The rhetoric of space exploration, redux – Part 3



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


To sum up, the conventional rhetoric of space exploration perpetuates a long-standing, yet outdated, “all-American” ideology. Burke (1969b) defined ideology as both a belief system and a partial and thus deceptive view of reality. The belief system perpetuated by space rhetoric is a sort of fundamentalist ideology, excluding or rejecting as unenlightened those who do not advocate the colonization, development, and exploitation of space.

Examining the rhetoric of space exploration as a cultural ritual, performed for the purpose of maintaining the current social order, with its lopsided distribution of power and resources, reveals how it perpetuates the values of those in control of that order – in this case, the values of the military-industrial complex (progress, profit, competition, war).

In order to survive as a cultural institution, space exploration needs an ideology. It needs to have some connection to widely held beliefs. It needs a role in a cultural narrative. But a new narrative may be warranted to replace the outdated and counterproductive nationalistic frontier story.14

 The 21st century cultural environment demands a new approach to U.S. space policy making, a collaborative approach that will require abandoning the conventional rhetoric of competitiveness and dominance. There have been calls for change. Some have advocated adopting a collaborative and cooperative rather than a nationalistic and competitive approach to space exploration. Others have called for erasing the hard boundaries dividing civilian, military, and commercial space.

It is time to consider the feasibility and utility of a trans-sectoral, transnational space policy that transcends the traditional, outdated boundaries constructed between the interests of the United States and other nations and between civilian, commercial, and military interests.

Rhetorical transcendence is, in Burke’s conception, a symbolic bridging or merging, a way of getting past the either-or options of acceptance or rejection. How might space policy makers transcend perceived differences in perspective, transcend “relativism” for “relationism,” transcend compromise for connectivity? How might policy makers align their interests and motives and achieve Burke’s rhetorical aim of identification?

One option would be to broaden the frame for policy making by (re)establishing that the context for space policy is the Outer Space Treaty, the international law that governs all of human activity in all of outer space. A broader frame would reveal the consubstantiality of all involved in the endeavor of space exploration.

It also might be useful to broaden this rhetorical frame even further toward transcending policy and its partner, politics. The origin of the words “policy” and “politics” is the Greek word “politeia,” meaning “citizenship.” The Greek “politikos” means “civic.” In contemporary usage, the English words politics and policy have acquired an array of meanings that emphasize the shrewdness, calculation, and expediency involved in their execution.15 (The English word “police” has the same Greek root as politic and policy.)

Raising awareness that policy making is an element of citizenship and that space policy making is an element of global citizenship might be a way toward transcending conflicts.

This brief review of space rhetoric reveals a dominant narrative and some subordinate narratives as well. The dominant narrative advances the values of the dominant culture and justifies unilateral action and the globalization of “the American way.” Competing with this narrative is a vision of what Rushing (1986) called “utopian ideas of collective progress” and “a spiritual humbling of self.”

More than 40 years after Kenneth Boulding told us we had to get the message, space exploration is enabling people on Earth to understand that we are biological systems living in an ecological system. This competing narrative may be a site within which the ideology of space exploration might rejuvenate itself – where the vision of a human future in space becomes a vision of humanity’s collective peaceful existence on Spaceship Earth and the need to work together to preserve life here and look for life out there.



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