Mary-Jane Rubenstein: My friend! I am grateful for this chance to catch up on the talking we didn’t do at this year’s annual meeting. Although recent months dissolve for me into a Viral Aeternum, they are occasionally punctuated: the school closures last March, the obsessive bleachings of April, the murder of George Floyd in May, the white nationalist storming of the Capitol in January, and the proleptic anxiety, rage, and stupidity that surged in the weeks before the presidential election.
Out of this whirlwind, in late October 2020, came a GOP Tweet that said,
Pres. Trump is fighting for YOU! Here are some of his priorities for a 2nd term:
*Establish Permanent Manned Presence on the Moon
*Send the 1st Manned Mission to Mars
Even for someone who’s been following the escalating race back to space, this post was astonishing. Millions of people are sick, dying, unemployed, lonely, hungry, and terrified, and this asshat wants to go to Mars?
During my lighter moments, it’s tempting to add space to the list of things the new administration might fix through some magical series of executive orders. But although the reactivation of DACA, the halting of the Keystone XL Pipeline and that idiotic wall, and our reentry into the Paris Climate Accords have got me almost breathing again, there are a few things keeping me up at night: Syria, the minimum wage, the ever-deferred relief checks . . . and, well, space. It’s not just because Biden has decided to retain the absurd and dangerous Space Force. More fundamentally, it’s because a combination of executive action, corporate interest, and legislative gymnastics a decade ago rendered space itself ungovernable. Under Biden’s watch, space became corporate.
Two developments to name here. First, President Obama’s 2011 NASA budget, which reallocated funds “to foster collaborative research partnership with . . . [the] private sector.” As NASA’s 2009 Augustine Commission had suggested (no relation to our Augustine, except for the part about being steeped in sin you can’t get out of), “It is an appropriate time to consider turning this [astronautic] transport service over to the commercial sector.” In other words, it’s time to take the burden of space off the taxpayer and lay it on Elon. Or Richard or Jeff or the sudden rush of “NewSpace” companies that intend to mine, monetize, and colonize the heavens.
The problem back in 2011 was funding. Who would invest in a company dedicated to flying supplies up to the Space Station? What would be “in it” for shareholders? The situation for the cosmic prospector seemed grim until November 2015, when the Republican-controlled House and Senate (over which Joe Biden presided) passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA). Among other things, this legislation promised that “a US citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource shall be entitled to . . . possess, own, transport, use, and sell it” (Section 402).
“Huzzah,” said the investors. “We’re saved,” said the space mining firms in the early throes of perennial bankruptcies. After all, if a corporation is a person, then its extractions, uses, and sales will be protected under the CSLCA. “That’s what’s in it for us,” they realized; “we can take stuff! And sell it! For so much money!” Elated, the CEO of lunar mining firm Moon Express said in late 2015 that the CSLCA would be “a fantastic spur to development,” calling it the space-age equivalent of the Homestead Act.
As you know, the 1862 Homestead Act gave any twenty-one-year-old citizen who’d never borne arms against the United States a parcel of western land for $1.25 an acre. Of course, the US government could only sell this land to white settlers by taking it from Native Americans, whom it murdered, maimed, and forced onto reservations. As such, the Homestead Act was the direct legislative enactment of Manifest Destiny, that old theopolitical delusion that God wanted white folks to “settle” the frontier and occupy the whole North American continent.
In his last State of the Union address, on the brink of a murderously mismanaged pandemic, Trump declared what he hoped would remain the focal point of a second term: establishing a permanent outpost on the Moon to get us to Mars. “America has always been a frontier nation,” he intoned; “Now we must embrace the next frontier, America’s manifest destiny in the stars.”
Now clearly, 45 wasn’t the first person to call space “the next frontier.” Nor was Star Trek the first to call it “the final frontier.” Rather, the phrase was coined by the Nazi-turned-Born-Again-Christian rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, as he, along with Walt Disney (!) sought American popular support for space exploration. In their imagineering, which wormed its way into the political exhortations of Lyndon Johnson and JFK, space exploration was a vertical extension of Manifest Destiny. The same God who had dispatched Europeans across the seas and across the continent was now luring them out to the stars. And just in case we’d forgotten by 2019, Mike Pence repeated God’s endorsement of American space-dominance in his address to the National Space Council. “Even if we go up to the heavens,” Pence riffed on Psalm 139, “there His hand will guide us [applause]. And His right hand will hold us fast [more applause].”
