Part 1: Introduction to Scapes

This post is the first in a series of six posts exploring our editorial theme “Scapes” through the lenses of various disciplines. This introductory post was written by James Merron.

Today, as space science activities are rapidly shifting the way humans perceive themselves on Earth, and within a larger set of relationships both on and off-Earth, we wonder how the spatial concept ‘scape’ helps us understand the relationship between terrestrial formations and extraterrestrial space.

The morpheme ‘scape’ in English today only broke off from landscape fairly recently. Words follow needs for expressing new ideas, and landscape emerged from Dutch in the 1600s (landschap) as a way to capture painted representations of natural scenery. Beyond this, ‘scape’ can easily be attached to any entity to endow it with a spatializing, visual concept. But it doesn’t only expand a concept in space, it also constrains it, giving it a frame, a delimitation and a meaning to what can be included in the image and what cannot. It is also no longer limited to the visual or representative domain as a likeness of, a reality that exists on the other side of the image. A ‘scape’ can thus enact its own material reality, such as with a ‘technoscape’ coined by Arjun Appadurai (1996) which attends to the coproduction between the social and the spatial.

Through a short series of explorations, we meditated on how the notion of ‘scape’ operates in our research on the shifting horizons of earth and space in Africa. This blog entry is meant as a synthesis of short pieces collected by several members of the network to address how the spatial concept of ‘scape’ helps us understand the relationship between terrestrial formations and extraterrestrial space. This initiated a conversation about how spaces are operationalized by those whose activities are informed by spatial imaginaries and materialities. Through this we discovered that while commonly associated with landscape, scape is a more expansive concept. Based on colloquial equivalences, scapes relate to the materiality (in terms of a technoscape) and the movement away from something (implied by escape).

A joint reading of Denis Cosgrove’s (2012) work on landscape imaginaries served as a basis for a common language which – amongst other things explored here – helps unpack how the gaze of the earth from space and, vice versa, the gaze of space from the ground is mediated by a complex assemblage of technological artifacts and epistemological regimes. 

This mediated gaze is entangled with tropes and metaphors of discovery familiar to oceanic navigation and colonization. Encouraged by this pursuit, a heterogeneous network of engineers and explorers set out to discover things that were previously hidden, unknown, and unavailable. Through the endeavor to render the unknown known, the meaning of discovery was progressively shaped through vision and imagination.

Astronomical geography was renewed and reinvigorated by the movement toward unknown places through mathematical calculation within a geodetic framework. Technologies like the astrolabe were indispensable in answering the question “where am I?” which has moved steadily, although not deterministically, toward the present era techniques of geolocation that are taken for granted and continue to play out in and through a non-Euclidian space. As a layering of old infrastructures upon new ones, a wired and wireless mesh of networks rides electromagnetic waves, which problematizes assumptions about where the earth ends and outer space begins.

Telescopes, stereoscopes, theodolites, gyroscopes, and infrared cameras have revealed things that were previously imperceptible (whether to accomplish direct apprehension or charting a route in order to reduce the distances between two objects). 

These instruments have politics. They are productive of forms of inequality and geopolitical asymmetry that are less easy to access through an instrumentarium whose job it is to simply avail the senses to things beyond one’s own physical and cognitive landscape. Conceiving of ‘Africa off earth’ involves, in part, rethinking the socio-technical regime through which space both on and off earth is rendered visible, knowable, and transformable.

How did we get here? What does a radio astronomy observatory in the middle of South Africa (Walker et al. 2019), or the swarm of satellites and drones occupying African ‘airscapes’ have to do with seventeenth century renaissance imagination or the nineteenth century quest for domination? A starting point is to consider the genesis and development of space science and technology, rendered intelligible below through a summary of Denis Cosgroves (2012) work on geography and vision. 

The geographical gaze and imagination have their roots in colonial expansionism which left behind historical traces of colonial mindscapes. An assemblage of complex elements, instruments, and discrete technologies together with territorial ambition rendered other places and other people mere objects to be studied, understood, controlled, and owned. These belligerent imperial acts have gained more visibility now, partly through the politics of reparation and partly through the spatial data that are embedded in everyday technologies that – perversely – are encoded by a 500-year history of navigation between Europe and its “other”. These everyday spatial technologies, like GPS, offer a means to write against empire as access to technology becomes more democratic (even though this access does not ensure equity).

Material landscapes come face-to-face with the discursive appeal of otherscapes that seek to juxtapose maps, texts, and pictorial images that produce competing and conflicting cosmographies. Vision and visual imagery are bound up with the coloniality of infrastructures that contrive a geographic imagination through many interoperable data points and nodes in a vast machine. ‘Linguistic landscaping’ – as Irina Turner tells us in her blog entry – accounts for the languages that are embedded within representational objects and technologies. Publicly visible bits of written word and inscriptions expose a colonial imaginary intent on conquering space and the people within it.

From 17th century travelogues to computer models, satellite images and GIS software, cosmography vis-à-vis a datascape involves the transduction of numbers and signals into interoperable bits of information that can be transcribed into spatial and environmental facts. The expressive authority of these bits and bytes to claims of truth go beyond the surface of the earth and shape a general cosmological imagination. These truth claims are inscribed into star and surface maps, the main tool of geographical science and a form of practice based on the complex construction and communication of spatial knowledge as well as models of a dying planet in the time of the Anthropocene.

Concerns and imaginaries about the relationship between Earth and outer space has gained new currency as the cosmos is transformed from a resource for navigation to one of escape (that is, a place to go to plus the possibility of inhabiting other places). But do these other places even exist? How can we know? Where are they? Can we get there? Escape is a cause to think about situatedness on this planet and the imagination of leaving in light of the intrusion of Gaia. A tension between the duty to protect the planet and to escape, the question becomes: who will be able to leave and who will be abandoned on earth? (see Hanna Nieber’s entry for an elaboration on this point). 

In an effort to place outer space from Africa, the following blog entries engage with the concept of scape, extending the notion beyond a single case study.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolist & London: University of Minnesota Press.

Cosgrove, Denis. 2012. Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World. London & New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Walker, Cherryl, Davide Chinigò, and Saul Dubow. 2019. “Karoo Futures: Astronomy in place and space – Introduction.” Journal of Southern African Studies 45 (4): 627–39.

Other posts in this series:

Part 2: Escapes

Part 3: Timescapes

Part 4: Landscapes

Part 5: Scapus

Part 6: Scapegoat

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