Grass Roots Open Writers


Essays

 15 January 2013


Science Fiction Weapons. (Non-Fiction)

War may be hell, but to the science fiction writer war is paradise,
ready-made drama, endlessly variable as he wages Star Wars or Insect
Wars or even Witch Wars. With the great drive outwards to the stars, and the explosion of population that goes with it, the value of human life
is seen to diminish almost to zero; the weapons of war become the
heroes, and war itself becomes a symbol of man's dominance, not just of his own polluted world but of the universe. The warships get bigger, the weapons more horrific, the ways of dying more entertaining.

War in science fiction began when H.G. Wells described the hideous
events and aftermath of a Martian invasion of the Earth. The War of the
Worlds (1898) was a war of territory. Mars, overcrowded and exhausted,
sends its warships to Earth's green pastures, where there is room to
live and breath again. Wells conceived of the Martian ships as hollow
shells from a giant gun, they impact with the earth rather than land on
it (and who can forget the image of that great shell slowly unscrewing).
However we must remember that this was written many many years before rocket science. The Martian invaders fight from within walking and flying machines that can fire deadly heat rays. The Martians were
eventually defeated by a biological weapon - the common cold. Ray guns and bio-weapons were to become the props of so many sci-fi stories that perhaps we forget how farseeing was Wells' archetypal War of the Worlds.

Thereafter the Earth was to be invaded more times than most readers care to remember. They have come from all across the universe to take our land, rape our women, or inhabit our seas, or exploit and subdue our peoples. Others have come not in war, but in peace, but the generals have always overruled the voices of reason with their paranoia, and the tanks open fire on defenceless flying saucers, or the alien forms are cut down in machine gun swathes. (The Day the Earth stood Still. 1951). They don't all come in peace of course, and the atmosphere of Earth has often been rent by the screech of the invasion fleets and their energy weapons. Sometimes the invaders adapt their own biology as a weapon like the hideous slug creatures in Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (1951), which attach themselves to the spines of human beings and take them over.

In John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) the alien plant-like
creatures, activated when they sense that the human population has gone blind, begin their programme of world domination. They kill all but a handful of humans who escape to an island, beyond the range of Triffid spores. Man loses. But in 1962 Security Pictures (U.K.), bristling at the implication that man's weaponry might not be equal to a bunch of
plants, find that sea water is the way to kill the film's mindless plants. Like Wells' Martians these Triffids come unprepared. Today it is far more likely that an invasion from space would result in our losing.

As E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith in Triplanetary (Amazing Stories 1934) realised
any race capable of crossing the interstellar void would be possessed of
potent and sinister weaponry, and would swiftly reduce man's cities to
molten rubble.

Man also wars against man, of course, often over territory, inevitably
his global skirmishes end in a radiation wasteland (Terminator. 1984).
Survivors and resistance members crawl through this apocalyptic world
and eventually rebuild civilisation, society and of course weapons. That
particular irony was realised long before in Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz (1960). The post disaster theme is almost a cliché now, but Miller's work still stands apart for having explored the war wasteland and after in truly imaginative ways.

The tank is the ultimate battlefield weapon, first described by Wells in
The Land Ironclads (1903) but his description of tank warfare is
nowhere near as vivid as eye witness accounts of the real tank war that
occurred scant years later in World War 1. Despite its human occupant a tank is closer to a robot, a machine that seems almost sentient as it
pursues its enemy. The Daleks were an extension of this idea, and
certainly the most frightening of all of Dr. Who's many adversaries. The
sentient tank, or sentient machine of war, frequently appears in sci-fi.

Keith Laumer's short story The Last Command (Analog. 1967) describes an immense intelligent tank that is dug out of the rubble of the war in which it fought, and which instantly continues on its mission of death. It will obey only one man but that man is now old and frail and his voice is unrecognisable to the machine.

When it comes to machines though, only one can combine both mechanical mindlessness and inhuman reason - the robot. Robots have stalked future battlefields for as long as they have existed in pulp science fiction. Gigantic robots, or tiny scurrying robots, they combine all the good qualities of the human soldier; they don't question, they obey without hesitation, they do not feel fear or pain. They can sometimes get their brain circuits scrambled in an electronic version of shell shock, perhaps turning on their own controllers, or refusing to fight. After all, to fight is to risk getting killed and a truly sentient machine might begin to put a higher value on its own life than its makers intended. (Skynet in the Terminator movies). Perhaps men make better soldiers; a man can be enhanced cybernetically, made virtually
invulnerable with inorganic replacement parts and prosthetic weapons,
and sent into battle against the robots. Now which is more human?

