Astropower Working Group (Notes).
Why the renewed fervor for outer space all of a sudden? What’s really goading oligarchs into lower orbit or the military creation of these little space forces? What promise does space hold for terrestrial powers? I’m clueless personally, unversed in the science and science fiction behind it — let me preface these notes with that — but if they’re so keen, then we’d better start looking into it. The Branson-Bezos-Musk space-yacht mutual-climax is embarrassing but this doesn’t mean it’s not part of a longer strategy, one that rightly anticipates a coming “spatial revolution” in the words of Carl Schmitt, that will fundamentally redraw the geometry of power rather than merely extending it into new reaches. If nothing else, this second Space Age, in conjunction with the century’s developments in digital realms and their technical ensembles, is opening up dimensions beyond our old political categories, into which something much better or much worse could appear, depending on how we handle new configurations of power (so far, so bad). To that end, we could hardly find someone better to outline the old political categories than the conservative political theorist and Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt.
In both The Nomos of the Earth and his shorter essay Land and Sea, Schmitt draws on the distinction, deployed by historians like Alfred Thayer Mahan, between powers and peoples of the Land and those of the Sea, in which the territorial, traditional, command-oriented, agrarian-based land powers and peoples are historically locked in military and ideological struggle with the unbounded, cosmopolitan, deliberative, mercantile sea powers and peoples. Schmitt’s account is more sophisticated. Land and Sea are less a dualism and than a dialectic that every so often spurs spatial revolutions whenever our world-view is undone then remade through a confrontation with bodies of water. The potamic (meaning “river”) developments in Mesopotamia and Egypt were followed later by the thalassic (meaning “sea”) developments in the Mediterranean with Ancient Athens or the Republic of Venice, and finally — the big one for Schmitt — the oceanic spatial revolution in which the Portugal, Spain, Holland, though above all England transformed a once mythical world into a properly cartographic globe.
This was big for Schmitt because it was this spatial revolution that soon permitted Europe to parcel out the entirety of the globe into a neatly demarcated “nomos” — a comprehensive spatial order — that extended the budding European nation-state system into a colonization of Earth and established the European system of international law (the jus publicum Europaeum) based on mutually recognized sovereignties and deep territorial identities, interrelated through the friend-enemy distinction, which Schmitt considered the foundation of all true politics. And while this system may have been catalyzed by the initiatives of sea powers, it was later undermined by those same forces, in particular by England first and later its heir, the United States. This was the pivot around which most of Schmitt’s legal and political writings revolve, the modern historical tension between capitalist liberal democracy and certain conservative political orders such as the one achieved by the Congress of Vienna.
It also happens to be a tension we see represented everywhere today, between a moribund neoliberalism and a reactionary nationalism — between Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, between the failing organs of an oppressive American-led hegemony and the forces of “Neo-Eurasianist” jackals like Putin, or between the fatuousness of Francis Fukuyama or Bernard Henri Levy and the deliria of Alexander Dugin and Steven Bannon. Institutionally and journalistically, these are unironically presented or represented as political alternatives. From election cycles alone, it’s obvious that they are instead mutually-reinforcing moments in a vicious political cycle, tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum. Reaction arises from the increasing failures of neoliberalism and neoliberalism continues pushing through its policies by brandishing the threat of ugly political reaction. They need one another, and representatives of each usually have their hands deeply in the other. This point’s been made in plenty of other places. Where I differ with some other point-makers is that I think both neoliberalism and much of its attendant reaction are in steady decline, both absolutely hemorrhaging legitimacy.
