Szendy, Peter. Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials: Cosmopolitical Philosofictions.
What are we to make of the fact that the esteemed German philosopher Immanuel Kant repeatedly wrote about about alien intelligence, and, in fact, seriously imagined the existence of extraterrestrial life in a way that deeply underpinned his entire philosophy? Kant made regular references to sublime alien beings throughout his works, from his Universal Natural History and the Theory of the Heavens (1755) to Critique of Judgment (1790)--also known as the Third Critique--while still ostensibly cloaked in the mantle of that foundational Enlightenment eminence grise for which posterity primarily remembers him. In Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials, first published in the original French in 2011, Peter Szendy contends that Kant's cosmological speculation about alien beings should not simply be consigned to fodder for cocktail-party trivia. Rather, Kant's proto-science-fictional trope of alien personhood undergirds his interest in the seemingly impossible prospect of a perpetual peace for humanity. Such speculation seems especially topical today, as the world has finally caught up with Kant's original eighteenth-century position that globalization, or the growing interdependency of the human species, has become inescapable. And Szendy contends that the aesthetics of philosophical science fiction in our globalized age also routinely depends on a sublime, extraterrestrial--dare we say, Kantian--perspective.
Regardless of whether Kant really believed in little green men, Kant in the Land of Extraterrestials is a timely contribution to a bourgeoning field of inquiry. In the preface, Szendy begins his discussion of Kant with the young philosopher's off-hand conjecture in Theory of the Heavens that other planets could possibly be inhabited. Szendy labels this speculation a telling "philosofiction" (46), and follows this extraterrestrial thread to Kant's late Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), wherein Kant uses the thought experiment of alien intelligence to analyze the concept of the wholly other. Szendy argues that imagining non-human alien sentience permits Kant to speculate about an estranged entity beyond the subjective and therefore to imagine the rational faculties of the human species in general (69).
In Chapter 1, "Star Wars," Szendy builds an explanatory frame for Kant's extraterrestrial references in a number of compelling close readings of sciencefiction film and television. In analyzing "A Small Talent for War," an obscure episode in CBS's 1985 The Twilight Zone reboot (Season 1, Episode 15b), Szendy contends that the exaggeration and erasure of human differences requires the panoramic view of an ambiguous extraterrestrial invasion. Here Szendy also briefly discusses the space race and expresses the belief that the cosmopolitan viewpoint needs to be distinguished from increasingly visible astropolitics in which, for instance, U.S. national security initiatives from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama demand security satellites exercise a "full spectrum dominance" over near-Earth orbit (17). Later, in Chapter 3, "Cosmetics and Cosmopolitics," Szendy extends his analysis of sf films with Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Abel Ferrara's remake Body Snatchers (1993) to argue that the films visually capture "the ungraspable differences between difference and indifference" in the play between the bland podpeople gaze and the foiled attempts to simulate this look by the un-snatched. Szendy also discusses Yakov Protazanov's Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), which, according to Szendy, likewise explores the triumph of progressive history toward an Enlightenment telos of world revolution, specifically through this "cosmotheoretical" space of interplanetary communication (101).
In Chapter 4, "Weightless: The Archimedean Point of the Sensible," Szendy analyzes George Melies's A Trip to the Moon (1902) and interprets the sequence when the astronomers land on the moon and look back at Earth, followed by a reverse view from Earth looking at the stylized face in the moon. Szendy emphasizes that this sequence disrupts the audience's gaze by showing a fantastic perspective--here, an Archimedean Point that provides unexpected objectivity--reinforced by Melies's famous image of the rocketpoked lunar eye. In this final chapter, Szendy also concludes his close readings of selected science-fictional movies such as Barry Sonnenfield's Men in Black (1997) and Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005). Szendy argues that the latter's borrowing of the tripod camera-eye tentacles from Wells's original novel and Byron Haskin's 1953 adaptation suggests a self-reflexive cinematic play with distance, movement, and reflection as the film's characters hide in a basement from the tentacles, and which recalls, for Szendy, the opening shots of the 2005 film--Earth reflected in a drop of water fallen on a leaf. This (inter)planetary perspective hints at the ecological message of the film and the desire for perpetual peace that Kant has been especially influential in introducing into the ongoing philosophical conversation.
