Outer space and social space
Outer space will always belong mostly to the absolute. However far we fare, however much we astronomically chart or comprehend cosmologically, we’ll never manage to wrap the entire universe in any kind of nomos, never fully convert the expanse into either abstract or social space. These terms — “absolute,” “abstract,” and “social” space — come (slightly tweaked) from Henri Lefebvre. Here on Earth, absolute space manifests architecturally in temples, cathedrals, tombs, monuments, sanctuaries, pyramids, primarily for religious and political purposes, not to measure or map out, but only to give us a certain orientation. Lefebvre specifies that “absolute space does have dimensions, though they do not correspond to dimensions of abstract (or Euclidean) space.”
Absolute space, more than anything, evokes. It can evoke authority, community, divinity, death, birth, terror, oblivion, transcendence, sublimity, usually by way of some division between the profane or mundane and the sacred or the beyond. But these man-made forms, and even the greatest examples we find in nature, will never be able to match the night sky. They seem dinky in comparison. The night sky has always provided the occasion for the biggest and most unanswerable of questions, namely humanity’s relationship to the greater cosmos.
Nevertheless, for almost just as long, humanity has tried to find its footing, chipping away at this mystery through various attempts at a cosmology, that is, by combining cosmos and logos. Thus, the celestial has always been approached through a hard-to-follow mix of the absolute and the abstract, through practices that were most often both religious and scientific, priestly and astronomical. However, until very recently, it had never been imaginable as a place for us (except maybe when imagined as the realm of the afterlife). This is what changes with the current or coming “spatial revolution.” The celestial becomes credibly conceivable as social space.
Every spatial revolution entails consequences both good and bad. The previous one, that Carl Schmitt referred to as the “oceanic” revolution, was predicated upon “the encounter.” Once-mythical lands on the farside of the ocean weren’t just new territories; they were territories populated with strangers. This encounter, put in the widest possible context, naturally gave rise to the fundamental question of how we might share the Earth. Europe’s answer was of course “we don’t.” As the conservative Schmitt proudly recounts, the primary result of the encounter between the new and old worlds was the European partition and colonization of those distant lands and the subjugation of its peoples under a comprehensive spatial order, the “Nomos of the Earth.”
However, there could and may have been some positive consequences. If we believe the counter-history told by Davids Graeber and Wengrow in their recent The Dawn of Everything, the encounter also resulted in an “indigenous critique” of European political and social life that, once absorbed back on the continent, inspired the political thought of the Enlightenment. At the very least, these encounters threw into question all the old hierarchies and forms of domination in Europe, even as Europe was busily imposing new ones on the rest of the globe.
The celestial revolution, at least in this chapter, probably won’t involve any close encounters, but it doesn’t need to in order to be transformational. The speculative force of outer space isn’t — or shouldn’t be — purely technical or scientific. When the celestial is instead conceived as an unabstract combination of both absolute and social space, we’re inevitably led to another kind of fundamental question: “what are we doing here?” Not “what am I doing here?” Not “how did we get here?” But, phrased in terms of human decision, “what are we all doing here?” The large, mostly unanswerable, often private question about our relationship to the cosmos finally steps into the planning stage of an actionable human-collective project. If the challenge here is absorbed even half as much as the indigenous critique was, then — whatever the answer — it could be something like a new foundation for our political and social being. Or at least, it could necessitate one.