Planetarium: Wonder of Technology—Technologies of Wonder

Helen Ahner

How can astronomical knowledge be made palpable and what does the universe feel like?  Answers to this question were found by German popularizers of knowledge and Volksbildungs-functionaries of the 1920s in the projection planetarium: In this novel facility, the audience could view a stunningly real simulation of the starry sky, have lecturers explain to them exactly what was visible up there, get lost in the moving 360-degree projection, and entirely surrender to wonder—an epistemic emotion that was produced, experienced, and cultivated in the planetarium.

The dissertation in cultural and historical anthropology on which this project is based examines the experiences and emotions that the planetarium made possible with its techniques and technologies: What specific ways of perceiving, knowing, and feeling did the planetarium enable at the time of its establishment (1920–1930)? Which understanding of the world, of knowledge and technology, could be experienced there? How were the modes of perception, emotions, and narratives that became accessible in the planetarium connected to these understandings?

Building on these questions, the project explores the planetarium spectators’ experiences of nature, technology, the body, and transcendence. The ways of perceiving, feeling, and knowing under the dome were referred to by the audience as wonder and awe. Through feeling wonder, the planetarium visitors constituted a certain attitude toward the world, knowledge, technology, and nature. This manifested itself in practice–discourse bundles: in narratives and topoi such as the narration of the “wonder of technology,” but also in embodied practices (technologies of wonder), which were cultivated in the planetarium and which induced the acquisition of knowledge as an embodied experience. Wondering in the planetarium was engineered and explored as an epistemic–emotional attitude that also had an effect beyond the domes.

Based on a corpus of more than 900 sources and with the help of the methodological toolbox of historical ethnography, this project shows how nature also—and above all—approaches people as a feeling, how technology and science become the source of transcendent emotions, how being modern happens on the emotional level, and how the feeling of technical sublimity continues to have an impact on everyday life.

Key References

Ahner, H. (2023). Planetarien: Wunder der Technik - Techniken des Wunderns. Wallstein.
Ahner, H. (2023). Gefühlte Natur und natürliche Gefühle: Wie die ersten Planetarien urbane Natur produzierten und fühlbar machten. Zeitschrift für Empirische Kulturwissenschaft, 119(1), 26–46.
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