Spiritual Universalisms and the Invention of the Fragile Planet: Theosophy, the Occult, and the Race Towards Heaven and Earth
Although national and commercial space companies frequently appeal to nationalism and secular ideas of progress to justify their activities, space exploration has always been inspired and undergirded by religious ideas and practices. The Russian founding father of astronautics, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, was a Cosmist: a group of thinkers and philosophers who were heavily influenced by the New Religious ideas of the Buddhist-influenced Theosophical Society. His dream of liberating humanity from the boundaries of the planet was accompanied by fantastical and unsettling ideas about achieving human spiritual and material perfection. In 1968 when the Apollo 8 crew came back from their mission to the Moon, they brought with them the first clear color photos of Earth taken from Moon’s orbit. This visual image of the Earth in outer space caused vast sections of the world’s population to reimagine the Earth as a planet and gave birth to new kinds of global environmental movements. American astronauts viewing the sunlit Earth from outer space have typically described the experience as demonstrating that the planet is unified, fragile and discrete. This talk will discuss how these impressions of the Earth from above are influenced by the universalizing tendencies found within many of the key esoteric movements during the fin-de-siècle. By engaging how the intertwined histories of scientific and occult explorations carried over from the fin-de-siècle into the twentieth century, this talk discusses how ways of imagining the planet have shaped present day environmental movements.
Feeling Outer Space: Planetariums as Sites of Epistemic Emotions
What does outer space feel like and what do these feelings have to do with our existence on earth? – These were some of the questions asked by the first planetarium visitors, who experienced a multi-sensory simulation of the night sky in these newly established educational institutions of the Weimar Republic. They mentally embarked on journeys into outer space and enjoyed the thrill of transgressing the boundaries of planet Earth. The planetarium presentations were not only intended to convey simple factual knowledge about the celestial constellations and planets, but also to motivate moral-philosophical discussions about the universe and the position of human existence in it. In order to do justice to the tasks of knowledge transfer and moral education, deep emotions such as wonder, amazement, sublimity, but also pleasure and horror were used, which were consciously evoked and felt in the planetarium. Also, the shows not infrequently referred to intellectual heroes of the bourgeoisie – most notably Immanuel Kant –, and contemporary intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin, but also engineers, museum makers and natural scientists used the planetarium as a starting point for reflections on the relationships between humans, technology, the planetary and outer space. Drawing on over 900 sources on the planetariums in Munich, Jena, Hamburg and Vienna, which I have collected and examined in the course of my doctoral thesis, my presentation explores how thinking and feeling intertwined in the planetarium (Daston 2001), how different intellectual traditions entered into dialogue with each other in the planetarium lectures, how the planetarium acted as ‘lieux de l'avenir’ (Geppert/Siebeneichner 2017, Boyce-Jacino 2017) and how outer space was designed and ‘conquered’ in the sociotechnological imaginary (Jasanoff 2015) under the dome.
The Milky Way Can Wait: Scandinavian Planetization of Earth, 1956–1982
In 1978 Finnish astronomer Nils Mustelin (1931–2004) published Liv bland miljarder av stjärnor: Civilisationer i Vintergatan – och därbortom? (Eng. Life Among Billions of Stars: Civilizations in the Milky Way – and Beyond?) on the prospects of finding and communicating with extraterrestrial life. The book was translated into Danish, Finnish and Norwegian and thus played a role in conveying and popularizing thoughts about space exploration and contact with extraterrestrial beings in a Scandinavian context. In a radio speech from 1982, however, Mustelin concluded that humanity's possible destiny among the stars had to wait until we had averted the catastrophes looming on Earth. At about the same time, Danish poet Thorkild Bjørnvig (1918–2004) engaged topics of cosmos, space exploration and environmental destruction in both essays and poetry. Considered one of the most important Danish poets of the twentieth century, his thinking about cosmic perspectives and threats of environmental catastrophe was a weighty contribution to the public debate in Scandinavia. Extraterrestrial perspectives and earthly catastrophes, however, had already been firmly linked by Swedish author and Nobel laureate Harry Martinson (1904–1978) about 20 years earlier in the epic poem Aniara (1956), describing the exodus into outer space by the remnants of a humanity fleeing a war ravaged and environmentally doomed Earth. All three were prominent intellectuals and thinkers who expounded an extraterrestrial perspective on Earth. Stressing the environmental degradation of Earth in a cosmic context, they contributed to its planetization.
