Projects

I. Anthropology of Space

My doctoral research examines space science and exploration to understand how science, science fiction, and other forms of cultural background each play a role in the way scientists plan for space exploration. In this unique historical moment as space settlement is on the horizon, I ask: what sources do space scientists draw from as they imagine possible futures for humans in space and what opportunities do these imaginaries present for an emerging anthropology of space? As humans move into space, we bring culture with us; but which ideas, practices, and traditions will we bring? What will we find, create, and encouter in space and how can we do a speculative anthropology of this potential alterity? To investigate these and other questions, I am conducting ethnographic studies with international communities of space scientists as they prepare for and conduct various modes of space exploration. I am also thinking with speculative fiction, and exploring theory around difference. Through these studies I am developing and testing both practical, analytical, and theory-based tools for conducting social scientific research among communities engaged in space science, exploration, and settlement and for imagining possible futures in space, both human and non-human. The following projects fall under this ubmrella of the anthropology of (outer) space.

This research is supported by the Vanier CGS program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ongoing)

Breakthrough Listen has embarked on the largest research program ever aiming to find evidence of civilization beyond the Earth. Meanwhile the SETI Institute recently renewed a call for transmission of messages from Earth, a project also known as active SETI or METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), and we hear from scientists, authors, and thinkers speaking both for and against the idea.  How are these desires for contact as well as the fears of possible outcomes constructed? As scientists work on message composition and study the question of “communication” across species, what role can anthropology play in these discussions? Can the emerging field of multispecies ethnography and research in anthrozoology tell us anything about how to listen or compose a message? And what can we learn by looking to the history of intercultural and inter-species contact here on Earth? Read more.

 

Interstellar Space (ongoing)

This project is an anthropological account of interstellar space – the vast expanses of outer space between stars in the universe. Space scientists use the idea of interstellar space to discuss distance, scale, site, travel, and communication as they imagine and plan for possible human futures in space. How do scientist’s ideas about interstellar space shape and become shaped by imagination, history, and science – and how can we do ethnography of such speculative interstellar ontologies?

When NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison describes 100 Year Starship – a project to reach another star within 100 years – she refers to Star Trek, creation myths, and her hopes of discovering a “better version of ourselves” in space. Jemison’s interstellar imaginary draws from both science and speculative-fiction. The interstellar thus moves between a world of imagination in speculative fiction and and world of possibility in space science, flowing back and forth between planning for interstellar voyages and speculative signification of the unknowable at an inconceivable scale.

Organizations such as 100 Year Starship, Tau Zero Foundation, Icarus Interstellar, and projects like Breakthrough Starshot are working to make interstellar travel a reality. At the same time scientists at NASA continue experiments on potential technology for interstellar spacecraft such as the Alcubierre ”warp” drive, nuclear fusion, the Bussard Ramjet, and other speculative means of propulsion. Interstellar travel is often depicted in speculative fiction media such as Star Trek the Next Generation, Earth2, Doctor Who, Cosmos, Dune, and most recently the TV series Ascension. How do public and scientific ideas about interstellar travel shape and become shaped by imagination and speculative fiction? How might signals, communication, messaging attempts, or telexploration also be a form of interstellar travel? In this project, I consider the idea of The Interstellar broadly through the multiple ways the idea spans ontologies, sites, and scales while moving between figurations as site, place, and text. Read more.

 

Queering Outer Space (ongoing)

Since the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011, the U.S. space agency NASA has turned over much of the work on space transportation to private corporations and the “commercial crew” program. As venture capitalist space entrepreneurs and aerospace contractors compete to profit from space exploration, we’re running up against increasingly conflicting visions for human futures in outer space. Narratives of military tactical dominance alongside “NewSpace” ventures like asteroid mining projects call for the defense, privatization, and commodification of space and other worlds, framing space as a resource-rich “frontier” to be “settled” in what amounts to a new era of colonization (e.g. Anker 2005; Redfield 2000; Valentine 2012).

We must go even further than academically interrogating these military and corporate narratives of space “exploration” and “colonization.” We must water, fertilize, and tend the seeds of alternative visions of possible futures in space, not only seeking solutions to earthly problems, but actively queering outer space and challenging the future to be even more queer. When the NASA space station motto declares “Off the Earth, For the Earth” we need to ask: which Earth? whose Earth? What we are bringing to space, what kind of culture? What ideas, traditions, and practices? Are they exclusively military? And what does that mean for our futures in space? Read more.

 

Ontology, Speculative Anthropology, and Alterity (ongoing)

Speculative fiction provides one possible framework for thinking about difference, futures, and space. How can we use anthropology to think about speculative alterity and imagine sentient gas, silicon-based life, alien religion, human-alien relations, and more? While some anthropologists propose universalist or so-called humanist approaches to the idea of difference, others in the past and again recently have attended to difference and insisted on the existence of alterity. This project draws on material and formal approaches as well as ontological methods for conceptualizing alterity to ask: Can we recognize both what might be called an “absolute alterity” in the case of an extraterrestrial life and at the same time a beyond-human humanism of universal respect, appreciation for, and rights of the truly other? Can we translate, communicate, or write intelligibly about life or systems on other worlds which may have no basis in our own Earthly histories? Finally, how can we build a speculative anthropology to imagine and work through these questions?

 

Astrobiology (ongoing)

Efforts continue in astrobiology to understand the emergence of life in the universe. Through both the exploration of our solar system and remote Exoplanets. I am especially interested in projects such as the proposed Europa Clipper mission (NASA/JPL) which would “investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.” At the same time, here on Earth, space scientists look at analogue research sites to both practice techniques for searching for life elsewhere and to understand processes that might explain the origins and nature of life. Extremophiles (organisms adapted to flourish in extreme environments) on Earth provide additional analogues for possible life under the ice of Europa, or on extremely hot or cold planets or in other extreme or different environments. What approaches and ideas about such life do deep ocean research and astrobiology share? As anthropology increasingly examines life itself, human/non-human interactions provide new frameworks for considering what might count as life elsewhere and even here on Earth. How does research at analogue sites here on Earth figure in the construction of imaginaries of life elsewhere? Read more.

 

Plants in Space (ongoing)

Since at least the 1970s plants have played a central role in NASA’s discussions about human space settlement. Plants have appeared as a possible preventative cure for “solipsism syndrome,” in a role as oxygen production machines, as food, and as companions. Mars simulation stations here on Earth have tested automated greenhouses in preparation for Mars settlement. Most recently, plants have acquired a social life through  posts on social media by astronaut on the International Space Station. Plants once transformed the atmosphere of Earth to make it possible for life to emerge from the sea and make a home on land. Could they do this again on another planet such as Mars, facilitating a global transformation to habitability? In light of anthropogenic climate change here on Earth, what roles might plants play as humans move into space? Speculative fiction authors have imagined plants as cyborg oxygen factories in Doctor Who (2010) and Sunshine (2007), as cared-for companions rescued by a space gardener in Silent Running (1972), and as a signal that a once wasted Earth is again fit for human habitation in Wall-E (2008). Aside from fighting solipsism syndrome, cleaning the air, or serving as potential salad ingredients – perhaps plants, with their many sensitivities, can also be sympathetic companions for humans living in space who, like them, are coping with life in a strange new environment – far from home. Read more.

 

Planetary Analogue Sites (ongoing)

Preparatory field research performed on Earth is an often-overlooked but fundamental aspect of space exploration. Since 1997 teams of biologists, geologists, astrophysicists, and others from the Haughton- Mars Project have traveled north to the rocky terrain of Devon Island in Nunavut to set up residence in a simulated Mars research station (Lee and Osinski 2005). While living in the harsh polar desert they conduct scientific experiments and imagine they are working on Mars (Clancey 2002). In Newfoundland and Labrador, scientists trek to remote sites to study a geologic process called serpentinization which may explain the source of methane gas on Mars and whether microbial life could live deep under the surface of the red planet (Szponar et al. 2013). At Pavilion Lake in British Columbia (Lim et al. 2011) scientists work with robotic underwater vehicles to study bio-chemical structures called microbialites, which may offer clues about ancient life on other planets (Laval et al. 2000). Space scientists call these locales planetary analogue research sites because they serve as a stand-in, or analogue, for another world. Analogue research sites are locations on Earth that approximate the geological, environmental, or biological conditions of sites on other planets (Osinksi et al. 2006). One “Catalogue of Planetary Analogues” identifies over 30 analogue research sites on Earth – many in Canada (Preston et al. 2012).

My research asks questions relevant to social science and space science including: How do scientists conceptualize analogue sites and the otherworldly places they stand in for? What cultural norms, lifeways, and strategies develop among communities at analogue sites, and how are these cultures shared with other space scientists and publics? How are researcher’s ideas about extraterrestrial life shaped by studying life in extreme environments on Earth? How do stations at analogue sites successfully or unsuccessfully simulate living in space? How do speculative fiction imaginaries and earthly political economies shape analogue space science? How do researchers interact with local environments and residents, and how do local communities experience these so-called “alien” and “extreme” landscapes? What roles do imagination, cultural background, and play have in scientists’ enactments of everyday life and work while they live as if they are on another world?

 

 

II. Multispecies Ethnography

 

Carpenters (ongoing)

“Carpenter” is the name used in Newfoundland to describe the “Woodlouse,” an insect described by science as belonging to the order Isopoda and the suborder Oniscidea. They are common in Newfoundland, even prolific and I was warned about their numbers the first day I arrived on the island. Woodlouse are crustaceans, and occupy extremes of environment, from the desert to the sea. I became fascinated by the woodlouse when I began to think of them as crustaceans – tiny crustaceans roaming the floors of my home. This challenged my ideas about the sea, the sea floor, the air and land, and categories of living things. As a result I began to think about, observe, and write about them. The Woodlouse in Newfoundland is not the genus Armadillidium I grew up with, and called “Pill Bug” or “Roly Poly” which can roll into a ball. The Carpenters of Newfoundland do not roll. This project is an Ethnography of Carpenters, the Woodlouse I meet here in Newfoundland, the stories and ideas about them I learn, and more.

