White Space
August 27, 2018 1:55 AM   Subscribe

Based off of what we know right now, the Moon and Mars are devoid of life, so this colonizing language is not actually putting other beings at risk. But, there is the risk that the same racist mythology used to justify violence and inequality on earth — such as the use of frontier, “cowboy” mythology to condone and promote the murder and displacement of indigenous people in the American West — will be used to justify missions to space. In a future where humans potentially do live on non-earth planets, that same racist mythology would carry through to who is allowed to exist on, and benefit from, extraterrestrial spaces. The racist language of space exploration by Caroline Haskins [via Katexic]
posted by chavenet (39 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
See Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, for a fictional preview of space militarism / imperialism
posted by talos at 2:07 AM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


There will be no indigenous or poor people anywhere humans travel to in the next thousand years. Those who do will have to come up with new ways to scapegoat one another. As for LEO, that neighborhood's already ruined.
posted by Twang at 2:42 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


The profit is in putting things (especially fragile humans who expect to return alive) into space, not in space itself. The rest is a lot of science most can't be bothered with. We stopped going to the moon because it was dreadfully boring and had plummeting ratings. Sci Fi fantasies and appeals to manifest destiny simply prime the old money pump...
posted by jim in austin at 3:12 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


“So as we continue to carry American leadership in space, so also will we carry America’s commitment to freedom into this new frontier.”

Right now, I’d pay a hefty fee to carry America’s leadership into space...
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:24 AM on August 27, 2018 [37 favorites]


More seriously, the more space exploration is driven by the private sector, the more racist it will be. Capitalism needs to dehumanize people to exploit them, and, even more, Cspitalism needs new sources of materials that can be exploited — if it can no longer externalizations costs, it fails pretty comprehensively.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:30 AM on August 27, 2018 [13 favorites]


I've read far too many SF books to be surprised that this is the direction we're heading towards. None of this is shocking.
posted by Fizz at 4:45 AM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


I'm of the opinion that colonialism and racism, no matter their usual relationships on earth, are not in fact the same thing. There are perhaps more connections between them in the context of space exploration than some daft American politicians being fans of both, but much of this seemed like nonsense. I will, however, go listen to Whitey On the Moon again, as is traditional.
posted by sfenders at 5:49 AM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


See also, Mike Pence’s Outer-Space Gospel: The vice president’s speeches about space sometimes sound like sermons. They draw on a long tradition of evangelical thinking about cosmic exploration.
posted by peeedro at 5:52 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


For a very long time workers in space will be at the minimum PhD overachievers, any inequality will be the rest of us that stay behind.

Is the science "colony" in Antarctica a racist institution? It's a "colony". The colonies in Africa and elsewhere that in historical times justified the pejorative meaning of colonialism does not subsume all the definitions of a particular word, the author is indulging in etymological appropriation.

Thought experiment: All toxic industrial processes are moved off the surface of the planet, rich guys in space, nice environment down here.
posted by sammyo at 5:57 AM on August 27, 2018 [7 favorites]


It'll be at least a hundred years, being very charitable, before humans have self-sustaining settlements anywhere other than earth.

But the reason why pieces like this are important is that we have narratives about space settlement already. There is definitely a risk that we'll take colonialism to the stars with us, but there's also a risk that narratives applying colonialism to "safe" targets like (apparently) lifeless rocks will, in fact, also serve to justify their remnants here on earth.

(It's ok that Elon Musk has eleventy-million percent more money than any of the workers building his rockets, he's eventually going to fuck off to space and leave us a pristine paradise down here! Right?)

Selling colonialism has always been about telling stories. Manifest destiny was simply the story the United States told itself to justify colonising native Americans, after all.
posted by tobascodagama at 6:07 AM on August 27, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm sympathetic to the thesis of this piece but it doesn't really do what it sets out to do. The only salient point it has to make about the "racist language of space exploration" is that we use the word "colony". That's it. The writer then goes on to say that,
In his speech, Kennedy continues that men like Bradford teach us that “man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred.” However, if “man” is a stand-in for “white colonizers,” “knowledge and progress” unabashedly brushes over the lives of indigenous persons and people of color that were lost in their quest to “explore.”
Well okay, sure, if you change the meaning of the words, it sounds bad. I accept the idea that a racist society that moves to other planets will bring its racism with it, but this piece really doesn't make the case very well. Also, I'm already annoyed that so many people are equating Space Force with NASA and space exploration in general. It's like saying that oceanography is bad because of the Navy.

