“The mind comes to know things by comparison” one effect being “that knowledge derived from acts of comparison acquires characteristics of its own” (Strathern 2020, 29). For instance, without having a distinct idea of what a “woman” is, we gain a pretty clear idea of what a “sister” is when we compare two women “in reference to one common parent“ (ibid, 30). Thus, “to have a clear conception of that which is the foundation of the relation… may be done without having a perfect and clear idea of the thing it is attributed to” (Locke in Strathern 2020, 30).
⟶ Landscape “everything you can see when you look across a large area of land”
Word origin “late 16th cent. (denoting a picture of scenery): from Middle Dutch lantscap, from land ‘land’ + scap (equivalent of -ship)”
⟶ Seascape “a picture or view of the sea”
Compare townscape “what you see when you look at a town, for example from a distance”
1 “a view of the surface of the moon”
2 “an area of land that is empty, with no trees, water, etc., and looks like the surface of the moon”
without knowing exactly what a scape is, I have a pretty clear idea about a landscape, seascape or moonscape. Here, scape is the foundation of the relation between land, sea and moon. Scape is vision (see also Cosgrove 2008), a picture, a view, an area. Scape is perspective.
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.
This post is the fourth in a series of six posts exploring our editorial theme “Scapes” through the lenses of various disciplines (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). This post was written by Tadej Pirc.
Inescapable Landscapes and the Human-Nature Separation
Landscapes are convolutions of physical characteristics and human interventions in a certain space. At the present time, it is impossible to find a place on the Earth that hasn’t been interfered with by human curiosity or exploited by human ambition. It is indeed not possible to find a -scape that would be able to escape the parameters which define a landscape.
Inspired by a conference on landscapes I recently attended at the Iuav University of Venice, and bothered by the persistence of presumably ontological – albeit purely ideological (in my view) – separation of nature and society/culture/civilisation, I have been trying hard to find a place, a space, a plain, a -scape, be it physical or metaphysical, that eludes the constraints of the necessity and inescapability of the oneness of the natural and the supposedly unnatural (i.e. human, cultural, cultivated).
The human-nature separation has no one clear origin. The genealogy of it is as complex as the nature of the relationship itself. Ancient Greeks comprehended the cosmos as an all-encompassing entity containing all there is. Despite this, the idealism of Platonism necessitated some distance from nature and the natural order. The same goes for Plato’s ideal state which is to be administered by precision and governed by reason. Despite the oneness of cosmos, there is a kind of Leibnizian setting discernible here, where every singular entity bears a trace of the whole as its representation, yet each particular manifestation of the whole links clearly to either the realm of the natural or the realm of the rational.
The Abrahamic religions resemble these traits of early idealism as well. The deity is considered to be above nature, transcending it with reason. The faithful are separate from it as well – if not as beings of reason, then certainly as beings possessing a predilection for morality, which – as Nietzsche emphasises over and over – is the most unnatural and life-denying of things bestowed on human beings since the emergence of organised religion.
The Rationalism of the 17th century gave the human-nature separation scientific validation. To me, one of the most interesting material manifestations of this is visible in gardens of the French kind of that era. These radiate a metaphysics of human domination over nature so contrarian to the metaphysics of the English garden – that is, the romanticised merger of the human and nature known also as the landscape garden in which there is a feeling of being safely at one with nature – that one can easily identify all the key oppositions of humanity which have been defining the human experience and our relationship with our immediate surroundings for millennia.
These have also encouraged the emergence of the ‘sanitary city’, a highly intertwined and structurally organised urban agglomeration of political, economic, technological, social, and community infrastructure. This kind of a total environment, which developed in the 20th century, tends to follow the metaphysics of Rationalist origin mandating us to tame, cultivate, and control nature, and, ultimately, construct a comprehensively structured and interconnected habitat, a highly functioning man-made techno-scape.
