Astronaut Suicide v. Astronaut Wonder

I know there’s been nothing posted here for ages, but as a crazy academic year winds down, here’s something I’ve been thinking about

The contrasts and similarities between two astronaut-themed photo essays reveals something important for the analysis of space from the Earth Native’s point of view.  The first of these is the 2010 series by Neil Dacosta, 14 images of NASA astronauts committing suicide in the run up to the end of the Shuttle program and in the context of President Obama’s April 15, 2010 speech at KSC where he dismissed the moon as a destination for the American space program.  These are bleak, stark images of astronauts ending their lives, bleached of color and light, framed to emphasize anonymizing urban locations, loneliness, and ruin. The second, by Aaron Sheldon, is remarkably different.  Richly colored and featuring Sheldon’s four-year-old son, these images show a diminutive astronaut exploring familiar but functioning places of daily urban modern life.  They are quirky, funny, and express the wonder of discovery.

The obvious contrasts between the two takes up the common—and stark—thematic, affective, and aesthetic dissonances between different storytelling stances within contemporary science fiction: the dystopian v. the utopian, anomie v. wonder, cynicism v. inspiration.  Newspace folks often decry the visions of artists and commentators like Dacosta, seeing them both as misrepresentations of NASA’s post-Shuttle life and as iconic of a broader and misdirected cynicism and narrative of national failure.  Likewise, an astronaut kid with his cocked head and disorienting cuteness aligns with the constant refrain I have heard among Newspace advocates that space inspires youth and offers new and even not–yet-thinkable possibilities for human expression, joy, and wonder.

Yet, despite these differences, there are strong thematic and aesthetic unities between these two photo essays that can tell us something further about how we think about space.  In both Dacosta’s and Sheldon’s images, the astronaut is completely alone in familiar places on Earth.  There is no other human around, no community, just the individual either about to end a life or begin one, but in places that could not have been built by the astronaut alone.  Where are all the other people—the community, the social—upon which actual astronauts depend?  That is, in part, the point of Dacosta’s essay I suppose, but I would argue that the heroic (or antiheroic) figure of the astronaut results in us forgetting that vast numbers of people must work together to sustain human life in space.  Indeed, the fact that we can name everyone who has been to space individually is part of the problem.  We don’t think about space as a site for community or common purpose; we think of it as a place empty of human connection.  The individual lives or dies according to their own ingenuity (like Mark Watney in The Martian) or personal and/or technological failure (like Ryan Stone in Gravity).  Both Dacosta and Sheldon participate in disconnecting astronauts from what actually keeps them alive.

Moreover, with different lighting and color manipulation, Sheldon’s or Dacosta’s astronaut could swap places with little impact to the intended affective impact of the images.  We can imagine the kid astronaut bravely and experimentally turning on the gas stove in the location of Dacosta’s image of the astronaut with his or her head in the oven.  And one of Dacosta’s life-weary astronauts could find a relatively easy way to kill themselves in the barber’s chair or swimming pool where Sheldon frames his astronaut son.  Likewise, both essays work by contrasting the peculiarity of the astronaut suit in use on Earth; it is the disjuncture between the unnecessary life-sustaining suit in Earth’s biosphere that is amusing and jarring in both photographers’ images.  Yet, despite the quotidian, everyday terrestrial spaces in which suicide and wonder are represented in these essays, the point of the contrast is an extreme: extreme wonder and extreme despair.  The everydayness is just the backdrop that allows for this extremity.  What’s missing, again, is the ordinariness of daily life for the astronaut, the connection, the community, but also the humdrumness of life in space once a routine is established –indeed, even boredom.