As we write, space mining firms are preparing to extract and sell water, ore, and precious metals from whatever they can get their probes on, promising their investors gold in them asteroids. In the meantime, sixty years of military, scientific, and telecommunicative rivalry has filled low-Earth orbit with so much space garbage (including a damn Tesla) that experts predict disastrous collisions of techno-debris with satellites, rockets, and the International Space Station. And Elon Musk, who in 2020 said “the coronavirus panic is dumb,” expects his workers to show up in person so they can build him a starship every week. Musk’s trying to start bringing folks to Mars by 2030, so there’s no time to lose on masking or distancing.
And while international law twiddles its thumbs (“hang on . . . are corporations allowed to take the stuff they mine from asteroids? I guess we’ll wait and see . . .”), Musk has declared that Earthly laws don’t affect him, anyway. Anyone who retains SpaceX for transportation or communications technology (so, like, NASA) agrees in Section 9 of the Starlink small-print “to recognize Mars as a free planet and [affirm] that no Earth-based government has any authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.” Musk, in other words, has already declared independence for a planet he’s never visited. Weird! Illegal! But no weirder or less legal than a fifteenth-century Pope declaring the subjugation of a hemisphere he’s never visited.
So there it is. I’m trying to think through the corporate inheritance of the Christian-imperial project in the form of the NewSpace race. In the looming, legislatively transcendent, utopian-driven conquest of an infinite promised land.
Jenna Supp-Montgomerie: Dearest MJ, I suppose it’s no surprise that in this uplifting year, we’ve both found such optimistic preoccupations. A June headline in the Guardian asked the tragicomic question, “Seasteading—a vanity project for the rich or the future of humanity?” Which is to say, what’s troubling about space is precisely what’s troubling about the sea: both beckon to enterprising neocolonialists with untapped resources and ungoverned space. Perhaps the real travesty of the parallel is that both those who want to claim space and those who want to claim the sea unabashedly claim the legacy of the Homestead Act. The fifteenth-century predecessors to these contemporary capitalist adventurers contended with their vast ignorance of the lands they invaded, often striking out for unmapped places. And to get there, they sailed through seas that the existing maps promised were inhabited by great beasts: Leviathan, kraken, dragons. Unlike the earlier forms of colonialism these space- and sea-squatters mimic, the call to conquer now considers highly charted territory. Both space and sea have become settings for marveling at the majesty of the unknowable by setting it into precise grids. Gaping at the heavens while mapping the stars.
Jules Verne begins 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with a catalog of sightings of a terrifying sea monster that is unpredictable in its movements, unprecedented in its violence, inconceivably large, and of an unidentifiable species. And yet, all of these sightings are given at precise latitudes and longitudes on vessels with specific corporate or national provenance. The first chapter offers over a dozen such sightings: the totally unknowable is precisely here: “The Helvetia from the Compagnie Nationale and the Shannon from the Royal Mail line, running on opposite tacks in that part of the Atlantic lying between the United States and Europe, respectively signaled each other that the monster had been sighted in latitude 42 degrees 15′ north and longitude 60 degrees 35′ west of the meridian of Greenwich.” Both space and the sea seem to summon an awe at the unfathomable by means of enthusiastic measurement. I suspect it is this capacity to map the majestic that fuels the colonial imagination in all its dependable destructiveness.
Leviathan versus longitude. That most famous of sea monsters appears in the book of Job as a divine clapback to Job’s demand that God account for his undeserved suffering. Rather than explain a Satanic bet gone awry, God describes the wildness of his sea-beast: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it make many supplications to you? Will it speak soft words to you?” (Job 41:1-5). And then, a little on the nose for this discussion: “Will traders bargain over it? Will they divide it up among the merchants?” (Job 41:6). Those men who take endlessly from the sea, from Melville’s whalers to libertarian seasteaders, seem to take this as an invitation. “We will! Sounds great!”
