The Stranger

“The idea of creating messages to send on interstellar space probes seems both obvious and completely absurd. On the one hand, we might ask, ‘why not?’ On the other, saying ‘yes’ to messages on space probes and taking the ensuing questions seriously opens up a mind-boggling series of problems. Trying to communicate with aliens asks us to consider the limits of representation, the status of the ‘universal’ and the West’s generally ethnocentric, even anthropocentric, assumptions about other beings and cultures. It asks us to address the problem of multiplicities speaking univocally, and involves the indignities associated with speaking for others. If we try to speak to aliens, every manner of formal and ethical conundrum follows. Irresolvable paradoxes and contradictions emerge; one way or another, trying to communicate with aliens means asking, and answering, impossible questions.

“So who is the audience for the Golden Record (besides, of course, those of us here on earth)? Human imagination of extraterrestrials from both scientific literature and popular culture generally falls into two categories. The first is what we might call the ‘alien-stranger’ — this is an extraterrestrial that is not human, but which shares many characteristics with humans (roughly similar senses, language, capacity for abstract and symbolic thought, individuals organised into social units and so forth). The alien-stranger is the alien of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the panoply of beings in the Star Trek franchise that emerged in the mid-1960s.


“Lomberg’s ‘insoluble problem’ emerges in relation to a different figure of the alien, a figure we might call the ‘alien-alien’. This is an alien that is truly and radically nonhuman, with few if any overlaps in communication strategies, thought and sense experience. In literature and film, the figure of the alien-alien appears in stories such as Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961) and Fiasco (1987), and to an extent in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972). Humans can barely recognise the alien-alien as a life form, let alone meaningfully communicate with it. Stories in which humans encounter the alien-alien usually end in one of two ways: either the humans and alien-alien can’t recognise one another and, confused, go their separate ways, or they kill each other, often without even realising it. To design a message for the figure of the alien-alien is by definition impossible; doing so would mean being able to think radically unhuman thoughts, and to imagine beyond the limits of human imagination.

“Therefore the audience for the Golden Record can only be the alien-stranger, a species broadly similar to humans. If this is so, then Samaras’s critique of the Golden Record may hold. Perhaps it is true that the LP recapitulates some of the more troubling legacies of humanism, echoing the French mission civilisatrice, used to justify European colonial rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or even the more recent US ‘liberations’ of Afghanistan and Iraq. But could it have been otherwise? Is it even theoretically possible to compose a message for extraterrestrials with the stated goals of the Golden Record group, namely ‘a full picture of earth and its inhabitants’? Of course not. Any ‘complete’ representation of earth’s geologic, biological, chemical, scientific and cultural diversity would inevitably result in a map of the type envisioned by Jorge Luis Borges in his short story ‘Del rigor en la ciencia’ (‘On Exactitude in Science’, 1946) — a representation at least the size, or even a great deal larger, than that which it seeks to represent…”

Text: ‘Friends of Space, How Are You All? Have You Eaten Yet?’ Or, Why Talk to Aliens Even if We Can’t, Trevor Paglen.

Image: David Bowie, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1976.


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