Extreme: Humans at Home in the Cosmos

Edited by Debbora Battaglia, David Valentine, and Valerie A. Olson

Volume 85, #4

Fall 2012


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Volume 85, #4 • Fall 2012



Extreme: Humans at Home
in the Cosmos

Edited by Debbora Battaglia, David Valentine, and Valerie A. Olson



Extreme: Limits and Horizons in the Once and Future Cosmos

David Valentine, University of Minnesota
Valerie A. Olson, University of California, Irvine
Debbora Battaglia, Mount Holyoke College

ABSTRACT — This paper introduces a special collection of Anthropological Quarterly for examining “the extreme” in contemporary modernity. Drawing upon sites of political, scientific, and economic engagement that source specifically to the extraterrestrial, we argue that the figure of the extreme shapes an analytic of limits and ever-opening horizons—epistemological and physical—provoking new understandings of humanness, environment, temporality, and of inter-species life as we think we understand it, here on Earth. It follows that this framework is not restricted to the environment of outer space: the analytic of the extreme, which is broadly salient in contemporary imagination and social practice, opens to examination of how all modern subjects are capable of upending modernity’s everyday spaces and timelines. The assembled papers cohere around this commitment. Coming in from very different angles, each seriously considers the possibility of outcomes not anticipated by analytic or vernacular explanatory frameworks, while refusing to commit anthropologists to the dangers of prognostication.[Keywords: Future, mobility, outer space, innovation, modernity, world making]


Political Ecology in the Extreme: Asteroid Activism and the Making of an Environmental Solar System

Valerie A. Olson, University of California, Irvine

ABSTRACT — This case study examines how, in a post-Cold War context, aerospace and astronautics practices and policies are becoming more comprehensively attached to national and international environmental politics. This is evident in the emergence of a dual identity for Near Earth Objects (asteroids and comets with orbits that bring them close to the Earth); they are astronomical as well as environmental objects that are considered to be threats as well as exploitable natural resources. The paper investigates two results of this dual categorization: 1) activist efforts to extend environmental governance beyond the terrestrial and 2) new technoscientific perceptions of the solar system as a heliospheric ecology. [Keywords: Environment, ecology, outer space, aerospace, environmentalism, disaster, solar system]


Exit Strategy: Profit, Cosmology, and the Future of Humans in Space

David Valentine, University of Minnesota

ABSTRACT — Commercial NewSpace industries are increasingly significant players in outer space. The temptation is to see NewSpace as merely the next step in neoliberal capitalism’s search for new profits and markets. However, finance capitalism’s emphasis on short-term investor “exit strategies” is actually hostile to both the cosmological vision and entrepreneurial practice of NewSpacers, who seek a different “exit strategy”: to escape Earth’s gravity and establish space settlements which they see as essential to long-term human survival and evolution. At the same time, critical theorists are hostile to, or ignore, the idea of space as a site for human sociality. I argue that the context of outer space—and what it promises—challenges a progressive perspective on human futures to take seriously the cosmological visions of powerful social actors whose goals naturalize capitalist relations, even as these goals are re-imagined in reference to powerful cultural and economic historical tropes. [Keywords: Outer space, future, neoliberalism, markets, cosmology]


Re-Enchantment Cosmologies: Mastery and Obsolescence in an Intelligent Universe

Abou Farman, Bard College

ABSTRACT — Following modernity’s founding dream of human mastery over the natural world, scientific discoveries produced a picture of an infinite, random, and indifferent universe, thus paradoxically revealing the utter insignificance of the “master/dreamer.” Recently, the convergence of a number of extreme technoscientific projects—AI, Nanotechnology, Life Extension—has activated science-based cosmological visions in which humans and their “intelligence” are given a central purpose in the unfolding of the universe. The movement formed around the event-horizon of the Singularity is the most well-known version of these re-enchantment cosmologies. Yet this re-enchantment only serves as a prelude to an obsolescence: humans are here to give rise to other, better minds, a prospect that makes Singularitarians restless with both fear and exhilaration. [Keywords: Cosmology, Singularity, disenchantment, transhumanism, information, modernity]


Coming in at an Unusual Angle: Exo-Surprise and the Fieldworking Cosmonaut

Debbora Battaglia, Mount Holyoke College

ABSTRACT — Valentin Lebedev is a pioneer of space and earth science in Russia. He is also the first ethnographic diarist of outer space. In 1982, while “on orbit” for 211 days as a fieldworking cosmonaut, Lebedev produced a thickly descriptive account of the intimate sociality and technoculture of the Soviet space complex Salyut 7. Crafted to defamiliarize (ostranenie) a spaceworld that publics saw as flawlessly engineered and managed, the diary is an argument for the value of exospheric (exo-) surprise in human experience. But on another level, we learn that the surprise is on humans who would claim to conquer “space-as-itself”—a “zero gravity” environment of force fields both extremely inhospitable to life as we know it and also generative of life in all its expressions. [Keywords: Alterity, outer space, defamiliarization, nature/culture, ethnographic theory]


The End of Ends

Joseph Masco, University of Chicago

ABSTRACT — This paper assesses the conceptual and technological negotiation of an absolute end. The idea of a total ending is sublime: it is located outside of language and powerful precisely because of its sheer incomprehensibility. Yet, through the 20th century the United States built large-scale technological systems capable of achieving an absolute end to civilization. This paper engages both the idea of an end, and the means to an end, informing US nuclear strategy. It begins with an assessment of Cold War nuclear war plans that, if enacted, would certainly have eliminated most, if not all, life on Earth. I then examine how this expert fixation on nuclear crisis was itself circumscribed by new technological systems—notably secret space satellites that provided images of Earth in its totality as well as a vital check on the American projections of Soviet power. The exploration of outer space was thus a crucial means of checking American fantasies of an imminent and total danger, establishing a new limit on thought while opening up the possibility of an “end of ends” in the nuclear age. [Keywords: Outer space, satellite photography, nuclear strategy, Cold War, science and technology, US-Soviet relations]


Extraterrestrial Relativism

Stefan Helmreich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

ABSTRACT — This paper suggests that today’s twin scientific interests in the extreme and extraterrestrial ground a novel kind of relativism, which I call extraterrestrial relativism, a relativism about “nature” over culture—and, more, about Earthly, even cosmic, nature. I develop the concept of extraterrestrial relativism using ethnographic work I conducted among astrobiologists and I suggest that this genre of relativism can be brought into a newly inaugurated conversation on “comparative relativisms” in anthropology. [Keywords: Comparative relativism, extraterrestriality, nature/culture, astrobiology]


Astronomers at the Observatory: Place, Visual Practice, Traces

Götz Hoeppe, University of Waterloo

ABSTRACT — Focusing ethnographically on astronomers engaged in “look back studies” of cosmic evolution, this essay considers how they make telescopic observations at an optical observatory in the context of their epistemic work at other sites. Foucault’s notion of a heterotopia captures key aspects of how the observatory is set apart from astronomers’ work with digital data elsewhere. However, visual practices of interpreting telescopic exposures in the observatory’s control room do reach across this divide and inform later epistemic work, such as when scientists use these exposures retrospectively as windows into the functioning of telescopes and detectors. Visiting astronomers remark that witnessing the emergence of exposures in the control room asserts to them the reality of the cosmic objects they study. I interpret this as being grounded in their understanding of semiosis. [Keywords: Anthropology of science, scientific observation, scientific practice, place and space]