Visiting the Planetarium

Images of the Black World

Text for Trevor Paglen's show at the Vienna Secession


Clouds, fields, forests, country roads, empty skies: the video image shows you a landscape seen at random, or for purposes utterly unknown. Its shifting perspectives appear through the visual overlay of a targeting system, controlled by a distant operator. This is a drone’s eye view. The signal was captured from a satellite transmission, maybe intended for Creech Air Base, Nevada. We see a date and a local time, but the position remains blank—it could be in Kosovo or elsewhere in southern Europe. There’s something hesitant, furtive or even lost about the way the drone is scanning through the territory. Suddenly a large wall clock flashes up on the screen. Its face is emblazoned with a dragon-winged creature, threatening and strange, but typical of the emblems used by Air Force reconnaissance teams. Is it supposed to mark a significant moment, a planned operation, a hit? More likely it’s the cypher of some airman’s utter boredom, alone in a cubicle, glued to a monitor, staring at meaningless foreign landscapes whose very banality has become part of the secret.

The video was given to Trevor Paglen by one of his collaborators—people who are intensely curious about what goes on in the restricted zones of the Pentagon’s “black world.” It was then edited and folded into a larger body of work, to be shown in galleries and museums. Thus it has the status of a clue, an index, rather than a document strictly speaking. It points to a set of pressing questions that involve the uses of vision, the potentials of art and the bases of sovereignty. These questions coalesce around a major paradox: the existence of a secret world that is increasingly palpable, increasingly present. Why has the invisible become so banal, why does it crop up everywhere? Paglen does not answer individually. Instead, he seems intent on exploring—and, to whatever degree possible, on reversing—the social conditions of perception that allow multibillion-dollar weapons systems and vast clandestine intelligence networks to “hide” in the broad daylight of a democracy that is also an empire.

The work is investigative and journalistic, producing an impressive stream of books and articles. At the same time it is existential, leading the artist on journeys to countries like Afghanistan to look for military prisons, or on climbs up desert mountains to scrutinize forbidden sites. More recently it has revealed a deep involvement with the history of aesthetics, as he walks in the footsteps of nineteenth-century frontier photographers to make technically complex images of spy satellites against stunning natural backgrounds. The exhibition at the Vienna Secession takes this venture into aesthetics even further, with a cloud study recalling avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz; a colorist abstraction that evokes the violent disorganization of visuality in the painting of Turner; or a grid of contact prints in the manner of Eadweard Muybridge. But what can such historicizing gestures bring to a contemporary politics of perception?

DMSP 5B/F4 from Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation
 (Military Meteorological Satellite; 1973-054A), 2009


One should not forget that Paglen, the artist, is also a geographer. He does not simply remix the two disciplines in a postmodern mélange but moves deliberately between them, developing what I call an extradisciplinary practice that alters both departure points.1 Thus, in a catalog essay entitled “Experimental Geography,” he suggests that a good geographer might not ask “What is art?” or “Is this art successful?” but instead “How is this space called ‘art’ produced?” He recalls Henri Lefebvre’s central concept: “In a nutshell, the production of space says that humans create the world around them and that humans are, in turn, created by the world around them.” And he concludes: “If human activities are inextricably spatial, then new forms of freedom and democracy can only emerge in dialectical relation to the production of new spaces.”2

In this text I’m going to focus on the geographic and aesthetic spaces from which the images of the black world spring. As Paglen shows, our vision has been shaped historically, so that a political engagement with state secrecy involves a struggle with the disciplines of perception. In conclusion, I’ll outline the transformation of the art space for which he and other extradisciplinary artists are striving.

Celestial Surveyors

Let’s start with the satellite portraits taken in the footsteps of the frontier photographers. When staging these augmented remakes of works by Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins, Paglen has in mind not only the pictorialist images of his predecessors but also the teams of government surveyors who toiled alongside them, on geological expeditions undertaken in the wake of the Mexican-American War, when vast inhabited territories of the northwestern American continent were opened to conquest, settlement and exploitation. He conceives photography as an integral part of the colonizing process, which has not ceased in our time: “O’Sullivan and the other western photographers were to the nineteenth century what satellites are to the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries; ideologically and technologically, today’s military and reconnaissance spacecraft are directly descended from the men who once roamed the deserts and mountains photographing blank spots on maps.”3 By rephotographing the natural sites with the satellites in the frame, the artist-geographer situates himself within a common lineage; but he attempts to twist that heritage away from its imperial consequences. How to rival with or socially displace the imaging techniques of the warriors of vision?