The Stars and the Angels: The Cosmos of a Nineteenth-Century Clergyman
In 1858, the Scottish clergyman, cartographer, and astronomer James Gall published a little-known book titled The Stars and the Angels: A Natural History of the Universe and Its Inhabitants, in which he attempted to harmonize modern cosmological science and biblical history – with considerable, albeit unacknowledged, help from works of imaginative literature, especially John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The result offers remarkable insights into the possibilities open to an educated cosmological imagination at this transitional juncture in its history: only decades away from the dawn of modern space exploration, yet still heavily influenced by religious and philosophical traditions reaching deep into European premodernity. Some of Gall’s thinking is astoundingly prescient. For example, he is one of the first authors to depict Earth as a blue planet in black space, and to reflect on the cultural and psychological impact of that image – or to speculate, a century before the giant impact hypothesis, that Earth’s Moon originated from a ring of cosmic debris once revolving around the planet. Elsewhere, however, the book departs in very different directions. Humans, we learn, are already a transplanetary, spacefaring species, and have been so for millennia. After his resurrection, Christ ascended into space in a material body capable of interstellar travel, as did Enoch and Elijah before him, and others after. Gall hopes to join them in the deep-space heaven they now inhabit – a definite location in the physical universe, whose ‘ascension and […] declination could be communicated to us’ – and provides a detailed account of the physics and biology involved. The paper will discuss these and other aspects of Gall’s work, concluding with some thoughts on how the concepts of planetarity and planetization look when viewed from pre-twentieth-century perspectives, and why these perspectives remain of interest to contemporary discussion of these topics.
Metalaw: Philosophy and the Birth of a Discipline
At its genesis, space law was indistinguishable from philosophy. The field’s first practitioners, though they asked technical questions about sovereignty, rights, and authority, found themselves preoccupied with the consequences spaceflight might have for human nature, spirituality, and consciousness. Andrew G. Haley, an American attorney widely considered a founding father of space law, is a case in point. His writings on 'Metalaw,' which theorized legal relationships between different races in the universe, were central to the growth and identity of the discipline in the 1950s. Haley conceptualized Metalaw as the basis for natural codes that would operate 'beyond our present frame of reference.' In a reversal of the Golden Rule, he wrote that 'to treat other [beings] as we would desire to be treated might well mean their destruction.' Here, indeed, was one of the striking wrinkles of the early Space Age: the professionalized discipline we now know as 'space law' began as a series of thought experiments about human contact with extraterrestrial life. This paper sheds light on this strange – but nevertheless influential – legal philosophy, situates it in deep historical context, and traces its effect across the 1950s and 1960s as nations attempted to define the proper boundaries of human activity in space. I show that Metalaw built on earlier philosophical and metaphysical projects – particularly in the West – that sought to divorce human spaceflight from the violent legacy of European 'exploration.' Cosmist disciples of Nikolai Fedorov in the 1920s, astrofuturist fiction in the 1930s, and the post-war 'cosmic philosophies' of Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke in Britain all left their mark. Metalaw, moreover, eventually appeared in debates about space law at the United Nations, in the U.S. Congress, and in private musings on the future of humanity in space. Metalaw, and Haley himself, still resonate for philosophers of space today.
