Angel of History

In a Spaceship Called Epimetheus

In No One Receiving, the vessel is the message.

Astronauts Beth Kane and Bobby sometimes call them a starship, sometimes a spaceship, either way, the Epimetheus is the vessel, and it’s about damn time someone launched a non-binary ship with a name that matches their mission.

USA, Canada, the EU, techno hype-men in these regions hold all things Promethean in high regard. If you believe the myth, the Titans, half God half human, were bigger than people, so looking up would be the correct angle for all but the drone pilots among us. Why though do we worship a Titan who stole fire from the Gods and had his liver pecked out daily for all time? This is a little like the much-maligned ad campaign for fiverr, the below-minimum wage service of monetizing doing favours for strangers, using an app, the little blue fire captured in small boxes stolen from the modern gods of Mount Cupertino.

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Think about the movie Prometheus for a moment. It is one of the lesser films in the Aliens Franchise and yet endlessly entertaining. Foolish humans in a spaceship named for the Titan use technology to get to a new planet with their bot brother David in tow. They end up being eaten alive by chestbusting aliens. Movie ends. Then the franchise repeats itself, sending another group of humans to be eaten alive as reproductive substrate for chest-busting aliens.

Prometheus the Titan stole fire from the Gods and gave us techne, the ancient Greek word for art, skill or craft, (add logos and we have technology) so we could move forward, make linear progress. And in allowing the humans to progress in one direction through history toward a utopian climax in the stars, Prometheus was punished to a cyclical Arcadian form of torture, thanks to his immortality. Every morning he wakes up alright, then his liver gets pecked out, and its back to bed to rest up for the next day of torture.

And yet, while the tech enthusiasts of the Americas admire the forward-looking Titan, nobody wants to talk about his brother, who offers a metaphor just as useful as a reflection of a way of being. Epimetheus “the fool” was also a Titan, and yet because he was the one who looked backwards, he is nearly forgotten. Sci-fi films do not celebrate him, and technologists don’t seek to emulate him. But he is the Titan of organized labour, music snobs who miss the really good stuff, middle aged people longing for those glory years, and the Patron Titan of Nostalgia.

Fictional astronaut and music snob Beth Kane isn’t leaving Earth by choice. She loves her blue planet, her home. But it’s gone forever. No matter how pink the clouds are on the new planets she lands on, Kane will always long for Earth, and her dead friends, and her family, whose faces fade in her mind with time as her memories decay. Even her best friend Bobby doesn’t have a body. All she has that’s solid is her ship, the Epimetheus, and the Golden Record of Earth Songs from dead DJ/selector Carl Sagan.

In the gelded grooves the voice of former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim speaks forever, a message of greetings and peace to the civilizations of other worlds. Nostalgia for a simpler time colours the recording when we listen in ignorance of history.

Gold is obtained through toil and chemical leaching, and the voice on the record obtained his position after a career that began with meticulous administration and documentation of concentration camps, work for which he won an award. WG Sebald remarked on this in The Rings of Saturn, that the voice sent to space to represent us was revealed to be a Nazi.

In The Rings of Saturn Sebald walks a trail on a tract of English coast that is crumbling into the sea. As he walks he tells the story of the landscape and the series of disasters that preceded the present moment in the towns and beaches he comes to. The storytelling is circular between then, and his now, and touches on the collapse of populations of herring, the disappeared prairie of Doggerland (under the sea between Suffolk and Denmark), Hitler’s concentration camps, and the Emperor Friederich’s doomed silkworm colony.

Sebald told this story while unpacking his own experience of personal despair mixed with environmental despair, a sense of doom born of justified true belief in the horrors in his historical midst. Nostalgia is a kind of homesickness for a place in time that no longer exists, or never quite was, like the longing for the peaceful inter-species homeland of Earth depicted on the golden record. Looking back in ignorance can be blissful. But looking back with knowledge, may be viewed by children of techne, who worship progress and love to talk on the telephone, as foolish. Maybe that’s why we like to forget about Epimetheus, and nobody names movies after him.

For the Greeks, Epimetheus was called “the Fool.” Walter Benjamin called the backwards looking immortal the “Angel of History,” and this is how many on the left know him: 

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

--Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

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In the name of progress we reach for the planets beyond Earth, making plans to live in the light of other stars, and sending out Earth songs and maps to our homeland to those who come from beyond. 

When the Golden Record was launched into space on the Voyageur satellite, Carl Sagan didn’t know about the Secretary Waldheim’s wartime work. The aliens who find it won’t know either. The music is excellent. The technology is visible, and even includes instructions for human reproduction. And there is a chance the record and the satellite will outlive the species that launched it.

Epimetheus the fool is the half-God of afterthought. And with afterthought we can now assess the damages wrought by techne. Space colonization fantasies are driven in part by the anxiety that our world will become uninhabitable thanks to climate change, industrial pollution, nuclear disaster, and for this reason Epimetheus is the perfect name for a spaceship for a homesick Earthling with no world to go back to.

Zeus tasked the brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus with populating the world. Prometheus created the animals and man (the Titans began with man, then made woman), and after expending all of the feathers, horns and scales on the lower creatures, Epimetheus ran out of fancy things to decorate with, leaving man naked. And maybe it was best that way. Prometheus gave the naked ones techne to compensate for our lack of biological defenses, and with techne we’ve exterminated entire species, and sometimes each other, some among us documenting the process efficiently enough to be lauded for administrative skills, and going on to land careers in high places. There is no higher place than the stars, when viewed from Earth, but once you get up to the dust beyond Triton it’s all directionless everythingness, no zenith and no nadir. And that’s where Secretary Waldheim’s voice floats now, in the abyss.