For a really big war the Earth is not room enough and Man takes to the
stars. Star Wars ( 1977 ----) has a sickening romance to it, the Battle
of Britain transferred to the stars where ships explode soundlessly and
human screams are lost against the silence of the void. It's all so clean, so sterile, so civilised and technologically superior. The battle fleets lined up above the tiny contested world, the lancing phaser banks, the shimmering defensive screens and the disintegrator beams raking across the pot-bellied hull of an immense imperial cruiser. Or the photon torpedoes tracking down the enemy vessel and causing, just
briefly, a tiny nova against the backdrop of the stars.

Be warned, there are aliens out there and it is best to shoot first and
ask questions later; after all many of the aliens are hideous, such as
the insectoids in Heinlein's Starship Troopers (Book 1959   Film 1997).
The hand gun, be it pulse rifle, or laser, or blaster - speaks a far more eloquent message than any attempt to communicate intelligently.
Besides, being non-human it is quite obvious that any alien is in fact
less than human. We've seen this before in the pioneering American West; it is the pioneering spirit that underlies all of science fiction's
galactic explorations and wars. Flash Gordon without his ray gun is just
plain Boring Gordon, as unthinkable as the Lone Ranger without his
six-shooter.

In Joe Haldman's The Forever War (1974) is presented a bald and bitter
statement of war's futility, exquisitely using the physical laws of the
known universe to turn the ongoing war into a perfect metaphor for the
novel's central statement. The Forever War was started by humans in the early days of space colonisation; at that time all colony ships were
armed and the first time they met an alien vessel - a Tauran ship - they
naturally blasted it. From that day on, for centuries, the war has continued, but it is a war such as no other writer had explored before.
Each battle may last only days, but when a trooper returns home for
leave he finds that centuries have passed. When he goes back into battle centuries have passed there too, his weapons are hopelessly outdated and he needs total retraining. Einstein is the cause of the trouble, because fighting battles near light speed gives a relative time dilation - beyond the battle zone the universe is progressing far faster.

Once a soldier has been out to the wars there is nothing for him to do
but stay there, ever learning to use new weapons, always waiting for the
time when his own weapon is several centuries behind the enemy's and he is killed. Machine guns will work well against clubs, but not if the
clubs are wielded by soldiers in bulletproof armour.

Not all defences are offensive; shields, deflectors and cloaking devices
are all used in Star Trek by the Federation in their promotion of
universal peace and harmony. If all else fails they can use the warp
drive to outrun the enemy. However they can also use phaser banks,
photon torpedoes and as a last resort, the Genesis weapon. Against the
Borg they do not have superiority of weapons and they have to use
tactics and alliances to defeat the Borg's adaptive shields and weapons.
In Voyager (Year of Hell.) the crew come across a ship that is fighting
a battle using time itself as a weapon, it alters the universe so that
its enemy is weak and they have won, but the ship cannot go home.

A different sort of weapon is the human mind. After all if you can
telekinete and teleport, you can make nonsense of mere projectiles. In
Star Wars the Jedi Knights have the Force, but such a potent weapon
comes with a commitment to use it only for peace. In Richard Matheson's Witch War (Startling Stories. 1951) seven little girls sit in a hut and ‘think’ mayhem upon the invading armies. Their psychic powers, raw and unstoppable, enable them to pound the enemy with boulders, or turn the ground beneath them to quagmire.

What then is the narrative function of the weapon in science fiction? It
can be a symbol of the power of authority or of the hopes of rebels. It
can be ceremonial or indicate status, or can be used for hunting
(perhaps of people) for sport. It can be an extension of the hero's
masculinity - a phallic symbol. It can be humorous like "noisy cricket"
in Men in Black (1997), or the main character can become the ultimate
weapon as in Lawnmower Man (1992). In Robert Heinlien's utopian (?)
vision of an American society in a future where everybody is armed, and
any insult can lead to a duel, there is little crime and people are
careful to be polite to each other.

