Space is the place (utopia and silence)

Even though, in his 1962 guest editorial-cum-manifesto 'Which Way to Inner Space?' in New Worlds, JG Ballard repudiated a science fiction of 'robot brains and hyper-drives' and instead proposed a fiction which explored 'inner space, not outer', he consistently returned to the figure of the astronaut. In fictions such as 'A Question of Re-entry' (1963) (which posited the arrival of a dead astronaut in the South American jungles as a kind of cargo cult) to the 'fugue time' stories of the late 1970s ('News From the Sun', 'Memories of the Space Age'), where the NASA space programme 'cracks the hour glass of time' and leads to various forms of 'space sickness', the astronaut is a central and symbolic figure, a kind of evolutionary mistake which leads nonetheless to a pathway out of time.

Ballard's refiguration of the NASA programme as a symbol for both human error and human potentiality, while at the same time abandoning the actual possibilities of orbital, lunar, inter-planetary or deep space exploration, foreshadows the fate of both NASA and the Soviet space programmes at the hands of science fiction. In my book on Masculinities in Fiction and Film, I noted how few science fiction films used NASA imagery (environment suits, Saturn Vs and LMs), or extrapolated from Apollo. There is Marooned in the mid-60s, about a disaster in space; Capricorn One, about a faked Mars mission; the historical pictures The Right Stuff and Apollo 13; De Palma's Mission to Mars and Clint's Space Cowboys; but not many others. Recently, Ian Sales has done an excellent job of imagining an alternate history of the Apollo programme during the 1970s (which turns to military missions) in Adrift on the Sea of Rains; and I can also think of Sterling and Gibson's 'Red Star, Winter Orbit' (collected in Mirrorshades), which imagines a decaying 'Kosmograd' space station at the point of its cancellation, with the central character a cosmonaut - the first man on Mars – whose weakened bone structures will not allow him to return to Earth.

I've always wondered why this was so, as, even though I was born in March 1969, and so was only three months old when Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the majestic Saturn V and the fragile, delicate Lunar Module have always been iconic and deeply resonant objects for me. (I wish I had bought Airfix kits of them when I was a lad.) The Space Race still excites me, there seems something grand and extraordinary about it, even though it was obviously profoundly implicated in the Cold War and what Dale Carter once called 'the American Rocket State'. (His book, The Final Frontier, is now some 25 years old.)

Thinking about space and silence recently (about the cosmological register of RS Thomas's later poems about God, for instance), I came across a piece written by Eduardo Rothe and published in the Situationist International number 12, 'The Conquest of Space in the Time of Power', which pointed towards a contemporary critique of the Apollo programme and why sf writers may have shunned it. Rothe conceptualises the space programme as part of 'spectacle', the Situationist figure for both ideology and media representation, and the astronauts as media 'stars'. Rothe suggests that the 'science' involved is both militarised and ideological, and is used in the service of placing a human upon the moon in order 'to make people march to the time of work'. 

Most importantly, Rothe posits the space programme as 'part of the planetary hope of an economic system which, saturated with commodities, spectacle and power, ejaculates into space when it arrives at the end of a noose of its territorial contradictions. Functioning as a new “America”, space must serve the states as a new territory for wars and colonies - a new territory to which to send producer-consumers and thus enable the system to break out of the planet's limitations'. This reading would view space exploration as a form of primitive accumulation, the acquisition of new territory (new space) to enable the further expansion of capital (and thereby forestall the otherwise inevitable crisis of the exhaustion of expansion of terrestrial markets). There is also an inescapable colonial or imperial imperative to this expansion.

At the end of Rothe's essay, he proposes that 'once the walls have been smashed that now separate people from science, the conquest of space will no longer be an economic or military “promotional” gimmick, but the blossoming of human freedoms and fulfilments'. If the exploration of space is to be taken away from technical specialisation, bureaucracy and the military-industrial complex, then what will take its place?

The Sterling/ Gibson story I mentioned above, 'Red Star, Winter Orbit', offers one possibility. At the end of the story, with the cosmonaut Korolev seemingly trapped on a damaged station in a decaying orbit, he is surprised to be 'visited' by travellers from detourned 'solar balloons, mirrored geodesic spheres tethered by power lines', a failed solution to an energy crisis taken over by raggle-taggle 'new frontiersmen' who have 'made the big jump' (by firing booster rockets in mid-air) to orbital space. This colonisation is democratic, unplanned by governments or bureaucracies, to be inhabited by parents and children rather than technocratic astro- or cosmonauts.

