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Why We Love the Monolith

The recent appearance of so-called monoliths in Utah and around the world taps into a deep-seated fascination.

Via YouTube
A monolith looms in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

On Monday, airborne sheep surveyors in San Juan County, Utah, observed a three-sided, 11-foot-tall reflective metal object nestled in the orange rock. After the Bureau of Land Management issued an official press release on the pillar, complete with alien jokes, the objet became affectionately known on social media as “the monolith.” This is a misnomer, since the -lith part of monolith means stone—this thing is metal. It may in actuality be three sheets of aluminum riveted together to resemble a massive unsegmented Toblerone. Whatever you want to call it, the sheer enigma of this prism’s purpose, along with the atmospheric images posted to social media by the Utah Department of Public Safety, have captured imaginations the world over.

Please be aliens, you can almost hear the planet pleading. Please be aliens come to take us away, and not a viral marketing campaign. Interest ratcheted up after the prism disappeared, then seemed to reappear in Romania, in California, and in Paris. In the dying moments of a brutal year, a shape has become a celebrity. More than that: Because of the simplicity of its form, its sci-fi symbolism, and the way it has sparked people’s wonder against all odds, the Utah monolith is perhaps the breakout artwork of this horrible, unending year. Marketing might be the most likely explanation for our shiny friend’s existence, with banal happenstance coming a close second, but if we keep logic out of the equation, we have a little time left before the dream is ruined. 

The “monolith” moniker comes from the prism’s resemblance to the slabs in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Adapted from Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Sentinel,” that film features monoliths that manifest on earth, the moon, and in orbit without announcing their purpose. Blank, black, and impenetrable, the monoliths are dense symbols that resist interpretation in a way that terrifies and inspires with equal force. Over time, they turn out to be something like supercomplex computers capable of spurring on a species’ evolution—hence the pillar standing by in the movie’s famous opening scene, where a hominid learns how to smash bones with bones.

Dreadful menace and hope for a better universe exude equally from the 2001 monoliths, for the selfsame reason—they are both beyond our conceptual abilities. In the film, they seem to have been left there by some superior but unforthcoming, possibly extinct, species. So, despite the fear human beings feel when the mysterious black slabs start showing up, they are actually proof that the universe contains life both more intelligent and more altruistic than humankind. The monolith is here, therefore the monolith was once made, and therefore we are not alone: It is a symbol of terror and reassurance at the same time.

2001 is one of the most influential movies of all time, but its monoliths are such a widely known trope that their fame exceeds that of their source— even calls them a “stock parody.” Crucially, 2001 itself drew upon ancient associations between land formations and magic, which gives the trope structure and resilience. The slabs of 2001 are linked to sacred monolithic structures as varied across time and space as Stonehenge, the Easter Island figures, and the Diquís spheres of Costa Rica. 

Our awe and confusion at such accomplished stoneworks by nonindustrial peoples is an indicator of both our chauvinism—If they didn’t do it our way, then how?—and our uncertainty, even skepticism, about nature’s strangest creations. Precise geometric monoliths have been observed on Mars and its moons, for example, as well as on the seafloor of earth. On Saturn there exists a persistent hexagonal cloud pattern around the planet’s north pole. Some people have a hard time believing such perfection can come to be without intelligent design.

The world of fine art has long looked to the monolith and the megalith as attempts to invoke the awe of that natural, near-mystical perfection. The Utah prism’s design bears a relation to the abstract geometrical forms of much twentieth-century sculpture, as well as the monumental land art that has continued to grow in popularity this century at institutions like Dia:Beacon. In the textural contrast it presents to the rocks around it, the prism resembles the abstract works of John McCracken (who was speculated to be the prism’s creator, at first) or Anish Kapoor—art that has taken on a somewhat mall-like banality through its sheer ubiquity. 

The loneliness of its situation, however, and its vague resemblance to a fantasy species’ machinery or computing equipment, make the Utah prism kin to works by Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, Richard Long, and Robert Smithson. The latter built his iconic Spiral Jetty in 1970, also in Utah, near some old abandoned oil rigs and railway lines; the work’s spiral shape echoes the futility of ruined industrial equipment while mimicking its beauty.

In the parlance of sci-fi genre purists, ominous but intelligent-seeming objects fall into the category of “Big Dumb Object.” In her 1981 essay “Science Fiction in the 1970s: Some Dominant Themes and Personalities,” the critic Roz Kaveney credited Larry Nivens with bringing “back into fashion—naively but effectively—the resonances and charms of Big Dumb Objects.” She was referring offhand to his “Ringworld” in the novel of the same name, a hoop-shaped alien construction measuring 186 million miles across. The phrase occurred to sci-fi editor Peter Nicholls when he came to compile the 1993 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and he decided that he’d borrow the “BDO” concept and simply pretend that it “was actually a known critical term.”

The useful thing about Kaveney’s phrase, Nicholls realized, is its disrespectful tone, which punctures the almost arrogant world-building of 1970s science fiction to perfection. Big Dumb Objects, it turns out, almost always exude incomprehensible but powerful vibes; in this way they can act as convenient places to store loose plot ends (see: Arrival, 2017) or the biggest and best ideas a creative can summon.

The golden orb at the center of the movie Sphere, for example, will not reflect a human being’s appearance in its surface until it has “accepted” them. In Risto Isomäki’s “Xanadu-kuutio” (The Xanadu Cube), the titular shape is larger on the inside than it is on the outside by a factor of millions. Such encounters, Nicholls later observed in a conference lecture, are postindustrial fantasies of the sublime and applications of modern technical thought to eternal mysteries. When some huge object dwarfs the earth in size, or radiates undeniable power that is beyond our comprehension, he argues, the sci-fi author stages an encounter with the universe’s infinite mystery as extreme and inspiring as any clifftop Romantic painting.

The thing to remember about the sublime, Nicholls goes on, is that “it is dehumanizing.” Confronting the immortal aspects of the universe “makes us feel small and unimportant and indeed hardly there at all.” All good sci-fi, he thinks, eventually approaches this feeling, and for this reason, the Big Dumb Object of both reality and fiction is “merely a coalescence of the metaphor in the form of matter, as if they are a warped section of space.”

No individual has yet taken credit for the Utah prism’s installation, but it is touching to think how many artists and writers have collaborated to underwrite this symbol in our culture. It is, in this sense, much more than a few sheets of aluminum. Angry conservationists have already claimed responsibility for toppling and removing the prism for the crime of attracting foot traffic, the first intrusion of the real world on its aura of mystery.  Surely an explanation will come, puncturing the fascination that has grown around the monolith. Until then, I will be praying for our new alien overlords’ well-being.