Finally there are stories in which the author has obviously dreamed up a
new weapon and created a story around it. Such stories as Larry Nivan's
Soft Weapon (Neutron Star. 1967), in which space travellers find an
alien artefact that turns out to be a weapon. This gun has several
settings and the story is about how the characters discover the use of
each setting, each more deadly than the last. Also by Larry Nivan is
Ringworld (1970) and no analysis of sci-fi weapons would be complete
without mentioning the Ringword Defence System. The sun at the centre of the Ringworld can be controlled, its photons achieve a state of
population inversion, and the entire output of the sun is released along
a laser beam! Surely the most powerful beam weapon created. Another
‘weapon’ story is in the film Dark Star (1974) where a three-man
spaceship carries several intelligent bombs, which are to be used to
blow up suns. One of the bombs is ordered to detonate and destroy a
star, however the bomb release mechanism fails and the crew find themselves talking to a live bomb, trying to convince it not to blow them up. The bomb decides that it is the most powerful thing in its universe, and hence it is God, hence it must explode and create a new universe - let there be light, and there was light. Which goes to show that you should never make a weapon that is too clever for your own good.

G.I.Cooper



My Thoughts on Air (Non-Fiction)

1. There has been an act of what amounts to collective forgetting about
air. Air has become a sort of vacuum - a strange paradox. There is, it seems, no air between us and the distant hills turning them blue; it is the hills themselves that are blue, or so we have fallen into the habit of thinking.


2. And yet air is the most intimate part of the natural world. It
interpenetrates us in an absolutely invasive manner. This air that circles the globe is also a component of my body, as essential and as internalised as my bones, my spleen, my heart. Air, in other words, is
the only one of my body's organs that is both common and ubiquitous.

People on the other side of the planet are internalising my organ, as I
theirs. Air is blood, and we are all vampires. When we talk of air, in other words, we are talking about a part of my body, which perhaps excuses the often autobiographical interest we have in it.


3. Our thoughts about air see it as a medium, as the neutral and invisible solvent by which everything else is carried: sound waves travel in air (as if sound waves could be separated out from air! Say rather that sound waves are air); pollution is 'air-borne', as if air is the pure white packhorse and 'pollution' is the dirty sack of coals across its saddleback. This sort of thinking doesn't help us. Pollution, in fact, is simply one of the manifestations of air. Thinkers who have long since chased away the superstitious old habit of thinking in terms of 'appearance and reality', of 'phenomenal and noumenal', of 'truth and
representation' still assume this structure of thought with respect to the air they breathe. Chasing out such thinking from 'air' will open the windows. It is this with which we are concerned. So, for example, if we
talk of 'clouds existing in the air', it implies that they might exist outside the air. But clouds are air, another one of its many protean forms.


4. To be more specific on this question: by talking of 'the five senses'
we tend to hypostise the sensed material; so 'a sense of smell' implies
that there is a material substance out there called 'smell' that our sense apprehends. This is not quite the case. 'Scent' is not some pure, ideal quantity that is carried 'on the air'; it is one of the many forms of air. Similarly, sound waves can no more be separated from the air than ocean-waves can from the ocean. What would a 'pure' ocean-wave look like, the isolated 'content' separated from the 'form' of the sea? Perhaps we are tempted to think of the answer to that question in terms of 'information', but that doesn't get us any further, because information is always already embodied in one or other material form.

There's no such thing as 'pure' information. Our sense of taste is
closely bound up with our sense of smell; and the nerve-endings that
mediate our sense of touch are fine-tuned for operation in air. This is to say: a ir shapes four of our senses. Only sight is exceptional, and it is so in interesting ways. So: the lunar astronaut only hears, only smells and tastes, only feels by virtue of the envelope of air inside his spacesuit, but he can see the stars without air. How can this be?


5. Theses on air as organ. Air is not a ubiquitous sense-organ, but it
is almost so. It is the one of our bodily organs that enables almost all
the others. And we can make a number of polemical assertions, or
theses, about this organ we call 'atmosphere'.

I. It is simultaneously common and intimately individual; it is the organ that surrounds the heart, and by moving the diaphragm of muscle in our solar plexus down we can expand this organ and feel it pressing against our heart.

