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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: science

Neil deGrasse Tyson: pedantry in space


Something terrible happened to you in outer space. All you can remember are the last few moments, the sun fading to a speck as you and your crew broke free from the solar system, the ship’s systems suddenly shutting down, the panic and blackness inside, shouting and sobbing, outside the phosphorescent fringes of the wormhole as it opened up in front of you – and then you woke up, sweat-slick in your own bed at sunrise, with the birds singing outside, in another universe. You are trapped in the world of the popular TV astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you know this, because here the sunrise isn’t a sunrise at all. In fact, the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun, so the sun does not in any sense actually ‘rise’ – it’s just that you happen to be positioned right on the moving line, known as the ‘terminator’, that separates the illuminated portion of the planet from its dark side. And the birds singing aren’t really singing – actually, they’re just emitting a series of noises without any of the tonal qualities that distinguish singing from other vocal emissions. And the bed isn’t yours, because scientists have never been able to find any way of isolating ‘ownership’ in the physical composition of any object. You jump out of bed and start banging frantically at the walls. Is there no way out? Where are your crew? You rush to the window, and almost collapse in horror. It’s all there, spread out in front of you, exactly like home: everything is exactly the same, but in this sick parody of a universe it’s all been twisted into something hollow, meaningless, and mercilessly dull.

Pink strands of cloud fizzle up from the horizon, and you know that actually the horizon is just the curvature of the earth, and that the clouds, which were once believed to be inhabited by angels, house nothing of the sort. A few people are already outside in the streets below you, jogging, going to work, but they’re not really people. Actually, they’re just apes of the family Hominidae, most closely related to the genus Pan, going about their ape-business, which remains primarily motivated by the ape-needs of food, shelter, and sex. There is nothing that isn’t instantly boring. It’s too much. You rush into the kitchen, rattling the drawer in sheer panic (actually just dyspnea, tachycardia and dilation of the pupils caused by a surge of epinephrine in your body), pull out the knife (actually just a piece of metal attached to a piece of wood), and open your wrists. The blood (which was once thought to be one of the four humours, governing personality traits, but which is actually primarily used to transmit oxygen) glugs out, darker in colour and slower than you’d expected. It’ll be over now, you think. But actually, you’re not dying: you’re just a collection of atoms, and every single one of those atoms will remain. Not only are you in this universe, this universe is in you.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science; it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds. In his TV appearances, puppeted by an invisible army of scriptwriters, this tendency is barely held in check, but in his lectures or on the internet it’s torrential; a seeping flood of grey goo, paring down the world to its driest, dullest, most colourless essentials. He likes to watch scifi films, and point out all the inaccuracies. Actually, lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space; actually a light year is a unit of space rather than time; actually, none of this is real, it’s just a collection of still images projected at speed to present the illusion of movement, and all the characters are just actors who have never really been into outer space. When the rapper B.o.B. started loudly declaring that there’s a vast conspiracy to hide that fact that the world is really flat, Neil deGrasse Tyson immediately jumped in to refute him, even featuring on a eye-stabbingly awful rap song insisting that ‘B.o.B. gotta know that the planet is a sphere, G’ – a passionate, useless, and embarrassing defence of the blindingly obvious. In a world that’s simply given, brute fact, any attempt to imagine it into an entirely different shape must be stamped out. Why? The subject-matter is cosmic and transcendental, the object-cause is petty and stupid. Neil deGrasse Tyson strides onto stage to say that actually the Earth orbits the sun, that actually living beings gain their traits through evolutionary processes, that actually your hand has five fingers, that actually cows go moo, that actually poo comes out your bum – and you are then supposed to think yes, I knew that, and imagine someone else, someone who didn’t know it already, some idiot, and think: I’m better than that person, I’m so much smarter than everyone else.

