satellites

Theodor Adorno remarked in 1964 that “innumerable so-called utopian dreams […] have been fulfilled,” including the satellite dream of transcontinental communication, but “one is not happy about them. As they have been realized, the dreams themselves have assumed a peculiar character of sobriety, […] of boredom.” On unhappy holiday in the Swiss alps a decade earlier, Adorno watched the nightly transit of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, from the roof of his hotel, writing that the satellite

could not have been distinguished from a star, not from Venus, had it not been tottering on its course. That is what mankind’s victories are about. What they dominate the cosmos with, the realised dream, is dreamily shaken, ohnmächtig [powerless and unconscious], as though it sought to tumble. (qtd. in Benzer 2011, 222)

Integral to utopia, for Adorno, is not the magical promise of ideal futures, but rather the actual experience of disappointment in the gap between the orienting vision and the present experience. In his Introduction to the Sociology of Music, also published in 1962, year of Telstar and La Pénsee Sauvage, he aimed this critique at the original, terrestrial jukebox, which he saw, like satellites, as distracting novelties for the feeble-minded: “the jukebox in an empty pub will blare in order to lure ‘suckers’ with its false pretense of revelry in progress,” embodying “the ‘rip-off,’ a fraudulent promise of happiness which, instead of happiness, installs itself” (45).

“The fulfillment of utopia,” Adorno claimed, “consists in general only in a repetition of the ever-same,” a dispiriting stasis, like gaining access to a majority of the world’s music and listening only to a familiar Dave Matthews Band album, again and again (Adorno and Bloch [1964]1988, 2). Or, as David Byrne would sing 20 years later, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” (Talking Heads 1979).

Escape, Hannah Arendt noted in her prologue to The Human Condition, was the surprising theme attending the 1957 launch of Sputnik—the first human-made satellite. Instead of “pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power” that had launched a two-foot metal sphere into space, where it “dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company,” popular commentary instead expressed “relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth’” ([1958]1998, 1). Arendt was appalled by this rejection of Earth, the place she considered “the very quintessence of the human condition,” which had once nurtured technological progress and now apparently constituted its past ([1958]1998, 2). “The fulfilment of the wish,” she wrote, “like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating” ([1958]1998, 4–5). What happens when satellite visions become real and the future finally arrives? Not a glorious climax, but the sad realization that history continues and utopia in practice is anything but utopian.