Gorbachev’s New Thinking in Space: The Universe as a Common Home
As part of the acceleration policy (uskoreniye), the beginning of which Gorbachev announced on 23 April 1985 at the Plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU, special importance was attributed to scientific and technological progress and the implementation of its achievements in the development of the country's economy. One of the leading technology and science-intensive areas for the creation and execution of advanced knowledge was the aerospace sector. Gorbachev inherited the ambivalent approach from former Soviet leaders, which simultaneously combined the desire to guarantee the USSR's dominant role as a military power, relying on, among other things, space technology, and the use of space as a soft power in support of communist ideology. With the deepening of the economic crisis and thereby the need to accelerate and expand liberalization reforms Gorbachev had to radically revise his aerospace policy in alignment with the general economic situation. The political component of his 'new thinking policy' played no less a role in reforming the aerospace sector. Glasnost in domestic politics and a dynamic normalization with the West led to serious changes inside this previously locked domain. The purpose of this talk is to explore the main visions and approaches to reforming the aerospace field during perestroika and to analyze the changes and their connection within the general provisions of the 'new thinking' policy such as proposals of cooperation for peaceful purposes, of foundation of World Space Organization, of involvement countries from outside the major space-faring nations, of liberalization of the whole sector through its industrialization and commercialization.
Alexander von Humboldt and His Influence in Planetary Thinking since 1845
Alexander von Humboldt has been recognized as a foundational thinker across a multi-disciplinary field including geography, atmospheric science, geology and biology, but also as someone who reconciled scientific experience with the Romantic tradition of written expression in the Western world, often presenting concepts of nature through notions of the sublime. While his earlier publications, based on extensive fieldwork, established his position as one of the pre-eminent natural science thinkers of his generation, since the publication of his Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe) in five volumes between 1845 and 1862, a ‘Humboldt phenomenon’ has emerged, consisting of biographies, commentaries and translations of his works, which has only increased in the ensuing 150 years. This paper aims to re-visit some of Humboldt’s works with regards to the ways in which he understood the spaces of outer space, including in Kosmos but also through his earlier works and correspondence. Humboldt devotes considerable attention to cosmic spaces in the former, including over sixty pages of descriptions and analyses of celestial phenomena, from planetary systems to the Milky Way and ‘starless openings.’ This is presented as part of a cosmographic understanding of Earth and Cosmos together, a configuration that originated in the classical period but was to wane following the professionalization of the sciences in the nineteenth century (Cosgrove 2008). After offering some accounts of Humboldt’s cosmic imagination, the paper will trace some of the ways in which his planetary thinking was identified and utilized in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the prospect of spaceflight began to dominate discourse about the cosmic environment.
UFOs and the Inner Space of Outer Space
Since the emergence of claims of encounters with flying saucers and alien visitors following World War II, the UFO phenomenon has been the subject of persistent speculation. While defense and intelligence agencies have been concerned solely with determining whether any objects might pose a threat to national security, civilians have proven to be far more expansive in their thinking about unidentified flying objects and their significance. Tracking international discussions within both academic and lay circles during the last half of the twentieth century, it is apparent that those conversations evolved into more than just contemplating the exciting possibilities of space travel and exploration. Over time, the topic of UFOs increasingly led observers to direct their gaze inward, reflecting on what it revealed about human behavior, potential, imagination, emotions, and conscience. This paper, based on both published and archival sources, examines the ways in which a wide array of both establishment and unconventional thinkers used the prospect of extraterrestrial visitation to raise questions about the peculiar psychological vulnerabilities of human beings in the late twentieth century. From professionals in the psychological sciences like Carl Jung, Elizabeth Loftus, Leo Sprinkle, and John Mack to writers such as Edgar Sievers, Coral Lorenzen, Michel Monnerie, and John Keel, these observers argued that the perceived breach of earth’s biosphere by beings from outer space required new perspectives on the human psyche. These ranged from ruminations about spiritual enlightenment to considerations of psychological trauma to self-reflexive studies on self-deception. The overall trend, however, was toward an increasing intimacization of the human relationship to outer space, with the latter seen as having a direct, transformative impact on the spiritual and mental makeup of the individual. Debate surrounding UFOs offered a surprising forum then for observers to see in both the awareness of space exploration and the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence a way to reflect not only on the fate of planet earth but also on the relative fragility and resilience of the human being. The imagined outer space of the second half of the twentieth century thus made a significant and rarely acknowledged contribution to what has been dubbed the “psychoboom” of the postwar world.