Consider the picture of the Keyhole Optical Reconnaissance Satellite (USA 186) portrayed as a delicate white streak bisecting star trails above the majestic outline of Yosemite’s Half Dome, as photographed by Carleton Watkins in the mid-1860s. If Paglen is able to locate and record this secret object, it is only because he disposes of a database of classified American military satellites put together by an ad-hoc team of celestial surveyors scattered across the face of the planet. As he recounts in the book Blank Spots on the Map, these observers of “the other night sky” descend from Operation Moonwatch, a government-sponsored program that trained amateur enthusiasts to scrutinize the heavens for the appearance of Soviet sputniks in the 1950s to ‘60s. When the United States abruptly stopped publishing the orbital data of its military reconnaissance satellites in 1983, the mission of the artificial moon watchers spontaneously reversed: they became attached to the passionate hobby, or for some, the democratic duty, of ferreting out the identities and establishing the orbits of the unidentified objects they saw appearing above their heads.4 Thus they were able to put their government-imparted knowledge to radically different uses. The measurements they take and the data they continue to generate is what allows Paglen to calculate the motion of the astronomical tracking telescopes he uses to take photographs of the orbiting satellites. What might appear to be individual detective work is dependent in reality on a distributed assemblage of perception.

What’s being deployed here is a specialized formation of civil society, one that collectively possesses the technical skills to begin identifying the classified Pentagon programs. This kind of critical formation is not new: consider the fundamental work of the Federation of American Scientists on these same issues. What’s remarkable today, however, is the way that groups like the satellite watchers can become effective within a self-organizing network, similar to the amateur plane spotters who contributed their research to the book Torture Taxi.5 Civil surveyors acting from their backyards can now track the programs of the US intelligence agencies and the military space command. But Paglen’s specific contribution to such networks is not only that of a coordinator who publishes other peoples’ data; nor does he merely add an artistic touch that projects the material onto the museum circuit. Instead, his contribution lies in the particular focus he gives to the research, or if you prefer, in the way he determines its object.

Reaper Drone; Indian Springs, NV; Distance ~ 2 miles, 2010


To understand this focus—or impossibility of focus—take the Limit Telephotography series, where Paglen attempts to capture landscape views and even details of military installations through an astronomer’s telescope at distances of up to sixty-five miles. The resulting images, often on the verge of dissolving into atmospheric blur, provide fascinating glimpses into the restricted areas. Some examples are the black-site workers stepping off their commuter planes at the Gold Coast Terminal in Las Vegas; the control tower at Cactus Flat, Nevada; or the Reaper drone on a runway at Creech Air Base near Indian Springs. The aim here is not just to obtain sharp documentary photos: for that, commercial satellite imagery of the kind available for the last decade would be much more effective.6 What these works ask the viewer to perceive is something different: not just individuals, installations or technical devices, but the larger order of systematic secrecy, the world into which they fit. The object of the research is always the black world as such, with its strictly compartmentalized divisions of labor, its need-to-know clearances and its legal and procedural barriers, which act to make the visible unspeakable, the tangible unprovable, the equitable unactionable. At stake is the apprehension of a systematic obstruction, something like a gradient in society, whose origins go back to the organized secrecy of a huge industrial undertaking, the Manhattan Project for the production of the atomic bomb.7 The distance, the dust in the air, the shimmers of heat convection that break up the detail of the images are perceptual metonyms of this resistance to democratic oversight that defines the black world, and indeed, so much of contemporary military activity.

It takes a geographical approach—that is, a collective retracing of the patterns of human development on earth—to even begin conceiving the immensity of the American war apparatus. This is achieved by surveying the core elements of state secrecy that lay the basis for that apparatus, then following their extension beyond the atmosphere, into orbital space. In this way, one social formation comes to face another in an exchange of gazes. The masters of surveillance are in their turn surveilled. Photography, as a technical process, is on both sides of the fence: it is one of the key functions of the satellites and the drones, while at the same time it is integral to what Paglen calls an “experimental geography.” Could one find a similar ambiguity in photography as an artistic process?

