In August 2006, the 26th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), held in Prague, voted to recategorize Pluto as a “dwarf planet”, thus changing the number of the planets in the Solar system back to eight, as it was before the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. The decision was made on the basis of well-established scientific facts: the size of the Pluto is too small for a planet; its orbital trajectory around the Sun is way too eccentric; and its gravitational bond with the largest of its moons—Charon—bears a closer resemblance to a two-planet system than to a standard relationship between a planet and its moon. But were these scientific grounds sufficient justification for the decision? Were all relevant modes of knowledge taken into account in the argumentation?
There may have been very good reasons to keep Pluto in the community of the planets, and these reasons would have nothing to do with the science of astronomy. As we now know thanks to decades of scholarship in science and technology studies, astronomy is, like any other science, a cultural practice. With Bruno Latour, we can say that science isn’t only the bearer of matters-of-fact, but also matters-of-concern: It endorses and produces values and rituals alongside (and in consonance with) descriptions of what is “out there”. And so it is no surprise that since the early 20th century, when Pluto became the ninth planet of the Solar system, it has been gradually wrapped in a thickening envelope of cultural meanings. Lord of the Underground, the rogue member of otherwise well-ordered planetary ensemble, the abysmally distant guardian on the edges of our home system.
Credits: Pluto’s kreisende Monde, Videomaterial from NASA, Quelle: Youtube
© NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Mark Showalter
As time went on, astronomers discovered Pluto’s moons, which took names just as chthonic as that of the former planet itself—Charon, Hydra, Nyx, Styx and Kerberos. The first one, named after the ferryman that transports souls of the deceased to the underworld, is the only publicly-renowned moon of Pluto, as it was discovered already in the 1970s, but the discovery of the rest of them is very recent (2005, 2011, 2012) and they’re correspondingly little-known. The consistency of their names originating in Greek mythology (unlike Pluto’s Roman origin) is obvious: Styx is the name of the river that separates the world of the living from that of the dead (and also the river that Charon’s ferry commutes on); Nyx is the goddess of the night and the mother of Charon; Kerberos is the three-headed dog guarding the gates of Hades; and Hydra is the many-headed water snake that resided in the lake Lerna, also believed to be the entrance to the underworld.
What we suggest is that one of the open secrets of Western society is science’s surprising mytho-poetical role. A certain provincialization of science would thus be based not on a “re-enchantment of the world” or the cancelling of its epistemic validity, but in acknowledging that scientific inquiry is a part of the larger realm of culture, not separated from it. That’s not an act of derogation, but of “self-reflexivity of science” (to use a word from the vocabulary of Czechoslovak philosopher of science Radovan Richta). Together with the Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter, we believe that homo sapiens sapiens is first and foremost the species of storytellers, of myth-makers, and that this activity is what—with a certain contribution of ancient or contemporary techniques and devices, analog or digital, symbolic or material—creates the scaffolding of society, economy, and politics. And so, if this thesis holds, removing Pluto from the list of the Solar system’s planets based solely on astronomical facts might have been after all a failure of science’s self-reflexivity, a missed opportunity to take into account its own culturality. The result could be the same, but there would be something precious about the longer path taken there.
The Moons of Pluto thus works as an audiovisual commentary on the cosmological role of science. It recuperates the notion of the human as a storyteller, and it surveys narratives about ancestrality and cosmic origins. By doing so, it mobilises the mytho-poetical resources of the Western scientific tradition, usually obfuscated by the modernist insistence on secular rationality. Elements of astronomy, physics, metaphysics and Earth-system sciences are enacted in the “selenological” figures of the five moons of Pluto, and their testimonies weave together a web of associations that unveil the hidden cosmic background of the Western culture. Just as with the cosmic background of our universe, it’s invisible, so first you need instruments that allow you to detect it. The Moons of Pluto is one such device.
András Cséfalvay & Lukáš Likavčan