II. 'My' air, in my lungs now, is the most personal, private and

intimate of my organs; this organ 'air' penetrates deeper into my body than anything else, deeper than sexual penetration, more thorough and vital than food. And yet I share precisely this air with everybody else on the planet. We are all air-siblings; we all interpenetrate everybody else in exactly this intimate supra-sexual manner; we are all connected along this private, supple limb. This is the deeper meaning behind the truism that 'air is both public and private'.
 
III. Air is internal and external and one and the same time. This truth goes deeper than we think, precisely because 'air' is the organ of our body that erases the distinction between internal and external. The hermetic myth of 'private inside' and 'public outside' is contradicted by air.

IV. Similarly, there is no 'outside' of air, and no 'inside': so, we
think of (say) molecules of smoke being carried 'inside' air, and we think of air 'ending' at a point however many scores of Kilometers above the Earth. But this is not right. Smoke is not carried in air, but is air. Likewise the air does not end abruptly at some point above the earth and 'vacuum' begin. There is, indeed, no such thing as 'vacuum', if we take the term to mean 'space empty of all matter'. Between the Earth and the moon it is true that the atmosphere is very greatly attenuated (the density of interplanetary air is approximately 100 molecules per cc; the density of interstellar air may be ten times less).

V. It is possible to seal oneself away, hermetically, from this

private/communal limb (in an airtight room, inside breathing apparatus), just as it is possible to apply a tight tourniquet to an arm or aleg-that is to say, not wholly, and rarely to good effect except in the direst of emergencies.


6. This is the most crucial point. The atmosphere, as Edgar Allen Poe
predicted in 1835, indeed reaches to the moon, although in an extremely attenuated form for most of the distance: 'it is also calculated that at an altitude not exceeding the hundredth part of the earth's
diameter-that is, not exceeding eighty miles-the rarefaction would be so
excessive that animal life could in no manner be sustained … But in
point of fact, an ascension being made to any given altitude, the
ponderable quantity of air surmounted in any farther ascension, is by no
means in proportion to the addition height ascended, but in a ratio
constantly decreasing. It is therefore evident that, ascend as high as
we may, we cannot literally speaking, arrive at a limit beyond which no
atmosphere is to be found. It must exist, I argued. … It appeared to me
evidently a rare atmosphere extending from the sun outwards, beyond the orbit of Venus at least, and I believed indefinitely farther, pervading
the entire regions of our planetary system, condensed into what we call
atmosphere at the planets themselves' [Poe, Hans Pfaall].

Set this alongside Marshall Savage in 1992: 'every school boy knows that space is a vacuum … [but] this is true only up to a point … [rather]
the matter in interstellar space constitutes a rather tenuous gas with a
density on the order of one nuclear particle per cubic centimetre. The
matter in 300,000 cubic kilometres of interstellar space would barely
fill a thimble. Passing through this thin gas at high speed does, however, create aerodynamic resistance. At close to the speed of light,
the pressure of interstellar gas on the front of the space ship will amount to 37 milligrams per square centimetre. This is a gas pressure
equal to that of the Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of 90 kilometres.
To fly through the interstellar medium, therefore, starships should be
streamlined. Even ships travelling at relatively low fractions of the speed of light will benefit from smooth aerodynamic design'.

In other words, the 'vacuum' of space is actually extremely attenuated
air; and it requires only speed to restore it to earthly atmosphere. Speed, in other words, is a form of air resistance; the winds or hurricanes of earth are the same thing.


7. Tool and machine. Airborne flight is an action upon an organic limb;
ballistic flight is the attempt to remove human action wholly out of the
reach of this limb. We need, here, to draw on the distinction (as old
as Marx) between tool and machine. The tool-a hammer, say - is an
extension of the worker's body, an elaboration of his labour, subordinate to the worker. The machine stands apart from the worker, and alienates some portion of their labour. Here, the workers becomes subordinate to the machine, rather than the other way about. This wide-ranging analysis also has its application to the topic of flight. Put baldly, the difference is this: aircraft are tools, supported upon a human limb; rockets and other ballistic projectiles, are machines, alienated from humanity.