Technological Sublime

It comes as a shock to learn that Clarence King, leader of the Fortieth Parallel expedition and founding director of the U.S. Geological Survey, was an admirer of Turner, a devotee of Ruskin, and himself an art critic. King, a scientist and mountaineer who absorbed his vocation from Alexander von Humboldt’s book Cosmos, was Timothy O’Sullivan’s patron on the expedition in 1867–69.8 So there is nothing accidental about a photograph like that of Pyramid Lake, with its bold volumes and arresting curves, reprised by Paglen in another satellite portrait. What must be understood is that the survey photographers—who brought back images of strategic rail routes, Indian wars and future mining sites—were involved in the deliberate production of a frontier aesthetic combining scientific precision, a virile sense of adventure and a sharply honed taste for the sublime. A perfect example is O’Sullivan’s wilderness landscape at Shoshone Falls, also from the Fortieth Parallel expedition. Showing a team of surveyors on a rocky outcrop that falls away into the immensity of the cascade and the surrounding mountainscape, it is at once a document of the expedition’s labors and a pictorialist vista, destined to become an iconic image of the American West.9 Today, when Paglen photographs the landscape and the military satellites, he cannot help but situate himself within and against this aesthetic tradition.

Shoshone Falls; Timothy O'Sullivan, 1868


Let’s look back at its development. The taste for overwhelming natural spectacles emerged in England in the early eighteenth century, at a time when the Grand Tour across the Alps to Italy was de rigueur and sailing ships could convey the adventurous tourist to the furthest corners of the earth. A towering mountain, an immense cataract, a terrifying storm at sea viewed from an unshakable perch in a lighthouse became objects of aesthetic delectation for imperial subjects intent on discovering new capacities of wonder at the limits of their own expanding powers of control. Artists then sought to translate this sequence of fear and pleasure into pictorial terms. The landscape painting that resulted was brought to its peak by artists like Turner, then pursued in photography by O’Sullivan’s generation, who found ample material in the natural features of the frontier, so different from anything in Europe. But the taste for a sense of self-loss and self-overcoming has its culturally instituted forms, which change across the continents and the generations. As historian David Nye observes, the American public tended to abandon the natural sites and vistas in favor of successive versions of the technological sublime, based primarily on spectacular feats of engineering: railroads, dams, bridges, skyscrapers, factories, electrified cities—all of which, of course, could also be portrayed artistically. Nye’s study culminates with a chapter on rocketry and the atom bomb showing how the public experience of awe before the moon shots lifting off from Cape Canaveral became a way to tame the feelings of terror generated by the threat of nuclear warheads mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles.10 Today’s air and space magazines are still full of such “nostalgic” substitutes for national transcendence.

Paglen approaches the technological sublime from several different angles, using art historical models to seek an affective confrontation with militarized space while at the same time trying to undermine or redirect the political valences of aesthetic experience. An example is his cloud photography, evoking Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents—an abstractionist version of the sublime, gesturing toward the dynamics of inner states for which there are no objective referents. For Stieglitz the clouds formed an uncoded space, a reserve of free visuality. In Paglen’s photograph, the vastness of the image is punctuated by two tiny Predator drones that catch your gaze like technological hornets. In their presence the rippling abstractions of the clouds no longer evoke subjective freedom, but remind us instead of a more pragmatic “equivalent”: the electromagnetic waves of encrypted information that pulse through the atmosphere, maintaining precise contact with the unmanned aerial vehicle.

The Fence (Lake Kickapoo, Texas), 2010


Another example is a large print looking for all the world like a sunset by the sea, with its undulant yellows and ochers sinking into somber reds and blacks. Entitled The Fence (Lake Kickapoo, Texas), it is the electromagnetic image of a section of the radar perimeter surrounding the United States, which Paglen calls “the earth’s largest galactic footprint.” The shift of the microwave frequencies into the visible spectrum (and thus, the translation from invisible to visible) creates a field of wavering atmospheric color that recalls the nineteenth-century painting of J.M.W. Turner, the premier exponent of the maritime sublime. By abandoning representational elements in his later oil sketches, Turner seemed to set consciousness adrift in its own capacities of perception. In the book Techniques of the Observer, art historian Jonathan Crary draws an historical link between this painter of sensory intensities and his contemporary, physiologist Gustav Fechner. The latter sought to quantify such intensities, determining thresholds of perceptual awareness and thus inaugurating the discipline of psychophysics, now crucial to the design of radar screens and all other informational monitors.11 The understanding of perception as a physiological response to fluctuating intensities is what made possible the measurement of such responses in human beings tethered to the screens of electronic devices. It is in the gap between embodied consciousness and the scientific management of perception that Paglen, perhaps intuitively, situates his portrait of the radar fence.