Seasteading promises mobile cities floating out of the reach of nation-states. On seasteads, impassioned bitcoin tycoons can link their sleek Dutch pods up to the terrestrial city whose governance they least despise. I can tell what you are thinking, MJ: rich guys floating free. But don’t worry, seasteading entrepreneur Patri Friedman assures us, “The huge non-obvious beneficiary of seasteading is the poor.” Indeed, Friedman argues, these mobile Shangri-las will liberate the working class from horrible constraints like laws, taxes, and democracies. As he imagines it, seasteads will combine “entrepreneurs from the first world” who “are like, hey, I want . . . to be a pioneer of a new society” with “all the people who would have moved to the US in the nineteenth century, people who want to work hard, make a better life for their children. Yeah,” he croons, “That’s gonna be the major beneficiary of seasteading.” With such a radical vision for his new society, grounded in such an accurate representation of the Atlantic slave trade, nineteenth-century immigration, and economic “benefit,” it’s hard to imagine what could possibly go wrong.
There has been one actual attempt to live at sea (you can watch the unbearably uncomfortable video here). Chad Elwartowski and Supranee Thepdet (also known as Nadia Summergirl) were living in a floating home just beyond Thai territorial waters. The Thai government accused them of endangering national sovereignty, a crime that can carry a sentence of life imprisonment or death. So Elwartowski fled while the Royal Thai Navy towed the octagonal pod they were living in out of the shipping lane where it resided.
With hefty donations and high-profile architects, seasteaders seem to have viable solutions to the issues of construction, waves, desalination, and energy production. The real issue is finding a location that is close enough to resources to make the fiction of independent life possible while not subjecting the habitat to governance. The unprecedented and immeasurable, carefully navigating the grid.
Historically, latitude was the easiest way to map the ocean because it is based on observable phenomena (the duration of daylight, the location of the sun and stars). Longitude was far trickier. There is no natural “vertical” center akin to the “horizontal” equator, so politics decided the matter. In 1884, twenty-five countries (minus France, who abstained from the final vote and subsequently used different maps for a few years) decided on Greenwich, England. And so, Greenwich became the center of the world.
As John Durham Peters warns, “Logistical media pretend to be neutral . . . but they often encode a subtle and deep political or religious partisanship.” The fundamental media upon which corporate activity relies—maps, clocks, calendars, time zones, currency—rest on a long history of religion, empire, colonization, and commerce. The seemingly neutral acts of navigating a ship, surveying by GPS, or any other use of longitude requires acquiescing to the aftereffects of religiously fueled British-colonial power. Even naming the year sets one within the frame of Dionysius Exiguus’s creative calculation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Seasteading promises to conquer the waves. Yet its post-national, corporate mechanisms tether it to a deeply political-religious history. The ocean is not simply unclaimed territory, and one cannot simply plant one’s flag on the waves. Instead, seasteaders must entice nearby nations to participate, and so the libertarian machinations of floating, free-choice nations is now a far less radical proposition. As seasteaders map the ocean to find some allegedly blank slate for their ambition, you and I point out that, in sea and in space, here be dragons.
MJR: Jenna! I’d never heard of seasteading. This is a genuinely terrible idea and, yes, intimately related to aspirational space colonies. Both begin from the dual premise,
1) That the earth is insufficient to sustain human life, and
2) That this “life” consists of a will-toward-expansion.
Frontierism here constitutes the essence of humanity: to be human, at its core, is to need more stuff, more wealth, more space. We could therefore read these neocolonial experiments as the latest, most absurd chapter in the long history of “humanism,” which is to say, the capitalist-imperialism of secularized Christianity.
“Oh, but these are atheists,” an astronomer-colleague corrected me when I proposed we read Elon’s Musketeers as religious pilgrims. “No offense,” he said, “but spaceniks don’t tend to believe in God at all. They’re humanists.” Flummoxed, I hid behind Sylvia Wynter’s analysis of humanism as a raced and gendered political theology. I explained the part about local religious culture masquerading as secular universalism in the Doctrine of Discovery, and about the Christian-soteriological underpinnings of Western “Grand Narrative[s] of Emancipation,” including those of freedom and “civilization.” I spoke respectfully and refrained from using any of the jargon I’ve resorted to here until my friend compromised. Clearly, he said, the Doctrine of Discovery and Homestead Act were theological remnants. But the space program is not.
