Holiness, Use-Less-Ness, and the Thirty Meter Telescope

skepticAbout 15 months ago as this is written (early July 2015), I published an account of the ongoing controversy over, and protests against, the construction of the new Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. At the time Diane and I left Hawaii after that trip, I had a sense of assurance that, even if all the issues surrounding the construction of the TMT had not been resolved, that progress would be made and that a working modus vivendi would be  reached such that all parties to the controversy were at least reconciled to the fact that construction would take place. So when we returned in May of this year, I was somewhat taken aback to discover that the courts had issued an injunction to delay construction of the TMT, just as ground was beginning to be broken. Gov. David Ige recently issued an order to convene a commission to resolve remaining cultural issues with the Native Hawaiian community, and also to allow TMT construction to resume. What I apprehended, in my original post, as issues surrounding differing Western vs. Hawaiian conceptions of sacred space was true as far as it went. What I left out of consideration in the earlier article were conceptions of sacred time. Much chastened, what I believe now is that, contrary to my former article of progressive / liberal faith, some differences cannot be resolved by discussion and compromise. Sometimes differences are so radical that they can be resolved – if that is the right word – only through some form of coercion.

Thirty Meter Telescope (artist's conception)

There is still the issue of the sacredness of place, of course. That is probably the most obvious “face” of the TMT controversy, because of the visibility of the 13 – counting TMT, 14 – telescopes on the summit of the Mountain. (Very gradually, the individual instruments in the telescope complex are being decommissioned, so that by the time TMT sees “first light” around 2020, there will only be perhaps a dozen.) On any clear day, they are easily visible with the naked eye from ground level at almost any place in Hilo or the vicinity: tiny white cubes or squares situated at the summit and silhouetted against the blue of the sky and the tan of the surrounding ground. To the extent that Western / haole sensibilities – my own included -- reflect on issues of sacredness at all, the reaction usually takes some cognate form of believing that, far from detracting from the sacredness of the place, the presence of the telescope complex renders the site more sacred – doubly sacred, if you will – not less, because the telescopes represent the striving of human beings for knowledge of and relatedness to the physical cosmos, just as Mauna Kea itself represents the connection of Native Hawaiians to the spiritual cosmos.

Mauna Kea telescope complex

However, what I did not realize on our previous visit and what I am only gropingly beginning to appreciate now, is that casting the issue in terms of representation is itself a form of cultural and, as it were, semiotic imperialism. To the Native Hawaiians, the Mountain does not “represent” anything. Rather, to them the Mountain is what it represents. To an orthodox Roman Catholic, the Bread and Wine do not “represent” the Body and Blood of Jesus. Rather, to a Catholic the Bread and Wine are the Body and Blood. The woman to whom I am married does not “represent” my wife. Diane is my wife. A tree does not “represent” wood. A tree is wood. The ocean does not "represent" water. The ocean is water. Over 2000 years, Western / Occidental / European culture has developed representation to the point of virtuosity. We live and move and have our being in a world of abstractions – representations. In fact, we find it odd to think in any other terms:  X represents Y; "tree" is the Signifier; the brown, branchy, leafy thing, the Signified. That is power. But it also means that the symbols doing the representing are disposable. Fungible. Interchangeable. Several years ago, I lost my wedding ring. No big deal. I bought another one. My wedding ring is not my marriage; it only represents my marriage. The ring itself was disposable. But to many Native Hawaiians, especially those active in the anti-TMT protests, because the Mountain is what it represents, the Mountain is not disposable, not fungible. It is not a commodity like wedding rings and pork-belly futures. To the Western / haole mind, the Mountain qua Mountain can be used. Used for virtually anything. Even ecological considerations factor in more or less as matters of enlightened self-interest. Because the Mountain qua Mountain is fungible, it can be used as a symbol for sacredness … or as a site for telescope development and astronomy. To a Native Hawaiian, Mauna Kea cannot – must not, dare not – be used for anything. The Holy is literally use-less.

Queen Lili'uokalani

But as it is with Einstein's theory of relativity, so it is also -- and for analogous reasons -- with spirituality:  space is inseparable from time. The Hawaiian creation myth, the Kumulipo, a chant of over 2000 lines, tells the story of the origin of the Islands, in which narrative the Big Island of Hawaii, most particularly, Mauna Kea, whose crater is the Navel of the World, figures prominently. (Please note that I am using the word "myth" in the "technical" sense in which the word is used in cultural anthropology, not the condescending and derogatory sense -- "mere" myth -- of popular usage. Myths are stories -- which may or may not be factual and historical -- that are considered important because they embody deep insights about the nature of reality and the significance of life and the human condition. In that sense, no myth is ever "mere". In fact, a good case could be made that myth is the closest approach to absolute truth of which words are capable.) Rather than recount the Kumulipo narrative, which is far too elaborate to even synopsize, I emphasize that -- like all creation myths of all religions -- the events in the Kumulipo narrative transpire in mythic time, in illo tempore, "Once upon a time ... ", which is radically different from ordinary time. Mythic events may or may not have started out as a part of space-time history, but they all, without exception, point to a significance that transcends space-time. Even if mythic events are in time, they are not of it.

