Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2012, 208 pages, $27.95, £19.95 hardcover. ISBN 9780520275003 (http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520275003)
There is so much to carp about regarding The Last Pictures, the new book by artist and experimental geographer Trevor Paglen, one doesn’t know quite where to begin. The entire notion of the book—or rather, of the project, because The Last Pictures ismuch more of a project than simply a book, the book merely being an adjunct to the project itself—is fraught with all the trappings of grandiosity inherent to any effort to create a monumental memento intended to convey to the future the essence of a civilization. For Paglen and his collaborators are enmeshed in a kind of quixotic gambit doomed to failure: the ultimate recording and translating of one age to another. And yet, once every last item in a lengthy itinerary of complaints has been duly filed and noted, there is still, rather surprisingly, something thrilling about The Last Pictures: it almost works in spite of its own vastly overwrought pretensions.
Paglen has long been fascinated with communication satellites and the ‘new geographies’ they create as they orbit through the Clarke Belt, the atmospheric ring through which such objects circle the Earth, connecting ‘noncontiguous places across the globe to one another’ (page 11). According to Paglen, it is generally believed by scientists that the hulls of such satellites will ‘stay in orbit for unimaginably long periods of times’, rotating around the planet like discarded flotsam (page 4). In effect, these satellites are artifacts of the present sent into the future, which led Paglen to the realization that any message sent to the future would best have its delivery secured by being posted on one of these vehicles. Paglen et al. decided to transport an archive of Earth into ‘deep time’ (page 187) via a silicon disk attached onto the surface of communication satellite EchoStar xvi, so that beings (i.e., aliens) millions and even billions of years from now may be able to comprehend what life on this planet was like circa 2012. The question Paglen et al. are faced with is what should be on this disc. This of course also raises the equally momentous decision about what should not be on the disc.
Having placed himself into the position of being the arbiter for the legacy of humanity, Paglen then coyly disclaims any sense of extreme gravitas about this task: ‘I decided that the artifact I was planning could only be a grand gesture about the failure of grand gestures’ (page 12). Well, no, Paglen didn’t decide this: such a failure is innate to the very project itself. For such a project cannot help but be such a failure, despite any attempt to fend off the heavy freight of such a gesture, no matter how adeptly self-deprecating that attempt may be. In other words, it is a grand gesture in and of itself, not just a gesture about the failure of grand gestures. For how could it not be? After all, The Last Pictures (the project, not the book) is meant to be an archive containing the key to the unraveling of a civilization which has disappeared. The degree of difficulty to the piece of legerdemain Paglen is attempting tempts hubris beyond its bounds. And so its full force comes crashing down.
Such a downfall is prodded along by the method by which Paglen assembled this archive of the one hundred photos judged to be the most suitable conveyors of Earth’s meaning at this present time. For reasons that never seem to have warranted one moment of self-reflection, Paglen relies only on collaborators whose resumes would qualify them as the elite of the elite of America’s Creative Class. Paglen litters the book with references to well-known academics, as if the inclusion of such worthies would guarantee the probity of the project. And so a question of class and status arises. Why should cognitive scientists teaching at UC San Diego and curators from MIT’s List Visual Arts Center have access to the decision-making process of this project but not waitresses and truck drivers, let alone poets, painters, and filmmakers? This may sound like a facetious protest, but if this project is to be a record of all humanity intended for the ages, what exactly is the criterion for inclusion within its selectors? Is it only the highly educated who are allowed on board? Does one’s resume have to bulge with advanced degrees in order to have an opinion about the meaning of the planet and, therefore, the contents of its archive? There’s a miscarriage of democracy here, especially if the disc containing the archive actually does become the record of the present to the future.
But there’s a hierarchy of an altogether different kind also assumed to be paramount here: the visual sense as the mediator of the messages sent to the future. The interpretive texts provided for the majority of the photographs included in the archive reflect the fact that images are rarely stand-alone entities, as they frequently require the accompaniment of a narrative for them to be fully comprehensible. But of course the narrations offered up in the book are mediated by vision as well. This leads one to familiar questions, such as that of what is required on a cognitive basis to “read” an image, and why should a picture be privileged over say, a sound, or a smell, or the further question of why one would even think that one sense operates without information routing into the brain from other senses, and so on. And so there’s a lack of democracy in the sensate domain as well.
Moreover, the logical grounds upon which Paglen is basing his presumption that the satellites in the Clarke Belt are destined to be the last remnants of humanity appear to be rickety, at best. A very odd sentence reveals the trap Paglen’s assumptions have set for him: ‘Like other spacecraft, they [communication satellites] will far outlast anything else humans have created’ (page 11). Well, sorry to be the one to report this, but spacecraft have not outlasted all that much that humans have created, at least at this point in time. Perhaps they will have, at some other point in time, but to willy-nilly presume that they will makes explicit a trust in science and history which is totally unwarranted by the record of humanity to this date. For, and here the tempting of hubris once again makes an appearance, such an assumption is fraught with the same kind of peril of those who wagered on the longevity of the theory of phlogiston.
Paglen wastes no time in stoking hubris to a fever pitch when he states in the introduction to The Last Pictures that this is ‘A modest collection, to be sure, but one designed to last far longer than the oldest cave paintings. A collection designed to transcend the Anthropocene and to transcend deep time itself. A collection of pictures designed for the time of the cosmos. A collection of pictures that very well may be the last’ (page viii). Once again, this passage, behind its almost farcical pomposity, reveals a logical impasse requiring explication. If the archive is intended for deep time yet it also transcends deep time, then what or who or when exactly is it intended for?
This reflects a haphazard thinking endemic to the entire enterprise of The Last Pictures. This sloppiness is revealed again in the intellectual bind Paglen has placed around the project. When, on the one hand, Paglen states that the message contained in the archive ‘would not be a grand representation of humanity’ (page 11), but, on the other hand, he is engaged in sending out into ‘a deep time which transcends deep time’ a collection of photos which cannot help but be packaged as exactly such a representation, then what conclusion can one come to except that some sort of entirely faulty line of thinking has revealed itself as ratiocination clearly gone amuck?
The only thing that saves this project from being anything but a complete intellectual disaster is the collection itself. The photos almost save the day, but not quite. Ranging from reproductions of Athanasius Kircher’s cat piano to electron microscopic photographs of Martian meteorites and from images of policemen holding hands in Nepal to ‘computers on parade’ in East Berlin circa 1987, the images in toto are remarkable. Yet, in the final analysis, they are defeated by the encumbrance of the intellectual brackets surrounding them. The claims encompassing the photos doom the images to be mere remnants of immodesty. The archive ends up reflecting, more than anything else, this moment’s overweening temptation of hubris on the part of the intellectual elite. But perhaps that is a suitable record of our times.
Rob Sullivan, Department of Geography, UCLA, 1255 Bunche Hall, Box 951524, Los Angeles, CA90095, U.S.A.