exploration in the wake of the landings have been educational, instrumental, resolutely middle-class. Like Greek drama, Apollo’s moment is gone, and some of its rituals, its choruses, will never make sense to us again. The age of easy space travel that Apollo seemed to promise never materialized; the jet-setting, space-hopping life envisioned in films like 2001 seems as spectacularly misbegotten as visions of skies dominated by Zeppelins and flying cars.


    Some thinkers believed the moon would be disenchanted by our visiting it. Yet it remains suffused with a brilliance that seems to come from within. Even in a world in which there is no place which does not see you, the moon remains inscrutable, unperturbed. Forty years after a small band of humans set foot on the moon, a great cohort of our species have become astronauts of a kind—and the planet we visit is our own. Our mission controls have moved to office parks in Louisiana and call centers in Mumbai. We climb into the hermetically sealed capsule of our vehicles, which we navigate with the aid of satellites. We carry in on our pockets tiny computers with more processing power than those used in the whole of the Apollo program. We’re wired up with earbuds, heart monitors, mobile phones, and laptops. Like the astronauts, we’re exposed to our instruments not as thinking, feeling subjects, but as bundled phenomena, clouds of shifting, fragile, data-making matter. Chips in our phones, our cars, and our credit cards talk to the network and track our movements. As we shoot encapsulated from place to place, the systems hum; distant servers chart our progress; chatter bounced off satellites keeps us company. Across what used to be called the digital divide, meanwhile, typhoons sweep away villages, rice crops wither, and children are killed in the name of goods or gods. Yet “their” problems seem “our” problems, their sorrows our responsibility. And curiously, this is at least in part an effect of Apollo—an aspect of the landings’ legacy that says, you must change your life.

    This is the first of fourteen posts; see the original essay in full at HiLobrow, where it first appeared on June 23, 2009.

  4. The concept of ecological restoration, as developed over the past 20 years, rests on the mistaken assumption that we can somehow bring back past ecosystems by removing invasive species and replanting native species. This overly simplistic view of the world ignores two basic tenets of modern ecology — that environmental stability is an illusion, and that an unpredictable future belongs to the best adapted.

    Many landscape architects feel conflicted by the restoration debate, trapped between the profession’s idealistic rhetoric about the innate superiority of native ecosystems and the constraints imposed by the financial and ecological realities of a particular site. Over the past 250 years, people have altered the basic trajectory of modern ecology to such an extent that going back to some earlier native condition is no longer possible and is certainly not a realistic solution to the increasingly complex environmental problems that we face.

    Landscape architects — and anyone else who works directly with vegetation — need to acknowledge that a wide variety of so-called novel or emergent ecosystems are developing before our eyes. They are the product of the interacting forces of urbanization, globalization and climate change, and are made up of organisms that have been brought together by the elimination or neutralization of barriers that had kept them separated for millions of years. The concept of a novel ecosystem applies not only to our cities and suburbs but also to many landscapes that have been subjected to the disturbance-intensive practices of agriculture, industry and mining. It is unrealistic to assume that turning back the ecological clock will be any easier than reversing the economic forces that created these landscapes.

    Landscape architecture can be a charged discipline, especially when it has to resolve the competing interests of its human clients with those of the other organisms that seek to inhabit the same space. The dichotomies that separate people from nature, and native from non-native species, present contradictions that landscape architects must resolve if they hope to have a lasting impact on the environments they design. My purpose here is to articulate an ecologically oriented vision for human-dominated landscapes that does not define them as intrinsically negative, valueless or alien.

    — Peter Del Tredici, “The Flora of the Future.”
  5. 07:45 18th Apr 2014

    Notes: 2

    What can I tell you about Brooklyn Arts Studio? You’ve already eschewed the joys of rinsing your hair with hand lotion and making off with tiny bars of soap, with staring into empty minibars and the travesty of CNN International. You’re an airbnb user, a wanderer of the electric world, a swimmer in the liquid modern! Well let me tell you, best beloved: you aren’t ready for the Blue Annex—not unless you were raised among the golden lions of Shangri-la, wrestling the gimlet-eyed inferno birds till dawn. You aren’t ready for the tintype wreckage and the clouds of American Spirit, or the red-lidded stare of postrock refugees rolling back from shows. Maybe first you should try kickstarting yourself a Bates Motel, or youtubing a haunted inn in the snows of Colorado, or tweeting yourself a cozy wicker man of a Summerisle. But you can’t sleep in youtube; kickstarter isn’t about to hand you a sloppy plate of curry and a snifter of hand-made gin. Twitter ain’t gonna light your cigarillo. Only wait—you say you miss the golden lions and their wishy-swishy tails? Perhaps even the inferno birds and their wobbly songs raise fond memory-welts on the back of your head? You pine for the pale mosquitos of morning whining their siren songs to inflame your gentling dreams? O best beloved, there’s a can of Off waiting for you in a trailer in Brooklyn.
    — My review for this place on AirBnB.
  6. 16:31 16th Apr 2014