Last example: a series of digital photographs, again of Predator drones, arrayed in a grid that echoes the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge. In an article, Paglen recalls how Muybridge’s studies were picked up in the mid-twentieth century by a man named Edgerton, who invented the stroboscopic camera and used it under military contract to take high-speed photos of exploding atom bombs. Edgerton later turned his photographic triggers into detonators for the weapons themselves, looping the loop between photography and war-making.12 To approach this historical sequence that leads on to the visualization technologies used in the drones, Paglen has chosen to realize his grid of contact prints just as Muybridge did, using albumen-coated paper in a painstaking process that can take up to a month for each image. From today’s perspective, Muybridge’s stop-action technique acquires a new valence: it appears within an archaic phylum of images, stretching back to the tempera works of medieval painters. Here, against all the automatisms of technology, Paglen wants to make time slow down—as though holding off the split-second release of the photographic trigger.

Time Study (Predators; Indian Springs, NV), 2010


What emerges from these encounters with the technological sublime is the double status of the artistic image in its relation to the black world. By bringing an element of pleasure into fear and by tracing a wavering line between the capacities of mastery and the forces of destruction, the sublime can naturalize technological terror. Thus the artistic gaze that seeks to reveal the vastness of the military apparatus can itself come to participate in veiling the raw facts of power. How to work beyond the aesthetics of the sublime? And how to stop or at least slow down the trend toward a pervasive militarization of society, after its extreme acceleration by the last American president?

Ancient Enemy

Paglen’s work has changed a great deal over the last few years. While retaining its investigative aims, it has taken on a cosmic dimension. Space, like secrecy, is everywhere in this exhibition.

A half moon hangs in a jet-black sky, its surface pockmarked by craters, while a dead satellite floats almost invisibly above it. A long exposure through a telescope pointed at polar north creates a wheeling vortex of stars; only the faintest of criss-crossing lines recall the electronic eyes that peer down from the heavens. A mysterious diptych titled After Galileo aligns Jupiter’s moons with the silhouette of a functionary at the National Reconnaissance Office, working after hours behind mirrored glass that has turned transparent in the dark. The figure in the picture is real; but the role of the photograph as evidentiary document has begun to fade into the gray, even as the notion of transparency becomes ambiguous. What we see, in a work like They Watch the Moon, for example, is first of all the relation between earth and sky, the cosmic relation. Yet the radio telescope pictured here is devoted to banalities: it picks up stray cell-phone conversations bouncing off the lunar surface from halfway around the globe.

They Watch the Moon, 2010


The change in the character and aims of the work is directly related to the arrival of Obama, an anti-war candidate who stood against the expansion of presidential privilege and seemed for a brief moment to fulfill his promise with an announced closure of the CIA prison at Guantánamo Bay—before invoking a Bush-era defense of state secrecy before a court of law, then going on to escalate the drone war in Pakistan beyond anything that Bush and Cheney had dared.13 For all those whose efforts had helped to bring the abuses of the previous administration to trial, Obama’s failure to carry out any rollback of executive privilege has been a bitter disappointment, forcing a reassessment of basic strategies. The same problem now confronts activists at all levels, from the debacle of the Copenhagen climate summit to the failed reforms of the financial system. Extensive proof of the crime has accumulated, but where is the space in which evidence could become visible?

To start producing it, let’s look at a text that Walter Benjamin published in 1928 as the closing fragment of One Way Street, under the title “To the Planetarium.” The text begins with Kepler and Galileo, that is, with the instrumental logic of the telescope and its objectifying effects, leading to the loss of what the ancients had known as cosmic experience: an ecstatic trance in which “we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest to us.” For Benjamin, that knowledge is fundamental:

It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at a new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology. But because the lust for profit of the ruling classes sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath.14

Like Georges Bataille, Benjamin saw the industrialized battlefield as the site of a massive release of repressed drives, exploded by technoscience to cosmic proportions. And like Wilhelm Reich, he believed that the psychosocial conditions of barbarism sprang from innate human potentials, which must be diverted from their current expressions and redeemed as sources of civilizational progress.15 At stake was a transformation of the notion of mastery (Beherrschung), whether in the intergenerational field of education or in the interspecies realm that we now call ecology. “Technology,” he wrote, “is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man. . . . In technology a physis is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form.”

