Part 2: Escapes

This post is the second in a series of six posts exploring our editorial theme “Scapes” through the lenses of various disciplines (read Part 1 here). This post was written by Hanna Nieber.

Thinking of scapes, I take this opportunity to gather some thoughts on e-scapes: not electronic scapes, but ways of getting away. While this may not exactly designate a -scape as was proposed, it still provides a way to think about space and distance. It assembles certain ways of thinking about our situatedness in our time on this planet.

Following the developments in the humanities’ research on outer space, I ever so often take note of research about astronauts, spending time away from our planet. This research tends to evaluate how living away from Earth and looking at Earth from outer space creates and nurtures an understanding of Earth that is uniform, celebrating Earth as the singular home for humanity. The article “Earth-Rise” by Benjamin Lazier was very inspiring in this way.

At the same time, I also take note of social media discourses about the recent initiatives that bring people who were not trained as astronauts into outer space. It is marketed as space tourism for the really rich, allowing them to escape gravity for a short time. A dream come true for some, a blatant display of humanity’s inequality for many others. And a contribution to the current ecological disaster for all of us. The few that venture into outer space spark imaginaries of science fiction becoming a reality, even more so when William Shatner, Star Trek’s Captain James Kirk, boarded a rocket in October 2021. A story of incredible engineering breakthroughs, these voyages nurture hopes for terraforming Mars and the possibility of finding habitats on exoplanets. Especially in times of rising sea levels, burning lands, and contaminated environments, these narratives of escaping Earth fall on fertile grounds. In the process of rendering this planet inhospitable, humanity—represented by a select few who are white, male, able-bodied, rich—is seeking solutions for survival.

Needless to say, this narrative raises many eyebrows. It does not only pose the question of whether it is worthwhile to invest into a possible future migration to another planet (so far, successful terraforming remains a science fiction and computer games’ scenario). Even if it was possible, would it not be humanity’s “duty” to safeguard Earth, to mitigate the destruction, protect the environment and fight for the survival of and on this planet? And if that is so, do we not need to abolish manned space flight, because a launched rocket is as damaging to our environment as a thousand flights across the Atlantic? These questions about whether to invest in finding ways to escape retain humanity as a unified entity, a species the future of which is in question.

But this narrative also poses questions of who would be privileged to escape, to go into the spaces that, mapped onto earth-bound colonial imaginaries, are called terra nullius, and who would remain “abandoned” on Earth, who is trapped. Ongoing colonial, racial discriminations, through which humanity’s stratification is structured, are invisibilized in narratives about the survival of humanity, but they are far from disappearing – and they cannot be escaped in neocolonial imaginaries of escaping into outer space.

Certainly, this poses many more questions, but I wish to finish with a question of a somewhat different angle. I am not primarily interested in the narratives and imaginaries of travelling bodies to outer space, but algorithms of the internet platforms where I seek to feed my interest in astronomy in Africa keep alerting me to news in this realm. How do I escape this dominant discourse about space faring within the anthropology of outer space; how do I escape into the realm of engaging with outer space from the ground, from the African ground, to be precise?

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Introduction to Scapes

Part 3: Timescapes

Part 4: Landscapes

Part 5: Scapus

Part 6: Scapegoat

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