Stateside, this moribund neoliberalism has located a fitting figurehead in embarrassment scarecrow Joe Biden, clumsily and dementedly continuing its predatory policies even as power reconfigures around him. For all the damage it’s done, and continues to do, neoliberalism will soon no longer be our biggest problem. Likewise with political reaction. Even the most present danger, Vladimir Putin — which is very real — is still a result of Russian decline and even then, more from articles left over from a fading era of strength, its nuclear arsenal. There will always be plenty of good old-fashioned barbarism and bloodthirst just under the surface of political life, ready to erupt and set us back by centuries, but I think it’s misguided to understand contemporary political reaction as a simple reiteration of the previous century, especially when it comes to “the discourse.” Some of it — the part that is most publicized, most in vogue, we’ll say — rather than being crypto-fascist is really more cryto-apolitical: it comes from a desire to punish neoliberalism for not delivering on its promise for a post-historical, post-political world. Red pills turn black then clear in a matter of years, if not months, because this brand of reaction is grounded more in nihilism and Machiavellian aesthetics than any fixed body of political belief. The effects of this reaction, like the effects of neoliberalism, can still be awful, possibly world-ending, but I think their legitimacy and claims upon our future have largely vanished.
If both neoliberalism and reactionary nationalism are in decline, what then is on the ascent? For this, we need to go beyond land and sea, and into space. For me, speaking in terms of the elements like this is more metaphorical or representational, and far less causal than it was Schmitt. Any revolution in terms of space or time is just concomitant with new configurations of power, and thinking through astropower is really just an excuse to understand power rather than anything specifically about outer space itself. As far as the elements, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “air” — or airflight — would have marked the first swerve from the dialectic of land and sea. But as it turns out, airflight was easily reinscribed back into the political and economic order by a happy compromise. Goods and persons could freely circulate through the air, satisfying economic demands, while airspace was divvied up according to our familiar Westphalian nation-state system, calming diplomatic and military concerns.
Space travel though, from its very inception in 1957, punctured this order.¹ The United States had first worried that launching a satellite would be considered an aggression by its Soviet adversary if it flew over its territory in orbit, but as luck would have it, Sputnik launched first and, setting the precedent, pre-empted all their worrying with a whoosh. Outer space would not be strictly subject to terrestrial partitions. We still tried in a way, plunging a national flag into a moon that has no wind. However, to the degree that we try to officialize ruthless land-claims with ceremony, we ultimately make ourselves look ridiculous, as the Conquistadors must have appeared to indigenous Americans, reading off decrees in an incomprehensible language while smelling like dead animals from the overseas voyage. The Space Age may have begun in the squarely 20th century context of the Cold War, but it will continue — now no longer mostly symbolic — in very different, 21st century configurations of power and planetary understandings.
And what will these be? Momentarily placing aside some pretty major things like climate change, let’s count two major transformations, neither of which can be appreciated through many of our old Eurocentric political distinctions — between neoliberalism and reactionary nationalism, between communism and capitalism, between state and market, between “land” and “sea” — just to list off a few. The first shift is of course non-Eurocentrism, the undoing of the last spatial revolution that began with what Schmitt referred to by the schoolbook euphemism the “Age of Discovery.” This means first and foremost the rise of China, with its forms of social, political and economic life, but more comprehensively, all of the places and populations diminished for centuries by the domination of Europe. To repeat the now-obvious, it’s hard to grasp — even for people who actively study it and “decolonize” themselves — really how much our political understanding has been warped and predicated on pretending that the rest of the world simply does not count: their history, their populations, their effects, their geography, their political thought. The spatial revolution of the 16th and 17th century was actually anything but coldly cartesian or scientifically objective; it was defined by a world map distorted by and around Europe. And this is a Eurocentrism that includes Russia and the United States, as extensions or wings, because they generally counted in the calculations of European political modernity since the founding of the United States and the modernization of Russia by Peter the Great. They were always on the map.
