Benjamin and the Black Hole

‘Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the galaxy M87.’ [1] This is big news. The real thing. A supposedly unobservable object is now observed; an image to accompany what was known only theoretically or seen as a simulation now exists. But then the image, when I look at it, has a strange modesty, like an ember in a dying fire or the end of a cigarette on its last drag. Why is this image so haunting, so modest? Far from the ‘amorous frenzy’ imagined by Georges Bataille in his indecent text on solar energy, which made use of the Sun as an image of ‘luminous violence’ and ‘scandalous eruption’, [2] this image of a black hole conjures slow and heavy thoughts.

Did I expect more from an image of a black hole? The generic definition tells us that a black hole forms when a massive star exhausts its fuel and collapses under its own weight to the point of infinite density, where not even light escapes. Exhaustion and collapse. The definition could double as a description of what we’re seeing and experiencing today. Or should we be wary of the impulse to make this image a portrait of the times? Does writing about the first image of a black hole risk overlooking the image itself? Is it the image that tempts this general theory of pessimism, or is fetishising despair and jumping headfirst into the spectacle of catastrophe a normal response to any news from the cosmos these days?


[1] Ota Lutz, ‘How Scientists Captured the First Image of a Black Hole’,; accessed April 25, 2019.

[2] Georges Bataille, ‘The Solar Anus’ (1931), in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, Allan Stoekl (ed.), Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie Jr (trans.), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985, p. 8.


Title Image:

William Eric Brown
Caldera 2 [detail], 2018
Multi-layered photograph (C-print and inkjet)
and acrylic spray paint on photographic paper
43.2 × 43.2 cm
Courtesy of the artist


Tom Melick is a writer and editor broadly interested in imaginative and material geographies. He co-edits the pamphlet series Slug (

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