Planetization: Five Theses
The expansion of the human sphere beyond Earth has larger repercussions for understanding the present than is usually acknowledged. The outcome of a collaboration between a historian and a philosopher, this paper proposes Teilhard de Chardin’s 1946 notion of ‘planetization’ as a key analytical concept. Planetizing history amounts to situating it within a dynamically transforming horizon, emphasizing the significance of extra-terrestrial technology including robotic spacecraft and orbital infrastructures for the environmental, social and political histories of what is commonly theorized as globalization. To planetize history, then, is to show that the history of the globalized present cannot be written from an exclusively terrestrial point of view.
The concept of 'Russian Cosmism' was conceived at the dawn of the Space Age to provide the Soviet space program with an indigenous philosophical basis. It has since evolved into one of the most influential ideological currents in post-Soviet Russia, and is now considered an organic part of a genuinely Russian way of thinking. Based on a holistic and anthropocentric view of the world and the assumption of a teleologically determined evolution, 'Russian cosmism' seeks to define the position and task of humanity in the universe. Homo sapiens, who emerged from the living matter of the Earth, is seen as the decisive factor in cosmic evolution, as its 'self-consciousness', its active leader and potential consummator. It depends on his actions whether evolution will reach a maximum of perfection and unity, or will fall catastrophically (e.g., in the 'Big Freeze') as a result of the (self-)annihilation of humanity. In its development, the Earth is in the transition from the biosphere to the noosphere. Through the unification of all human beings, the 'rational living matter', into a 'single organism', a higher 'planetary' and 'cosmic consciousness' will emerge, which is capable of guiding all further development rationally and morally (according to a 'cosmic ethic'), and of conquering, colonizing and perfecting the universe. Central components of 'Russian cosmism' are Nikolai Fedorov's doctrine of immortalism and interplanetaryism, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii's 'cosmic philosophy', which inspired his technical innovations and made him the ‘grandfather’ of the Soviet spaceflight, Aleksandr Chizhevskii's heliobiology and heliotaraxy, and Vladimir Vernadskii's concept of the noosphere, in which humanity becomes a planetary factor in the Anthropocene. In my paper, I will trace the main features of this syncretic doctrine, point out influences (e.g., from Romantic natural philosophy and esoteric thought), and establish links to active evolutionism, holistic organicism, and transhumanism.
Panpsychism, Space Colonization and the Origins of Astropolitics
This paper takes its cue from two recent intellectual trends. The first is the formation of astropolitics, a military strategic genre of writing that extends geopolitical concepts and practices into outer space. The second is a renewed interest in panpsychism, the philosophical view that the universe is already conscious or besouled, whether humans colonize it or not. In order to better understand the intersection of panpsychism and astropolitics, I return to the later writings of the colonial geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904). Although known primarily for his theorization and promotion of terrestrial colonization, Ratzel had a keen interest too in astronomy and used what he knew about the universe to theorize time and space in the social world. He had also come under the influence of Gustav Fechner’s panpsychism and sought to weave panpsychist ideas into his human geography. In uncovering this intellectual history, I caution against attempts to find solutions to the unresolved problems of settler colonialism at the level of ontology.
