A History of Everything, Including You.
By: Jenny Hollowell
First there was god, or gods, or nothing. Then synthesis, space, the expansion, explosions, implosions, particles, objects, combustion, and fusion. Out of the chaos came order, stars were born and shown and died. Planets rolled across their galaxies on invisible ellipses and the elements combined and became.
Life evolved or was created. Cells trembled, and divided, and gasped and found dry land. Soon they grew legs, and fins, and hands, and antenna, and mouths, and ears, and wings, and eyes. Eyes that opened wide to take all of it in, the creeping, growing, soaring, swimming, crawling, stampeding universe.
Eyes opened and closed and opened again, we called it blinking. Above us shown a star that we called the sun. And we called the ground the earth. So we named everything including ourselves. We were man and woman and when we got lonely we figured out a way to make more of us. We called it sex, and most people enjoyed it. We fell in love. We talked about god and banged stones together, made sparks and called them fire, we got warmer and the food got better.
We got married, we had some children, they cried, and crawled, and grew. One dissected flowers, sometimes eating the petals. Another liked to chase squirrels. We fought wars over money, and honor, and women. We starved ourselves, we hired prostitutes, we purified our water. We compromised, decorated, and became esoteric. One of us stopped breathing and turned blue. Then others. First we covered them with leaves and then we buried them in the ground. We remembered them. We forgot them. We aged.
Our buildings kept getting taller. We hired lawyers and formed councils and left paper trails, we negotiated, we admitted, we got sick, and searched for cures. We invented lipstick, vaccines, pilates, solar panels, interventions, table manners, firearms, window treatments, therapy, birth control, tailgating, status symbols, palimony, sportsmanship, focus groups, zoloft, sunscreen, landscaping, cessnas, fortune cookies, chemotherapy, convenience foods, and computers. We angered militants, and our mothers.
You were born. You learned to walk, and went to school, and played sports, and lost your virginity, and got into a decent college, and majored in psychology, and went to rock shows, and became political, and got drunk, and changed your major to marketing, and wore turtleneck sweaters, and read novels, and volunteered, and went to movies, and developed a taste for blue cheese dressing.
I met you through friends, and didn’t like you at first. The feeling was mutual, but we got used to each other. We had sex for the first time behind an art gallery, standing up and slightly drunk. You held my face in your hands and said that I was beautiful. And you were too. Tall with a streetlight behind you. We went back to your place and listened to the White Album. We ordered in. We fought and made up and got good jobs and got married and bought an apartment and worked out and ate more and talked less. I got depressed. You ignored me. I was sick of you. You drank too much and got careless with money. I slept with my boss. We went into counseling and got a dog. I bought a book of sex positions and we tried the least degrading one, the wheelbarrow. You took flight lessons and subscribed to Rolling Stone. I learned Spanish and started gardening.
We had some children who more or less disappointed us but it might have been our fault. You were too indulgent and I was too critical. We loved them anyway. One of them died before we did, stabbed on the subway. We grieved. We moved. We adopted a cat. The world seemed uncertain, we lived beyond our means. I got judgmental and belligerent, you got confused and easily tired. You ignored me, I was sick of you. We forgave. We remembered. We made cocktails. We got tender. There was that time on the porch when you said, can you believe it?
This was near the end and your hands were trembling. I think you were talking about everything, including us. Did you want me to say it? So it would not be lost? It was too much for me to think about. I could not go back to the beginning. I said, not really. And we watched the sun go down. A dog kept barking in the distance, and you were tired but you smiled and you said, hear that? It’s rough, rough. And we laughed. You were like that.
Now, your question is my project and our house is full of clues. I’m reading old letters and turning over rocks. I burry my face in your sweaters. I study a photograph taken at the beach, the sun in our eyes, and the water behind us. It’s a victory to remember the forgotten picnic basket and your striped beach blanket. It’s a victory to remember how the jellyfish stung you and you ran screaming from the water. It’s a victory to remember treating the wound with meat tenderizer, and you saying, I made it better. I will tell you this, standing on our hill this morning I looked at the land we chose for ourselves, I saw a few green patches, and our sweet little shed, that same dog was barking, a storm was moving in. I did not think of heaven, but I saw that the clouds were beautiful and I watched them cover the sun.
(Editor’s note: Jenny Hollowell wrote it in a day. It’s part of a collection of short stories called, New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond. Hear her read it on Radiolab here.)
Human civilizations’ longest lasting artifacts are not the great Pyramids of Giza, nor the cave paintings at Lascaux, but the communications satellites that circle our planet. In a stationary orbit above the equator, the satellites that broadcast our TV signals, route our phone calls, and process our credit card transactions experience no atmospheric drag. Their inert hulls will continue to drift around Earth until the Sun expands into a red giant and engulfs them about 4.5 billion years from now.
The Last Pictures, co-published by Creative Time Books, is rooted in the premise that these communications satellites will ultimately become the cultural and material ruins of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, far outlasting anything else humans have created. Inspired in part by ancient cave paintings, nuclear waste warning signs, and Carl Sagan’s Golden Records of the 1970s, artist/geographer Trevor Paglen has developed a collection of one hundred images that will be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc. The disc, commissioned by Creative Time, will then be sent into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite in September 2012, as both a time capsule and a message to the future.
