Part 5: Scapus

This post is the fifth in a series of six posts exploring our editorial theme “Scapes” through the lenses of various disciplines (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). This post was written by Irina Turner.

The SKA as the fountain pen of writing time

A scape­– from Latin scapus shaft– is a capture device for vastness. So, we define environments by seeing them as landscapes, transform land into territory, in order to ‘get hold of it’, ‘get a grip on it’, understand, obtain control, enable navigation and ultimately, ‘own’ a space. This last step of scaping creates contestation; always. Up to now, the contestation about our mapping of off-earth is not always so tangible beyond mirroring known geopolitical power struggles on earth.

Nevertheless, the SKA can be seen as the fountain pen for mapping oozing deep blue ink full of potential and imagination. The SKA is a facilitator of the mapping practice of off-earth space with the aim to read deeper into the past and at the same time generate data translatable into images, soundscapes, or navigation maps, which we are often not yet able to read since they are hidden maps contained in encrypted data on hard drives requiring different types of skill sets for neo-archaeology. The SKA-generated data thus contains future landscapes. Unknown territories. New frontiers. Therefore, while the signals of the SKA do not make us see yet, they already make us imagine a past and future.

I am interested in this linguistic and discursive landscape of the SKA. How are things – in particular the unknown and unknowable in astrophysics– described, captured in words and images? What are the linguistic landscapes of the SKA?

Linguistic landscaping studies physical, virtual and discursive signs in public spaces in their interaction with situated contexts and how — in a process of semiosis— generate layers of socially relevant meaning. Signs make spaces specific and charge them “with expectations as to codes of conduct, meaning/making practices and forms of interpretation” (Blommaert 2013, p. 3). Linguistic landscaping can be one way of enquiring how languages are contained in representational objects and technologies (Stroud & Mpendukana 2009).

In a narrow sense, linguistic “landscapes capture the presence of publicly visible bits of written language: billboards, road and safety signs, shop signs, graffiti and all sorts of other inscriptions in the public space” and can in this immersion in daily life expressions detect early signs of social change “before they become visible” in policies (Blommaert 2013, p. 1ff).

These landscape are not only tangible through hands on boards but also through the gaze, in virtual and written representations, through the ears in audio translations of electromagnetic wave signals (Helmreich 2016), and through the body in an embodied knowledge sense, of how to move and act in gendered spaces. In a broader sense, linguistic landscaping encompasses the virtual and semiotic, discursive landscaping. In other words, how is space created through discourse? This broader view on space through LLS invites an analytical rather than a descriptive dimension and linguistic landscaping becomes a diagnosis of social and cultural structures (Blommaert 2013).

Perhaps the difference between map and landscape is the aesthetic dimension. The German romantic roots link landscape – scenery – semantically to a somatic utopia: map is utilitarian, landscape is solemnly. If landscape is “a product of such visual qualities as composition, form, and colour” (Cosgrove p.1), how important then is pathos (in the sense of affective mediality/ popular publicity) for astrophysical imagery? How and when can the image/simile/metaphor stand for itself— for its affective value— without the ratio/understanding/explaining/grasping behind it? (Cosgrove p. 4 “integrity of the image”). Is Astro-nomy or Astro-visuality poetic? Is there an apolitical, somatically speaking landscape of Off-earth possible without reflection about deeper meanings/truths/intentions? And is this then so sacralized landscape in need of protection?

Cosgrove says (p. 2), “cultural and political currents…shape the visible scene” so satellite trash is clouding our star gazing. This very visible formation is “the spur” (Cosgrove p. 2) for various stakeholders to (re)act upon the landscape accordingly. While the colonial aspect of conquering outer space is all too obvious, the counter-discourse of preservation —swinging about implicitly when defining outer space as landscape as a preservable “traditional rural scenery” (Cosgrove p. 2)— is equally problematic as it positions us as saviours of a mega-system of which we— that is humans— are but a molecular part. This is drastically over-emphasizing our role in the universe. If scaping as in taking control over territory is futile, what are conceivable alternatives for humans? Alternatively, our relationship to off-earth space could also be one of non-discovery, living in it— in the sense of let-it-be/remain ignorant about it, instead of objectifying it.

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Introduction to Scapes

Part 2: Escapes

Part 3: Timescapes

Part 4: Landscapes

Part 6: Scapegoat

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