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Spacecraft(ing)

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“Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” cries Nietzsche’s madman in a famous parable of The Gay Science. “Are we not continually falling? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing [5, 7]? Isn’t empty space breathing at us [5, 8]? Hasn’t it got colder?”

(Nietzsche 2001: 119-120) [10]

“You’re more powerful than you think,” reads the slogan at the end of the iPhone 5s “strength” TV advertisement. Plugging the iPhone’s capabilities as a fitness companion, the ad follows a group of iPhone owners as they work out and track their performance. Throughout the ad, bodies wake up, run, swim, lift weights, and climb. Through a series of exhausting encounters with the “Great Outdoors,” – adverse weather conditions, uphill climbs, untrodden paths, physical gravity – bodies get in shape [8]. The magic of the ad lies in its folding in of the “Great Outdoors” to the point of complete dissolution: via their iPhones, users successfully metabolize their encounters [3, 4]. At once a personal trainer, a dietician, and a life coach, the iPhone turns physical effort into something that can be accounted, calculated, rendered legible [2]. iPhones mediate [8]. The more efficient the mediation, the more “chicken fat” is burnt, as the song playing throughout the ad reminds us [8]. The more successfully bodies internalize their encounters with the “Great Outdoors,” the more they appear to be severed, autonomous [3, 11]. The more that comes in, the ad suggests, the closer bodies get to becoming their true selves and encountering their latent powerfulness [5, 7]. Paradoxically enough, the more that comes in, the thinner bodies become [3, 5].

Modernity, argues Peter Sloterdijk in the introduction to his Spheres trilogy, may be considered as an attempt to drown the questions of Nietzsche’s madman in comfort [11]. That is, modernity is seen as a vast technical project – a series of techniques, exercises, and processes – aimed at compensating for a loss of assurance regarding our position in the world: the loss of a comforting round-ness, a state of being-inside a whole [3, 11]. With its technical devices and air-conditioning systems, the modern world aims to silence uneasy inquiries about the space in which we live, and from which we are constantly falling. More than a mere declaration – God is dead! – the madman’s anguish invokes the need for new forms of immunity, new safety structures for our shell-less times [1, 2, 11]. What is modernity, if not endless attempts at crafting habitable, climate-controlled spaces out in the cold, open sky? [8, 11]

The history of the engendering of humans by humans, argues Sloterdijk, may be considered as the history of sheltering, life-nurturing spaces [11]. It is the fabulous story of cosmological, architectural, and technical configurations through which humans craft the space of their existence and come into the world as human beings [11]. Specifically, Sloterdijk explores the ecstatic character of human becoming, or constant (re)birth, that is of the relationship between the human and that which exceeds it [9, 10].

Following Martin Heidegger, Sloterdijk thinks of being-in-the-world as a position of ek-sistence, a state of being held out into the open [11]. Ek-stasis is displacement, stepping forth, reaching towards [7]. In contrast with humanist accounts of a precarious subjectivity in need of strengthening and appropriation [1], Heidegger has taken careful note of Nietzsche’s phrase: to ‘humanize’ the world is to feel ourselves increasingly as masters in it. To Jean-Paul Sartre, who had suggested in Existentialism as Humanism that “we are precisely in a situation where there are only human beings,” Heidegger replies that we are “precisely in a situation where principally there is Being” (Heidegger 2008: 237). Humans’ being-in-the-world shall, then, be from the onset characterized by a constitutive exteriority, a de-centering [2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11]. To be in the world is to stand in a vulnerable position, a position of mediality which entails a relation to risk: an incessant and threatening interiorization of excess [3, 8, 10].

The engendering of humans by humans is thus a medial and collective affair. However, against Heidegger Sloterdijk argues that this ek-static openness has very little to do with a contemplative, or passive listening to the truth of Being. It is not a “given,” a donation of Being. To those gestures that would merely safeguard a privileged relationship to Being, he opposes a history of emancipation “from below,” premised on the conviction that “there is no less corporeality involved at the highest point than in the middle or at the bottom” (p. 123) [7]. Spacecrafting, in this regard, may be conceived as the creative constitution of life-supporting systems and devices [8, 11]. Whether using the earliest Paleolithic stone tools or the most sophisticated technology of the modern surgeon, spacecrafting requires a significant amount of technical skill, practice, and exercising [8]. Humans are not thrown into the open, do not stand in the clearing [Lichtung] empty-handed (Sloterdijk, 2000).