So I changed tack and sailed through all the theological artifacts dotting the astronautical waters. Like Trump’s explicit appeal to Manifest Destiny, which launched our Canaan into the stars. Like Pence’s pious revision of Psalm 139, whose source he bafflingly referred to as “the Old Book.” Like von Braun’s calling to win other planets for Christ. Like the way NASA calls its missions missions. Or like the way those missions, and the spacecraft that convey them, and the planets they’re headed for, and many of the asteroids they want to strip, ARE NAMED AFTER FREAKING GODS. Apollo, Artemis, Bennu, Mars.
In my experience, however, the problem with such strategic prooftexting is that my scientist interlocutors dismiss these examples as relics of a history that is totally incidental to the science-itself, which is universal. Science is ahistorical, uncontextual, unperspectival, transcendently true, and therefore not at all “religious.” So then in a last-ditch effort to win hearts and minds, I’ll scramble for that manliest philosopher: “Did you know Nietzsche said that science was the last great expression of Christian values and truth-claims?” At which point even Nietzsche, high school boyfriend of every science geek, gets shrugged off as irrelevant to the conversation. After all, he was just a philosopher.
And in the meantime, I realize I’ve done it again. In the interest of being intelligible, I’ve played “Where’s Waldo?” with religion. (“Look! It’s here, here, here, and here! Please don’t defund my department!”) But rather than pointing out the places religion shows up in corporate-scientific astronautics, I should have been showing that the corporate-scientific structure itself is bound up with religion. The way Wynter does and Nietzsche did.
And in that vein what I ought to be talking about is utopianism. Grand Narratives of disaster and salvation. The amplification of social, environmental, or ontological ills in service of an aspirational Way Out. Like sin and redemption. Armageddon and the New Jerusalem. Urban blight and suburban lawns. “Visible signs of aging” and a total skincare solution. Earth and Mars.
“Oddly,” Donna Haraway explains, “belief in advancing disaster is actually part of a trust in salvation,” whether religious, political, or scientific. Whether we invest in this or that corporation, dharma, juicing regimen, or messianic CEO, “disaster feeds radiant hope and bottomless despair,” writes Haraway, “and I, for one am satiated. We pay dearly for living within the chronotope of ultimate threats and promises.”
What do we pay? Well in the case of Musk, the price of the utopian promise is the planet itself. “Fuck Earth,” he told a reporter who asked about our obligation to heal the planet rather than leave it. “Who cares about Earth?” Along the Muskian disaster narrative, Earth is a dead-end for humanity. An asteroid, nuclear war, climate change, or okay, fine, a virus will obliterate us eventually, so it’s our obligation to become “a Multi-Planetary Species.”
In this light, SpaceX becomes a corporate exemplar of messianic-utopian religion. This world is doomed, so get the hell out. Even if the “out” leads to a literal no-place, which is to say a frozen, radioactive, blood-boiling, dust-stormy “hellhole” nine months away from food, fuel, or breathable air. But as Fredric Jameson explains, utopias provide negative blueprints, rather than positive ones. The utopian impulse is to leave, transcend, escape death—at least for the (oxymoronically privatized) collective, even if it spells individual disaster. You might die, but “humanity” will be saved. By private interest.
It seems to me that something different is going on in your seasteads. That ethos, I think, is closer to the Bezos model. Unlike Musk, Bezos has no interest in going to Mars. Nor does he have an interest in abandoning Earth. To the contrary, he’s got a kind of latter-day Muirian interest in preserving Earth. And the way to do it, he says, is to relocate mining, manufacturing, heavy industry, and most humans off-planet; specifically, to a number of human-made, Gerard K. O’Neill-inspired satellites that will allegedly allow Earth to reconstitute herself as a kind of global National Park.
The question, for me at least, is how to understand this aspiration. J. Z. Smith gives us two big options: utopian religions seek to transcend the cosmic order whereas locative religions seek to maintain it. Musk is a utopian. The challenge here is reconceptualizing this traditionally moneyless, propertyless category so that it might describe the apotheosis of corporate capital. Bezos and the seasteaders, on the other hand, might actually be more locative than Musk, insofar as their effort is to carry on “like this” forever (under the same legislative, economic, and planetary order). In Bezos and the seasteaders, we see frontierism reaching—but then attempting to remain within—the limits of the Earth itself. I’m not sure what to call that.