In the future, I intend to look deeper into this last onto-epistemological construct which is generating and reproducing the great divide so obvious to the human of the third millennium. More important than its origins are the reinterpretations and reconfigurations (of our perceptions) of landscapes we inhabit and co-constitute. The landscapes which are inescapable, and as such, impossible to be managed, shaped, and cultivated from without.
This post is the third in a series of six posts exploring our editorial theme “Scapes” through the lenses of various disciplines (Part 1,Part 2). This post was written by Davide Chinigò.
In her theorisation of modern time, anthropologist Laura Bear argues that “science and technology tightly link social, human time to external non-human rhythms; frame time as a radically other secular force; and project a deep history of natural time” (Bear, 2014: 7). Following these insights, I like to think of space science infrastructure such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) as a timescape. The notion of timescape interrogates the relationship between terrestrial formation and extraterrestrial space in terms of the social production of time. Astronomy infrastructure are sites where the normative mediation between conflicting representations, technologies, and rhythms in time become visible. The gaze of astronomy into the deep time of our universe raises the fascinating question of how this scientific imagination is mediated through human temporalities of the everyday, or to use again Bear, though labour in/of time (Bear, 2014: 7).
One of the ways we can look at the SKA as a timescape is through the mutually constituting relation between the temporalities of the distant and the near future that the work in science and technology mobilise. The distant future is about looking at how the belief in the force of scientific endeavour and technological innovation drives societal change and shapes notions of political modernity. The distant future operates through technologies of imagination that ‘invoke an invisible realm and make it visible in order to explain the past, present and future’ (Bear, 2015: 7). Science and technology perform a civilising mission to tame scapes of the future that remain unknown (Groves, 2014). The near future puts into sharp focus how these futures of imagination are mediated in the everyday work of scientists and engineers through labour in/of science and technology.
The dialectical relation between distant and near futures constituting the SKA timescape emerges most clearly in a promotional video clip entitled ‘Discovering the Unknown. The world’s largest radio telescope’. Through the crescendo of an increasingly engaging soundtrack, the video collates interviews from astronomers, engineers, and other staff members to explain what the SKA is about, as well as what are its scientific and technological objectives. The video clip is effectively meant to inspire the public about the exceptionality of the project from the perspective of its scale and potential discoveries.
The very first frame introduces the viewer with a quotation from Einstein, pointing at the centrality of scientific knowledge production to broader ideas about human progress: ‘The important thing is not to stop questioning’. The act of questioning is based on the empiricist stance that accessing knowledge is possible through the systematic experience of the world provided by the scientific method. This is the ultimate justification for building the SKA radio telescope as this will allow humankind to explore the universe in ways that have not been possible before. The quotation is followed by a rapid succession of single camera shots of scientists extolling the main questions that the SKA project is expected to answer. These are scientific questions but are framed in a way to highlight their implications beyond the domain of astronomy, casting the SKA as a frontier project for the broader advancement of humanity.
All these questions point to unknown aspects of the universe and revolve around the importance of studying its history, formation, and evolution to answer questions about the human. ‘What are gravitational waves? How does magnetism work throughout the universe? How are planets formed? What is dark matter?’. These questions are then linked in a reflexive way to a universalised human history when other scientists ask: ‘What is our history? Was Einstein right? And for me the most important, is there life out there?’.
The second part of the video clip explains that an effort to answer such questions is currently underway: ‘We are building what will be the largest science facility ever built by mankind. (…) we are pushing technology to its limits’. And continues ‘We are building a time machine, we are looking at what our surroundings were like almost at their inception’. Global technoscience is cast with the civilizational mission to pave the way to a distant future – as a domain that can be tamed – for an abstracted and yet essentialized humanity. The underlying thread is between progress in science and technology and human progress. The video clip conveys the same message by highlighting the multicultural nature of the project that is made possible only because of multi-country collaborations of scientists and engineers across the globe.
