So The U.S. Transhumanist Party recently released some demographic info on their first 1,000 members, and while they seem to be missing some some rather crucial demographic markers, here, such as age and ethnicity, the gender breakdown is about what you’d expect.
I mention this because back at the end of June I attended the Decolonizing Mars Unconference, at the Library of Congress in D.C. It was the first time I had been in those buildings since I was a small child, and it was for such an amazing reason.
We discussed many topics, all in the interest of considering what it would really mean to travel through space to another planet, and to put humans and human interests there, longterm. Fundamentally, our concern was, is it even possible to do all of this without reproducing the worst elements of the colonialist projects we’ve seen on Earth, thus far, and if so, how do we do that?
There were so many amazing people to meet, there, some for the first time in person, and some for the first time ever at all, and over the course of Thursday and Friday, we discussed topics like:
Why are we settling space? Disability on Mars, and Martian Bias (we’ll come back to this in a bit). Historical visions and understandings of Mars. The potential importance of the semantic differences between the terms “Colonization” and “settlement.” Who has the “right” to leave earth? Space law, ethics, Martian governance, and new economies for new worlds. Space cities: What kind of social spaces and architectures will we create and inhabit? Space and the possibility of human existential loneliness. New energy systems for new worlds. Astropoetics, science fictions, Afrofuturisms, and imagining possible futures.
How will the class of 2030 (today’s kindergartners) understand Mars? Is there a “universal” heritage in the universe? Defining geology, life, and nonlife in the universe. Decolonizing science journalism: How can we even begin to discuss this project with the wider world’s conceptions being as they are? Intimacy and bodies in space. What kind of food will we eat on Mars? Will there be privacy rights on Mars? And how might we use this project to inspire policy makers and the new generation of students to differently conceptualize space exploration?
It was a lot, for two days, and the unconference format really helped to alleviate some of the fear of missing out that comes with concurrent conversations in multiple rooms.
Oddly enough (or not oddly at all, considering who was present in these spaces and what we were there to discuss), a recurring conjunction of conversation was cyborgs, magic, space, and disability. In multiple different sessions, we asked questions like, where will the ancestors be in space? What will become of various traditions and peoples born of diasporas, if we spread far and wide in the cosmos? What about cultures and traditions that don’t want to go to space, at all? What will happen to our bodies and minds after extended exposure to low light, zero gravity, high-radiation environments? What does it mean that we think about space travelers in terms of “the right stuff” of some idealized vision of peak physical perfection, rather than recognizing that we will, as others have put it, all be disabled, in space?
As you, might expect, THE EXPANSE came up, a lot.
Others discussed the fact that the bodyminds of disabled folx might be better suited to space life, already being oriented to pushing off of surfaces and orienting themselves to the world in different ways, and that the integration of body and technology wouldn’t be anything new for many people with disabilities. In that context, I brought up the fact that cyborgs and space travel are and always have been about disability, but that since our society basically hates disabled people and doesn’t ever want to have to think about them, we have basically done everything we can to eliminate that history from the popular narrative.
I’m serious. Think about it:
As I’ve said, before, and as many if not most of you reading this will know, back in 1960, at the outset of the Space Race, Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline wrote an article for the September issue of Aeronautics called “Cyborgs and Space.” In this article, they coined the term “cyborg” as a portmanteau of the phrase “Cybernetic Organism”—that is, a living creature with the ability to reflexively adapt its body to changes in its environment. Clynes and Kline believed that if humans were ever going to go far out into space, the species would have to become the kinds of creatures that could survive things like cosmic radiation, the vacuum of space, and harsh, if not outright hostile planetary ecologies.
Now what many folx do not know is that Nathan S. Kline, co-inventor of the term “Cyborg,” was the very same Nathan S. Kline who created antidepressants. I shit you not. The work of Kline’s life was about figuring out how to techochemically intervene in the reflexive interoperation of bodyminds. I mean that he was always trying to sort out how humans could intentionally self-regulate through tech and chemicals. In fact, I would have to wager that there is a version of the story wherein the entire reason Manfred Clynes reached out to Nathan Kline was the latter’s work on antidepressants as a cybernetic system of reflexive neurochemical regulation, and the conceptual elaboration of that out into a more unconscious general system of cybernetic regulation across all bodily systems.
Now consider the cultural currency of the cyborg myth. From TERMINATOR to Cable, from Donna Haraway to Luke Skywalker. From eugenics to shiny future eugenics. All of these images of “perfecting” the human condition or “fixing” “broken” bodies or, conversely, of “losing” humanity, of becoming “less than,” because of technological interventions, into the body (again, see here for more on that). Now, instead, imagine if, at every stage of the process, the perspective of reflexive adaptation between disability and intervention had been highlighted and reinforced; if the connection and extension of that situation had been recognized as another standard fact of human life, and lived experience. Imagine, I’m saying, if the medical model of disability had been specifically attacked and deconstructed, and the social model had been championed. And then just imagine what this could have done for the destigmatization of disability in general, and mental health in particular.
Like, you know those Barefoot Contessa “If You Can’t Make Your Own Neurotransmitters, Store Bought Is Fine” memes?Kline would have fucking loved that shit.
Because, to restate, cyborgs HAVE ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT DISABLED PEOPLE AND SPACE, but wider society keeps deferring to ablebodied folx discomfort at being confronted with disability and obfuscating the real history of the discipline, while folx within the disabled community work to reclaim what was always rightfully theirs, or even just not have their lives actively made harder. We could do so much better than this, and we could have done so, half a century ago.
And I’m just so mad about it, y’all.
…Anyway, if you or anyone you know is interested in what we got up to at #DecolonizeMars, but you weren’t able to make it to the meeting itself, then make sure you mark September 27th, 2018 in your calendars for Becoming Interplanetary. This will be a public event working with the same themes and taking place in the same space as #DecolonizeMars. It is open to all and it’s also being webcast, in case you can’t make it in person. And you’ll want to take this in, in some way, if you can, as this kind of research might strike you as particularly important when you remember that we just found more evidence of liquid water on Mars.
Because the fact of the matter is, if we only ever think about reaching Mars or any of the rest of the solar system, galaxy, universe, cosmos, in terms of how we can conquer or what we can extract from it, then we’re only ever going to reproduce the same colonialist bullshit we perpetrated here on Earth.
And then please just keep in mind that that really hasn’t worked out so well for us, so far.
Until Next Time.