Under artificial skies: Planetaria and modernism


A couple years ago or so, I posted a number of photos of the Moscow planetarium designed by Mikhail Siniavskii and Mikhail Barshch. The planetarium was built in 1929, and still stands today — albeit in an awful state of disrepair. I included the wonderful fragment “To the Planetarium” by Walter Benjamin, from his 1928 work One-Way Street. You can read more about the planetarium and its preservation here.

Recently I’ve found a bunch of new images to post, however, from the same cache as the Dom Narkomfin photos I posted the other day. So I thought I’d put them up for everyone to see, along with another fragment by the theorist of modernity Hans Blumenberg. Not too familiar with Blumenberg’s work, admittedly, but from what I can tell he’s less hostile to Weber than his rejection of the “secularization thesis” (what Weber called “the disenchantment of the world”) would suggest. Anyway, this bit from The Genesis of the Copernican World is quite nice. Enjoy.

The ambiguous meaning of the heavens

Hans Blumenberg
The genesis of the
Copernican world
West Berlin, 1975


The planetarium is the mausoleum of the starry heavens as the ideal of pure intuition. As a technical phenomenon it is deeply rooted in the nineteenth century’s longings for a popular knowledge of the starry heavens, longings that expressed themselves in “people’s astronomers” and “people’s observatories.” They retrieved the reserved property of science as a relic for a “natural” mass religion of the solved “riddles of the universe” and of ersatz emotions. To that extent the planetarium too is an end, an end of what Ernst Haeckel wrote in his Welträtsel [Riddles of the Universe] (a book that was distributed in many hundreds of thousands of copies): “The astonishment with which we gaze upon the starry heavens and the microscopic life in a drop of water, the awe with which we trace the marvelous working of energy in the motion of matter, the reverence with which we grasp the universal dominance of the law of substance throughout the universe-all these are part of our emotional life, falling under the heading of ‘natural religion.'” Modern man, Haeckel went on, does not need the narrow enclosed space of a special church in order to live in this religion; he finds his church “through the length and breadth of free nature, wherever he turns his gaze, to the whole universe or to any single part of it…” It is harsh, but indispensable in order to display the arc of this theme’s development, to quote immediately after the enthusiasms of this certainly important zoologist and theoretician of “family trees,” from 1899, what Hitler said on the subject in conversation during the noon meal in his headquarters on 5 June 1942: He had “directed that every town of any importance shall have an observatory, for astronomy has been shown by experience to be one of the best means at man’s disposal for expanding his view of the world and thus saving him from any tendency towards mental aberration.”

Under the artificial skies of the planetariums, the upright carriage of the observer of the heavens can be practiced sitting down, with the gentlest constraint to adopting the attitude of the onlooker in repose. Here, if anywhere, one should inevitably expect the demonization of the technical surrogate for the most sublime object — of the projected heavens as the false heavens. If one disregards the context of the [particular] concept of reality, into which this simulation fits as one of its logically most consistent elements, it is easy to make sarcastic fun of the false starlight and the false salvations that are sought under it. Nevertheless, this marvel has seldom been so little marveled at as in the work of Joseph Roth, who had his “first encounter with Antichrist” under this technical backdrop.

Roth writes a book of unmaskings. He follows the old pattern of the Platonic discovery that the realities with which we deal are only shadows and imitations; but he goes a step further beyond this schema when he establishes that everything that is even capable of being imitated is thereby lowered in its rank in reality. It is an attempt to oppose even the concept of reality that allows imitations to be real [wirklich] because they are efficacious [wirksam], without prejudice to what they may be derived from. Not only the shadows of the Platonic cave are convicted of their existential weakness, but the Ideas themselves are too, because it is still possible for those shadows to be their final derivative and the extreme indicator of their origin. What we have before us is a mirror-image reversal of Platonism: If in it the null grade of reality, in the shadows, was only possible because as images they were subordinate to the essentially imageable Ideas, now the unreality of the projections is only possible because their “originals” already suffer from unreality, so that “the reality that they imitate so deceivingly was not at all difficult to imitate, because it is not real.” This description of the cinema could in its turn be an imitation of the classic of this sort of cultural criticism, Max Picard’s Das Menschengesicht [The Human Face] of 1929: “Indeed, the real human beings, the living ones, had already become so shadowlike that the shadows on the screen had to seem real.” The unreality of reality is responsible for the artificial reality of unreality.

What Joseph Roth calls “the Antichrist” is the sum of the false realities. The boy encountered them for the first time at the beginning of his paideia [ education], in his Platonic cave: Not only the shadows but the cave itself was, so as to make the shadows possible, an artifact.

In those days a great wagon came along, drawn by invisible powers, and remained standing on an open space before the city. To begin with it sent a great machine forward, which was covered with a little tent made of linen, and on this a great tent, also made of linen, was spread out and set up like a dome, and if one went inside, the inside of the dome was a blue sky with many gold and silver stars…The dome was blue, and the stars were just as inaccessible and just as close as real stars are. For since a human being is not even tall enough to reach the roof of a circus tent erected by others of his kind, it did not matter to the person who sat beneath the dome whether it was the genuine sky or a copy of it. He could grasp neither the one nor the other with his hands. Consequently he was glad to believe that the one was the other, or vice versa. And since it became quite dark beneath and inside this dome made of tent linen, he was convinced that he sat in the midst of a clear, starry summer night…

Of course, under false heavens one can encounter false salvations. But they come from false expectations of an “authentic” and ultimate reality, of the genuine substance of nature that, because it is genuine, is at the same time not ready to hand. The demand for an authentic reality presupposes that one could tell by looking at the real that it is not the unreal-as long as one does not have to deal exclusively with the latter. But the production of this exclusiveness is what the Platonic cave and its technical successors imply.

The modern age added to this premise a further one. In Descartes’s consideration of doubt, the possibility is accepted that all the characteristics of the real could be imitated without the production of these characteristics having to generate, at the same time, the objective equivalent of reality. Leibniz was the first to urge, against Descartes, that the complete simulation of reality would in the end no longer be deception, because a deception requires both the implication of an assertion of what does not exist and that the person affected could suffer from being disillusioned, neither of which is the case here. The Baroque idea that life could be a dream has no terrors for Leibniz because expectation is determined by a new concept of reality in which the internal consistency of everything that is given is identical with all the ‘reliability’ of reality that is still possible.

There is something questionable and productive of misgivings in the demand for ultimate authenticity in all experiences, for an unmediated relation to the original, in a world that is characterized by overcrowding and can no longer keep open all paths to everything. This is no longer and not only a matter of the sincerity of one’s desire, not least of all because simulation surpasses artificially unaided [naturwüchsig] intuition. The starry heavens of intuition in the life-world are motionless for their viewer; if one also assumes that the everyday opportunity to view the heavens occurs at about the same time of day, there remain only the gradual seasonal displacement of the constellations, the Moon’s changes of phase, and the (even more difficult to perceive) motion of the planets. It is just not true that the natural heavens rotate soundlessly around the viewer; only the herdsmen of Chaldea were credited with having this experience without having any professional interest in having it. In contrast to this, the planetarium is a short of temporal telescope, which puts the static heavens in motion and by means of technical projection makes visible things that were never seen, that were really only disclosed by comparison of observations. Here it is a question not of duplicating experience that, with some effort, would also be possible ‘in the original’ for anyone at any time, but rather of augmenting what can be seen at all.