It's difficult quite to know how to read this story. In one sense, it's a part of a Gibsonian 'the street has its uses for things' politics of detournement, retrofitting and appropriation. On the other hand, it seems to privilege a sentimentalised idea of the frontier which speaks to a peculiarly American mythos of can-do, individualism and rejection of government. As is perhaps typical of cyberpunk era sf, it is legible in terms of the politics of both left and right.

The possibility of space exploration as the imagination (and settlement) of an autonomous space brought to mind the activities of the AAA, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, who were active from 1995-2000, and whose avowed aims were to democratise space exploration and promote the building of working-class spaceships, and thereby offered a critique (expressed in Situationist and absurdist terms) of the techno-militarism of Soviet and NASA space programs. The AAA were part of a wave of marginal, avant-gardist individual and groups that operated in the 1980s and 90s and whose documents were collected by Stewart Home in Mind Invaders (1997), some of which were written by Home himself. The AAA's 'dreamtime mission' was itself to destroy a dualism between outer and inner space, and the 'craft' used to travel in space could be mental or psychic as well as physical. Strong echoes of Ballard here, then – the outer collapsed onto the inner – as well as the suggestions of occultism that also flavoured some of Home's more outré and provocative documents.

Tom McCarthy’s later ‘International Necronautical Society’, a part-pastiche avant-garde group (also including Simon Critchley) which disseminated communiqués and manifestos in time-honoured Modernist tradition, was clearly influenced by the work of the AAA. In a ForteanTimes piece on the INS, McCarthy claims the influence of both Situationism and of the AAA directly, and an interview with the Autonomous Astronauts appears on the INS website. Stewart Home’s critique of the INS (partly through a mocking blog review of a 2009 talk held at Tate Britain) was that, although they inherit the ‘merciless assault on authenticity’ which connected the Neoist/ Psychogeographical/ Luther Blissett/ AAA groups in the 80s and 90s, it was rendered in a discourse that is more literary and academic: where the AAA’s ‘craft’ are explicitly connected to the politics of a working-class appropriation of space flight, the INS’s ‘craft’ are purposed to journey into, and occupy the space of death itself. For me, death isn’t the interesting part of the project: it is, rather, the sense that we live in a world of aetheric transmissions, signals, ‘programming’, that ‘thinks us’, a radical critique of subjectivity (and, in terms of poetics, of ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’ or Romantic ideas of genius) that chimes entirely with my own thoughts – and, in terms of ‘receiving’ messages from the Outside (Jack Spicer’s word), also hints at my own writing practice.

While I find the INS documents collected in The Mattering of Matter (and re-played/ remixed in McCarthy’s e-book essay Transmission and the Individual Remix) stimulating, and work as a parallel endeavour to the kind of texts and ideas I have myself been working through over the last couple of years (Orphée, Burroughs, transmission, Kraftwerk, Rilke, EVP, tape, radio) it seems to me that this is a retreat from the world of politics into the world of art. The INS’s provocations – often using the language of Marinetti’s Futurism or the work of Heidiegger, as well as less problematic figures from post-war critical theory such as Blanchot or Derrida – speak the language of the academy rather than the 'street' or the everyday. Death may indeed always be with us, but the concept of occupying the space of death is figural rather than utopian.

And this is where I would like to return to space, and to silence. In my last post, I noted how Derrida posited the impossibility of silence, of ‘saying nothing’, and ‘how not to say’ was implicated both in silence and in speaking properly. Silence, then, may be thought of in terms of a Utopian dynamic, what Fredric Jameson identifies as the ‘failure to project the Other of what is’, failing to imagine the future, a failure that (in positive terms) always returns us to the urgent political imperatives of our own world and time. This may explain the recent controversy in the sf world to do with the ‘exhaustion of sf’, which Paul Kincaid associated with a failure to imagine the future that is diagnostic not simply of generic exhaustion but of a cultural and political moment. Can we imagine the future? Can we imagine space? Can we imagine death? If we build symbolic craft to journey into them and to return, this in itself becomes a utopian project, an encoding of the desire to imagine, to represent, to comprehend the Other – and to transmit those findings.

In a world of transmissions, Twitter, blogs, social media; and considering that I need to write as part of my job; perhaps my attraction to silence, the space of silence, the Other of language (which is God), is a Utopian yearning that I should always strive for, even if I always fail to achieve it. (And in the worlds of Beckett, quoted so often in the texts I have read recently: fail better.)


  1. Noise studies aren't really my thing, but I thought that you may be a little interested by - if you haven't heard of it already - the work of Niall Martin. I stumbled across his thesis (which is available on the web to download) on Noise in/and Iain Sinclair a couple of weeks ago. Some more details are available on:
    It all looks a bit too po-mo for me, but I thought I'd forward the link anyway.


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