    Notes: 1

    When striving to re-form the pattern of our own way of life, we often invoke Nature as our great teacher, seeking to justify man’s actions by arguments based on what happens in nature. We strive after ‘organic creation’, ‘form production from within’, ‘functional forms’, all of them aims which man believes he can find realized in works of nature. Using such slogans, our spirit protests against the artificiality of outward show; it demands ‘essentials’ instead of ‘façades’, and thinks that the very observation of nature should make us proof against false appearances and superficiality.

    But what do we see in natural objects which are said to be examples for us? The functional form pure and simple, so much extolled by some as befitting Nature, is a rare and special case. How much more often do we find in animal forms just what is not comprised in these concepts? And what about ‘form production from within’, which is supposed to be Nature’s way of salvation, which should be the aim of Art? The inside of an animal does remind us of really ingenious man-made apparatus, and a machine-like interpretation does explain some of its functions. But against this, the covering of such ‘apparatus’ always stimulates us to compare it with those kinds of human artistic creations which are farthest removed from any purposive conception. How often does it seem to us as if roving fancy had been at work; sportiveness, the capricious free play of creative force, comes to mind rather than a technical necessity.


    Adolf Portmann, Animal Forms and Patterns: a Study of the Appearance of Animals (Faber, 1952).

    The Oblique Strategies card I turned over today tells me to “discard an axiom,” and of the day’s reading this comes the closest to meeting the obligation.

  7. 12:17

    Notes: 1

    Reblogged from issheever


    From the curators: Animal rights activist and scientist Temple Grandin created the serpentine ramp to ensure the humane treatment of cattle. The first ramps that Grandin designed, in 1974, were used during vaccinations of the herd and then, within the same year, for slaughter plants. Grandin designed the ramp so that it prevents cattle from being spooked by the workers or the abattoir up ahead. Semicircular turns take advantage of the movement cattle naturally make in groups. Walking nose to tail, the cows march their way through to the kill floor without the use of prods or noise, and without panicking and injuring themselves. Grandin observed cattle in pasture, in her vaccinating chutes, and in her designs for slaughter houses. By taking blood samples from cattle she was able to show that using her design meant that cortisol levels (a stress hormone) were comparable in all three locations. She believes that design is never a substitute for livestock managers who support low-stress handling, and she advocates for video auditing to prevent employees from abusing animals. In her own words, “People forget that nature is very harsh, especially when predators attack. The big cats kill their prey first, but the canids (wolves and hyena) may rip the guts out of a live animal. We owe the animals we use for food a life worth living and a painless death.”

    Be sure to check out all of the remarkable pieces on the Design and Violence site.

  8. Winsor McCay’s astonishing Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), an early combination of animation and agitprop. It contains engrossing making-of scenes, and expresses a remarkable materiality, with a wooden frame (of the animation stand?) visibly setting off the animated sequences.

  9. 13:46

    Notes: 2

    Masterworks and facial detection.

  10. 05:58 1st Apr 2014

    Notes: 14

    We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them. We want the greatest possible contrast with the streets and the shops and the rooms of the town…. We want, especially, the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town, those conditions which compel us to walk circumspectly, watchfully, jealously, which compel us to look closely upon others without sympathy. Practically, what we most want is a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade. This we want as a central feature. We want depth of wood enough about it not only for comfort in hot weather, but to completely shut out the city from our landscapes.
    — Frederick Law Olmsted, “Public Parks” (1902). The quintessence of Olmsted’s vision, the glades and turfs of Central Park glimmer here. I’m struck, however, to think how many other ways trees have of being in the city—not as decoration or obscuring screen, but as residents in dialogue with buildings, infrastructure, and people.