What a Mountain Sees that a Telescope Cannot

“E pur si muove…”

The telescope plays yet another vexed starring role at the turning of the tide: at a time when political sympathies seem divided between science’s stentorian and urgent call for the industrial world to stop abusing the environment and the increased visibility of, and demand for, indigenous movements and indigenous rights to self-determination. At least this double-mindedness is evident at the ongoing events in Hawaii where thousands have gathered to protest the proposed building of a 1.4 billion dollar observatory and telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s most revered summit.[1] Where do we invest our compassions? In the fight for a mountain’s sacredness or in the fight for human ingenuity, the dashing tale of bold adventurism reminiscent of cherished sci-fi tropes of going “where no man has gone before”?

This is what most reports about the protests would have you believe: that this is another battle between the cold and hard but necessary calculations of rigorous science and the soft and squishy but disposable cultural fixations of a certain people. Another clash of worlds. The old science versus religion cage fight. The shroud of Turin on one side and the white lab coat on the other. Who wins? And who retreats into the backwaters of fading relevance? However, by framing this event as a matter of simple black or white outcomes – whether of victory or of loss – other vital considerations are lost.

In the 17th century when it was invented, the telescope was at the heart of a different cultural moment. Italian mathematician and physicist Galileo faced the powerful Catholic Church. He had challenged the antique Ptolemaic and Aristotelian cosmology of a perfect unchanging universe that waltzed around the earth, a model of creation the Church preferred. Galileo, looking through his own telescope[2], saw neither a perfect universe nor a geocentric one. Instead, he confirmed the Copernican idea of a sun-centred universe. A heliocentric universe. The implications of his observations were like seismic silver bullets set to the ecclesiastical foundations of human (and therefore, earth) centrality. Galileo was arrested.

Many say the church won. What is harder to notice about Galileo and his Copernican revolution, as is probably the case today, is that there were mediating matters at stake. Deeper questions are thrown up by Galileo’s encounter that do not lend themselves to pronouncements of victory or defeat. Questions like, how do we think about God and God’s plan for ‘humans’ if earth isn’t perched in the middle of the cosmos? Can we even speak about God with the same confidence we are used to? What does this do to the notion of the sacred? What does the telescope augur for the role of the sacred in determining what is knowable?

At Mauna Kea, similar questions are alive – questions about the sacred, about the endgame of our ceaseless modern quests to colonize the world with intelligibility, about the ways we respond to climate collapse, and about the priesthood, politics and (yes) embarrassing squishiness of science – but there is hardly any room to hear them, immersed as we are in a game of sides.

It is said that as Galileo was carted off to live out the rest of his days under house arrest, he uttered the words, perhaps under his breath – after he had been forced to recant the substance of his observations in front of an inquisition: “E pur si muove.” And yet it moves. And yet, the earth moves. It is not stagnant, frozen into place by the dictates and demands of paternal theologies. It moves. It is perverse. It’s alive.

Beyond the discourses of victory and the plot points that fix us into convenient sides, the earth moves. A mountain sighs. A telescopes inhales. At Mauna Kea, there are extra-discursive matters at hand, molecular and largely invisible, that won’t be detected through the prisms of mass media or the ethical compulsions of a population that insists on having a “good versus evil” story. These matters ask us to look not only at the human sides (the indigenous protesters on one hand and the giant scientific capitalist enterprises on the other), but to other players and material agencies shaping this encounter: the hidden trope of civilizational battles, the agency of the telescope and the voices of a mountain.

Why I write about Hawaii

Not that victory isn’t important. As a citizen of the so-called Global South, I know what it means to be indexed and locked into the position of a passive recipient of western benevolence. I understand the imperatives of calling out the deeply intelligent manoeuvers of white modernity, and deploying those names we use to identify colonization in service of precarious lives at the edges. My political affinities lie with the Standing Rock protesters as they fought to protect their lands from the advancements of Big Oil and with Niger Deltans in southern Nigeria, whose lands bleed petrodollars and death. I draw from the courage and activisms of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the lyrical emancipatory texts of Chinua Achebe, and the decolonial longings of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. This week, as I read the suffocating reports about the ongoing burning of the Amazon rainforest by a Brazilian president who desires to ‘develop the forest’, I felt a deadening grief like I had just been tossed into the sea with a large millstone wrapped around my neck. My eyes glistened a little as images of the indigenous people living in that forest animated my screen – their faces drawn back in shock, their visceral alarm silenced by the modesty of polite reportage.

