By Alex Joseph
In much of modern Western philosophy concerned with theories of affect , there is a focus on the power of matter; the capacity of matter to affect and be affected, situated in a malaise of chaotic interactions that are constantly becoming and re-becoming, bringing phenomena to life. Theories of affect are in essence concerned with that which we cannot control: from an increase in serotonin production from a minute of extra sunlight caused by a wrong turn on the way to work, to the way different languages affect our modes of expression. The focus on the power of ‘things’ represents a break from the Cartesian paradigm that it was the human mind (and to a lesser degree the minds of other living things) that were powerful, autonomous and in essence, transcendent; this philosophical shift focused on critiquing human exceptionalism and decentralised notions of agency. If the world is built up of chaotic interactions and we are simply not especially notable conglomerations of these chance encounters, what does that say about our hubristic sense of being at the top of the tree or even free will? This decentralisation of power is summed up well by Jane Bennett (2010: 21), ‘A lot happens to the concept of agency once nonhuman things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonyms but as vital materialities’. In essence theories engaging with the power of matter encourage us to look at the material world around us in a new light; no longer just inanimate but very much alive, very much part of us and very much what connects us. Yet while affect theories concerned with the power of a vital materiality can add so much to the way we view the world, in my current project focusing on telecoms to remote areas, it is absence, or the lack of materiality in both a metaphorical and literal sense has its own very profound affective resonance.
Image: ‘Bristol spacescape at night,’ taken by the author
In Outer space it is absence, or to be more precise, relative absence that holds a form of affective dominance. The notion of a vibrant nothingness in response to Jane Bennet’s vibrant matter centres this relative lack that sets the baseline conditions of what it means to exist in this realm: be it the relative lack of gravity, sound, breathable air, protection from radiation or pressure. Each of these conditions in space plays a part in the Earth’s survival as a life supporting entity. In this case it is possible to see lack as a vital force; concepts of absence operate in tandem with theories of vibrant matter. Taking this further, we can see how we might apply this back to earth; absence should be seen as an important side of affect theories, absence is all around us.
However, especially in space, relative absence is often mistaken for a blank canvas. We see this in sci-fi from star wars to star trek; Western culture projects large parts of our own societies onto this ‘final frontier’. From intergalactic empires to large clashes of good and evil on a biblical scale, we can see much of Western culture, technology and morality projected onto these stories. These have not gone without critique however: From Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism, questioning the lack of non-Western culture in science fiction imaginaries and the racism this stems from (Ra et al 1972), to the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy’s deliberate projection of the absurd and pedestrian from Western culture (such as earth being destroyed by a hyperspace bypass because nobody found the planning objection form as it was in a basement) (Adams 1980). Yet what is the harm in a yarn?
With a generation of young scientists raised on sci-fi and ready to realise these dreams, it is possible to see that while there is potentially naivety to these projections, they are not without consequence.
Image: A photograph of Afro-futurist pioneer Sun Ra, by frequent collaborator Ayé Aton
If space is viewed as this blank canvas that can reflect whatever we project, it could end up being viewed as fair game for almost any type of activity. Yet there could easily be consequences if we allow speculative investors to simply treat space as fair game for rampant exploitation. We have already seen evidence of this from the case of the fight over limited geo-stationary orbit slots (a narrow band of outer space approximately 35786km above the equator that enables satellites to orbit without changing location relative to the ground beneath) (Thompson 1996); space is not quite as limitless and separate as we think. Financial investment into space also raises the question, how can we learn to live sustainably if we are already looking further afield than our own planet to continue a relentless expansion? Outer-Space far from being just nothingness, is situated within gradients of absence (just as a high-pressure system next to a low-pressure system might interact across their pressure gradients). Drawing a metaphorical parallel, currently around 3 billion of the world’s population have no phone reception and 5 billion, no internet (Rizzato et al. 2018). There was a time when nobody had any reception but now that it is present and is integrated into systems of learning, health, socialising, emergency response and economic sovereignty, this gradient of absence can be felt and felt hard. Those who are disconnected will now find it more difficult to gain access to these often vital services as so many of them are now integrated with technology that the absence excludes those lacking further. In this sense, the power of absence has been generated through its gradient relational to presence.
The project I am currently undertaking is combining both the fields of sustainable satellite telecoms and the politics of absence; investigating the relative absence of telecoms across much of the globe and the connected contestation for resources in space (from bandwidth to access to key slots in orbit) and on the ground to help provide internet and telephony. While it seems currently that no easy solution is on the horizon there are many community actors who aim to bring difficult solutions closer. In conclusion however, it is the politics of absence that provides the philosophical background that can help grounds us; it provides a profound reminder that in an integrated world where technology permeates many services, telecoms is staking a claim as one of the essential services in so-called developing regions.
Adams. D (1980) A Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Harmony Books, New York
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things Duke University Press, Durham
Ra, S. & Smith, J. (1972) Space is the Place Self Released, Film
Rizzato, F. Giles, M. Martin, M.C.S (2018) Unique subscribers and mobile internet users: understanding the new growth story The Mobile Economy 2018: GSMA Intelligence
Thompson, J.C. (1996) Space for rent: The International Telecommunications Union, Space Law, and Orbit/Spectrum Leasing Vol.62 pp.279-314