8. Transparency. Air is often taken as proverbially transparent ('…into
thin air…'); yet the reverse is in fact the case. The combination of sunlight and air, such as we see in the sky at daytime, in fact prevents
us from seeing the stars. Cloud-air, fog-air, rain-air can stop us seeing anything at all. An interesting consideration flows from this. We think of 'air', abstractly, as clear, transparent, pure. Yet our ability to see is dependent on light, and light-sunlight-is precisely what fogs and hazes air, so that we cannot see the stars through the cataract of 'blue'.

Inertial moment. In Polar Inertia (1990) Paul Virilio instances a space-saving Tokyo exercise pool in which 'swimmers remain stationary' as water is pumped over and past them in the manner of a home trainer or
a moving walkway used in the wrong direction … whoever exercises here, then, becomes less a moving body than an island, a pole of inertia … space no longer stretches out ahead; the moment of inertia replaces
constant movement'. He links this illustrative phenomenon to the modern fascination with flight simulators, wind tunnels, and a general bias whereby our environment is increasingly oriented, actually and virtually, around the moment of inertia. But perhaps this ignores the key fact: the wind, as air, is always an organ of our bodies. For each of us therefore, it is always the air that moves past us, and never us
through the air. In the same way if I move my hand from my forehead to
the back of my neck it is not that I move past my hand, but that my hand passes behind me - even if I am walking as I make this gesture, such that an observer might see my hand occupying the same position relative to a vertical line (say, on a wall behind me as I passed). I move my limbs around me; I do not move myself 'through' my limbs. This is the actual symbolic truth of the wind tunnel - that we all inhabit such a
place, that the air is always centred on each of us, individually, as it is always an organ of our bodies.


10. Air as philosophy. We can think, perhaps, of philosophy as such as a metaphorical air: which is to say, precisely not as the medium through
which 'concepts' or 'truth' are carried, but as the possibility of concepts themselves. Schopenhauer said: "I have never professed to propound a philosophy that would leave no questions answered. In this sense philosophy is actually impossible; it would be the science of omniscience. But … there is a limit up to which reflection can penetrate, and so far illuminate the night of our existence, although the horizon always remains dark. This limit is reached by my doctrine of the will-to-live that affirms or denies itself in its own phenomenon. To want to go beyond this is, in my view, like wanting to fly beyond the atmosphere. We must stop here.' [Schopenhauer, vol II, p.591-2]. It can
be agreed that the philosopher flies on the air, and cannot fly without the air. But what if the air does not come to an end, only thins to one
degree or another?

Schelling and Air.

Schelling's Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (Ideen zu einer Philosophie
der Natur, 1797) contains an intriguing chapter 'Of the Air and the Kinds of Air'. The governing idea of the volume as a whole is that a science of nature must be grounded in an understanding of the dialectical inter-relation of opposing forces that determines the natural world. In the words of Robert Stern, Schelling argues 'that matter is an equilibrium of active forces that stand in polar opposition to one another … that "attractive and repulsive forces constitute the essence of matter itself"' [Stern, in Schelling, pp.x-xi]. Accordingly, Schelling rejects the Newtonian model of space and time, in which forces are independent of and act upon 'matter'. He also rejects calorific theories of heat in favour of a belief that a hot body represents a dis-equilibrium of attractive and repulsive forces that may be communicated to another body, until equilibrium is eventually achieved. His preference for Goet he's theory of optics over Newton's was similarly prompted by this underlying belief.

Schelling's theory of 'air' similarly explores the notion that the atmosphere represents an equilibrium of opposed, interacting forces.
'The atmospheric air,' he notes, 'changes daily in innumerable ways',
and yet retains 'a certain universal character'. So, for example, the amount of carbon-dioxide (Schelling calls this 'mephitic air') is being constantly increased by the exhalation of the animal kingdom, a situation which could led to a situation 'which would exhaust our vital
forces' as 'mephitic gas would stifle all seeds of life' [Schelling, pp.87-8]. Yet the quantity of oxygen (Lebensluft or 'living air') exhaled by the vegetable kingdom precisely balances this loss.

