The rhetoric of space exploration, redux – Part 2



Yesterday I posted the first part of a paper I wrote in 2008 on the rhetoric of space exploration. Here’s Part 2. Full text with references and footnotes is available here. Tomorrow I’ll post Part 3, my conclusions. 

Though the frontier metaphor dominates, other perspectives have surfaced from time to time in the discourse on space exploration. 

In 1965, economist Kenneth Boulding offered another perspective on the value of exploring space. “As a result of [space] exploration…and the explosion of scientific knowledge,” he said, “Earth has become a tiny sphere, closed, limited, crowded, and hurtling through space to unknown destinations.” Echoing futurist R. Buckminster Fuller’s well known conception of “spaceship Earth,”9 Boulding said our planet “has become a space ship, not only in our imagination but also in the hard realities of the social, biological, and physical system in which [humans are] enmeshed” (n.p.).

“It is clear,” he concluded, “that much human behavior and many human institutions…are entirely inappropriate to a small closed space ship. We cannot have cowboys and Indians…or even a cowboy ethic…. Man [sic] is finally going to have to face the fact that he is a biological system living in an ecological system” (n.p.).

In the mid-‘80s, Janice Hocker Rushing (1986) made the case that the post-Apollo-era focus of space exploration on the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life was a product of a widespread understanding that humankind exists in a universe, not only on planet Earth. The narrative of space exploration might better reflect this understanding by telling a story of “a spiritual humbling of self” rather than “an imperialistic grabbing of territory.” And in the ‘90s, cultural studies scholar Constance Penley (1992) observed that while “the WASP space cowboy version of spaceflight” has persisted from the Apollo era into the present, at the same time NASA “is still the most popular point of reference for utopian ideas of collective progress.” In the popular imagination, she said, “NASA continues to represent…perseverance, cooperation, creativity and vision,” and these meanings embedded in the narrative of space flight “can still be mobilized to rejuvenate the near-moribund idea of a future toward which dedicated people…could work together for the common good.”

While current U.S. space policy highlights colonization and exploitation, the U.S. space science program is following a path of exploration for understanding. The study of the origins and evolution of life on Earth, the origin and evolution of Earth itself and its sister planets, the origins and evolution of life in the universe and the origins and evolution of the universe itself are intricately intertwined. Astrobiology – the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe – offers new ways to think about the past, present, and future place of human and other life in space.10

Astrobiologists have learned that life as we know it – carbon-based cellular life – can survive in virtually all terrestrial environmental extremes, from nuclear radiation to permafrost and Earth’s deep, dark subsurface. At the same time that research into the origin, evolution, and distribution of life is revealing that life is highly resilient, these same lines of research are helping to reveal how life and its environment are deeply interdependent, improving understanding of life on Earth and prospects for life elsewhere, and contributing to understanding of global climate history and evolution.

Among some members of the space community, “space security” is a term now used to draw civil, commercial, and military space policy issues inside a single, broad frame. The Center for Defense Information (CDI), a Washington, D.C., think tank, runs a “Space Security Project” intended “to highlight the strategic, political, technical and economic questions surrounding the potential weaponization of space.”11 As the United States is considering the option of “space-based weapons…, the future of space is nearing a crossroads,” CDI observes. “Will the 50-year tradition of international cooperation and space sanctuary prevail; or, will the fear of military and/or economic domination drive nations to compete aggressively for primacy in the ultimate “high ground”? The Secure World Foundation of Superior, Colorado, a partner of the CDI, promotes space security as well, envisioning “a global space commons that is free from threat and available for the benefit of all humanity.”12

Another D.C. think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, talks of “smart power in space” instead of pioneering the space frontier: “In much the same way that the Apollo program and Vietnam War era were then the two most visible displays of soft and hard power, we are now faced with a similar situation…. We must now signal to the world that we are not a nation that lives by use of military force alone. We must increase our support of civil space utilization and exploration to bring it back in line with spending on military and intelligence applications of space” (Sabathier and Faith 2008, n.p.).

Where does Burke come in?

[American rhetorical critic Kenneth] Burke’s dramatistic criticism – in particular, his idea of transcendence by perspective – is a productive way of exploring the established rhetoric of space policy and the rhetoric of alternate narratives and speculating about transcending perceived differences among them. The “metatext” of official and popular rhetoric about space exploration warrants full-blown Burkean analysis. A full-blown analysis is beyond the scope of this talk. But as food for thought, some observations are offered here.

“The motivation out of which [one] writes,” according to Burke (1973), “is synonymous with the structural way in which he puts events and values together.” A rhetor may be “conscious of selecting a certain kind of imagery to reinforce a certain kind of mood,” according to Burke, but “cannot possibly be conscious of the interrelationships among all these equations” (p. 20). An analyst, however, may be able to find these patterns by examining the completed text. Such an analysis aims to identify the rhetorical strategy employed in a text, the purpose of the symbolic action in it, “the functions which the structure serves” (p. 101).

By employing what Burke (1973) called planned incongruity – “a rational prodding or coaching of language so as to see around the corner of everyday usage…a kind of metaphorical projection” (pp. 400-401) – an analyst can look beyond common meanings of terms and consider new meanings. What Burke called terministic screens – rhetorical frames of power, act, and order that highlight some aspects of a text and downplay others – are structured to direct audiences toward certain meanings and away from others. A new perspective afforded by planned incongruity offers a way of transcending such screens by enabling consideration of other meanings.

The terministic screen deployed with the frontier metaphor includes terms such as pioneering, freedom, destiny, leadership, enterprise, progress. This screen of frontier terms evokes nationalism, capitalism, ownership, conquest, exploitation. What other meanings might be coaxed out of this screen of terms?

Recall that Burke (1969a) said “distinctions…arise out of a great central moltenness” (p. xix), and it is in areas of indistinction or ambiguity – closer to that molten center, as it were – where transformations can occur. And then consider that the root of the word “frontier” is the Old French word for “front.” In the English language, that word “front” conveys a complex of meanings, ranging from the most common definition – the part of anything that faces forward – to the definition that probably comes closest to the meaning of “front” in “frontier”: an area of activity, conflict, or competition. A common military definition of “front” is also tied up in the meaning of “frontier”; that is, the area of contact between opposing combat forces. Other meanings of “front” that should be considered in assessing the meaning of the frontier metaphor are: a façade; a position of leadership or authority; and a person or thing that serves as a cover for secret, disreputable, or illegal activity.13

Consider, as well, the possible meanings of “progress.” The root of “progress” is the Latin word meaning “to go forward.” J.B. Bury (1932) said progress is movement “in a desirable direction” – but he also noted that “it cannot be proved that the unknown destination towards which man is advancing is desirable” (p. 2). In their histories of the idea of progress, both Bury and Robert Nisbet called progress a dogma. While Bury identified progress as an idea originating in the modern era, Nisbet (1980) traced its roots to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and he documented how it evolved to take on the qualities of destiny and “historical necessity.” (p. 47).

Nisbet declared progress the most important idea in modern Western history. This modern idea of necessary and inevitable forward movement is deeply embedded in the cultural narrative of U.S. space flight. Beginning with the creation of the United States of America, science and technology became the means of American progress, and conquest and exploitation became the morally imperative method. Ultimately progress came to be thought of as the accumulation of material wealth came to be a measure of progress. This deeply seated belief in progress provides a moral justification for materialism and consumerism.

What meanings are space policy makers and advocates intending to convey – and what meanings are they in fact conveying – when they talk about the space frontier, progress in space exploration?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: