Event Horizon

Thinking about space demands new ways of thinking about humanity

The face that launched a thousand spaceships was the face of the earth. The 1969 televised image of Earth as seen from Apollo 11 was a solidifying moment of national theater as Americans with television sets gathered around to confront and experience the possibilities of their country’s expansion. More than the lunar footprint, the eye of memory looks back toward a vision of Earth. From that first image on, the delicately suspended globe was supposed to be a lasting revelation — the “pale blue dot” that Carl Sagan described in the images of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990.

Sagan referred to Earth as such to illuminate the minor position of humans in the universe, to belittle the reckless folly of anything humans deign to call achievement or advancement. There is an unnoted irony in that the scientists who gather at the Carl Sagan Center, home to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), claim to be “conducting the most profound search in human history.” What Sagan spoke of could suggest a reordering of human hubris into a way to live as a species oriented toward mutually sustaining vulnerable life. The SETI Institute, in line with most contemporary interests in outer space, has chosen instead grand proclamations of discovery for the future of all-too-human humanity.

Every time an exoplanet with a certain biological signature is noted, there’s a brief spike in press rekindling the idea that people might be able to start anew

The fragile, quivering mass of Earth is not in such concentrated focus as it was when those images from space first came to us. Cosmic scenes that captivate and circulate online are high-definition, high-quality images of very, very far away, usually made available directly from NASA. On Twitter, you could follow the last moments of the great content creator Cassini, which sent back pics from its journey to the outer limits and then was thrown onto the surface of Saturn. One of my favorite accounts sends out close-up images of Martian textures, @BitsofMars. But on other accounts, in other stories, we see half the earth burning, another part drowning. When we avert our gaze to outer space, it is all color-corrected wonder, blissfully bereft of context or history.

As global disaster spreads and becomes more widely visible, missions to take humans to space become more prevalent, more appealing. Every time an exoplanet with a certain biological signature is noted, there’s a brief spike in press rekindling the idea that people might be able to start anew somewhere else. How many times a year do we see and perhaps circulate a story of some newly discovered Earth-like exoplanet?

It’s not just the drive of wonder. It’s the panic. The panic of sitting on a world on fire, yes, but also the panic to make a profit. This is speculation; there is a return. There’s always a newer world waiting.

In 1893, Frederick Turner announced the frontier of the American West closed. This suture in the flow of national expansion would be an originary wound for American democracy in its rugged rite of passage. Turner of course was wrong, as many historians have contended for decades. The frontier never closes. Not in California, not in the 19th century. If it isn’t the West, it’s the moon, then cyberspace, then Mars. The frontiers do not close but rather lap over each other like waves where people and capital crash and flow.

It seems cliché that the tech and space industries would be located primarily in the West. Silicon Valley could only ever have been in California, just as Spaceport America seemed manifestly destined for location outside the town Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. These Western territories have been continuously opened up for further privatization and expansion in world-warping acts of violence made invisible by the making of a supposedly better new world. It is not only that capitalism and colonialism need new spaces to expropriate; these processes also always require a future on which to speculate. At the precipice of one receding frontier, they find another one to ride.

The word pioneer, usually attached to innovation, is never too far from people like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or Peter Thiel. These men’s careers in tech startups, their origins in the digital commerce boom, and their pioneer identities were forged on the electronic frontier. Like pioneers of industry in the colonial expansion of the Americas, these men operate on the knife’s edge of sovereignty as it cuts a path for both state and capital to consolidate power. In space, these men see a chance to loosen further the bonds that still restrain the endless capital they’ve been chasing in their imagined rocket ships. Investors, architects of the financial and material future, have taken to using the term “NewSpace” to refer to the almost accessible ventures of asteroid mining, space shipping, spaceship travel, and other forms of space commerce.

Still, there are minor contractual obstacles. Even at the void’s edge, there is a treaty. A couple of treaties actually. Out there the governments still rely on these dusty remnants of the dying beast of nation-state sovereignty and the apparatuses of international relations first created to aid and abet the global distribution of white men’s control. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which has a more precise formal name — Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies — may seem surprisingly benevolent. It is sometimes summarized as saying that nobody can own space. But while it outlaws national appropriation, it allows incorporation without the state.

