The Infrastructural Sublime

The critical success of Gravity, the space adventure film of 2013, can be credited to Alfonso Cuarón’s simple, pared-down storyline. No aliens, no fearsome dystopia, no grand flights of sci-fi exoticism; instead, the film shows us what might be called the infrastructural sublime. Spacewalking in orbit, with our unearthly home planet bobbing in and out of the film frame, the casually bantering Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are tasked with work so banal they might be fixing rivets on an unusually tall suspension bridge. But when disaster strikes and equipment turns to wreckage, the astronauts seem small indeed in the threatening sublimity of space.


Soyuz 13 docking with the ISS. Image: NASA

Like the films Cast Away and All is Lost, Gravity dramatizes the ordinary struggle of survival in a hostile setting. But unlike stories set in natural environments or disaster films’ mass emergencies, the infrastructural sublime highlights the frail human body’s desperate vulnerability to large-scale life-support systems. Outer space allows these plots to make infrastructure all encompassing, and in this way, on the far side of faded heroic tropes, the audience rediscovers the basic experience of loneliness and human vulnerability. But the infrastructural sublime is a mode that seems especially suited to our age of shrinking budgets and cost-cutting; in the vulnerable astronaut’s dramatic story we recognize our own daily survival strategies of making-do under the pressures of sequestration and underemployment, our precarious haggling for life support from a shredded social safety net. The failure of infrastructure brings out that most valuable of neoliberal character traits, “resilience,”* or, as Judith Butler puts it, “the individualizing morality that makes a moral norm of economic self-sufficiency precisely under conditions when self-sufficiency is becoming increasingly unreliable.”**

The latest Hollywood offering in the genre is this season’s zeitgeist film The Martian. Like Sandra Bullock’s character, Matt Damon’s astronaut Watney is stranded and alone, coping as best he can with broken machinery and dwindling resources on Mars. When a spaceship meant to rescue him explodes after launch, the unfortunate result of streamlining ‘efficiency’ by the government space agency, Watney has to tighten his belt further and improvise solutions. In the novel on which the film is based, Watney’s space log reads like Defoe texting Robinson Crusoe from an off-world Home Depot.

Log Entry: Sol 193

I managed to not kill myself today, even though I was working with high voltage. Well, it’s not as exciting as all that. I disconnected the line first.

As instructed, I turned a rover charging cable into a drill power source. Getting the voltage right was a simple matter of adding resistors, which my electronic kit has in abundance. …

Then I had to rewire a drill. Pretty much the same thing I did with Pathfinder.  Take out the battery and and replace it with a power line from the Hab. But this time it was a lot easier.

Pathfinder was too big to fit through any of my airlocks, so I had to do all the rewiring outside. Ever done electronics while wearing a space suit?***

At a crucial point in The Martian’s plot, a deus ex machina appears in the guise of the China National Space Administration. The Chinese agency offers NASA the use of a spacecraft that delivers a payload to the American space mission and enables their return to Mars in time to save the stranded astronaut. How, one might ask, do China and its fledgling space agency figure into the narrative genre of the infrastructural sublime?

China’s cameo appearance in The Martian seems a belated reminder from Hollywood that only a rich and muscular state, like the US during the Cold War, can support an ambitious and reliable space program. Contemporary China is now such a state, the seeming antithesis of America’s infrastructural decline and federal divestment from science. Beneath the film’s overt themes of international cooperation, then, is a more gloomy message about NASA’s potential obsolescence.

But The Martian’s casting of China as benevolent teammate to NASA is even more ironic when read in the light of contemporary trade politics. In a recent article, Barry Lynn argues that deregulation and globalized trade have allowed China not only to “command and control” US corporations that do business there, but even to dictate what is written in Hollywood, where writers increasingly seek to win favor in a burgeoning Chinese movie market.**** A case in point: when the Chinese army shot down a decommissioned weather satellite in 2007, it caused a dangerous storm of debris in Earth’s orbital space. That catastrophic blunder is the basis of 2013’s Gravity. But in the film’s narrative, blame is pinned not on the Chinese but the Russians, a more convenient foe. And when after a series of risky maneuvers Sandra Bullock’s character finally makes it back to Earth, she does so in a Chinese space capsule.

It’s no surprise, in a globalized world, that an American in crisis might find salvation in Chinese ingenuity. Is this not the allegorical message of Gravity’s breathtaking conclusion? Our leaders would have us believe as much when they tout free trade as the answer to our domestic ills. But as Sandra Bullock emerges from her capsule as if reborn, she turns to see the crippled Chinese space station Tiangong breaking up in the sky as it makes a fiery reentry into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

* See Parul Sehgal, “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience,’ The New York Times Magazine, December 1, 2015. Sehgal reads the current vogue for the term ‘resilience’ as a covert injunction to adapt to inequity and tolerate injustice: “where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.”

** Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (New York: Fordham, 2015), 18. The infrastructural sublime is a hyperbolic and escapist denial of what Butler terms precarity, our basic political reality under globalized neoliberalism. “The dependency of human creatures on sustaining and supporting infrastructural life shows that the organization of infrastructure is intimately tied with an enduring sense of individual life: how life is endured, and with what degree of suffering, livability, or hope.” Butler, Assembly, 21.

***Andy Weir, The Martian (New York: Random House, 2014).

****Barry C. Lynn, “The New China Syndrome,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2015, p. 36.


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