My point is not to critique Dacosta or Sheldon for a failure to represent something they don’t intend to, but to point out that their essays are so evocative because they depend on the widespread tropes of space and of astronauts that pervade Earthbound (to quote Bruno Latour) humans’ understandings of space.  It is, as we are told, an extreme environment, a site for extremely well-trained individuals to sustain life beyond Earth’s nature, with extreme consequences in the event of something bad, but with the possibilities for extreme payoffs, insights, and futures.  I’ve written about the extreme as a trope for thinking through space with Debbora Battaglia and Valerie Olson, and a key point we make is this: the extremes of outer space make us forget the day-to-dayness of space for those who visit locations in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station (or who, as my Newspace interlocutors hope, may one day live permanently on Mars, the moon, or the moons of the outer planets).  What appears extreme on Earth must become ordinary to some extent for those who leave it; you cannot be always struck by the wonder of newness, nor will your depression be allowed to go unchecked.  Without Earth’s nature to buffer your wonder or despair, things will go awry.  And there will be other people—many other people—around to remind you of that, to help you, and to sustain something beyond just the individual affective moment.

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Failure and the Future (reblog)

Ahem.  Speaking of bridging temporal gaps, it’s been a while since I posted — that’s the nature of a busy semester and the need to meet other deadlines.  One of those was for a piece I wrote for the CASTAC blog which, since it speaks directly to the themes of this blog, I’m going to link to here as a stop-gap measure until I have the time to write something fresh and new.  So, check out Failure and the Future at CASTAC!

Worlds in Space (or: Why Space Settlement Proponents are Good Anthropologists)

I have argued to some people that space settlement proponents are marvelous anthropologists.  I have done so because in proposing to move humans off planet to other places in the cosmos, to other worlds (be it Mars, the moon, a free space colony, a generation starship), they have to define, describe, and account for “world” – they have to take or make or account for everything that can make a world that humans can live in.  In doing so, they must open up what it is that we consider “natural,” what appears to be, simply, there.  A modest list, for starters, would go something like this (and perhaps not coincidentally, sounds a bit like Eddie Izzard describing how God made the Earth in seven days — starting at around 2:05): Architecture, Mozart, gravity, microbiomes, radiation, psychology, Jesus, power dynamics, pregnancy, orientation, soil, the internet, shit, macrofauna, growth cycles, photosynthesis, race, gender, up and down, socialization, tea and coffee, the idea of quickly and slowly, kinship, the idea of Europe, exercise, the structure of a staircase, soil, signal latency, how concrete sets, circadian rhythms, sedimentation, flat feet, data, sonar resonances, rotation, cancer, commodities and exchange, electromagnetism, turning, waste, the division of labor, the length of day and night, how ink flows in a pen, relativity, “pests,” kinky sex, AI, apathy, genetics, seasons, the chemical reactions necessary for making chocolate cake, rock, haircuts, jam.  And they have to account for the myriad interactions among all these things.  They are not producing Earth elsewhere, though they are worlds that necessarily bear a relationship to this planet.  But they are different worlds, and worlds in which the difference from Earth is constantly a question.  Such worlds are not necessarily anthropocentric — while made by humans and ultimately designed to sustain human life, every element, human and nonhuman (from what we would call pests to grain to intention and anger) would have to be integrated or integrate itself to sustain this new world for humans and for nonhumans alike.  There is no order to my list because there can’t be: every element is essential to be thought about, provided, nurtured, accounted for ahead of time and as it emerges, whether ostensibly a noun, verb, adjective, conjunction, article, or adverb.  Nature and culture can no longer have secure meaning in planning for a world that isn’t Earthbound.  Humans may make these worlds, but humans cannot be the ultimate element because they rely on too many others.  This is what is radical about space settlement: the need to define what is in a world, to be explicit about its constitution and its purpose, the need to recognize the value of every element in the maintenance of this world, not simply the predominance of the human because there is no Earth to absorb the mistakes.  This is what makes space settlement proponents so profoundly anthropological in their thinking: they must open up every claim about what is “natural” in the world and consider how it might be made.  And once it is, it has its own intention, agency, and purpose.   I would say that working with space settlement advocates has made me a better anthropologist because they have thrown everything I assume open to question.  So, thanks for that!

the story so far

Big Bang.  Earth was formed.  Then a moon, life.  Billions of years, tectonic shifts, dinosaurs, asteroids etc. Evolution,  Movement over the surface of the planet.  There are Neanderthals along the way, possibly our fault they aren’t around anymore.  Ice ages, earthquakes.  Ecology. Agriculture.  Culture: cities, writing, religion, myth, philosophy.  War.   Difference, though not speciation.  Ships, sextants, spices, smallpox.  Dispossession.  More war, really big ones.  Atom bomb.  Moon landing.  Internet.  Anthropocene. Oh shit.

