JWST and the imagination

When the Hubble space telescope launched in April 1990, I was too young to understand what was going on – but not yesterday, when NASA launched its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Every once in a while, the Hubble telescope team releases an image of thousands of stars packed into one shot, the so-called “deep space” views. I don’t know if there is another way to react to them than with awe. But given the hype surrounding the JWST as well as its better technical specifications, its launch just seemed surreal – the threshold of a new era of astronomy photographs that everyone says will be better than what the Hubble has managed thus far, yet I can’t imagine how.

In 2015, I had written, after gazing for an hour at a Hubble image of the M5 cluster, that the telescope’s images are so flawless, so devoid of the aberration of its instruments, that it is easy to forget the telescope lies between our eyes and the subject of its image. This sensation was reminiscent of the opening of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980):

One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it. My interest in Photography took a more cultural turn. I decided I liked Photography in opposition to the Cinema, from which I nonetheless failed to separate it. This question grew insistent. I was overcome by an “ontological” desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was “in itself,” by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images. Such a desire really meant that beyond the evidence provided by technology and usage, and despite its tremendous contemporary expansion, I wasn’t sure that Photography existed, that it had a “genius” of its own.

The JWST is now expected to top this… this flawlessness, and I’m already excited for the possibilities – yet I’m also instinctively inclined to temper this excitement because of something else Barthes said in the same book: a warning about making the meaning of an image too “impressive”, too powerful as to render its aesthetic qualities more keenly than its political – or in this case technical – ones:

Yet the mask is the difficult region of Photography. Society, it seems, mistrusts pure meaning: it wants meaning, but at the same time it wants this meaning to be surrounded by a noise (as is said in cybernetics) which will make it less acute. Hence the photograph whose meaning (I am not saying its effect, but its meaning) is too impressive is quickly deflected; we consume it aesthetically, not politically. The Photograph of the Mask is in fact critical enough to disturb (in 1934, the Nazis censored Sander because his “faces of the period” did not correspond to the Nazi archetype of the race), but it is also too discrete (or too “distinguished”) to constitute an authentic and effective social critique, at least according to the exigencies of militantism: what committed science would acknowledge the interest of Physiognomy?

I don’t know if this argument applies here or, if it does, how exactly. I thought to recall it only because of the possibilities with which the JWST will soon confront us, their implications for astronomy as a whole, and how we might respond as a people and as a species to them. And of course as science communicators.

Featured image: An infrared image of the ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the Eagle Nebula, photographed by the Hubble space telescope in 2014. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA.