Teaching can be a challenge. But then life hands you an event that banishes questions about the “relevance” of multiple texts you’re teaching, all at once. Come for the Frankenstein, stay for the Half-Earth, Our Malady, and Nineteen Eighty-four. (With a side of Mrs. Dalloway – what IS that thing in the sky everyone’s looking at? And what is the word it’s trying to spell?)
Overweening ambition, check. Inattention to consequences, check. Euphemism torn between tragedy and farce: check. Sycophantic cheers (?!) to overlord: check. This is almost too easy.
Sometimes even Twitter gets it right:
(Here’s the reference for those who, unlike me, were not 12 years old in 1986, listening to that song in Mama’s Buick on the way to Miss Shirley’s beauty parlor, where a little color TV on a metal cart had been hauled out into the center of the room and everyone was watching a white puffy spiral of smoke, spinning and spinning. The Challenger explosion. Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, died that day. I still remember her name. I still remember the silence in that room as kids and mamas and ladies gathered round, aghast. The cheery little salon with its mirrors and hairspray cans and pink plastic bibs. The white spiral of smoke. The silence.)
Glad I wasn’t the only one freaked out by the SpaceXers cheering:
But wait a second. What’s that goal again?
“To make life multi-planetary?” Kind of like “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” what exactly does that mean?
“To make life multi-planetary?” Whose life, what life, are we talking about? (Hard to imagine Elon imagining any life beyond human life.) If human and nonhuman life: why? Given the vast amount of chaos humans are wreaking here on earth, the chaos that at least in theory is at least being mostly contained by the limits of our life-supporting biosphere, the chaos drying up the Colorado River right now: why? Why is “making life multi-planetary” something worth doing? Why is “transcending human limitation” inherently, or automatically, something to desire – especially since it usually means also “transcending” human responsibility? “Multi-planetary:” what does that mean? Replicated on or across multiple planets, surfaces, dimensions? Containing aspects of other systems and lives within one larger system, like “multi-cultural?” Planting an outpost in multiple places to extract and synthesize their resources, like “multi-national” [corporations?] Able to jet-set like global consumer Elon himself, hopping from earth to the moon to Mars? Mirroring your own face and your own consumer desire (and its byproducts of pollution and waste) in every star? Once life becomes “multi-planetary,” what happens then? Maybe this is the only question we need: when we live on a breath-takingly, heart-stoppingly, magnificently complex planet in a more-than-human world we are destroying by the day, why put all that money and matter and fuel into ferrying billionaire narcissists – with who knows what unintended consequences – to the moon? Is there not enough need, here? Enough beauty and wonder, here? Enough good still to do, here?
In every class I am teaching right now, every day, I find myself walking with students into a knot of questions that only lead to more questions when you pull the string. I am trying not to overwhelm students, but it’s hard. They are exhausted. In part by their fear that they are living in an exhausted world, netted with systems that are binding and limiting their opportunities and range of motion before they have even had a chance to open their eyes and look around. “I feel like corporations have stripped all the copper wire out of the house,” says my former student Ben, “and my generation is just trying to turn on the lights.”
Having exhausted what had to have been a big supply of labor, energy, fuel, rare minerals, and raw materials, and created only an explosion (yielding more pollution and debris), what is the mindless tech-forwardness of the twenty-first century actually building? A millions-of-dollars-fireworks show. A spectacle. What good is it? In every sense of that word?
Oh, deadly human illusion: there is and will always be an elsewhere more worthy of attention, energy, and love than this place with these people, right here.