Schelling has a number of other hypotheses concerning air. He cannot
believe that the nitrogen and oxygen exist in the air as 'two layers floating one above the other', and argues that the two gases would exist
in a blended 'chemical interaction' were it not for the action of light 'keep[ing] the air in a constant state of decomposition'. He also argues at some length for the presence of 'heat' in air, penetrating it as he believes heat penetrates any body (which is to say: Schelling thinks of heat as a separate quantity that interpenetrates a body, rather than being the mechanistic function of increasingly excited molecular action):

"In the first case [of expanding gases], therefore, heat obviously acts
merely by separating the air particles from one another; in the last,
however [when heat 'generates air', for instance by 'passing water-vapour through a red hot earthen tube'], it acts by dissolution, through the fact that it penetrates the air particles. We have, naturally, to accept a similar penetration of solid bodies by heat in order to explain how a body can be warmed. For if we think of heat as distributed merely in the pores of the body, then it could very well expand the body, but not warm it." [Schelling, pp.91-2]

In the subsequent chapter, Schelling uses the same model to explain electricity.

"The basis of negative electrical matter is either oxygen itself, or some other basic substance wholly homogenous with it … as a chemical decomposition of the air causes the phenomenon of combustion, so a
mechanical disintegration of it … causes the phenomenon of electricity
-- Or: what combustion is from a chemical point of view, electrification
is from a mechanical point of view." [Schelling, pp.102-3]

It goes without saying that this model fits very poorly with contemporary discourses of physics, which are resolutely Newtonian, and which explain heat in terms of Brownian motion and electricity as the passage of electrons from ion to ion and so on. But that Schelling finds in atmospheric air ('Atmospherische Luft') the prototype of both heat and electricity is extremely interesting. Moreover, this idiom of 'penetration' has significant application to Schelling's philosophy more generally. In the 'Concluding Note' at the end of Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature Schelling boasts 'it is the highest pleasure of the soul to have penetrated, through science, to contemplation of this most perfect, all-satisfying and all-comprehending harmony' [Schelling, p.273].

The notion that electricity is, in some manner, in air suggests a paradox. How, we wonder, can something be hidden in a transparent medium? Is this not akin to 'hiding' something within a glass box? And yet (as with the logic that electricity must be in some sense invisible inside the invisible air) the invisible thing can hide much more effectively than the visible, precisely because we cannot look at it. Spirit is hidden in us much less effectively than things are hidden within spirit.

This connection with 'spirit' is the instructive one. The etymological link between 'spirit' and 'air' is well known; strictly, the Latin 'spiritus' means a movement of air ('a gentle blowing of air, a breath, breeze', from 'spiro' to breath or blow), although it is also used to mean 'air' generally, and only secondarily does it take on the sense of 'breath of life', 'spirit, soul, mind'. For Schelling, of course, the human spirit, the self-aware 'I', was the ground of nature itself. He believed was a product of the divine within, and was there for a reason: so that the infinite and absolutely free spirit (the absolute 'I') might become conscious of its freedom (of, that is, itself)' [Morgan, p.30]. The logic of the exterior world must 'coincide with the laws of our mind, not by chance (as if through some third intermediary)' but because 'she herself, necessarily and originally, should not only express, but even realize, the laws of our mind, and that she is, and is called, Nature only insofar as she does so' [Schelling, pp.41-2]. This, then, is Schelling's quarrel with Newton; the British scientist's belief that the world is material, composed of indivisible impermeable atoms, rather than the view that the world is spiritual, composed of balanced dialectic drives of attractive and repulsive forces. For Schelling. Nature must be this latter case because this was the nature of the spirit.

"The individual (the little 'I') was a being in which the infinite and the finite were united. It was a being in which an infinite activity strove, eternally, to become conscious of itself, which it could only do by limiting itself, its own activity. In determining itself, in creating its own boundaries, the spirit within had to be at the same time active and passive … the free spirit separated itself from its product, and left it as an object behind … In separating itself from its product, the spirit also created the means of becoming conscious of itself, because in this separation lay the opposition between inner and outer." [Morgan, p.30]

But whilst Schelling's 'Nature' can be encompassed in principle by the
concept 'spirit', the Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature revolves continually around the notion of 'atmospheric air'. Schelling certainly addresses a wide range of topics, 'Of the Combustion of Bodies', 'Of Light', 'Of the Air and the Kinds of Air', 'Of Electricity', 'Of Magnetism' amongst them. But, as we have already seen, electricity is explained as at root a phenomenon of oxygen; heat and combustion exist somehow within air. Light, similarly, Schelling regarded as a necessary agent in 'keep[ing] the air in a constant state of decomposition' so that the atmospheric nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide can play their inter-related parts. Yet light itself, he suggests, is an atmospheric phenomenon. He asserts the existence of 'atmospheres for the moon, Venus and Jupiter', and suggests that it is 'intrinsically credible that even the other world bodies, and in particular the sun, [are] surrounded by an aerosp here' [Schelling, p.81], citing the authority of Frederick Hershel for his theory that clouds in the solar atmosphere decompose to create light.