In a demotion from the sensual feel of its phrasing, “celestial bodies” become the body politic, managed sites of bans and requirements. While the U.S. did sign the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, it did not sign the 1979 Moon Treaty, more formally known as the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. The Moon Treaty, among other directives, bans any state from claiming sovereignty over any territory of celestial bodies; bans any ownership of any extraterrestrial property by any organization or person, unless that organization is international and governmental; and requires an international regime be set up to ensure safe and orderly development and management of the resources and sharing of the benefits from them. It also bans military activity such as weapons testing or the founding of extraterrestrial military bases (though it’s hard to see U.S. presence anywhere in the stars or on Earth as anything other than militaristic). 

Evoking the common heritage of “mankind,” the Moon Treaty could appear a pie-in-the-sky attempt at more equitable relations to land than have been established on Earth since the advent of private property and national borders. But it is of course expressed only in the stop-gap measure of treaties that assign power to states, governments, and resource-management regimes. The power of the treaty is in its possible revoking. In making the decision to sign the treaty or not sign the treaty, the collectives state their unquestioned right to make decisions in space at all.

The frontiers do not close, but rather lap over each other like waves where people and capital crash and flow

Space is a place where old and new sovereignties, like asteroids desired for mining, are colliding or sometimes colluding. There is a line connecting the Dutch East India Company, the Hudson Bay Company, and SpaceX. These companies begin as corporate endeavors, but then as now the nation-state is sticky: It finds a way to adhere. Take the case of Luxembourg, a polity that lives on tax loopholes (allowing large corporations to move money in and out of the nation with utmost secrecy and minimal charges) where, as Atossa Araxia Abrahamian reports for the Guardian, private space companies are finding their funding allies for financed trips to the moon, Mars, and the interstellar spots for satellites. The mixing of business and research mixes the money and power hungering of technocrats who don’t just want to own businesses but want people to see their businesses as the shareholders of humanity’s future.

In middle school we didn’t have model U.N., but we did have model Earth. For field trips we’d be taken away to Biosphere 2, a site for space-colonization experiments built by Space Biosphere Ventures but owned by Columbia University by the time I visited. In these field trips to the desert outside a town auspiciously named Oracle, we walked around the display vivarium, always being reminded to call it biosphere two — biosphere one was the earth outside, the one we had momentarily left behind and one day might leave behind for good. That old planet was a past prototype. But the new prototype was itself already a defunct research facility. The closed-system experiment with human subjects had failed twice in the ’90s, and it now rests as one of the many dreams littering the desert of a new world.

When a world is new, it creates alongside a space held for the older worlds. This is the drama between what can be brought from before and what will be made anew. It is why Aeneas carried his dying father Anchises on his shoulders out of Troy on his way to found Rome. The traveler always brings baggage. Jeff Bezos would like to be the one who carries that baggage to space or controls the robots and poorly paid temporary laborers who accomplish the carrying. In this supposedly new space, the regimes of inequality will be quite familiar. The space-goers insist it is something called humanity, with the ingrained hierarchical legacies of this category, that will be going.

Leaders in industry who have always wanted to be world leaders are now positioning themselves as leaders of outer worlds. Elon Musk makes union busting seem like a cosmic necessity for the continuation of human life. The material and subsequent cultural valorization of certain kinds of work in the tech industry, wherein the “great minds” make all the money and those who maintain the machinery of day-to-day existence are treated like the shit they’re supposed to take, does not end at the stratosphere.

Even the more lofty moral considerations of outer-space ethics (e.g., is terraforming ever morally acceptable?) often ignore their fundamental basis in deathly processes still very much situated on Earth. Any outer-space endeavor today or in the near future will be an extension of the life-destroying capacities of capitalists and their colonial countries. On the Deep Space Industries page for asteroid mining, the exploitation and extraction of minerals is heralded as “an unlimited future for all mankind.” The endless extension of capitalist accumulation comes with an extension of this delusion of “all mankind.” As if all such projects, the project of humanity itself, has not always been an exclusionary one.