JSM: Perhaps utopia works for both forms of frontierism, even as they mark opposing embodiments of the expansionist urge. What you’ve called the more locative, this-worldly forms—Bezos and the Seasteads—are Earth-bound but remain utopian in their efforts to invent new ways to live. They also remain totally uninstantiated, and in that sense, literal u-topoi, no-places. Conversely, Musk may be aspirationally other-worldly, but in a terribly mundane way. What could be less novel than resource-stripping conquerors racing to the new frontier? Your utopian framing foregrounds Jameson’s caution: utopia is always stuck between identity and difference, constrained to imagine an utterly other way to live with whatever is at hand in the here and now (see esp. pages 166-171). Both the spacemen and the seasteaders seek to build their brand-new worlds out of the masculinist, Christian, neocolonial capitalism they’ve got lying around. So seasteading and space colonies carry all of our disastrous past and present right into these fantasy futures.
Therefore, let us not point out isolated incidents of religious parallels but do the work you propose. We have to show how the corporate-scientific structure at play in space and at sea is bound up with religion. And indeed, while the satellites and ocean pods are made of aluminum and geopolymer concrete, they are also built of Manifest Destiny and biblical references. But, even more than that, I would argue that these sea and space colonizing corporations—and even the corporate attitude of acquisition more generally—depend on media that enable movement in these comparatively untraveled but highly charted territories. To colonize space or concoct libertarian seapod conglomerations, one needs media that measure and mark space and time: longitude, maps, calendars. And as J. Z. Smith famously argued, these practices of mapping and inhabitation are themselves durably mediated by religion. In this sense, the corporation is a religious structure.
Consider, for example, the corporate deployment of time. Corporately speaking, time is money. And money-time is especially important to the colonial navigation of sea and space. The Space Race, the Martian landings, the calculation of lunar sea depth, the determination of longitude, and transnational diplomacy all require time. And although we tend to conceptualize time as mathematical, and therefore secular, time emerges from religious roots that it constantly reactivates.
As you point out, the rhythm of disaster and salvation is already religious time. And like the planets, the months are a jumbled pantheon of Greco-Roman deities: Janus, Mars, Maia, Juno. Meanwhile, the Gregorian calendar masquerades as innocently civil even though it was built upon the anti-Jewish Julian calendar and decreed in 1582 to set Easter straight. Great Britain and its American colonies only adopted it 200 years later, once the Anglican bishops stopped objecting to its allegedly Papist manipulations. And Saudi Arabia adopted it in 2016 in order—how’s this for the emphatic connection between Christianity and the corporate?—to pay workers less money than they did under the Islamic calendar.
The religion constituting these new colonial ventures becomes clearer if we refuse the idea that religion only provides metaphors for the “real stuff” of matter. In their infinitely provocative text, Karen Barad urges us to cease playing King of the Hill between discourse and materiality. In the very first sentence, they drop the mic: “Matter and meaning are not separate elements.” In this light, our corporate utopias can be seen as religious not because they bear some religious creed or belong to a recognized devotional community but because they are built out of religiously constituted things, including time, space, and industry.
Even something as clearly industrial as aluminum is religiously constituted. The mining of bauxite (the primary source of aluminum) began as a European colonial venture, with Christianity justifying Europe’s extractivist incursions into India, Indonesia, Suriname, and throughout Africa. But religion is not merely a historical appendage to bauxite mining; it also became the central term of a landmark Indian Supreme Court ruling that has prevented mining in the bauxite-rich Niyamgiri hills in the Indian state of Odisha. The hills are home to indigenous Dongria Kondh communities who claim the Nyamgiri as God. As a result of activism by these communities and environmentalist supporters, the case came to a head in 2013, and the Supreme Court deferred the decision on mining rights to twelve local village councils, which voted unanimously against permitting bauxite mining in the sacred hills.
We do not have the luxury of reinventing our social worlds without first negotiating the material-religious realities we inhabit. To get to space, one must pass through the bauxite mines. Even at sea, one still lives in the time of the so-called Common Era. We find ourselves in an era of infrastructure, with systems that have to speak to each other, to coordinate protocols and languages. Libertarian sea pods must contend with governmental allocation of ocean territories. Space colonies are built of earth-bound minerals. We get no clean break, no fresh start, no utopia that can sever our ties to religiously inflected pasts and presents. Religion is a potent fodder for metaphors and other modes of cultural meaning. It is also embedded in the material stuff itself, shaping how we get what, where we put it, and when we act, even in our wildest neocolonial dreams.