Szendy does an admirable, even elegant job of explicating Kant's contribution to this broader philosophical conversation. As discussed in Chapter 2, "Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials," a case in point for the persistent recurrence of Kant's extraterrestrial motif is first broached in his early work, Theory of the Heavens, in which the philosopher paradoxically opines: "it is just not necessary to assert that all planets must be inhabited, even though it would be nonsense to deny this in regard to all or even only most of them"--that is, the philosopher is asking, as others had before him, Why would there not be forms of intelligent life elsewhere than on Earth? (45). Szendy notices that this conjecture--termed also "a philosofiction"--is again both flatly denied and simultaneously affirmed in Kant's Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, in which the human species is viewed as unique in the known universe.
Szendy also tracks this extraterrestrial motif and its merging of politics and aesthetics in the Third Critique as well as in the earlier, lesser-known essay "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose" (1784) in which Kant appeals to a panoramic view of progressive history on a march toward the French Revolution, and, eventually, a viable system of just international law, a league of nations, and a perpetual peace. This historical desire is Kant's utopian, prophetic "why not?" of much more urgency than conjectural exobiology.
Throughout, Szendy finds a chief counterpoint to the Enlightenment assumptions of Kant's progressive, pacifist, humanitarian theory of politics and art in Schmitt's The Nomos of the Earth (2003). As Szendy explains in his first chapter, Schmitt cites Kant's Doctrine of Right (1797) to defend his theory that the acquisition of terrestrial space and the construction of the "just enemy" form the arbitrary basis of political power. Schmitt, however, dismisses Kant's idea of perpetual peace as unachievable, while contending that Kantian cosmopolitics of international law suggest the possibility of "the new nomos of the Earth" (43). Schmitt views world peace as the culmination of the technological appropriation of modern space. Following the conquest of land, water, and air, continual war between sovereign nations no longer serves to bolster the international order; rather, in Schmitt the exercise of spatialized power moves beyond interstate politics and morphs into the maintenance of a global order of police actions, surveillance, and border skirmishes, the economic hegemony of transnational corporations, and the endless struggle between terrorism and counterterrorism.
Aside from a brief discussion of Jacques Derrida and his tantalizing deconstruction of cosmopolitanism, Szendy does not refer to "cosmo-theorists" other than Schmitt and Kant. Szendy's book, though, fits comfortably alongside a wealth of current literature on cosmopolitical theory. After a century in which the League of Nations proved as wispy as the Non-Aligned Movement, not to mention the conspicuous absence of workers of the world uniting under any grandiose banner of the internationally downtrodden, the resurgence of interest in Kant's cosmopolitan ideas may seem a convenient alibi for neo-imperial aggression. Yet a critical cosmopolitanism--dubbed "cosmopolitics" by acolytes like Szendy--has recently gained an undeniable postcolonial cachet, as in Peng Cheah's Inhuman Condition (2007). Likewise not mentioned by Szendy but very much in the same school of thought, fellow cosmo-theorist Bruce Robbins in Feeling Global (1999) contends that global ethical-political obligations and civil-society appeals to mutual respect rooted human rights must compromise with the messy realities of global laissez-faire profit-seeking in order truly to redress the worsening problems of globalization.
Szendy's book, consisting of a preface, four chapters, and a postface, is highly recursive, based on short sections that circle back over its textual analyses, primary contentions, and even specific phrases (as with Chapters 1 and 3, for example). Nevertheless, and despite its eccentric title, Szendy's book will likely prove useful for serious scholars with some previous acquaintance with Kant's work. Additionally, those scholars and readers with abiding interest in globalization, especially those versed in the ongoing debates of continental philosophy on the nature of globalization and cosmopolitanism, will find this study of the extraterrestrial motif in Kant of particular interest.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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