SETI may appear to inhabit a different realm of speculation than that of the grandstanding services-and-commodities pioneers. But its project also follows a willful ignorance about human history and the exclusions that make humanity as a class possible. SETI proponents, much like Musk and his ilk, view themselves at the forefront of a new breakthrough not necessarily of capital but of knowledge. Their sites of expansion are not centered so much on the territories capital requires in order to enclose, privatize, and extract until depletion (though they can be intimately connected, as in the development of the university and research centers as global actors of dispossession), but on sites of encounter. Outer-space commerce and funded extraterrestrial contact-seekers operate on and reinforce damaging notions of land, life, and the future that actually hinder the survival of most Earth dwellers rather than provide anything like meaningful hope.

Stories of contact are only ever understood as colonial stories. Every inquiry of future contact with extraterrestrial life, from academic and government-funded to amateur and whimsical, relies on the same stale comparisons of colonial conquest. Columbus, of course; Captain James Cook, often. Every episode of the podcast Making New Worlds: Why Are We Going? features historical authorities commenting on colonial situations of the past and comparing them to hypothetical situations with extraterrestrials. The topics convened by those who are granted the authority to speak on them are conducted under the tyranny of certain givens, the most persistent and damning of them being contact as conquest.

Not only do capitalism and colonialism need new spaces to expropriate; they also require a future on which to speculate

Science fiction should allow us some way to bend around these frames, and occasionally, in the right hands, it does, though it more often does not. Donna Haraway, whose work takes on the tones of science fiction, sees the science-fiction tradition as a form of theorizing. She repeats across her different writings that “it matters what concepts we think to think other concepts with.” And while I do not take her up on thinking with the “chthulucene,” I do come to science fiction in a similar way, to think through the science and the fictions that constitute our realities. I want science fiction that doesn’t make heroes of pioneers, that leaves space open for other kinds of speculation. If the villains of my space saga operate on the understanding that there is always a newer world, how do we tell a different story? A different approach to the new, a different understanding of different.

What we should be preparing for in outer space is not sameness on a different scale, the neatly reflected sides of an analogy, but refracted difference. What is the life in the search for extraterrestrial life? Astrobiologists, like those who study extreme forms of life in deserts like the Southwest in preparation for Martian ecosystems, are searching for the translatable other. Nathalie Cabrol from the SETI institute says that the question astrobiologists ask is the question of difference: How to approach a different type or version of life. Yet in movies like Arrival, I’m disappointed with the limits of alien imagination and the clichés about language and conquest. In the short story by Ted Chiang that Arrival is based on, “Story of Your Life,” the aliens are not large octopuses but heptapods whose radially symmetrical bodies are like seven-eyed barrels hovering “suspended at the intersection” of seven fluid-moving limbs. The most interesting thing about their description is that it is so hard to picture. Unfortunately, only two pages into the story, the linguist narrator draws on a made-up account of linguistic confusion between Captain Cook and Indigenous inhabitants of current-day Australia, making a seemingly necessary gesture to the anxiety that extraterrestrial intelligence will always inhabit the position of colonizer. The story is never different enough. We can’t always see difference differently enough.

And yet there are times we get a glimpse of what that different difference might be. On scales from a parasitic romance to multi-generational future epic, Octavia Butler wrote out multiple worlds of a time after Earth as we know it, when human survival seems dependent on adapting to and becoming alien. The short story “Bloodchild” and the three-part trilogy Lilith’s Brood (which I will refer to hereafter by its original title, Xenogenesis, which is both more badass and more accurate) are texts about the transformations and exchanges that precipitate the post-human.

Though these stories are far from utopic, Butler also emphasizes that the story of post-Earth humans would not be “the British Empire in space.” She envisions contact as a moment of exchange. In “Bloodchild” this is not without loss and unequal stances of power, but there is also love of a different kind between an insectoid and the host to whom she feeds subduing eggs. All this beautiful bug being asks in return for otherworldly hospitality is that her beloved open himself up to an implantation of eggs that, if not removed promptly through a torso-wide incision upon birth, will proceed to eat through his flesh. “Who knows what we humans have that others might be willing to take in trade for a livable space on a world not our own?”