So when a student of mine who lives on the Hawaiian Islands asked me if I had given any thought to the current protests against the controversial establishment of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the sacred mountain, and urged me to write about this, I felt a deep desire to do so. I have never been to Hawaii and do not know its many peoples well. But I feel like this struggle affects me, knows me, and remembers me. It does. When people are faced with the annihilation of their worlds, of their tongues, and of their relationships, they draw upon and contribute to a far greater and widespread earthly archive of collective suffering upon which our names and bodies are inscribed.

As such, I am inescapably involved in the ongoing protests. My children’s lives and your children’s lives depend on these matters. If I had my way, if I could stand outside the earth and move it in the directions I prefer, I would blow out the Amazon fires, suck out the black oil from the cancerous veins of the Niger Delta, and send the scientists away from Hawaii. But none of us stand outside anything. As Achebe reminds the impatient idealist, such a place to stand upon does not exist. “We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.”

If activism isn’t necessarily calibrated to the pace of victory or the pace of our legitimate demands for justice, then what other gestures are possible? What other sensitivities can we cultivate? What other places of power and postures sprout unexpectedly along the highway to ‘city hall’? Who or what are the invisible actors in this constellation of bodies and longings and motivations? Victory often has the side effect of locking us into the familiar. The “other side” is vanquished, the status quo maintained. ‘Good’ wins, ‘evil’ slithers away through ontological cracks. But this model of activism is often unable to appreciate the complexity of the molecular transactions – the performative flows that streak out and ripple on from the seemingly isolated event of winning (or losing) – that disturb dualisms of popular imagination. If we blast open this binary game of cops and robbers unfolding in Hawaii, we might notice between the lines the largely unspoken assumption that science and the sacred are apart from each other. That the telescope hates the mountain. And never the twain shall meet. This tale of two cities, of an ancient war, deserves scrutiny. 

Seeing anew within the Anthropocene

Understanding what is going on in Hawaii isn’t a matter of excavating ‘deeper truths’ or assuming a transcendent position that bypasses the very real material conditions of the situation. To know anything at all is risky business because it involves losses incurred or complementary exclusions made by the postures we assume in producing those knowledges. In short, knowing is a matter of frameworks: some things become intelligible, while other matters are ruled out.[3]

Modernity has – for long – established a frame through which we understand the world. In a modern frame, science is the rational, disinterested, apolitical and a-cultural quest for answers. Science is authoritative – it is believed – because its methods are closer to exposing the stuff of reality than, say, the Hawaiian myths of Wākea and Papahānaumoku. Or the Yoruba legends of Ìjàpá and Èsù. Surely, global movements have consolidated a political appreciation of indigenous cultures and a move towards inclusion and diversity. But inclusion often masks a deep bias for ‘science’ as a neutral referee of what is true and what is not. And diversity is often the tolerated proliferation of ‘skins’, so long as the substance is one of continuing the modernist expansion project. In other words, the proposed installation of the telescope is widely seen as the advancement of science held back by the trite but politically sensitive matter of cultural self-determination. Facts versus mystery. Progress versus stagnation.

What if the frame moved a little bit? What if modernity’s frames are falling apart, haunted as they are by its own dynamics? For instance, climate science teaming up with quantum physics is uncovering a world inconsolably mysterious and entangled. Not a world where facts can be stacked upon facts, layer of brick upon layer of brick, stretching like a ziggurat towards the heavens. Instead, we are noticing the animacy, vibrancy and sensuous poetry that ignite every blade of grass, every shy wave collapsing into a confident particle, and every human edge bleeding into the ecosystems we once reduced to resource pools.      

The Anthropocene – this age of Man, which is not only an account of anthropogenic events and their contributions to earth-wide changes, but also a troubling acknowledgement of human entanglement with the fields and agencies and nonhuman ‘elements’ we believed ourselves superior to – reframes modernity. Further still, it allows us see science as if for the first time. Not as a dominant way of thinking. Not as a container of innocent facts set against the superstitions of indigenous cultures, the holders of which we are forced to patronize under present political imperatives.

If we are to take science seriously, then we must notice its own humorous insufficiency in the face of a cosmos too relational, too perverse, too promiscuous and intimate to be resolved. The vocation of seeing further and further and clearer and clearer is already troubled by science itself. The relationality of science means we do not live in a world of objectified facts awaiting discovery. And it is not the case that the more we see the more we dispel uncertainty or complexity. Facts intensify mystery: every knowledge act we enact reshapes what is knowable – an observation that led Niels Bohr to suggest that the core ‘problem’ of quantum physics is indeterminacy, not uncertainty.