 

 

III. Anthropological Theory

 

Installations of Meaning: Sculptural Discourses in Site/Scale Suspensions (ongoing)

We create knowledge across multiple scales and sites and yet despite the fragmented nature of this work, it also has a kind of coherence. The demand to aggregate that distributed knowledge into a statement, story, or finality in a single document, a single text, is a burden but also a throwback to earlier models of writing, production, and publication. How can we think with distributed meaning and produce knowledge across these sites and scales? How can we move beyond “the document”? Drawing on my work as an artist and my theories of sculpture, this project introduces and explores my notions of “installations of meaning” and “proximity syntax,” and addresses what it means to produce “sculptural discourses” across sites and scales.

 

Writing Worlding: Turning to Ontology at the Dead End of “Culture” (ongoing)

In this project I examine the oft-asked question “Isn’t ontology just another word for culture?” Thinking with Derrida and others, I suggest that anthropologists may be turning to “ontology” after reaching an aporia in the meaning of “culture.” Instead of another word for culture I propose that turning to ontology is an engagement with what I call “Writing worlding.” The aporia unearthed by post-structuralist questions in anthropology requires motion, a turn to something. The “turn to ontology,” then, signifies anthropological thinkers wrestling with whether or not to maintain the internal coherence of their concept of culture in the face of the recognition of an endless chain of signification through which meaning, true understanding, and intelligibility are forever deferred. Read more.

 

 

IV. Digital Anthropology

 

I am interested in how worlds are imagined and created – in processes of worlding. This interest leads me to look at engagements with and productions of social and environmental landscapes, online spaces, simulations and analogues, cultural imaginaries, works of speculative fiction, emergent religious movements, and the production of knowledge. The following projects fall under this umbrella of Digital Anthropology.

 

Occupying Cyberspace: Indonesian Cyberactivists and Occupy Wall Street (completed 2013)

My first major research project examined transnational connections between the global Occupy movement and online activists in Indonesia. During two years of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in New York City, online, and in Indonesia, I explored what constitutes an “occupation” for online participants in the Indonesian Occupy movement and what it means for activists to “occupy” in Indonesia, a former Dutch colony. As a result of this research I produced the first ethnography of the Indonesian Occupy Movement.

In my MA thesis, “Occupying Cyberspace: Indonesian Cyberactivists and Occupy Wall Street” I consider how Indonesian activists adopted Occupy as an umbrella for solidarity among existing counter-hegemonic activist groups and causes. Looking at the politico-legal situation in Indonesia and the emergence of Occupy, I examine how activists created expanded meanings of the word “occupy.” I look at Occupy as a framework for reconsidering the past and ask what it means to Occupy on a site of multiple historical “occupations.” Turning to movement histories and my informants’ memories and biographies, I then situate the Occupy movement within Indonesian histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Suharto’s New Order period. Finally in an examination of indigenous activism, I examine online activity around an ongoing struggle in West Papua, and how this online engagement works to direct attention toward national governments’ complicity in neocolonial resource extraction, land theft, and threats to indigenous communities.

 

 

V. Religion

 

Colonialist Discourse in the “History of Religions” Method: A Linguistic Critique of Mircea Eliade’s Dialectic (completed 2012)

Eliadean methodology attempts to locate “original,” “archaic,” and “primary” religion and extrapolate a broader understanding of all religious belief and practice from the resulting monolithic construction. This leaves little room for subaltern, feminist, and postmodern approaches to religion. A consequence of the Eliadean community of practice (CofP), therefore, is the continued reproduction of a questionable religious studies methodology. Along with membership in the Eliadean CofP, comes a potential for reproduction of the ideologies underlying this Eliadean methodology. In this project I argue that if religious studies is going to free itself from the longstanding bias in favour of white, elite, male, textual modes of understanding religious variety and practice, the methods of reproducing these modes must be critiqued, reworked and replaced.

 

Mapping the Temples of Cyborgism: Exploring the Numinous Potential of Replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (completed 2007)

This project examines the replicants in Ridley Scott’s film “Blade Runner” to explore how cyborgs mediate access to the supernatural. I use and expand Masahiro Mori’s work on the Uncanny Valley to look at the numinous potential of the cyborg. Along the way I discover/propose several Temples of Cyborgism: The Temple of The Cyborg Aura, The Temple of Cyborg Ascension, The Temple of Cyborg Empathy, and The Temple of Cyborg Discourse.

 

Through the Ol, and What the Maya Found There: Sacred Cenotes as Portals to the Otherworld (completed 2006)

Beginning with an archetype for the circular passageway, the cenote (tz’onot), this project explores the origins and role of the portal in the ancient religion of the Maya to look for environmental and ecological underpinnings for iconography. I find that geologic formations resulting from the Chicxulub asteroid impact crater suggest a cosmic origin for Maya iconography. This iconography which came to represent a portal to another world turns out to have otherworldly origins. Learn more about my research on Mayan iconography.