In the Brooklyn Rail, theorist Eddie Dioguardi turns to astrological metaphors to explain the sense of “historical inertia” that defines our present—the feeling that the system of globalized capitalism cannot be fundamentally changed or overthrown. He proposes the notion of a binary star system to understand why we fail to believe that a major historical break is possible, even though a series of historical breaks brought us here in the first place. Here’s an excerpt:
Of particular interest in this context is the phenomenon of binary star systems. Earlier this year, MGMT sang about these in the song “Me and Michael” (“Binary star sink like the setting sun/ /Too happy with ourselves to notice when the change had come”). In contrast to how we usually think of the alternatives of geocentricism and heliocentricism—between the idea that the sun orbits the Earth and the idea that the Earth (as in fact it does) orbits the sun—binary star systems present a third option, where a star orbits another star, which orbits it. Whether the shared center of two bodies in a system of orbit is external to both bodies or within one of them, that center is an effect of the bodies’ mutual gravitational pull, called the “barycenter.” Beyond the mathematical “two-body problem” presented by binary stars, there is the “three-body problem,” involved in the attempt by mathematicians to model the way in which the Earth, the sun, and the Moon are gravitationally bound to each other. It was in the course of trying and failing to develop a solution to the three- (or n-) body problem that Poincaré developed the foundations of what would become deterministic chaos theory. In contemporary astronomy, most visible stars are thought to orbit other stars, forming the phenomenon of star clusters, groups of stars that are gravitationally bound with each other in a chaotic way.
Analogously, in the historical situation in which we find ourselves we see ourselves as no longer hierarchically subjected to some greater or transcendent body, yet as unable to break from processes and routines that we seem condemned to repeat indefinitely. Worse, those around us, “in our orbit,” so to speak, are caught in the same system of movement, as we look at them (looking at us) for orientation, as we are. It does not suffice to wish to break this cycle or rupture it, because we are not only in the shadow of what happened previously, but find ourselves enacting its repetition in our very attempt to deviate from it. So often when we speak of a “system” history is subsumed in advance, in its apparent capacity to circumvent all dissent or the possibility of rupture.
Subjectivity, however—unlike celestial movements—is not reducible to the relative positions of bodies. We are already aware of the various crises (ecological, economic, or otherwise) that constitute the horizon of our activity today, but our awareness of the gravity of these crises would seem to only reinforce the image of ourselves as inert bodies. For Adam Curtis, the “hypernormalization” common to our present and the late Soviet Union consists in the fact that we are “so much a part of the system that it [is] impossible to see beyond it,” just as in the case of the binary star system metaphor. In actuality, the limit of these metaphors consists in imagining one’s self as a part of a system that is constituted by one’s own belonging to it. Historical events never repeat the same way twice, and this should lead us to consider the idea that our present might look quite different in retrospect—that is, if a new system is indeed about to be born.
Image via the Brooklyn Rail.