The Philosophy of Science Fiction: Gotthardt Günther in Outer Space
In 1952, the Karl Rauch Verlag in Düsseldorf publishes a series of American science-fiction novels under the title: Rauchs Weltraum-Bücher. All volumes contain scholarly introductions written by the German philosopher Gotthardt Günther, one of the founders of cybernetics and transclassical logic. My talk will trace Günther’s metaphysical science fiction in the context of his philosophical (Heidegger, Spengler, Gehlen) as well as his scientific (McCulloch, von Foerster, Maturana) background. The possibility of space travel represents not only a 'Überwindung von Zeit und Raum,' but, according to Günther, marks a new era of technologically informed metaphysics (in surprising proximity to Carl Schmitt’s ruminations about the nomos of outer space). It produces a new Bewusstsein der Maschinen, radically transforming human beings into cybernetic machines, populating the universe. Hence, for Günther, the development of Hegel’s Weltgeist finds its final formulation in the fantastic imaginations of contemporary American science-fiction.
Beyond Solar Catastrophe: The Post-Earth Futures of Jean-François Lyotard and Carl Sagan
Contemporary science predicts that as the Sun ages it will increase in luminosity and expand in size. Over time this process will render the Earth uninhabitable, and it is possible that Earth will eventually be engulfed by the expanding Sun (Schröder and Smith, 2008), converting geological strata to stardust. Such an anticipatory catastrophe raises questions about the contingent temporalities of humankind, both on Earth and off it; and as such, has received attention from philosophers and scientists alike. Focusing on works from the early-to-mid 1990s, this paper examines the ideas of philosopher Jean-François Lyotard and astronomer Carl Sagan through a geographic lens. Of particular interest are Lyotard’s Can Thought go on without a Body? (1991) and his Postmodern Fable (1993), as well as Sagan’s popular science book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994). By turning to these works, I unpack what the material erasure of planet Earth means for humankind’s relationship with outer space in a philosophical and practical sense. Moreover, and with the ideas of Lyotard and Sagan in mind, this paper builds upon the sparse contributions to this topic by human geographers. Reflecting upon the 'challenges posed to an Earth-rooted philosophical tradition … by the inhumanness of the cosmos' (Dixon 2018: 90), I consider how geographic thought might become ‘more-than-earthly’ in ways that acknowledge the influential role of cosmic process in shaping human existence and its worlds. Overall, this paper argues that solar catastrophe narratives can continue to unsettle understandings of outer space, Earth’s future and humankind’s destiny, whilst also providing geographic thought with a justification to move beyond its planetary tradition.
Inner and Outer Space in the Thought of the Buddhist Modernist Alan Watts
Among the manifold of figures who interpreted Asian philosophy for western audiences in the twentieth century, Alan Watts (1915–1973) was among most prolific and influential. Sadly, Watts’ work remains understudied, perhaps exactly because he took on so many topics. One of these topics is his connection of the exploration of outer space to the exploration of consciousness or inner space. In programmatic works such as The Joyous Cosmology (1962), the autobiographical narration of an LSD trip with a preface by Timothy Leary, argues that outer space needs to be thought together with inner space. In his unedited lectures, Watts elaborated this argument by drawing upon astrophysical knowledge of the known universe to dismiss materialist and nihilist approaches to the problem of the meaning of human existence. At the same time, he also draws on Asian traditions, mainly the Mahayana Buddhist notion of mutual interpenetration articulated in the Flower Garland Sutra and Zen riddles called koan, to build a new, spiritual version of planetarity where human consciousness is an important component of material reality itself. Due to this interdependence, Watts ends up claiming to his audiences that 'space is you' because, like space, 'you' cannot be defined. Ultimately, space becomes a term for all of reality, but in a way that can only be understood if analytical modes of thought are abandoned. If we do not do this, we risk treating space, and also our exploration of outer space, as 'the conquest of nonexistence.' The scientific approach to space is ultimately insufficient: we can only truly understand space through transformative personal experience. In my talk, I will close-read some astrocultural passages from Watts work. Where appropriate, I will contextualize these passages with Watts’ Buddhist source texts, to show how Watts changes concepts from these texts in the process of translating them.