Now, we can begin.

Writing a book where the entire history of the cosmos is invoked by your informants requires a bracket of sweeping, cosmic proportions. I feel like I’ve left a lot out.  How on earth (or off it) is it possible to identify the key moments, to step back far enough? Or, is the need to have to step back far enough the problem itself?

Right now it is 5:21am in Wisconsin, the day after daylight savings began.

thoughts on disaster, time, and history

Two weeks ago I was in Las Cruces, New Mexico for the 10th International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, my final official ethnographic fieldwork trip.  The day after the conference, I joined the usual tour of Spaceport America—about a 90 minute drive from Las Cruces—and was as usual awed and dislocated in time by the shiny, futuristic “Gateway to Space” terminal out in the desert.  It is from here that Virgin Galactic has planned to launch its long-delayed SpaceShip2 (The running image on this blog is from when Spaceport America was still under construction in 2010).

Yesterday was upended by the terrible news from Mojave—where SpaceShip2 has been developed—of its destruction, minutes after it separated from its carrier craft, WhiteKnight2, in only its fourth powered flight.  One pilot died, another is seriously injured, and the lives of many people have been transformed by this event.  I  mourn with the family, friends, and colleagues of the dead pilot.  The future of Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America now looks even more in doubt than it had been, and this event —along with the loss of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket earlier in the week—have been the lead stories in major media outlets.  Even as I’ve ended my regular fieldwork, it seems as though I should be just starting.

Among detractors, critics, and the general media, these events (but especially SpaceShip2’s destruction) have already led to a huge output of speculation (and in some cases, badly-disguised satisfaction) that the commercial spaceflight—or Newspace—industry might have fallen off its horse, that it has reached, if not an end point, then a turning point, and that that turn can only be in one direction: back down, toward Earth and reality.   There have been plenty of critics of commercial spaceflight, in particular from legacy aerospace company whose business models have been upended by Newspace industry entrants like SpaceX.  Underpinning many of these critiques is recourse to a particular narrative of time and history: Newspace companies are going too fast, they’re trying to short-circuit time, reaching too deeply into the future, and taking too many risks to get there.  Legacy aerospace companies frequently tout their long experience and point to their list of successful launches over time.  The implication is: doing space over a long period of time in a predictable way with proven technologies is the way to go.  History should unfold just so, according to various risk-management strategies with clearly defined, limited goals directed by terrestrial business models, quarterly budget cycles, and a steady-state economy and environment.

The alternative narrative from Newspace industry members and supporters is based on another theory of time: History has gone wrong.  It may be that they adhere to the same idea about history as a progressive movement forward, but for Newspace folks, human presence in space is a matter of destiny, evolution; that is, it is viewed along a scale of time that reaches back to early hominid evolution and forward to a deep future of human communities on Mars, the moons of Saturn, even leaving the galaxy on interstellar generation starships.  For Newspace folks, then, the moment that Neil Armstrong’s foot hit the moon’s surface on July 21, 1969, history became unfixed from time itself.  Real history would have resulted in a progressive development on the back of Apollo, a long-term and massive human settlement of space.  But at that moment, the space race had been “won” and the US government drew back from touted goals of moon and Mars exploration and settlement. That it did so can be pinned to a whole range of historical, economic, and political events and forces, but the idea that history went wrong—that the natural evolution of humans to places off-planet was truncated—deeply pervades Newspace thinking.  For them, legacy aerospace and its lockstep adherence to the shifting and incoherent plans of a politically-driven NASA for short-term profits are the ones who are lost in time.  So, whether you are working right now for the far shorter-term goals of sending well-heeled tourists and scientific experiments to the edge of space like Virgin Galactic or its competitor XCOR, or cargo and crew to the International Space Station like SpaceX or Orbital Sciences, or are planning to mine asteroids or the moon, or designing moon bases, or any other number of activities, the end goal is not a terrestrial balance sheet, but a cosmic reckoning.