A decent name for this tendency, for stars and spaceships recast as the instruments of a joyless and pedantic class spite, would be I Fucking Love Science. ‘Science’ here has very little to do with the scientific method itself; it means ontological physicalism, not believing in our Lord Jesus Christ, hating the spectrally stupid, and, more than anything, pretty pictures of nebulae and tree frogs. ‘Science’ comes to metonymically refer to the natural world, the object of science; it’s like describing a crime as ‘the police,’ or the ocean as ‘drinking.’ What ‘I Fucking Love Science’ actually means is ‘I Fucking Love Existing Conditions.’ But because the word ‘science’ still pings about between the limits of a discourse that depends on the exclusion of alternate modes of knowledge, the natural world of I Fucking Love Science is presented as being essentially a series of factual statements. There are no things, there are only truths. The fact that the earth is a sphere is vast and ponderous: you stand on its grinding surface, as that fact carries you on its heavy plod around our nearest star. The fact that the forms of organic life emerge through Darwinian evolution is fractal and distributed, so that little fragments of that fact will bark at you in the street or dart chirping overhead. The fact that there is no God, being a negative statement, is invisible, but you know for certain that it’s out there.

Which is not to say that there’s any requirement that these facts be true. None of this is real. Those multicoloured nebulae are not real objects, they exist only in fantastic pictures overlaid with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s face and some vague sentiments about how wonderful the universe is when it’s very far away from human life.  The images are digitally stitched together, the colours are fake, the shapes are not anything that could actually be seen out the window of your spaceship, a real-life nebula is about as exciting as a damp fog. If you’re going to love the natural world, really Fucking Love it, it’s best that you know as little about it as possible, or it might start to seem less lovable. Like when Neil DeGrasse Tyson quipped that ‘if ever there were a species for which sex hurt, it surely went extinct long ago.’ It’s a perfect Tyson fact, true because it’s basically tautologous, its scientific quality having everything to do with the idea that actual phenomena are just instantiations of abstract laws, and nothing to do with any scientific observation, such as listening to the yelps of cats fucking at night, or to women. Or when his TV show Cosmos described the sixteeth-century astrologer Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, executed by the Catholic church for proposing a heliocentric solar system. See how the idiots persecute us, the rational, with their superstition and their hostility to objective thought. The reality – that Bruno believed in magic, worshipped the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, and was executed not for heliocentrism but for denying the divinity of Christ – is ignored, because that isn’t Fucking Science Love. Or when he decided that ‘Italy valued cathedrals while Spain valued explorers. So worldwide, five times as many people speak Spanish than Italian.’ A spurious reconstruction of the past from present conditions, or the I Fucking Love Scientific theory of history: successful tribes were populated by little atavistic Carl Sagans; if Italians didn’t slaughter millions in the New World it isn’t because the peninsula was at the time fractured into multiple city-states (some of them occupied by, uh, Spain) which supplied significant amounts of capital rather than colonists, it’s because they weren’t interested in spaceships.

But all this is pedantry, the perverse insistence on how the world is, the total apathy to how it could be different. Pedantry could be broadly defined as a hostility to metaphor, the demand that every object stand for itself and nothing else, that words function in the same way as numbers. Which is why it’s pointless to criticise Neil deGrasse Tyson or the I Fucking Love Scientists for being the pompous, self-important, and utterly cretinous pedants that they are: it’s just falling back into their own dismal, boring logic, insisting that a thing is what it is rather than something else. It won’t help you, lying dazed on the lino, the blood now spluttering in half-congealed dribs from your arms, running diagonally to the corner of the room, where the cat is skittishly starting to lap it up with tiny flicks of its tongue. You lie there, and you try to remember if you ever did really go into outer space. It was so black out there, you remember. And all the stars were so far apart.

First as funny, then as die

There’s a lot wrong with Zach Galifianakis’s interview with Barack Obama, leader of the current American regime and undetained war criminal, on the spoof internet chatshow Between Two Ferns. Given the bleak absurdity of the situation and of all existence, here’s a listicle.