The second transformation is the rise of what we’ll call “vectoralism,” borrowing the term from McKenzie Wark, to roughly describe the power modalities coming out of Silicon Valley and — one of my main points here— much of what we’re going to see in terms of astropower, which will be composed of a strange mix of Silicon Valley and other private companies, nations and militaries, non-profit organizations and faceless entities. Vectoralism is a dominatory form of post-capitalist production defined by the control and coordination of flows of data and information by a vectoralist class. I’m going to underscore something that Wark merely provides room for: the possibility that this vectoralist class may not necessarily be a distinct group of individuals; that we could all suffer under vectoralism as a form of abstract domination. I would also push things a little further than Wark, who saw this control and coordination as the result of the “ownership” of vectors. I think we should prepare for property relations to get pretty surreal under the vectoralist regime. “Ownership,” at least in a legal sense, does after all come with some costs and responsibilities. What if one could accrue all the benefits from some power or resource without even these costs and responsibilities? All of the usufruct, all of the gains, none of the pain. Control and coordination of “vectors” may admittedly end up meaning legal or effective ownership, I don’t know, but we shouldn’t be too surprised if we’re surprised, especially when it comes to the alien conditions of outer space. Astropower complements and forms the other half of vectoralism. Outer space has to be pieced together with cyberspace in order to understand the whole of 21st-century power configurations.
What’s nice about the astropolitical side is that it’s much less cluttered than Silicon Valley. Astropower is easier to visualize, to examine how power might work, because you’re starting with something that at least from your brain’s perspective seems pretty much like empty space. Terrestrial vectoralism is totally the opposite, which is why its theorists like Bratton tend to descriptively evoke a “computational sublime” — long lists of networked processes and hyperobjects stretching from neurotransmitters and minerals to the architecture of programming languages or the fine print of transpacific trade agreements. Confronted with such a sublime, your puny mind is to understand only that it does not understand. And it works on me — a few steps in, and I’m lost. The complexity of these machinic processes exceeds me, as it does all carbon-based mortals. It’s not just metaphorical either; it mirrors the actual complexity of the operations of these modes of power, which go far, far beyond the humanly-comprehensible operations at work previously in bureaucratic rationalization. These operations of power become more and more “infrastructural” rather than “despotic” in the terms of sociologist Michael Mann, more and more recognizable as what Foucault calls “governmentality” rather than discipline or much less sovereign power. This governmentality relies on the complex modulation of possibilities, the formation of subjects and aggregate wills, the pre-emption or silo-ing of contradictions and conflicts, almost to the point of invisibility, rather than the direct yes-no dictates of a sovereign or the legible processes and petitions of a bureaucracy.
Silicon Valley has pushed this governmentality to such an extreme, that we can see how outer space would offer a refreshing opportunity for the re-assertion of sovereign power within the regime of vectoralism, even in archaic ways. Think about it. Space is made for Pharaoh. Unlike deeply-immanent infrastructural power, space is a seemingly transcendental position from which to govern Earth that is not of this Earth. The sovereign, divinely occupying the throne from space, may give laws without being themselves subject to those laws — even its most universal, such as the physical law of gravity. Space is the ultimate place and state of exception, and whichever power grants you access to outer space will likewise have that other defining feature of sovereign power: the right to decide between life and death. There are no in-betweens in space. Something as small as a mechanical failure, a tiny breach or flying object, a minor miscalculation, spells death. There is no room for “partial efforts” or the “summing of negligibles” that you see in terrestrial governmentality. You are either inside a functioning spaceship or you’re fucking dead. Outer space is also still, for most of us, a wholly mythical realm. It is still “absolute” rather than “abstract” to borrow categories from Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, comparable to how the wider world was conceived in medieval Europe.
Our collective understanding of space is instinctively mystical, if not theological, and for good reason. Maybe it’s pure coincidence that both major space programs, in the States and in Russia, were originally spearheaded by mystical contingents, the currents of Cosmism in Russia and the occult circles surrounding Jack Parsons, the founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Look at our first forays into space. In Los Angeles, on permanent display in the Museum of Jurassic Technology, is a series of portraits of the dogs that were first sent into space by the Russian space program, Laika first among them. The exhibit is entitled “The Live of Perfect Creatures,” and it just goes to show that, however futuristic and technological the space race was supposed to be, however hard-nosed and modern we imagine ourselves, humanity on some level knew that we were trespassing on a sacred realm and so lapsed into that most archaic of habits: we sacrificed the lives of the innocent.