As such, for Newspacers, the goal has been to put history right.  If the nature of humans is to move into new environments, embrace curiosity, seek out new resources, new ways of doing things (a theory of humanness that I’d argue is broadly shared across the American political and cultural landscape), then the movement to space can be seen as part of a long sweep of history and cannot be stopped by a single, or even multiple, disasters.  Yet, when history is punctuated by such moments, that sweeping vision is challenged and must be invoked again.

Space Is Hard” is a line I have heard from the beginning of my fieldwork in 2009, as is the acknowledgment that at some point, a disaster will strike, that someone will lose a life, and that the industry (and the social movement that I think it is) needs to prepare for its consequences. Starting yesterday, we began to see people doing just that.  But it would be missing the point entirely to see this only as industry “damage control” or “spin.”  At yesterday’s post-crash press conference in Mojave, Virgin Galactic’s CEO George Whitesides, visibly shaken and grief-struck, repeated this line—space is hard—and gave the usual corporate assurances one often hears in these kinds of press conferences.  But he and Stu Witt—the outgoing CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port—said other things in that press conference that only makes sense if you understand how time and history appear to Newspacers.  “The future rests in many ways on hard, hard days like this,” said Whitesides.  Witt, a central figure in making Mojave a center for Newspace industries, went further in responding to a young reporter’s question: “We’re doing this for you and your generation, it’s worthy, good business, it’s a cause greater than any of us.  I see this as being like the Magellan mission.”  For Whitesides the distant future and for Witt, the historical past make sense of the terrible loss they were enduring (and yes, I will be writing more about such colonial analogies at some future point, but not today).

If you hear these statements as pablum, as inappropriate, or as covers for corporate malfeasance, then I think you’re missing the point.  I’d challenge you to find any other post-industrial-disaster press conference where people talk about the distant future or past in these ways, under duress, under the pressure of grief.  The point is that Whitesides, Witt, and a host of other women and men have a deep commitment to a particular view of history and the future which—whether you find it compelling or not—helps them make sense of a death and the fracturing of daily life that have resulted from this crash.  For them, the loss of this pilot’s life—a friend and colleague—is a sacrifice to a larger, historical goal.  (For the best characterization of this view, see Rand Simberg’s Safe Is Not an Option).  While questions abound about Virgin Galactic’s safety culture and the advisability of sending SpaceShip2 on this flight, for the myriad space settlement advocates who see history as coming back in alignment with its true course, this disaster should not spell the end of the Newspace mission because it is, in Witt’s words, worthy.

I have many things to say about what Newspace proponents miss about history and time, or what  I think they presume too easily about humanness, exchange, community, and culture.  But what I’ve learned from them is to think about history and the future in ways that challenge the easy assumptions we see across the American political and intellectual spectrum about the nature of time: that what counts is the near-now, the immediate.  It’s not that we should dismiss contemporary problems—or moments of disaster—by reference to the future or by historical analogy, but what the present is is challenged by such a broad, scalar view of history, and I think we can learn something from this.

