Claiming Space for the Humanities

So far as we know, there are just two occupied planets in the solar system and, indeed, the universe.

Clouds of Saturn. Src: NASA

One of those planets is Earth, populated as it is with a teeming variety of life that swims, flies, walks, runs, hops, floats, dives and dies. The other is Mars, which, at present, is occupied solely by robots, all of whom come from Earth anyway. In the vastness of space, there is as yet no evidence of anyone home other than us.

Those who think about and research space (by which I mean, anything beyond the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere) are typically found in one of two groups: science fiction makers; and various astro-scientists such as astrophysicists, astronomers, and planetary scientists. Yet, as humans prepare to venture further into space — both in our natural, embodied form and by sending our probes and robots to other celestial bodies — it is important that others turn their attention skyward.

For this purpose, I find useful Marshall McLuhan’s enduring observation that ‘media [are] the extensions of man’. What are our rovers, probes, satellites and telescopes if not extensions of our own human presence and faculties? They are nothing more, or less, than our medium for engaging with space. Whereas the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed ‘The body is our general means of having a world’, we might now claim that ‘our objects in space are our general means for having a universe’.

A robot’s self-portrait. Src: NASA

Thus I claim that it is time for the philosophers, media scholars, social scientists to engage with space. How do we perceive and act upon another planet when so far we have only perceived this one? Any theory that we develop for explaining social conditions here on Earth must soon be tested by it’s applicability to Mars and other places. The presence there of our robots gives us an opportunity to conceptualise our concepts so they are ready for the next great leap.

Some things to consider:

  • If place is made through experience, can the robots experience new places for us, or must we go there ourselves?
  • If we know the world by our relationships to it, what relationship do we have to a place we have never been?
  • How can we ensure those we have sent on one-way trips still feel that they are human, and part of our collective?
  • How do we ensure new societies off-earth don’t replicate on-earth mistakes (whatever you think they were/are)?
Aurora and Manicouragan Crater. Src: NASA