Land and life are the categories of thought that outer space can call us to interrogate, to repair not only by some future metric of what has never been done but also by what might have been possible had colonialism not happened as it did, if exploration and contact could have happened in another way. These are the what-ifs of a science fiction that turns away from the frontier to other spaces of transformation and invention. These are stories that do not call for a future for humanity but a time and people co-constituted according to different logics, those of interdependent collective living in the now.

In Butler’s Xenogenesis series, the Oankali are a technologically superior race that also embody and enact what has previously been considered primitive on Earth. On their ship-world, for instance, they live across a different division of animate and inanimate in which the ship is capable of remarkable acts of generation and sustainability, not because of machine learning but because it is itself a living, reproducing creature-thing. The Oankali are the mouthpiece for Butler’s idea that humans have a social tendency to create hierarchies so entrenched in inequality and domination they result in mass war, and that this hierarchical tendency is genetic. It is with a similar cynicism that the narrator of Joanna Russ’ 1976 novel We Who Are About decides it is best to kill herself and her fellow crew members rather than try to continue human life on a crash-landed planet.

While I love these texts and find myself often in their fatalism, I also see their potential to guide us to change before we are killed off by the will to death and domination practiced by those who have been in power for far too long. I see sequels to these works in which our species learns or relearns the need for different needs. In these other stories the alien is not the harbinger of doom but all the tense dynamic potential of the encounter.

A face turned toward the landscapes of Arizona or New Mexico is always about to say, “It looks like Mars.” All that red rock and the surprisingly organic shapes the sandstone makes. The seeming inhospitality of the afternoon desert. It all signals the alien, but it is certainly not alien to the people who live in these landscapes. And yet Navajo filmmaker Nanobah Becker used footage of Monument Valley to represent Mars in her sci-fi short film The Sixth World. What is in part the cleverness of low-budget filmmaking is also an act of un-alienation that creates a sympathy between ancestral Navajo territory and a Navajo novum on Mars. In Becker’s film, indigeneity is not only defined by prior occupancy but, more important, by a set of practices that attune to difference but are not incapable of making a home in the alien.

To go to outer space, rather than preserve humanity, we cannot stay human. Any critique of the human, including mine, is hugely indebted to black studies, a site that contends that the development of the figure of the human is inseparable from the racial orders that classify people as human, not quite human, and nonhuman wherein human is always proximity to whiteness and nonhuman is proximity to blackness. This is what Alexander Weheliye has argued in his book Habeas Viscus, drawing from black feminist critique to rouse all other minoritarian subjects to abandon our bids into the human project and refuse the calculus that grants others personhood always at the cost of further exclusion and violence against black people. The Jamaican philosopher, novelist, and playwright Sylvia Wynter has stated that one of the projects of black studies is an inquiry into and enactment of other ways of being a species, ways counter to the form of human that is taken to mean the Enlightenment’s rational man. This is a refutation of the idea of the human as a self-possessed sovereign being, defined by his ability to possess and improve property. When I think of how else humans could be, this means operating under different modes of production and different relations to land and being that are communist, nonhierarchical, and deeply pleasurable.

Returning to the late ’60s and that first view of the world from outside, I consider the failure of vulnerable Earth’s image to enact planetary action against borders, war. But if the extra-industrialists have their sights and sites on the celestial bodies, and if this earth will soon be flooded and inflamed, those routinely exiled from the class of humanity that space exploration is in service of need our own space programs, and with it, a deprogramming of the human. Outer space gives us a place to socially, sensorially, think how we want to think. If the search for an “out there” does truly prompt a shift in consciousness, it should be one that helps us inhabit the present, to study together on biosphere one until we find another way of living that doesn’t leave so many dead. This is not a statement against outer space or exploration. What I want, what I need, is a space program for the people.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of OUTER SPACE. Also from this week, Christopher Schaberg on cars as space junk.

Lou Cornum was born and raised in Arizona. They now live in Brooklyn and study Black and Indigenous science fiction at the CUNY Graduate Center. They can be found in the park looking for mushrooms or on twitter @spacendn.