A Collapsed Sublime: Paleofuturism in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

2016.04.08 | Jacob Wamberg

In the article I am working on presently, I aim to show that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey partakes in a cultural turn I call paleofuturism. With a graphic peak in the 1960s, but extending widely into modern art and philosophy more broadly, paleofuturism implies that the deep past and the future are entangled through continuities and mirrorings. The more we advance into a future of advanced technology, disembodied subjects, and rational information, the more we seem to re-actualize all kinds of deep and repressed pasts: archaic cultures, bygone biological and geological eras, the embryonic state of individuals. An early manifestation of this sensibility we discern in 2001’s main literary impetus, Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-85). Here the overman of the future is compared to a child, a re-actualized primitive that is radicalized in 2001’s final images of an embryo in outer space. The idea of turning the inorganic black universe itself into the womb, with which the reconceived human should reunite, I demonstrate, is more specifically derived from Carl Gustav Jung, whose individuation, the unification with the collective unconscious, Kubrick thus gives a posthuman evolutionary promise.

Otherwise, in post-World War II science fiction (Clarke, Taine, Ballard) and in scientific and popular speculations on extra-terrestrial intelligence (Shklovskii and Sagan, Ordway and MacGowan, von Däniken, Hergé), archaic monuments might suddenly appear as alien technology and vice versa. 2001 joins land art and minimalism as selective high-art responses to these trends. As it appears in its raw, stony hollow in either primordial Africa or the futuristic moon, the black monolith,2001’s central symbol and catalyst of evolutionary leaps forward, resembles something that could have been done by earth artists and minimalists like Smithson, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim or Sol LeWitt.

What binds film and art together, deepening the paleofuturistic blendings, is a common anti-anthropocentrism, a bypass of the human and a similar preference for the inorganic that could be approached through Smithson’s key notion ofentropy. Instead of being anchored in the highly organized bodies of humans – the usual attentive center of film and sculpture alike – both 2001 and its artistic parallels slide toward everything that seems either looser or more strictly ordered, par excellence the raw materials of the earth and other parts of the universe, including, as a border condition, the vast expanses of emptiness connected to deserts and the infinite vacuum of the cosmos. This post-anthropocentric, entropic move could be understood as a collapsed sublime, retaining sublime ingredients such as the amorphous and serial, but overrunning the distanced contemplation of the individual observer.

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