The Earth System, Cosmology, and Planetary Politics
A canon of planetary thought began to take form in the twentieth century. All of the following extraordinary thinkers arguably deserve a place in it: H. G. Wells, Vladimir I. Vernadsky, Lewis Mumford, Oliver L. Reiser, William Vogt, Fairfield Osborn, Kenneth Boulding, Barbara Ward, Barry Commoner, W. Warren Wagar, Richard Falk, James Lovelock, Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis. But whoever one assigns to it, a complete canon of planetary thinkers would include a progressively greater number of individuals from the 1970s onwards, as the ‘overview effect’ that produced a deep affection for the planet among astronauts also vicariously started to impact public sentiments. This beginning of a pivotal change in mass-consciousness was gained from the Apollo’s eye view of the earth exemplified in Earthrise, Blue Marble and other iconic planetary images that were captured from space in the period 1968–1972 and widely distributed via the media. This new iconic imagery of the whole earth met with an already burgeoning expression of love for the natural environment to advance an understanding of ecologism that reached a new planetary dimension with Lovelock and Margulis’ Gaia theory. More recent contributors to planetary thought including Bruno Latour, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Daniel Deudney broaden our grasp of how the earth system science that the Gaia theory helped give rise to is currently changing the conceptual foundations for understanding our shared social and political world. It is now becoming evident that this scientifically verifiable earth system cosmology necessitates a new planetary politics which can make our species adjust to the normative imperatives revealed by science: primarily ending the climate and biosphere crisis. The early planetary thinkers thought the new earthlings among us could organize to this end, it “only” takes a shift from nationalism to planetarism.
Metalaw: Regulating Relations between All Beings in the Universe at the Dawn of the Space Age
This presentation draws on my doctoral thesis in the history of science in which I look at the across-the-Iron-Curtain aspects of radio astronomy’s engagement with extraterrestrial intelligence – during the Space Age. In this talk, I focus on the prehistory of Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) – which later became Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) – in the astronautical community in the late 1950s. I zoom in on the 1956 International Astronautical Congress in Rome – the most important gathering of rocket societies. There, American lawyer Andrew Haley (of the American Rocket Society) argued for the need to regulate relations between all beings in the Universe, thereby presenting the notion of ‘Metalaw’. In a compressed historical review of ancient philosophical and religious principles from a wide geographical background, Haley argued that the law until that very moment of 1956 had been 'starkly anthropocentric' – meaning that it had regulated relationships 'of man vis a vis man in his ambit' or 'simply the law of human beings'. Quoting from the base law textbook, Haley drew attention to the fact that law defined a system of rules that established justice in the 'relations of persons and things as they practically exist'. Some new possibly existing “things” challenged the anthropocentric law at the time. In the light of the launch of the Space Age, the existence of extraterrestrial entities became important for law: the category of persons and things would for the very first time substantially extend beyond the terrestrial category of “men”/”humans”. In my presentation, I review the political intertwinings of terrestrials launching objects into outer space that underlay philosophical tenets of Metalaw and claim that the latter reflected traditional bones of contention between the two space actors.