Meanwhile, right now, a family and their friends are grieving.  My thoughts go out to them.

time and the anthropocene; theory and placement

I keep a file of “fieldnotes” (the anthropologist’s source of data) that are really just random ideas that occur to me in the writing that goes alongside this project.  Usually, I date them and give the time and place in which they occurred to me.  Here’s today’s, as well as a thought about this practice I have of locating my inspirations in time and space:

October 26, 2014, Twin Springs Road – time and the anthropocene; theory and placement

It’s 5:22am Sunday morning.  We are heading for the midpoint between Equinox and Solstice that is Halloween on this planet—at least, in those parts that consider this cosmological point in those terms—rounding its sun, hurtling through the cosmos.  It’s unseasonably warm (meaning it will be in the 60s today, though it is a clear and quiet and dark 32F right now, perfect writing time and weather). Good morning!

[The above is written as a placing, contextualizing introduction to what comes after this, but in the meantime, something else intervenes, another thought climbs on top of this one and asks for attention: is my desire to date and name and place the things I write in this document an attempt to locate and specify my “theory” in response to the de-specifying, de-contextualizing mode of “theory” and of deep time imaginations?   Is my determination that these little sparks of thinking be placed and remembered as arising in moments along the linear path toward the book I am now writing a demand on myself to remember one place among billions in one moment among an infinite number?   It might be that I am trying to provincialize all the Big Objects—species, humanness, ontology, time, space—that are at the center of my project but that my training insists come from somewhere, need to be placed and given specificity, located in their temporal, racialized, spatial, gendered, intimate, affective moments.  This is the other kind of work that “context” does or can do].

Anyway, here’s the original thought that got me to open this up: if the spatial turn in social theory is a response to the “end of history” proclaimed by Latour and others, then thinking through the anthropocene is a reintroduction of time to social theory in a new way.  The “anthropocene” is anticipatory — that is, it names a series of events and developments in a period of human time that we imagine may one day be seen in the geological record.  The nomination of a new geological era imagines a future in which our present is a deep past, puzzled over by future geologists or exo-geologists. It is, in short, as invested in an imagination of deep future time as are the deep time frames of space settlement advocates.   End of Deep Thought.

Now, on a different time scale and in response to a different set of arrangements altogether,  I have to go and write letters of recommendation.

All about titles

So, what’s with the name of this blog?   It comes from a quote from Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, the first of 12 novels he wrote for children from the 1920s to 1940s, and which I read many times as a kid.  In the first book, one of the characters, Captain Flint (AKA James Turner, uncle to Nancy and Peggy Blackett, the Amazons) says:

“Never any of you start writing books.  It isn’t worth it.  This summer has been harder work for me than all the thirty years of knocking up and down that went before it.”

And that’s really pretty good advice, which I have summarily ignored.  I am indeed writing a book, on my research among people who are working toward the very long-term goal of moving millions of humans to places in the cosmos other than Earth. That said, there is a strong assumption outside the communities in which I’ve been doing research that never any of you will end up going to live  on Mars, the moon, or in a rotating free-space community.  It’s seen–at best– as a diversion from the real and important politics of living on Earth or–at worst–an alibi for capitalism gone mad.  I’m agnostic on this point, but I want to take seriously the fact that people are working diligently toward that goal, and to ask what it is that results from this kind of work.  So, “Never any of you” is both about writing a book and about the stance I intend to take in my book toward the conventional analysis of the space settlement movement.

So, that’s the title of the blog.  The title of my book itself?  Taking suggestions.

By the way, Swallows and Amazons is a great read if you’re into Edwardian Englishness, sailing, and the adventures of white kids.  There’s a great analysis to be made of S&A’s colonial and racial themes (cf. especially Peter Duck).  But it also has some very interesting gender politics that set it apart from other literature of its generation; you know that Nancy Blackett will be a suffragist.  And the writing and characterization is sublime.  Here’s an example from a later book, The Picts and The Martyrs, which, in three lines of dialogue, tell you all you need to know about Dick and Dorothea:

“What are the other books?” asked Dorothea
Pocket Book of Birds,” said Dick, “and Common Objects of the Countryside…”
“Oh,” said Dorothea.  “Nothing to read at all?”

The economy of style is brilliant.  Paraphrasing Dylan Thomas:

A good rule for writers: don’t explain too much

Wish me luck with that part.