In Part 1, I wrote a gonzo ethnography about my experience at a rocket launch in Florida. For Part 2, I will be utilizing historical records, museum didactic text, and astronaut testimony to illustrate that magical and ritualistic practice is heavily engaged with in spaceflight operations. One may speculate that with the extreme emphasis on the (perceived) empiricism of Western science in the realm of outer space affairs, there would be no room for the subjective—let alone magic, ritual, and religion. However, one of the themes that became apparent to me throughout my research is that there exists an enormous amount of mysticism within the field of human spaceflight. Some rituals are performed within the confines of accepted Western religious dogmas, while some fall into the realm of how some anthropologists understand magic and witchcraft.1 The first mystical component to human spaceflight is what writer Frank White has coined “the overview effect.” The term refers to the spiritual oneness that many astronauts report feeling after reaching outer space and seeing our planet from orbiting altitude, with many developing environmental and social justice viewpoints.2 Furthermore, many astronauts report that their time in space was filled with spiritual experiences, including temporal shifts, floods of emotion, and feelings of being a part of something larger than themselves. For a recent example, take what astronaut Ron Garan reports in the beginning of his autobiography: Continue reading →
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Taylor R. Genovese.
Field Notes – September 8, 2016 (Cape Canaveral, Florida):
I see the light and smoke first. The radiant fuel pours out of the rocket’s engines and the glow is absolutely blinding—like the brilliant ball of light at the end of a welding tool. I have to squint and look away from the base of the rocket as if I am staring directly into the sun. Then the sound comes. Roaring ripples of sound, reflecting off the Banana River and ricocheting off of buildings before finally kicking me square in the chest. The reverberations rock through my body as this asteroid-interceptor spacecraft, nestled on top of a cylinder of explosives begins to pick up speed—punching through the thick atmosphere of our planet. Within a few seconds, it is nothing but a small point of light high in the eastern sky—in a few more seconds, it has vanished.
I walk down the observation gantry and sit in the cool grass while other spectators begin to file out of the enclosure. I look up into the reverent afterglow of the rocket’s exhaust—the contrails swirling and slithering into sublimely beautiful colored shapes in the high winds of the stratosphere.
A mother and her son walk by. The mother asks her child what he thought of the launch. Clutching a toy rocket, he looks up at his mother and replies unabashedly and honestly:
“I have never seen quite a beautiful sight.”
These were my initial thoughts and feelings while experiencing my first rocket launch last summer. I scribbled these words down quickly and haphazardly, like the furious sketches of an artist attempting to capture a street scene that is moving quicker than their hand ever could. My hurried writing defiantly disobeyed the straight lines in my notebook; I didn’t want to look away from the rocket’s splendor. This was the first time I felt I had participated in a magical or religious encounter. In this two-part post, I would like to engage with magic, witchcraft, and ritual in human spaceflight—not only in a reflexive manner from my own field experience (Part 1), but also by historically and anthropologically analyzing the recorded rituals of astronauts and cosmonauts (Part 2).
This Earth Day, 22 April, People across the world will be celebrating the important role that science plays in supporting human freedom and prosperity. This is an event that anthropologists everywhere should participate in. If you are an anthropologist who likes freedom and prosperity — and I’m guessing you are — then you should get out there this weekend and celebrate that fact.
Some people might say that anthropology is somehow opposed to science, but nothing could be further from the truth. Some anthropologists consider themselves scientists, while other consider themselves humanists, while yet others consider the humanities-science binary problematic. We are also aware that ‘science’ itself is not a simple term. As Steven Shapin has pointed out, scientists themselves don’t have a coherent meta-scientific account of what science is.
But a keen interest in how science works and the interesting epistemological questions raised but science studies are on thing. Actually opposing science is something else. I think if Bruno Latour found out people were becoming anti-vaxxers because they read Aramis he would begin vomiting uncontrollably. No. These very interesting, highly abstract discussions should not distract us from the more fundamental things that we agree on as a discipline: That life is better when we understand the world around us, that this understanding should be available for everyone and not just the powerful, and that we can make better decisions about our lives when we know how the world works.
Of course, if you are an anthropologist who is critical of science, perhaps you should not support the march. If you think that the government should not make policy based on evidence, then you shouldn’t support the march. If you don’t want our children to have cutting-edge science education, then don’t go. If you don’t think that we should include voices and contributions from people of all identities and backgrounds in science, then feel free to stay home — because the march is about supporting all of those things.
But I doubt our discipline is so muddled that there are very many people like that. Anthropology tends to skew left harder than most social sciences, and the left has gotten really good at talking about what it is against. But now we need to start talking about what we are for. We need to be honest about our value commitments, and we need to be clear about the bedrock assumptions of our discipline. I think anthropology is with science and against ignorance. We are with science because we believe in the power of skepticism to improve what we know about the world by asking “but how do we know this?” and “is this the best we can do?” We are with science because we think people have stories that need to be heard because those stories are true, even if they are inconvenient for the powerful. We are with science because we believe our discipline has results that are factual and accurate and important. We are with science because our ethnography tells us what it is like to live in places where free speech is stifled, where communication is controlled by the government, where students are taught lies, and where disconfirming evidence is explained away as the work of provocateurs. And we don’t want to live in that world.
So this Earth Day come out for science and be part of the conversation. Its the best way to show how important anthropology is to science, and how important science is to anthropology.
[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger John Hartigan]
I’m sitting in the auditorium of LANGEBIO, a national genomics biodiversity lab in Mexico. Perched towards the middle of a room that holds about 220 people, I’m listening to a day-long series of presentations by doctoral plant geneticists. The bare concrete walls bear streamers of sponsors, such as Illumina, Biosis, and Biosistemas Avanzados. Each speaker strides out onto an overly large stage that dwarfs them as much as the giant overhead screen, across which their presentations flash. The featured species are Zea mays and Arabidopsis thaliana (the first flowering plant to have its genome sequenced), along with varieties of yeast—all well-established model organisms upon and through which genetics steadily advances. Continue reading →
[This post is part of a two-week series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]
ANNE GALLOWAY. designer. ethnographer. archaeologist.
ANTHROPOLOGY + DESIGN.
My sense of anthropology is very materialist so I think it made a lot of sense for me to gravitate towards design. I originally trained as an archaeologist and did ethnographic fieldwork on Andean textile production, so I’ve always been interested in the things that people make. Of course, as anthropologists we’re taught the importance of context and I think that bringing anthropology and design together really stresses contextual meanings. For me, the most interesting connection between anthropology and design can be found in how each practice enhances the other. Anthropology provides a kind of thick description that contextualises design processes and products, and design offers anthropology creative means of exploring and representing what it means to be human. I also enjoy the explicit combination of thinking, doing, and making—of blurring boundaries between analytical and creative practice, between rational and emotional experience.
Sometimes, in design, we talk about research about, for, and through design—and I think that anthropology is well suited to contribute to each endeavour. As we know, ethnography (including material, visual, and discursive culture) can tell us a lot about the roles of design in everyday life. Ethnography also provides us with valuable information that can be used to design “better” things—or to design nothing at all. And although research through design is perhaps less obviously related to anthropology, I think that every kind of anthropological research could create and employ objects and images with as much nuance as we’ve come to use words.