Mythic events, even if historical, are always eternal, literally timeless -- therefore, always present.  Jesus is "the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world"; hence the Catholic insistence that the Mass is the one eternal Sacrifice, perennially instantiated in the temporal present.  Over time, historical events can assume mythic significance, can become eternal in retrospect. Furthermore, because mythic events are perennially present, they can be participated in by human beings. Catholics participate in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Civil-War reenactors participate in the Battles of Gettysburg, Antietam, etc. Shi'a Muslims re-experience the death of Hussein at Karbala. Native Hawaiians who ascend to the summit of Mauna Kea step into a numinous world where Creation is still occurring, where the ancestors buried in the various grave sites are still alive and vital. Likewise, from the standpoint of myth, even relatively recent events can, over time, assume mythic significance. I kept close watch of media interviews with the Native Hawaiian TMT protesters, and was struck by how often the protesters expressed their outrage over the revolution that deposed the last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili'uokalani, in 1893. That is, Queen Lili'uokalani was deposed in 1893 in historical time.  But mythically, she was deposed now, in the perennial present. Native Hawaiians see -- with ... let's face it ... considerable justification -- a direct line of causality linking the brazen imperialism that resulted in the annexation of Hawaii to the United States and the annexation of the summit of Mauna Kea to the astronomy community:  in the minds of many Native Hawaiians, the latter is just the latest manifestation of the former. In mythic time, such "archetypal" events have a way of cyclically recurring. Once events assume a mythic character, they are never simply over and done.

Iolani Palace -- Honolulu

In any case, historical parallels can be debated endlessly. But two things are far clearer to me now than when Diane and I visited the Big Island 15 months ago. First of all, back then I naively thought of the controversy in terms of the coexistence of two semiotic schemes:  one in which the elements of the indigenous Hawaiian culture represented the Native Hawaiians' aloha 'aina ("reverence for land / environment") of the Island, and its Western / Occidental / European counterpart in which scientific curiosity and research represent just a parallel method of reverence and wonder, an alternate route to the common destination, if you will.

All that sounds embarrassingly naive now.  For, secondly, the conflict is not about representation, not about semiotics.  The roots of the conflict go deep in the soil and into the bedrock of two conflicting ontologies, two conflicting views of Reality-as-such. Not only conflicting, but conflicting to the point of being irreconcilable. Short of transporting everyone to a parallel Universe where the Native Hawaiians undertook their audacious journey from somewhere around Tahiti or Micronesia and landed on a different archipelago of islands, there is no way to alter the "mythic ontology" of the Big Island and Mauna Kea in the hearts and consciousnesses of the Hawaiian people. Short of inventing a time machine and going back to 1893 to repudiate the "Bayonet Constitution" and restore the Hawaiian royal line to the Iolani Palace, nothing can assuage the residual anger at the coup that deposed Queen Lili'uokalani. Furthermore, even if such measures were possible, my gut tells me that the sovereign Law of Unintended Consequences would dictate problems at least as intractable to replace the ones we would solve.  Catch-22.  History is cruel.

My prognosis:  some games really are zero-sum; TMT is one such.

James R. Cowles







  1. Profile photo of judy westerfield
    Curious to the Max said on September 10, 2015
    . . . I agree with your first response and do not think it naive. (of course I wouldn't think it naive since I agree with it!!!) From my Baha'i belief all the universe (earth included!) is sacred space in the same way all humans are connected by the divine. Mountains, rivers, continents, cultures, countries etc. rise into being and are lost. The fact that we attach "meaning" to objects doesn't make them "meaningful" from a universal perspective. Myth is a metaphor cultures have used to describe the indescribable. Science too is sacred and serves to discover God's secrets revealed through research and technology. The bird needs two wings to fly - one spiritual and one scientific - each one enhances the other.
    1. Profile photo of jrcowles
      jrcowles said on September 11, 2015
      Thanks ... I do think the anti-TMT protesters foreclose the possibility of an amicable settlement and reconciliation when they transpose the dispute to a "mythic" key by bringing up things like Lili'uokalani. Casting the dispute into those terms renders it irresolvable. What are the astronomers & TMT supporters supposed to do at that point? Build a time machine, go back to 1893, and have a "do-over"? Granted, the indigenous Hawaiians did get an eminently crappy deal. But that was then and this is now, and we live in the latter time-frame. So I think many of the anti-TMT protesters are more interested in the fight than in resolving the conflict. Besides, the horse has already escaped from the barn: what of the other 12 telescopes that are already there and how much would removing THEM disrupt the environment, both physical & METAphysical? In many ways, the anti-TMT movement is based on a specious demand to "un-ring" the bell.

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