Spacecrafting is spacing. It is a “making room” for things in the world (Sloterdijk, 2011). It is a matter of endless, labor-intensive relief from an unlivable outside [1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 10, 11]. Spacecrafting places us, medial beings, at a protective distance. It cushions our permanent exposure to things, our falling into things. It is a thrust away from what was unbearable to the provisional tolerability of comfort, security, and edification. Spacecrafting is a skillful mediation of the outside [8, 11]. This is a highly therapeutic, biopolitical process, which has to do with engendering life out of incomprehensible and  incommensurable disorder. Spacecrafting requires a great amount of breath [5, 7].

“Life is a window of vulnerability. It seems a mistake to close it,” wrote Donna Haraway (1991:224) [7].  Vulnerability is a window on to life. To keep the window open, however, entails distancing ourselves from fantasies of fully defended, victorious selves [11]. In contrast, Haraway calls on anthropologists to conceive of immunity in terms of shared specificities, of semi-permeable individual and collective selves that are “able to engage with others (human and non-human, inner and outer).” (Ibid., 225) That is, to engage in a world replete with non-self. Twenty-five years later, Haraway’s sharp criticism still resonates strongly. Abstracting bodies, individual and collective, from their constitutive vulnerability is hardly a safe way forward.

Space mapping, body tracking, data mining, checkpoints, and Purell hand sanitizer: How does protection from death turn into a negation of, or control over life? [11] Once conceived as an intensification of the individual’s participation in processes larger than himself [8], immersion in the media quietly turns into limitation — for instance, of physical movements and direct contacts with people. Space is getting denser [7, 9, 10]. Flows translate into generalized, spiralling insecurity [4]. Insecurity converts into compulsive self-strengthening and auto-excitation. The porosity of borders nourishes fears of invasion and, above all, of contagion. [1, 2, 11] Epidemics pass through bodies [3]. Travelers become suspected plague-bearers. Caregivers are expected to self-track and self-isolate. Checkpoints multiply. Airports, public transportation systems, hospitals are secured. Surveillance and tracking devices proliferate. Healthy individuals start Googling symptoms they do not have [5, 11]. It is harder and harder to distinguish friendship from ambient noise. When, one might ask, does overexposure to the world turns into a loss of world? [10, 11] How are we to inhabit uncertainty together? (Massumi and Zournazi, 2002:218; Twomey, this series).

Spacecrafting aims to establish the non-indifferent within the indifferent. We are all craving for non-indifference: for common spaces [5]. To inhabit uncertainty, together, is to inhabit spaces of shared vulnerability. Denying this vulnerability, and indeed the fragility of what we have in common, can only lead to the same old illusions of mastery and control, to bogus purities of all kinds, to reactionary and repressive self-assertion [11]. Spacecrafting is not about insulating ourselves from the world. Nevertheless, spacecrafters always bear in mind that the very possibility of a viable openness to the world is contingent on a continuous and concrete engendering of habitable worlds — with all the perils and labors that come with it.

Spacecrafting is a matter of trying our hands, isn’t it? A matter of gauging, of engendering space. It is a matter of coming-into-the-world, with our hands full of useless stuff. It is a matter of shaking off excess [10]. Spacecrafting and care are two words for more or less the same thing. To craft space entails thinking of mediality as a modality of care [8]. Or, more precisely, to think of mediality as a relation to the Other [11]. Not a relation to a predefined, exterior self, but to “the Other as the expression of a possible world” (Deleuze, 1994 [1968]: 261).

Only through careful relations with something that dangerously exceeds us may we possibly enhance our participation in the creative affirmation of life.

 

Vincent Duclos is a Steinberg Global Health Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University. He is an anthropologist of medicine, writing about digital health systems and practices. His work is inspired by cultural anthropology, media studies and philosophy of science and technology. He has conducted field research in India and West Africa.

 

Works Cited

Deleuze, G. (1994 [1968]) Difference and Repetition, New York: Columbia University Press.

Haraway, D. J. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York, NY: Routledge

Heidegger, M. (2008) “Letter on Humanism”, in Basic Writings, London: Harper Perennial, pp. 217-265.

Massumi, B. and Zournazi, M. (2002) Navigating Movement – with Brian Massumi, in M. Zournazi, (ed.) Hope. New philosophies for change, New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 210-243.

Nietzsche, F. (2001) The Gay Science: with a prelude in German rhymes and an appendix of songs, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sloterdijk, P. (2000) La domestication de l’être, Paris: Mille et une nuits.

Sloterdijk, P. (2011) Bubbles. Spheres Volume I: Microspherology, Semiotext(e).


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