"Herschel believes that, in fact, these luminous clouds in the sun's
atmosphere arise from precipitation and decomposition of the air, and
that it is actually this light, produced by decompositions, which shines
in the sun, while the other transparent regions of its atmosphere,
through which the body of the sun itself can be seen, appear as spots.
From this then it follows quite naturally that the sun is no burning,
uninhabitable body, but is in general much more like the other world-bodies of its system than we usually imagine." [Schelling, p.81]

Schelling suggests that the northern lights in Earth's atmosphere are
evidence for this theory, that any 'aerosphere' can produce light after
the fashion of the sun. Ingenious and attractive, this (quite wrong)
theory puts a great emphasis on the importance and ubiquity of planetary atmospheres. It starts to seem as if the 'air' is a sort of ultimate ground of natural phenomena.

Slavoj Zizek is probably Schelling's most important critic and reader
working today. His Lacanian reading of Schelling identifies what he calls 'the fundamental conceptual opposition of Schelling's entire philosophical edifice' in these terms: 'the opposition between the atemporal rotary motion of drives and the "open" linear progression of
time' [Sizek, Indivisible Remainder, p.32]. We can ask ourselves: isn't
this also air? Its contradictory sense of embodying Euclidean and
non-Euclidian space in one-it is open in the sense of being the endless
and externalised organ of the torso, and closed in the sense of being
(on the large scale) 3-D toroidally self-closing, as well as (on the
small scale) of being an organic cul-de-sac closed off inside the chest
(we compare the experience of the fish moving through water). Schelling argues that in creating the cosmos God found a way out of the dilemma of a pre-ontic subjectless abyss of absolute freedom-the contraction, in Schelling's dialectical schema-by opening up the possibilities of choice, Good versus Evil, that constitute the free subject (the expansive antithesis). To quote Zizek again, 'the passage from pure
Freedom to a free Subject relies on the opposition between being and
becoming, between the principle of identity and the principle of
(sufficient) reason-ground' [Sizek, Indivisible Remainder, p.34].
Schelling himself, in his later works, focussed this creation-mythos as
the ex-stasis, the 'outsiding' of spirit; 'ausser-sich-gesetz-werden of
the Spirit'. 'That is to say,' Zizek explains, 'the Spirit is constitutively "outside itself"; a kind of umbilical cord connects it to a traumatic kernel which is simultaneously its condition of possibility (the well from which the Spirit draws its resources) and its condition of impossibility (the abyss whose all-destructive vortex continuously threatens to swallow the Spirit) [Sizek, Indivisible Remainder, p.73]. But this 'spirit-outside-itself' is pre cisely the air-as-organ-we might say, 'breath-outside-itself'-the umbilicus which reaches from inside out chest along the cord of our trachea into the larger organic air outside our body.

Schelling himself does not put it in quite these terms. Having argued
that Nature is wholly defined by the dialectical relationship of attractive and repulsive forces, he goes on to ask, what is it that mediates these two opposites? 'But where is it, that middle term which alone connects all these mutual affinities of bodies?' [Schelling, p.133]. The answer is close to hand:

"It must be present everywhere and, as universal principle of partial
attractions, be dispersed over the whole of Nature. Where else should we seek it than in the medium in which we ourselves live, which surrounds everything, permeates everything, is present to everything? The air, daily rejuvenated, envelops our earth..." [Schelling, p.133]

This gives us the true philosophical importance of Schelling's philosophy of air; as science his anti-Newtonian hypotheses are flawed,
or let's say 'plain wrong'; but as a grounding for the reconceptualisation of air as the medium of organic mediation (exterior-interior, expansion/contaction the rhythm of muscle action that creates breathing) his work is acutely prescient. This mediated dialectic is not notional or merely conceptual, but physical and material, somatic, organic. From here we can start to re-read Schelling not as 'idealist' but as in a sense the opposite, as a profoundly bodily philosopher.

Garet









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