‘Projects like this can only happen when we work together on a global scale. (…) We got yet 500 engineers to work together over 20 countries in all time zones in the world. It’s like building a jigsaw puzzle but the pieces keep changing. Part A being designed in one place, part B being designed literally on the other side of the world’.
The underlying message here is that scientific endeavour transcends culture and place, categories that lose meaning when represented against the infiniteness of an unexplored universe. Humanity-as-one is the direct implication of recasting the infinite smallness of the human being when compared against its broader, boundless, outer space environment. In the video clip the idea of astronomy as a cross-cultural undertaking is also rendered by the representation of language. While English is dominant throughout the video clip, scientists from different nationalities ask questions about the project in their own native language. This for instance includes Italian, Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi. The effective message here is that the language of science is universal and transcends national boundaries, ultimately speaking to humanity-as-one. The linear correlation between progress in science and human progress constitutes the normative frame within which the distant future ofthe SKA’s timescape operates.
The third part of the video clip gives us some insights on the second aspect of the SKA’s timescape. This is about how the big questions driving humanity-as-one (the distant future) are operationalised through the work of scientists and engineers in the near future through labour in/of time.The clip explains that the facility is currently being constructed in two sites in South Africa and Australia. These sites are ‘far away from towns radio interference, anything that could impact on the science that we are trying to do. (…) And it is really tough, it’s hot environment’. The two locations are identified as the ‘the middle of the western Australian desert’ and ‘a remote location in the middle of South Africa’ where antenna receptors and satellite dishes ‘will stretch out beyond the horizon (…) [and] are going to spread out literally hundreds of kilometres’. While the voiceover describes the sites’ location, the video clip displays images of countless computer-rendered satellite receptors over a generic semi-arid landscape.
Here the scientific imagination that mobilises the SKA infrastructure operates two consecutive levels of abstraction. First, it detaches the places where the infrastructure is under construction from their histories and environments. These are effectively depicted as non-spaces – places without a past – that come into existence only in relation to their prospected use for the project. Second, it casts the existence of these spaces in the near future (Guyer, 2007), spaces in-the-making that become meaningful through labour in/of science and technology. They become visible – and take on meanings – when they are populated by antenna receptors that engineers and astronomers will put on the ground.
In the final part of the video clip the distant and the near future of the SKA’s timescape collapse into each other. The viewer’s imagination is increasingly stimulated through a set of ‘amazing facts’ about the SKA project. An increasingly triumphalist soundtrack reaches its apex while the rhythm of the information provided by each of the interviewees intensifies, and frames change more quickly.
‘We are almost bound to discover something new, something that will disrupt our current everyday life. That generates new knowledge now. Huge amounts of data. Imagine the amounts of data that is flowing through the internet at any one moment, we are talking about that kind of level coming out steadily. We have to develop the software that will handle all of this data. The SKA can do for interplanetary exploration what broad band did for the internet. We are doing this now, there is equipment in south Africa and in Australia. Radio waves give us a unique way of probing the deep universe. We can do all of this by picking up incredibly faint signals, radio waves that come from all over the universe’.
The climax ends when the soundtrack suddenly fades and the voiceover is silent for a couple of seconds. This is the moment that the video-maker has been preparing for the entire clip and that serves the purpose to ask the final and most intriguing question. Ultimately, what is the SKA is going to discover? The last words before the end credits answer this question and conclude ‘What we will discover is the unknown. We are going to build a real thing it’s not just dreaming’.
Bear, L. (2014) ‘Doubt, conflict, mediation: the anthropology of modern time’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20(1): 3-30.
Bear, L. (2015) Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt Along a South Asian River. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Groves, C. (2014) ‘Taming the Future or Surfing Uncertainty?’, Science as Culture 23(2): 283-288.
Guyer, J. (2007) ‘Prophecy and the near future: thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time’, American Ethnologist 34(3): 409-21.
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?
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 otherscapesthat 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.