Planetizing International Space Law for a Pacifist Space Exploration
Intrigued by public speculations about possible extra-terrestrial life in the 1950s and 60s, space jurists came to view these as an opportunity to structure law that would become global. For example, Andrew Haley, president of the International Astronautical Federation, anticipated such encounters thus arguing for a metalaw that would apply to all species endowed with reason. The goal was peace between all peoples, from Earth and elsewhere. This paper suggests that space legal doctrine developed along such lines, thus positing an internationalist discourse around space exploration. In so doing, it became a stepping stone towards the constitution of a planetary community, and affirmed an openness to a universal community of rational beings. Carried by the strong hopes in the space age and by a sociability characteristic of early spacefaring networks, space legal doctrine developed conceptually by borrowing from notions of human community. Latin-American jurists like Mexican Modesta Seara Vasquez or Brazilian Haroldo Valladao also contributed to the debates on building a universal and inter-species law, notably by positing the importance of inter-gentes law that paved the way for planetarity (Spivak, 2003). Although only one of several contemporary factors eliciting space law discussions, the notion of alien encounter found its place in the Magna Carta of Space the Inter-American Federation of Bar Associations adopted in 1961, as the first humans rocketed into space. Thus, space law contributed to an overall thinking on humanity as a single community turned toward the stars. By both anticipating and participating in nascent planetarity that developed after the Second World War, space jurists also borrowed from and expanded notions of astroculture, jurisprudence, and technological internationalism (Zaidi, 2021). In so doing, they also defended the role of an ordered human community operating in a universalism of reason.
Rescuing the Planetary for Ethnographic Research: Philosophical Meanings and Research Applications
In this paper, I will explore the potential of planetary thought for ethnographic research methods as well as the challenges that different meanings of the planetary pose for anthropological analysis of social phenomena as we observe them on the ground. The planetary has recently been applied widely as a synonym of scale to describe the nature of contemporary crises or potential solutions. However, different articulations of the planetary have also become the focus of academic scholarship where it is understood in a variety of more or less compatible ways: from specifically emic understandings of planetary imaginations as visions of exoplanets created by space scientists (Messeri 2016) to grander views of 'planetary social thought' (Clark and Szerszynski 2020) that entangle social life with processes on a planetary scale. Some scholars treat the planet as a totality of life and non-life (Masco, 2020); others distinguish between the planet and the globe to speak about the different realms of human and non-human agency (Chakrabarty 2019); others still use planetary-scale processes on Earth such as the Anthropocene to 'interplanetarise' our ways of thinking by linking them to similar processes elsewhere in the cosmos (Olson and Messeri 2015). While not necessarily speaking in planetary idioms, Indigenous scholars also offer ways of thinking about the planetary, for example in terms of gift and reciprocity (Kimmerer 2020), ethical relationality (Dwayne Donald in Todd 2015) and kin relations or moral bonds between humans and non-humans (Whyte 2020). Starting with Gayatri Spivak’s notion of planetarity, my aim will be to explore which of these articulations of the planetary offer promising ways of thinking about ethnographic practice of intercultural translation. Can a planetary perspective of our research offer alternative viewpoints, shift our own perspective and at the same time, help us learn something unexpected about what connects humans everywhere?
Escape Velocity: Black Scientists and Life Writing in Outer Space
From Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word poem 'Whitey on the Moon' (1970) to the conclusion of Adam McKay’s star-studded film Don’t Look Up (2021), Americans seem to have reached a near cultural consensus that space travel and colonization are escapist fantasies reserved for the privileged and ultra-rich. Demonstrating not only the coincidence but also the entanglement between space flight and enduring racism in America, Black scholars and artists have largely debunked fantasies that technological progress will solve or transcend racism, putting to rest what Alondra Nelson has called 'the raceless future paradigm.' At the same time, Black artists ranging from Sun Ra to Namwali Serpell have looked to the stars with ambivalence, skepticism, and hope about the possibility of establishing alternatives to racism, imperialism, and patriarchy by traveling (either literally or imaginatively) beyond earth’s limits. By turning to biographies and memoirs of Black astrophysicists (including Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and Neil DeGrasse Tyson) and astronauts (including Ronald McNair, Mae Jemison, and Ed Dwight), this paper addresses an unresolved tension in science studies and science fiction studies between narratives of outer space as utopian departure from earthly oppression (for example, in some works by Ursula Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr.) and outer space as recapitulation or continuation of racist histories (for instance, in fiction by Octavia E. Butler and Samuel Delany). What can the grounded Afrofuturism of Black professional stargazers teach us about the cosmic arts of escape?