Lastly, this,
Ralph noted that prioritizing space travel undermines funding for sustainable forms of energy like wind and solar, and efficient ways to construct affordable houses and schools. It also has direct economic implications for the people who rely on any number of federally-funded social programs in the U.S.
is utter horseshit. NASA's budget is a rounding error on the overall budget of our social welfare programs and it puts more back into the economy than it takes out. In too much of a rush to cite, but you can google. Even if you accept that it's a zero sum game, I'm not sure why you'd single out NASA rather than say... the defense budget.

PS I don't have the numbers on this, but anecdotally NASA is one of the most diverse places I've ever worked.
posted by runcibleshaw at 6:28 AM on August 27, 2018 [26 favorites]


She quotes Kennedy quoting a literal colonizer from American history. I mean, what the fuck, how much more obvious do you get?
posted by tobascodagama at 6:44 AM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


I kinda agree with sammyo, in that I think the language is steeped in more history and nuance than is being credited. However, it's not a bad time to consider adopting better language. In fact this IS the time.

Many people who get haggard by the process of intentionally changing or refining language, from those that bitch about PC to folks like George Carlin, Lynn Truss, and David Mitchell. But guys, if you don't like resetting the rules later then surely THIS is the time to set the language up with some foresight and thoughtfulness. As the discourse transitions from the science fiction of the last century to the realities of the next, let's maybe clean out some of the cobwebs and connotation that hang on our metaphors for space exploration.

Of course, our ancestors will look back and find fault and foolishness with the language we choose, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't bother being deliberate from time to time.
posted by es_de_bah at 7:00 AM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


There's certainly an environmentalist aspect to this "manifest destiny" mentality that has bothered me before as an ex-astrobiologist: I've spoken with so many people who are so singularly convinced of the importance of putting people on Mars that they'd be ok with causing the extinction of native microbial life — or of causing the sort of Earth microbial contamination that would mean we'd never know if we'd caused an extinction of what would quite possibly be one of the most important discoveries in biology.

Is the science "colony" in Antarctica a racist institution?

America's are noticeably much whiter than our general population. Also surprisingly classist, down to which set of ECW clothing you get assigned before going there. And I'm not sure how much anybody knows about the full picture of the human dark side down there; there's strong pressure not to make waves for fear of losing your spot. And who really trusts Raytheon (*) to handle that sort of thing? It's basically a company town.

* Apparantly Raytheon no longer runs the bases, that contract now goes to a different military/CIA contractor called Leidos.
posted by traveler_ at 7:21 AM on August 27, 2018 [5 favorites]


However, if “man” is a stand-in for “white colonizers,” “knowledge and progress” unabashedly brushes over the lives of indigenous persons and people of color that were lost in their quest to “explore.”
Well okay, sure, if you change the meaning of the words, it sounds bad.


The article had literally just explained who Bradford was (white colonist who led Plymouth when they massacred 400 indigenes) and the phrase in the speech was "men like Bradford." It's all laid out.

I grew up liking both SF and real life space exploration and both really grab the language of heroic explorers, adventurers and settlers that was developed while romanticizing the "New World", the western frontier, the various East India companies, and so on. I personally think it puts the past more at risk than the future; i.e., perpetuating the view of the old stories where all the adventurers were great men and the victims are an inconvenience who should be overlooked.

But definitely there's more meat to the complaint than just the word "colony" being used.
posted by mark k at 8:03 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


I concede the point on the Kennedy/Bradford quote.

One more thing though. This piece doesn't lay out any alternatives to our current program. It certainly doesn't have to, but it sure seems to me like it's making the case that you can't have a human space exploration program without it being a perpetuation of the genocidal periods of "exploration" and conquest of the past. I certainly don't think that's the case and I'd love to read something that has more to say about how to "decolonize" space exploration and the sciences in general.
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:18 AM on August 27, 2018


I remain firm in my conviction that space will defy humanity's attempts to colonize it. We are so accustomed to the environment in which we evolved that we cannot mentally process an environment that is passively trying to kill us at every turn.

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

-- Stephen Crane
posted by SPrintF at 8:21 AM on August 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


Ralph noted that prioritizing space travel undermines funding for sustainable forms of energy like wind and solar

Both of which came out of investments of NASA for space exploration. No space, no real incentive to improve photovoltaics to the point where they can be used to power a home.

It's not a either or sort of choice here. Who knows what will be invented to use out there that cannot be turned around and used on Earth.
posted by jmauro at 8:49 AM on August 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


The racist language of space exploration

This is not nearly the problem the author is making it out to be. It's perfectly acceptable to say Mars colony, because that is exactly what it is: a country or area under the full or partial political control of another country. I am simply not in support of re-defining words in order to spare 0.01% of the population triggered by "cowboys" and "law and order." These definitions make sense and should continue to be used to easily define and describe the exploration of space.
posted by lstanley at 9:37 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


We are so accustomed to the environment in which we evolved that we cannot mentally process an environment that is passively trying to kill us at every turn.

