— Robert Louis Stevenson, in The Silverado Squatters (1883)
— Virginia Woolf, from her diary
— Dallas Lore Sharp, in The Spirit of the Hive , pg. 170-171
No. 6: small kitchen (2013)
I try not to brag too much on this blog, but I’m lucky enough to be friends with an amazing local experimental filmmaker named Malic Amalya. You can check out his tumblr — and you all should — by clicking here.
A four-hour exposure photograph of the 1998 Leonids meteor shower taken at the Modra Observatory in Slovakia.
Scenes from the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine.
One of the most enduring and recognizable dualisms in ancient Greek mythology is the distinction between the distant permanence of the gods in the heavens/Olympus and the helpless mortality of every pathetic, doomed human on earth. This distinction isn’t merely religious. In his astronomical writings, Aristotle insisted that the celestial bodies were eternal and unalterable, and what’s more, they were suspended in a previously-unrecognized element called aether, an immutable substance without weight or temperature found in its purest state in the regions beyond the moon. The concept of the abiding heavens persisted in Europe through the middle ages, during which time aether became known as ‘quintessance’ by the alchemists who attempted to use the substance to develop a panacea. Near the end of the sixteenth century, however, a young astronomer named David Fabricius observed the disappearance of a small star within the constellation Cetus, only to witness its reappearance several years later. Omicron Ceti (or, as it is now commonly known, Mira), became the first of over 10,000 ‘variable stars’, or stars that fluctuate in magnitude (brightness) over time. Along with a contemporaneous series of observed supernovae and discovery of sunspots by Fabricius and his son, Mira demonstrated the stark impermanence of the starscape to the European world. Not only could the gods die, they could stumble.
I picked up stargazing to pry myself from the computer after sundown, and to give me something to contribute at parties when the Bay Area’s ubiquitous crypto-hippies inevitably start conversations about fucking astrology. So far the new hobby of standing outside with my neck craned back for hours at a time has aggravated my main medical annoyances (back pain and a seemingly-immortal bronchial cold) more than it’s helped my internet addiction or social shortcomings, but if nothing else, it has at least given me a chance to think. The winter sky at night in San Francisco is a violent arena of heroes, monsters, and martyrs splayed awkwardly across what few stars remain visible through the light pollution. The stories the variable stars tell are disconcerting. Gamma Cassiopeiae provides a seat for Cassiopeia, the queen whose blasphemous pride enraged Poseidon, sits prominently and proudly above all upon the cushion of Gamma Cassiopeiae. Delta Cephei lies at the feet of her companion, the king Cepheus. Together, they chained their daughter Andromeda to a rock in the Jaffa harbor to quell the ocean’s wrath, watching the horizon, where the sea monster Cetus emerges to devour the princess, propelled by the rhythmic pulsations of Mira upon its tail. Perseus rushes between the creature and the heiress, the still-blinking head of Medusa illuminated at his hip by the Demon Star, the eclipsing binary Beta Persei (Algol). Further east, Orion the Hunter takes aim at Taurus, pulling back on his bowstring with his swelling shoulder muscle, Alpha Orionis (Betelgeuse). Taurus, in turn, charges towards Orion with the tip of its horns, especially Alpha Tarui (Aldebaran), shimmering menacingly. Throughout the course of the night, the stars rise from behind Twin Peaks to the east and are flung westward out into the ocean, locking teeth, swords, and claws even as they are devoured by the horizon: first Cetus, then Andromeda, then Taurus and Orion and Perseus. By morning, only the king and queen have managed to survive. It’s just them and the Pacific ocean.
On Thursday I visited a house in West Oakland to check out an available room, and learned that the previous tenant had recently been evicted with virtually no warning. Her magnets were still on the refrigerator; her food was still fresh — apparently she wasn’t even given the opportunity to clear out, and may now be homeless. Shaken, I turned down their offer, but in reality I know that unless I find better-paying work soon or muster up the courage to squat, I will inevitably end up replacing someone whose income is a quantum lower than mine. Wendy Brown says that neoliberalism transforms humans into mere “specks of human capital who self-invest to appreciate their value.” We don’t need to be managed directly to do this: our behavior is founded on “internalized norms about how to survive and thrive in a neoliberal fashion.” The phrase “specks of human capital” haunts me as I leave home for another anxious star walk through West Portal. My hunger for Oakland mounts as I watch the stars creep over the mountain’s silhouette to the east; I’m tired of feeling like a pawn. I came to this blank Pacific postwar housing tract in San Francisco because I assumed that if you can find a place to live in the a city you can’t hear gunfire every week for $400/mo, you should probably take it. But my status as an Intermediate Speck of Capital prevents me from making my home even here, where the police pull over to check me out as I walk to a corner store, where my neighbors turn away when I greet them, where parents approach me and ask me my business when I walk near a park. I don’t think the ancient Greeks society could really be described as neoliberal, but I expect that many of them were familiar with the feeling of being subtly resculpted into unwitting agents of capricious and violent hierarchies. When my landlord sells the house, I’ll scramble to find cheap housing in a gentrifying neighborhood of diverse specks, only to be priced out myself within a few years (or months!) by more affluent or desperate specks, all resigned to the logic of rent and capital. The frothy, swiftly-rising waters of San Francisco are on course to swallow all of us, and while I’m not quite beneath the horizon yet, I can see the terminator line approaching. My eyes begin to adjust to the darkness as I gain distance from Taraval Street, and the first stars that I recognize are variable stars in Cassiopeia and Cepheus. The king and queen who have blown handfuls of new specks of different colors and textures across the Bay, will alone survive the evening, who will watch from above the water’s surface as we drown, tooth upon sword upon claw.
when god lets my body be
From each brave eye shall sprout a tree
fruit that dangles therefrom
the purpled world will dance upon
Between my lips which did sing
a rose beget the spring
that maidens whom passion wastes
will lay between their little breasts
My strong fingers beneath the snow
Into strenuous birds shall go
my love walking in the grass
their wings will touch with her face
and all the while shall my heart be
With the bulge and nuzzle of the sea"
— e. e. cummings