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Ozymandias in Outer Space

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 poem, “Ozymandias,” has had a pretty good run so far. Beyond the fact that it remains a staple of introductory college courses in literature, it has found its way into a number of pop culture products and cutting-edge art pieces, most famously as the title of an episode in the final season of Breaking Bad. As a promotional stunt, the series producers released a trailer with Bryan Cranston reading the full text of the poem, while stills of empty, significant locations from the story appeared one after the other.

Less well-known but just as indicative of the poem’s long historical and cultural reach is its inclusion in a launch event held by Trevor Paglen in New York last year. Paglen created a silicon disk of 100 images he calls “The Last Pictures,” and then launched the disc into outer space on a communications satellite, where the images will orbit for an estimated several billion years, outlasting every earthly trace of human existence, from the Great Pyramid to the transuranic waste buried in salt mines in the American southwest. Filmmaker Werner Herzog read the poem while the satellite, and the pictures with it, flew upward toward the black, eventually out of sight.

Paglen’s more recent project, “Nonfunctional Satellites,” involves sending reflective sculptures into space, where they will enter a low-earth orbit, and remain visible in the night sky for several weeks “before burning up upon reentry through the atmosphere.” Paglen explains that his “designs are responses to the question of what aerospace engineering would look like if its methods were decoupled from the corporate and military interests underlying the industry. The nonfunctional satellite recasts the old question of ‘art for art’s sake’ within a different context, asking whether we can imagine something like ‘aerospace engineering for aerospace engineering’s sake.’

As grandiose as both “The Last Pictures” and “Nonfunctional Satellites” might, at first, sound, they actually flip the grandiosity of Ozymandias and other monument builders, Walter White and other megalomaniacs, on its head. Shelley wrote his poem after hearing that a bust of Ramesses II would soon arrive at the British Museum, robbed from Egypt by “The Great Belzoni.” The bust, once in the museum, was enlisted in the British Empire’s own grand project to create an eternal, total realm on earth, as 19th century museums, world’s fairs, and the like, were spectacles that expressed the national superiority complex of each host nation and educated its masses on why they were more advanced than not only every other people living, but every other people that ever lived. Paglen’s use of cutting-edge digital and laser technology to create an image array that will orbit, for all intents and purposes, forever, without any hope of communicating to extraterrestrials or future humans, calls into question every human attempt to create permanent traces of ourselves. The nonfunctional satellite that will shine “after sunset and before dawn as a bright, slowly moving, flickering star,” harnesses the most utopian technological and sophisticated engineering knowledge humans have accrued (except that of the ancient Egyptians, perhaps) to effect a grand ephemerality, transforming the insane legacy of the space/arms race into something beautiful, something, for lack of a better word, poetic.

Paglen is not simply creating anti-monuments, but combining humans’ perennial monumental vision with the deep awareness that the nuclear/space age has brought us–nothing earthly is permanent, as the sun will eventually expand, as stars tend to do at some point in their lives, and render everything now sculpted in stone, or written on paper, or backed up on a hard drive back into stardust. “Ozymandias” continues to speak to us, and will continue to do so, as long as we invest media (whether stone statues, or film, or digital files) with the power to immortalize us, especially in cases where the “us” refers not to all humans but to the anxious collective of a nation or empire, such as the United States.

Paglen’s work has the kind of effect on me that great poems had on me when I first began studying poetry in my teens–Keats, Hughes (Langston, not Ted), Shakespeare, Nas, KRS-ONE, Sophocles, Black Thought. Under the spell of such works, I seem to be witnessing something new that speaks to what is oldest in me, and in everyone, something that both inspires and humbles you as you experience it, something that gives you the sense that you will one day die, but that this realization is not an occasion for mourning. On the contrary–the poem shows you that there are quite a few less limits than you thought there were on the life you will live. This is important because the failure of Ozymandias was not that his statue was blasted apart and that he did not maintain his power or live forever. His failure was that he wanted to. Great poetry and art bring us back into alignment with our ultimately ephemeral condition as human being, help us ward off the haunting, seemingly universal, and deadly desire to live forever.