That's no excuse not to try to colonize Nova Hollandia, m'lord, if only as a prison
posted by Etrigan at 9:45 AM on August 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


I am simply not in support of re-defining words in order to spare 0.01% of the population triggered by "cowboys" and "law and order."

When I start to consider what side of an issue to come down on, and I see people on one side making rhetorical moves like a gratuitous mocking use of "trigger," that really helps me make up my mind, so thank you.

If we develop any sort of effective resource extraction from space--and I think we're going to have to, if any settlement is to be anything more than the equivalent of McMurdo--I think we're much more likely to end up with a racialized class of menial laborers doing the hard work than anything else. That's a grim thing to imagine. Perhaps by that time all the menial labor will have been automated away, but I doubt it.
posted by praemunire at 9:47 AM on August 27, 2018 [14 favorites]


It's perfectly acceptable to say Mars colony, because that is exactly what it is

Maybe, until the revolution happens and the new King of Mars declares its full independent sovereignty over the Red Planet and all its satellites and moons.
posted by sfenders at 9:56 AM on August 27, 2018


On the Red Planet? Surely it will be the Revolutionary People's Committee.
posted by praemunire at 10:23 AM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


Surely it will be the Revolutionary People's Committee.

SPLITTER!
posted by hanov3r at 10:26 AM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


Can only rich, white men participate in the exploration of space? Should we not be inspiring current and future generations to use their talents to further our knowledge and understanding of the cosmos? Are we doomed to repeat Hidden Figures ad infinitum? It's not just about what's possibly there, it's about what is here today and whether we have the capacity to better ourselves, as humanoids.
posted by amanda at 10:52 AM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


There will be no indigenous or poor people anywhere humans travel to in the next thousand years

No problem. We can make them on site.
posted by flabdablet at 10:56 AM on August 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


Can only rich, white men participate in the exploration of space?

If our government hands it over to them, probably.
posted by praemunire at 1:06 PM on August 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


And yet, it is the destiny of Earthseed to take root among the stars.
posted by eustatic at 2:55 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


“So as we continue to carry American leadership in space, so also will we carry America’s commitment to freedom into this new frontier.”

America's commitment to freedom into a new frontier. Yeah, we did okay with the other frontier, right? The reality is more grim. It's possible that Space Soldiers might actually be the coming thing. Imagine a base in High Earth Orbit (or even in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) where it would be easier to drop rocks on those who piss off our dear leaders than to launch ICBMs at them from across the sea. Freedom's a word relgated to the guy with the bigger bag of rocks.
posted by mule98J at 4:38 PM on August 27, 2018


oh, the arrogance of this article and those who argue for and against it!

mark my words, we'll still be arguing about it while the chinese are actually doing it - and while we piss around with mars and the moon, they'll be mining the asteroid belt, where the real money is

seriously, we had our chance and it's someone else's turn
posted by pyramid termite at 5:03 PM on August 27, 2018


We must not allow a mineshaft gap.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:24 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


I remain firm in my conviction that space will defy humanity's attempts to colonize it. We are so accustomed to the environment in which we evolved that we cannot mentally process an environment that is passively trying to kill us at every turn.

The first step is to transform our evolved environment until it is also passively trying to kill us. Once global warming forces us all into climate-controlled capsules, we need only adapt these capsules to the Martian environment—a much easier problem!
posted by panic at 6:16 PM on August 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


For me, the romance of space exploration has been twofold: we go out to see new worlds, and we look back to see our place in it. The latter was the deeper, more ancient drive. In my view, the first science-fiction work in the Western literature was Scipio's Dream by Cicero, a story of going to the stars and looking back.

In ancient texts, exploration, adventure, and journey were always accompanied by self-exploration: finding out who one really is.

And the reality of colonialism depends on the eclipse of self-inspection. The colonizers cannot afford to do this. The whole hierarchy of domination compels them to not care, to not act on their self-insight.

None of this is new. In this age what we're losing is the sense of cosmic introspection. I remember, if correctly, in Tarkovsky's film adaptation of Solaris, there was a concise statement about it: that we don't go to space to explore it; we go to space to impose onto it our own limitations and shortcomings. In the novel it was a bit drawn-out, and here's the paragraph:
We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is.
Stanisław Lem, Solaris, Ch. 6
posted by runcifex at 8:22 PM on August 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


This piece doesn't lay out any alternatives to our current program. It certainly doesn't have to, but it sure seems to me like it's making the case that you can't have a human space exploration program without it being a perpetuation of the genocidal periods of "exploration" and conquest of the past. I certainly don't think that's the case and I'd love to read something that has more to say about how to "decolonize" space exploration and the sciences in general.