1. The title. Funny or die? Nonsense like this is why dialectics needs to be added to the primary school curriculum. Samuel Beckett wrote that nothing is funnier than unhappiness, but death gives it a run for its money – especially death as generally practised in late capitalism: death as a bureaucratic procedure, death without heroism. The family gathered at the hospital bedside, the desperate attempt to squeeze out a few last words of scrabbled-together wisdom, so full of abject seriousness that it always risks turning into a farce. The dying don’t have any more access to truth and meaning than anyone else, generally all they have is an intensity of regret. Sometimes the anal sphincter relaxes; the dead have a tendency to perform one last act of slapstick. And then a doctor arrives to cheerily tell everyone what time it is. The comedy of the grotesque is based on the continuity of bodies against prim and orderly individuation; that’s why shitting is funny, why sex is funny, and why corpses are hilarious.

2. The abrogation of comic duty. When confronting the great and the good, good comedians tend to feign deference to power while actually subverting it. Galifianakis does the opposite. He yawns in Obama’s face, identifies him as a ‘community organiser,’ accuses him of being a nerd, questions his allegiance to the nation, drops references to the conspiracy theory that he was born in Kenya, and (quite callously) to his enlargement of government surveillance and his programme of drone warfare. It’s all meaningless; in the end the interview is just a publicity stunt for the Affordable Care Act, a massive payout to insurance companies disguised as an egalitarian reform. Galifianakis’s faux-insincerity and neutered mockery isn’t even trying to mask the real content: isn’t it cool that the President is doing this? At the end of the sketch the black curtain comes down and it’s revealed that the whole thing has been taking place in the White House – in other words, within a structure of power. The comfortable remain unafflicted. It’s not just unethical, it tends to not be very funny. That’s why Stephen Colbert will always be funnier than Jon Stewart, a man who’d respond to a war crimes tribunal with a series of minutely composed funny faces. There’s a strange and awkward tension surrounding the whole Between Two Ferns interview, one that has nothing to do with the overt cringebait and everything to do with the sense of a stillborn satire.

3. The whole nerd thing. The interview is supposed to be a joke, but when Galifianakis accuses Obama of being a nerd the President’s eyes flash with a genuine fury. His denial is real. I’m not a nerd, bro! I smoked weed in high school, bro! I ordered the extrajudicial assassination of an United States citizen and his sixteen-year old son, bro! I’m fucking Michelle, bro! He has a point.

4. Obama as the straight man. Comedy duos tend to consist of one character behaving oddly and another to vent his ‘normal’ frustrations: Abbott of Abbott and Costello; John Cleese in the dead parrot sketch. Here it’s Obama. On his other shows Galifianakis sends himself up and allows his guests to do the same; on this one there’s no question of that happening. The President of the United States is transformed into some hideous Chandler-from-Friends figure, wisecracking about the Hangover films and the fantasy spider bites on his host’s arm. It’s not the show’s intention, but the ease with which Obama can enter this role demonstrates precisely that the straight man is always in fact a deluded and murderous psychopath.

5. The end of greatness. The cosmological principle states that the universe is homogeneous and isomorphic. Look at the universe on a large enough scale and it’s made of enormous walls of galaxy clusters, each billions of light years across, containing millions of galaxies that themselves contain billions of stars, forming a fragile web between vast and empty voids. Great things happen. Galaxies collide, stars are born and burn out, intelligent life stares out into the darkness and dreams stories for itself. Look at the universe on a slightly larger scale and the filaments and voids vanish. The universe is a flat grey expanse, all matter and all energy distributed evenly across its infinity, with no structure and no hidden meaning. On a large enough scale, the heat death of the universe has already happened. The world we think we inhabit, with its iridescent nebulae and heroic struggles for life and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis – it’s a translation error, a glitch between the blankness of the large-scale universe and the blankness of subatomic chaos. You exist, miraculously, in the middle of this precarious mistake of heterogeneity, and President Barack Obama has decided that he has the right to snuff out your life by missile-armed robot in the event that you might pose a threat to the future security of a national abstraction. And that’s pretty funny.

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