An astronaut looks out of a window. From orbit, the earth appears as a solitary object against the groundless backdrop of outer space. This backward glance induces what’s known as the “overview effect”: a sense of awe encompassing concurrent responses of mastery and care, heroism and insignificance, in the face of a planet that is both larger and smaller than the viewing subject.
Whether from the vantage of spaceflight or that of an electron microscope, any attempt to scale up or down from human perception inspires similarly conflicting impulses. Technologies of representation and knowledge production—such as imaging, graphing, mapping, recording, and coding—stretch the thresholds of perception and extend the purview of the restless human subject, while also offering possibilities for new kinds of relationality. But to what extent is Earth-gazing also navel-gazing?
While we are wary of premature assertions of post-human status, issue 2 of aCCeSsions questions whether the tools that bring the distant into correspondence with the familiar sometimes lack a capacity for what might be called multiscalar empathy: Do you have to be able to see something, or be brought close to it, in order to care about it? Which alternate perspectives are precluded by those deemed most total, or most crystalline? What transpires when the human ceases to occupy the degree zero of scale, and which incoherencies and omissions arise from an inability to think the micro and macro together? The commissions featured in this issue—a range of essays, interviews, artist projects, and experiments in fiction—take up these questions, reexamining the methods by which we present the world to ourselves. In a contemporary characterized by the increasing complexity of representational technologies, our contributors seek to orient the reader within the myriad systems that have irrevocably transformed humanity’s sense of itself.
Artist Amy Balkin’s contribution revisits World War II–era American Airlines advertisements to suggest that the aerial (and supposedly communal) visions of the earth posed therein are indicative of deep-seated affiliations between technological, militarist, and biopolitical visuality and control. In light of the domination afforded by such omniscience, how might we think the global across multiple scales without falling prey to a blanket universality on the one hand, or a myopic micropolitics on the other? Collective Laboria Cuboniks discuss this dilemma in conversation with members of the editorial board, advocating a fluidly scalable Xenofeminism that weaves together multiple perspectives in pursuit of a new universal. Denise Ferreira da Silva similarly advocates multiplicity in her notion of “fractal thinking,” an approach she introduces as an alternative to the linearity, and limited scope, of predominant responses to refugee crises and racial subjugation alike.
While Ferreira da Silva proposes an intellectual four-dimensionality, artist Sarah Oppenheimer and cognitive scientist Dr. William Warren discuss their shared investigations into the difficulties encountered in any attempt to adequately represent space. Noting the ways in which human perception fails to match up to projections of Euclidean mapping, they propose a conception of space that is more like a network or graph. This emphasis on the irreconcilability between “reality” and its encoding resonates across the essay by Alexander Provan. These contributions bracket the visual register implied by the overview effect, instead highlighting the sonic, informational, haptic, and synaesthetic.
Nora Khan and Whitney Mallett offer the first set in a rolling series of provocations. Khan’s forthcoming short essay advocates the power of smallness in relation to floods of information and the superhuman abilities of the neural networks that envelop the globe, while the earth’s post-apocalyptic landscape becomes material fodder for art-world speculation in Mallett’s fictional contribution. Indeed, the imbrication of the material and the symbolic expressed by the overview effect—in which a whole is at once made visible and aestheticized—suggests a renewed political potential for the artistic, while pointing to its insufficiencies and potential hazards. Setting out from this strained recognition of the impossibility of any complete representation of the world and its systems, we can begin to ask how individual agency can be transformed into a collective imaginary.