Phil Leonard

Professor Philip Leonard‘s research focuses on globalization, technology, and contemporary literature and theory. He is currently completing a monograph titled A World without Ground: On Being and Writing in Orbit. This book considers the relationship between orbital space and perceptions of the world as a planetary body that can be viewed, mapped, and measured as a unitary – global – entity. It focuses on literary and theoretical writing on satellites, orbit, and terrestrial ground, with particular reference to work by Giorgio Agamben, Buzz Aldrin, Erich Auerbach, Dante, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Tess Gerritson, Martin Heidegger, Tom McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Bernard Steigler. This book also considers locative developments in electronic literature, debates about the relationship between the satellite and networked computing, and poetry that has been launched into space.

From ‘Circumlachrymology’ [extract]

Can a satellite cry? Can it be overcome or defeated by passion; can it be affected or suffer to the extent that its vision is impaired? Can a satellite, the apparatus that observes the world and confers a sense of certainty about its dimensions, character, and content, tear up, whimper, or weep? Can it break down? Two films released in 2013 hint at such questions. Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s tale of orbital disaster, provides viewers with an intimate spectacle of tragic sorrow when Ryan Stone (the astronaut played by Sandra Bullock) yields to her desperate condition and concedes that she is about to die. At this moment she begins a lament that drifts unheard into the void of space (‘Nobody will mourn for me. No-one will pray for my soul’) and, as she cries, her tears float uncannily into the air around her. Also exploring the physics of tears, during his tenure as commander of the International Space Station, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tests whether those who live in orbit can cry. The video of this experiment – titled ‘Tears in Space (Don’t Fall)’ – shows Hadfield simulating the act of crying by putting water into one of his eyes. Strikingly different to the effect imagined in Cuarón’s film, the result is again visually impressive for those who have not experienced zero gravity: rather than flowing downwards or away, Hadfield’s surrogate tears form a liquid mass that remains attached to his eye. It is possible to produce tears – ‘Eyes can definitely cry in space’ he states – but because the force of gravity is not applied to them, crying takes on a different character in orbit: ‘the big difference is that tears don’t fall’, Hadfield observes. Those who view the dramatic visualizations offered by Cuarón and Hadfield might therefore find themselves unclear about the incompatible images of attachment and separation, accumulation and dissemination that they provide. Taken together, they suggest that the tear flows unpredictably in orbit; it is as though only a doubled or divided perspective can encompass what happens to the eye when it weeps in this unfamiliar environment. It is not possible to see with certainty when the orbiting eye is observed in its tearful state, they suggest; the more that this watchful eye is itself observed, the more it becomes clear that this transcendent vision is confused by the tear.

Hadfield’s observation relates to the physical properties of tears, as though crying is an act that is defined by the movement of liquids alone. However, asking whether it is possible to cry in space risks neglecting a more interesting question than the ones relating to fluid mechanics alone: why would someone in such a sublime place feel the need to cry, or become inundated by tears? Why would these heroic figures take on Heraclitus’s woeful regard, weeping as they look down on the world? Many answers to these questions immediately present themselves. Those who soar to such a supremely privileged place might be overwhelmed by the magnitude and grandeur of the unfathomable space that they have come to inhabit; no longer sheltered and sustained by the earth, they possibly begin to experience uncertainty about selfhood; no longer held in place by the earth, they might feel as though they’re falling into nothingness. Perhaps there is an anticlimactic recognition of what ascendance to this ethereal place can deliver; rather than attaining an incomparable elevation or escaping to an otherworldly place, perhaps they become aware of the perceptions and assumptions that they take with them. Perhaps daily routine or the minute attention to being alive makes orbital living mundane; perhaps making this place so trivial means that the heavens are celestial no more. The anointed who ascend to this place might come to see that, as a result of their actions, the sacred has become merely technical. Or, perhaps those in orbit miss the world. Although presenting itself most insistently, the world in this place might also seem to be out of reach; maybe it becomes remote to those who are afforded an exceptional perspective on what appears as the world’s full and undeniable actuality. Anyone who looks up to this place can only speculate on what might trouble those who soar to such heights, but any of these comedowns is surely reason enough to produce tears.

Watch Chris Hadfield’s video, ‘Tears Don’t Fall’, here.