The selection of 100 images, which are the centerpiece of the book, was influenced by four years of interviews with leading scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and artists about the contradictions that characterize contemporary civilizations. Consequently, The Last Pictures engages some of the most profound questions of the human experience, provoking discourse about communication, deep time, and the economic, environmental, and social uncertainties that define our historical moment.
Though Paglen admits that it’s unlikely that the images will ever actually be discovered by yet-unknown future aliens, he took seriously the science that would make it even remotely possible. At an artist’s residency at MIT, he worked with scientists who developed a hyper-archival, gold-plated disc, on which pictures are micro-etched. He also took seriously the question of which images should be sent up, assembling a research team and interviewing anthropologists, artists and scientists.
In the end, the EchoStar XVI will launch, bearing 100 images into the depths of time. What are they? “The images are not meant to be a grand representation of ‘mankind’ or a portrait of humanity. Instead they are a montage about a civilization that finds itself in a moment of deep uncertainty about its own future,” says Paglen.
Sourced from governmental agencies, libraries and artists (including Paglen’s own work), many of the 100 undated pictures circle around the topics of science, technology and the environment. Many suggest that the miraculous scientific and technological advances mankind has achieved—the very ones that enabled us to launch a satellite that will orbit for millennia—are the means to our end.
Other images seem spectacularly random: One picture shows gloved hands holding Leon Trotsky’s brain, while “A Study in Perspective” by Ai Wei Wei shows the dissident artist flipping the Eiffel Tower the bird. Extended captions to many of these images are available to us in a catalogue, but one wonders how the future aliens would make any sense of them. The inscrutability of these images happens to also be part of the point.
The sometimes oblique images chosen for The Last Pictures were partly inspired by the mysterious visual remnants of ancient civilizations, like the cave paintings in Lascaux, and the moai, for which Easter Island is famous. Those artifacts have never entirely yielded their meaning, and yet they were made relatively recently, in terms of the “deep time” of space. “The notion that the message could actually mean anything at all seems ridiculous…but the probability of people on Earth thinking about it here and now is guaranteed,” writes Paglen in the book that accompanies the project.
And it’s true. It seems inherently valuable, if desperately sad, for us to visualize a time when we won’t exist. The processes, with which we are making ourselves extinct, are still ongoing, after all.
(Editor’s note: The Last Pictures is one hell of a book. It captures the triumph and struggle of the human spirit in 100 photographs.)
Garry Gutting’s review of "How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life"
Under capitalism, businesses sell us goods and service that are essential for living well, and most of us get the money to buy these things by working for businesses or, less often, profiting from investments in them. We need capitalism because no other economic system can produce sufficient goods to meet our essential material needs such as food, shelter, clothes, and medical care. But these goods are not enough. A good life mainly depends on intangibles such as love, friendship, beauty, and virtue—things capitalism cannot produce and money cannot buy. Given a sufficient minimum of material goods, the good life does not depend on the world of commerce.
Nonetheless, for most of us, work takes up the bulk of our time and energy, leaving comparatively little for living a good life. Some see their work itself as a pursuit of beauty, truth, or virtue. But most find what they do valuable primarily as a means of earning money to buy material necessities. And capitalist society itself insists that a good life requires much more than a minimum of material goods. A truly good life, it urges, requires fine food, a large and well-furnished home, stylish clothing, and a steady diet of diverting and enriching experiences derived from sports, culture, and travel—all of which are expensive.
We all agree that there’s a limit beyond which more material goods would make little difference to the goodness of our lives. But almost all of us think we are considerably below that limit. In general, then, capitalism works against the good life from two directions. It requires us to engage in work that makes little contribution to our living well, beyond supplying our material necessities, and it urges us to believe, falsely, that a good life is mainly a matter of accumulating material possessions. The Skidelskys sum it up this way: “The irony is that…now that we have achieved abundance [in advanced capitalist countries], the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly.”
Their view of capitalism is critical rather than revolutionary. They decry its tendency to sacrifice the human good to the goods of the market, but think we can curb this tendency and harness capitalism’s productive power for our pursuit of the good life. For them, the core problem with capitalism is “economic insatiability”—the intrinsic drive for increasing production (and therefore profits) without limit. The limitless demand for more can even lead, as we have recently seen, to economic catastrophe. More important, capitalism is morally deficient because its drivers are the vices of “greed and acquisitiveness,” which pile up “goods” that take us away from the good life.
The insatiability of capitalism exploits the corresponding insatiability of individual desires. No matter how much I possess, I find myself desiring more than I have. As I become rich enough to satisfy all my old desires, I develop new ones. Moreover, beyond a certain level of wealth, I begin to desire the best of everything, where the “best” (rare wines, exclusive resorts, the paintings of Old Masters) are in such limited supply that hardly anyone can afford them. And in addition to our spontaneous individual desires, we develop other desires simply because there are things others have that we don’t. Capitalism’s endless need to sell more and more is met by our need to buy more and more.