Science as a quest for ‘God’

A friend of mine, writer Charles Eisenstein, notices how science has its own ‘priesthood.’ Its own rituals and revered texts. Its own economies of value. Its own metaphysics and assumptions that evade testability or the grip of empiricism. One can go further in noticing that science’s histories are entangled with colonization, with patriarchy, with industrialization, and with key events in Western cultural evolution, so that to presume science is a culture-less orb floating in the middle of things is to presume too much.

In fact, it is possible to see science as a theological project. What a scandal of epic proportions! What a thing to say. However, a studious historical examination of scientific practices might show how science emerged from within the same architecture that imagined the sacred as a quality outside the material universe. The point of scientific investigation then would be to ‘escape’ – to decode the blueprint of creation and figure out the hidden secrets of the cosmos, which might in turn fuel our abandonment of it.

In theology, much has been written about this ‘escape’. The ‘apophatic’ tradition, emerging from old Christian apostolic mysticism, studied in constructive theology, assumes that we cannot gain a conceptual handle on ‘God’. No form of creaturely thought, experience, language or affirmation could describe God. As such, theological apophasis – literally ‘denial’ or ‘un-saying’ – suggests a trajectory that takes us out of the world by the unsaying of things. God, the dark and luminous nothingness beyond expression, lives outside of these frail linguistic practices. To approach, one must disentangle oneself from an intimacy with ordinary things.

One may argue that science seeks the sacred or ‘God’ in form of apophatic escape. But the ‘God’ science seeks has changed address – no longer living in the heavens above all things, but now incarnated in all things. A ‘pan-carnation’. In a stream of texts from 15th century Nicholas of Cusa to 21st century Catherine Keller, from feminist writings like Karen Barad’s to Judith Butler’s, and even in the urgent messages of the Anthropocene, we notice a coming together of ‘opposites’: God and the mortal, heaven and earth, man and woman, mind and matter, sacred and mundane. Mountain and telescope. A coming together that enjoins us to rethink the way we see the world around us. This joining of the apophatic – the unspeakable – and the ordinary invites us to notice what Nicholas of Cusa elaborated upon as “docta ignorantia” or learned ignorance, a rigorous appreciation of mystery and the contours of the knowable. In this new paradigm, not-knowing is also an event. More than just a click away from certainty, not-knowing is revisited as a vital contribution to how the world matters. Not-knowing becomes data.  

Making room for not-knowing

Just as it is not the human eye that sees but the whole body that sees, the proposed telescope on Mauna Kea is the arrowhead of a cultural moment that thinks of the sacred as far away. Behind the claims that the telescope’s installation will fuel scientific advancement is – among many other things – an anxiety that treats the accumulation of knowledge as an unexamined good in itself. But escape is ‘no longer’ possible. Facts and mystery are not alien to each other. And not-knowing is no less a scientific event than generating data. In revisiting the ordinary in its sacredness, we make room for a place where knowing more is no longer helpful.

In Hawaii, a key component of what is at stake is the sacred. For the peoples of the islands, the mountain is sacred. For the scientists and their corporate funders, escape is the technology of approaching the sacred. These opposites coincide in an ecology that is potent with opportunities for engagement and unprecedented gestures. Without collapsing these matters into a single political resolution, it is possible to affirm that the scientific practitioners stand a chance of missing out on an opportunity to see how the mountain sees. An opportunity to not see through a telescope.

In what ways is not-knowing a crucial scientific product? What rituals might the protesters and scientists share between themselves, allowing them to honour and perform a ‘learned ignorance’? In what ways might the site of argumentation become an altar to the telescope-that-might-have-been and the mountain-that-might-yet-be?

The mountain presents itself as a figure of mystery. Of the incomprehensible. Apophatic entanglement. There is much to be gained by not gaining more. Is there a place where knowing more is no longer helpful? The events at Mauna Kea might open up such a scandalous site of queer power.      


[1] Home to Wākea, the sky god who married Papahānaumoku, the earth mother.

[2] Galileo reportedly built his own telescope to gain ten times the magnifying power of German spectacle-maker Hans Lippershey’s patented version a year before in 1608.

[3] There are many losses and blind spots in this essay. In focusing on the key assumption that science is irretrievably opposed to sacred, I have perhaps failed to centralize the voices and opinions of the Hawaiian protesters whom my political alliances and preferences privilege.

Bayo Akomolafe

Bayo Akomolafe (Ph.D.) is Chief Curator and Executive Director of The Emergence Network. Author, lecturer, speaker, father, and rogue planet saved by the gravitational pull of his wife Ej, Bayo hopes to inspire a diffractive network of sharing within an ethos of new responsivity... Read More
Bayo Akomolafe

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