However, as with the “Age of Discovery,” and the zeal of the Jesuits and Calvinists, the nimbus of the absolute will be used as a smokescreen for the machinations of the abstract. The more Musk, Bezos, and Branson go on and on about the “wonder” of the Overview Effect or the “collective benefit” of space travel for “humanity,” the more you can be sure you’re about to get screwed. It’s true that their yearning for outer space may partly spring from pharaonic impulses, just as Flat Earthers are intuitively yearning for the repeal of modernity by rejecting a certain scientific understanding of the globe. However, a large part of it is that they know they can get a jump on setting the terms of exploitation, in legal formulations that will seem fussy or unimportant to the rest of us. The majority of Schmitt’s Der Nomos der Erde is about this. It traces the details about the determination of meridians and “amity lines,” about whether this territory or waterway belonged to this or that king, or to “everybody” or “nobody” at all, about how the rights and benefits were accorded to various European powers by various land-claims without having to bother asking anyone else.
This is the stage of the Space Age we’re currently in, and those setting the terms will be quick to exploit the difference between terrestrial conditions and those of outer space. For instance, many of our legal assumptions about space might be borrowed from the assumptions we have about the boundlessness of seas and oceans. This is how we popularly imagine space — as infinite and thus boundless. But as far as humans are concerned, space is entirely defined by its boundedness — the line between being inside and outside the ship, for one, as I mentioned, but above all, by the absolute moat between Earth and not-Earth, a moat traversible only by a certain relation to terrestrial power. In this sense, Musk could take to the podium and repeat the Zapatista maxim that “La Tierra es para quien la trabaja,” and magnanimously declare that extraterrestrial resources — the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, even certain orbital positions — openly belong to anybody who wants to work it, knowing full well that the barest access to space depends upon the control of terrestrial resources. This is no more ridiculous than the glut of articles that describe private space tourism for the megarich as the “democratization of space.” The unknown seas and the oceans — and the wilds of the Earth — were always formidable territory of course, but you could still exploit them as resources if you were crazy enough. You could set off in a raft or caravan and with luck, God would protect your journey. Craziness was a necessary and sufficient condition.
With space, no. Wherever the contestable line between space or earth happens to be, whether the Kármán line or somewhere else, it will mark an unmistakable line between the overpowerful and the rest of us, a good indicator of coming geometries of power. If things keep going the way they’re going, all our visits, scientific expeditions, even our modest engagement with space, will be strictly at the behest of the Pharaoh. This is because this current spatial revolution does not really concern all of outer space, the depths of the galaxy or universe — this will entail entirely different politics and forms of life, probably not recognizably human. This century’s chapter of astropower will cover only the stretch going from lower orbit to perhaps the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the part of space still entirely tethered to Earth technologically, politically and socially. Its transcendentality is a delusion of grandeur. So just as Silicon Valley platforms and technics slyly exert a form of sovereignty under the guise of falsely-neutral engineering and algorithmically aggregated preferences, astropower will wholly rely on terrestrial infrastructure— from our information networks to our supply chains — while wearing the imposing garb of a space sovereign. The human encounter with outer space should be absolute, though. It should be the occasion of the most transformational questions about our relations to the cosmos, at the furthest margins of meaning. It should be a primary concern, an urgent collective goal. Instead, here we are, organizing ourselves in little working groups to theorize about our own space-enslavement.
 Dolman, E., 2002. Astropolitik. London: Cass, p.96. From Dolman’s admonition, I decided to use the term “astropower” more than “astropolitics” since the latter technically refers to extension of classical geopolitical realism into outer space.