Try to sever it from the narrative tradition of conquistadors and white settlers and other adventure stories that got filtered through SF and pop history into the fiber of the space program*. These are super compelling story structures, at least to me. But that means it's easier to fool myself if I view these as uncritically.

You could completely pick another narrative. It probably takes a lot of discipline not to fall back on these rhetorical tools. But the discussion can be around space as an infrastructure investment or engineering problem. Not a heroic narrative. It's uncommon but in fictional terms it's less The Martian with the lone settler besieged by the planet (instead of Ottomans, Indians, Sepoys or orcs) and more the Red Planet with messy human societies and ambitions and politics.

The article is partly about how the narrative affects things outside the space program. It encourages people to stick with the old narrative. The natives that were decimated in the past remain a footnote if the real lesson of the past is how awesome those white settlers were.

And it definitely informs the modern rhetoric around the space program in (IMHO) unhelpful ways. Including this thread. Viewed uncritically the narrative leads to this idea that the heroic, right-side-of-history direction is pro-expansion, pro-exploration, right now, if you question cost/benefit your math is wrong. Bringing up poor people or minorities or anything else that slows it down is just obstructionist. That's obviously lousy history and it's equally bad as a planning guideline.


*If you think I'm exaggerating, and don't buy the OP article, well, when I was a kid the exciting Mars mission was Viking and we had Pioneer and Voyager going to the outer planets, and the first shuttle was Enterprise, and explicit shout-out to the western-in-space TV show. This was the self image of the engineers, who clearly grew up on the same books, both history and genre adventure stories, that I did.
posted by mark k at 11:49 PM on August 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


About that "white man in space" rhetoric : I would point out that japan, India and China have active space programs. China seems pretty ambitious and I wouldn't be amazed if it turned out that it, not the US, becomes the 21st century's leading space "coloniser".
posted by talos at 1:39 AM on August 28, 2018


As for narrative, I'll just leave this here: Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism
posted by sammyo at 4:06 AM on August 28, 2018


China has a very long colonial history of its own, of course, it's just that they've traditionally colonised other lands and peoples on their own continent instead of overseas. "CHINA IS ALSO GOING TO SPACE!!!" isn't a convincing argument that the way white westerners talk about space isn't racist as hell, though. I mean, actually, if you're going to bring it up, racism against the Chinese was a pretty significant component of the late American frontier...
posted by tobascodagama at 6:00 AM on August 28, 2018 [4 favorites]


The article is a discussion of the contributions of racism played in the ideas underlying an American institution. I thought it was interesting but YMMV. Which is fine, people have different interests. But as always in these cases reactions along the lines of "Space can't be racist, some of my best space programs are black!" aren't actually responding to it, they just signal announce you don't want to discuss it.
posted by mark k at 8:09 AM on August 28, 2018 [3 favorites]


The difficulty I have with the concept is that virtually the entirety of US history is built on racism, which is of course important to note, but makes discussing any concept difficult to do since you are by default going to have to use some of the language and metaphors from that past to make your ideas understood as that is the common heritage from which today's world is based. It isn't that one should simply accept past attitudes as continually defining or not seek to find new metaphors, but that the ties aren't easily broken and language itself can and does adapt where past meanings are not necessarily indicative of future usage or the breadth of current association.

Tracing the entymology of words, phrases, and concepts is useful, I've no argument with that aspect of the article and its use as a cautionary warning, but the speculative element and the emphasis of the piece feels like its trying to prove a more permanently defining relationship and through that "proof" of how the future of space exploration will play out because of the words used in description of it in a way that seems more rash than nuanced, as I would think it should be. As a society, we are, no question, still incredibly bigoted in a wide variety of ways.

Any discussion of the future coming from a society as ours is going to carry some of that bigotry as a part of it by default, that, however, isn't to say it is because of the language but because of the society itself. Focusing on the language can potentially help identify conceptual racism, but focusing too hard on that aspect loses its larger connection to the social order which even absent words like colonize would seek the same purpose through other euphemism.

The language and concepts of science itself has been used to harm indigenous and marginalized peoples for generations. It has also been used for actual cures and invention with enormous benefit for all. Trying to separate those two issues through the language and concept can't readily be done. If the goal of going into space is to acquire minerals and other materials and place people and/or machines on distant planets then what you call it won't much change the outcomes and changing the names won't much change the plans without a much larger social upheaval the likes of which would render the whole issue moot.

It's an interesting article with some points well worth considering, but, for me, it lists too far towards assertion instead of suggestion, which would have more suited its premise.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2018


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