We are far today from the messianic Eros that inspired Benjamin, and still farther from a revolution that would bring mankind into harmony with the cosmos. But the text brings us very close to the destructive powers that are continually reproduced beneath the cover of state secrecy. In what space could technology become the guide, rather than the obstacle, to a new relation between humanity and nature? Benjamin does not describe the planetarium but only points to it, with a title that echoes an advertising sign in the spirit of the “profane illumination.” Nonetheless he makes clear that the telescope, that is, the instrument that allows us to perceive the universe, itself constitutes the negation of the cosmic totality that the planetarium seeks to make visible. As cultural critic Gene Ray indicates, this formula of negative presentation would become an artistic and philosophical response to the lingering nostalgia for the sublime in the late twentieth century, after the Nazi camps and the American use of the atom bomb had shown the ultimate consequences of fascination with technological power. Ray’s key contribution is to mark the need for a renewed challenge to such nostalgia for the sublime in the United States today, after the media-driven experience of national communion in the terrifying and perversely gratifying image of technological disaster constituted by 9/11, and after the military program of “shock and awe” legitimated by that image.16 The works at the Vienna Secession form the elements of such a challenge. More broadly, I would suggest that a strictly materialist version of negative presentation lays the basis of the artistic space that Paglen and his far-flung networks of collaborators have set about producing.

The brooding latency of technological hubris, full-scale war and outright fascism, held back by the fragile conventions of scientific objectivity, administrative neutrality and due democratic process, forms the heart of the black world that the exhibition presents in self-contradicting fragments. This fragmentary presentation is necessary, because the banality of mass participation in modern war-making—what has been called the banality of evil—derives from compartmentalized knowledge, obedience to chains of command and the maintenance of tight lips as both a duty and a privilege. If “sovereign is he who decides on the state of secrecy” (to paraphrase Carl Schmitt), then Pentagon brass, intelligence officers, research scientists, CEOs of security companies and the myriads of minor functionaries on whom they depend will all get their day out of the sun, as obscure representatives of the proliferating exceptions that alone make possible the rule of imperial policies in an egalitarian democracy.17 The capillary propagation of the claim to a rightful opacity is the real basis of the black world and the root of its unity and solidarity, which constantly threatens to normalize the abuse of deadly force. Like discipline according to Foucault, secrecy is produced at every level of contemporary society. Only the refusal to obey arbitrary orders in government service or at one’s corporate workplace—that is, the refusal to be an agent of the sovereign exception—can stand against this obscure power. The artistic difficulty is therefore not only to assemble the evidence proving that the psychosocial conditions of barbarism exist. It is to generate the affective openings that can expose each common consciousness to its own potential monstrosity.

A final work concentrates this affective dimension, while responding with temporal excess to the chronometric precision that governs the images of the black world. This is a diptych entitled Artifacts. One of the images, modeled after a photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan, shows a cave dwelling in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. It’s a fascinating view of a monument left behind by a forgotten people, thought to have disappeared in an ecological collapse several hundred years before contemporary Native Americans came to the region. The former inhabitants are known only by their Navajo name, Anasazi, which means “ancient enemy.” At first sight I felt strangely close to this defensive dwelling, set in the striated face of a towering cliff, at once forbidding and welcoming.

Artifacts (diptych), 2010


Next to it is another photograph captured through an astronomer’s telescope, showing a ring of satellites which have been placed in a geosynchronous orbit. Such orbits are the most stable of all pathways through the heavens, Paglen explains. The satellites are guaranteed to stay in the sky for billions of years, until the sun explodes like nature’s hydrogen bomb. Irrational question: will we be the forgotten enemy on the day of a future apocalypse?

Dialectical Spaces

Paglen’s work, like that of other extradisciplinary artists, is technically complex. It is grounded in intertwining histories of geography and art, and it confronts the most elemental form of disciplinary power, the military, whose “production of space” now extends far beyond the upper atmosphere. This kind of art is challenging for the viewer, who is constantly invited to identify unknown objects and activities, to situate them with respect to each other and to discover the details of advanced operations with which most of us are deeply unfamiliar. Yet the photographs do not stress the estrangement effects that are the formal hallmarks of the avant-garde. Their hermeticism is that of the world around us.

In the opening paragraph of this essay, I described the video images of a military aircraft as “hesitant, furtive or even lost.” The idea seems fanciful in an age of geospatial positioning systems, when precise coordination between atomic clocks and orbital data on the pathways of artificial stars (the GPS satellites) generates a perfect grid of latitude and longitude, mapping out the entire surface of the planet.18 What the images of the black world reveal, however, is a human condition of remote action and radical separation, exemplified by the distant relation between drone and pilot, which itself foreshadows an era of fully robotic warfare. This condition has developed primarily in the United States and among its closest allies; but it is gradually spreading throughout the world via multiple forms of military and police collaboration. Under such a regime the unconscious is spatialized: it becomes identifiable with productive activities that shape our lived environment and push it toward increasingly dangerous passes, without the knowledge, understanding or consent of the affected populations. It may be that the agents of military activities are themselves lost, unable to assess their actions in the light of an outside gaze. But in a more pervasive sense, we have all gotten lost at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The spaces of visibility and judgment have not kept pace with the explosive development of technoscience; and the situation grows considerably worse under the reign of state secrecy.

Paglen says that “new forms of freedom and democracy can only emerge in dialectical relation to the production of new spaces.” He has attempted, with initial success, to transform the institutional space of art into a crossroads of critical analysis and cosmic experience. What’s at stake is not the intellectualization of art or its reduction to discourse, but the shift of its perceptual focus to some of the more enigmatic objects in our humanly produced universe. Of course, this is no panacea; but it is one of the most promising directions being sketched out today in the cultural field. The point is to provide the tools and set the stage for a possible encounter with currently invisible realities—and then let people make original uses of their visit to the planetarium.

Nine Reconnaissance Satellites over the Sonora Pass, 2008



1 Brian Holmes, “Extradisciplinary Investigations: Toward a New Critique of Institutions,” in Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society (WHW/Van Abbemuseum, 2009);

2 Trevor Paglen, “Experimental Geography,” in Nato Thompson, ed., Experimental Geography (Melville House, 2009).

3 “Trevor Paglen Talks about the Other Night Sky,” in Artforum (March 2009);

4 Trevor Paglen, Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World (Penguin, 2009), chap. 6, esp. p. 118.

5 Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson, Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights (Melville House, 2006).

6 For aerial photography of the Air Force’s most secret site, see the page on “Groom Lake—Area 51” on the website of the Federation of American Scientists, at

7 See the documentary by Peter Galison and Rob Moss, Secrecy, 85’, 2008; as well as chap. 6 in Trevor Paglen, Blank Spots on the Map (see note 4).

8 For the nexus of influences and relations between King, Ruskin, Humboldt and O’Sullivan, see Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (Viking Penguin, 2006), esp. chap. 3 and 6.

9 O’Sullivan’s photograph, taken in 1868, can be seen at

10 David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (MIT Press, 1994).

11 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (MIT Press, 1990), chap. 5.

12 “Trevor Paglen Talks about the Other Night Sky” (see note 3); and one of Paglen’s favorite books, Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and The Technological Wild West (Viking, 2003).

13 See Paglen’s op-ed piece of Feb. 9, 2009, “Rendition, Secrecy, and the Wrong Side of History,” available at

14 Walter Benjamin, “To the Planetarium” (1928) in One Way Street and Other Writings (Verso, 1997); also available in Walter Benjamin, Reflections (Shocken Books, 1978).

15 Benjamin’s specific influence in this text is not Reich but Ludwig Klages, Der kosmogonische Eros (1922); see the article by Irving Wohlfarth, “Walter Benjamin and the Idea of a Technological Eros. A tentative reading of Zum Planetarium,” in Benjamin Studien/Studies 1/1 (May 2002);

16 Gene Ray, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11 (Palgrave, 2005), esp. chap. 1 and 9.

17 Schmitt’s dictum, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception,” forms the basis of the theory of the state of exception in Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998); also see Paglen’s remarks on the spaces of exception in the article “Groom Lake and the Imperial Production of Nowhere,” in Derek Gregory and Allan Pred, eds., Violent Geographies: Fear, Terror and Political Violence (Routledge, 2007).

18 For the genealogy of GPS in the historical relations between astronomy, chronometrics and cartography, see Peter Galison, Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time (Norton, 2003).

One Response to “Visiting the Planetarium”

  1. gregorylent Says:

    fascinating article … thanks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: