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Why the Bezos-Branson space wars leave me cold

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Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX may be familiar words in your current affairs dictionary this month. The Internet has exploded with perfectly on-point critique on how capitalist exploitation of workers has fuelled these solitary triumphalist explorations of space. And enough have had a field day with the phallic implications; the online newsletter splainer even had a tremendously fun feature on an adult entertainment company modelling and naming some of its products after said rockets. Many of us also took solace in a Twitter thread from Sim Kern, the spouse of a NASA flight controller, who voiced public sentiment by stressing that space travel was only made possible through the efforts of thousands of experts who stay unnamed. She also made sure to put to rest any envious speculations on “Bezos and Branson sipping champagne next to their space-pool,” for even space had nothing to offer these billionaires except evidence of their own immeasurable void.

I felt slightly sad, however, that these forays, unimaginable a few decades ago, created in me no sense of wonder, excitement or even hope for an interesting future. Was it the reputation of Messrs. Bezos, Branson and Musk for narcissism and dubious behaviour that put me off? Or was it just a bad time?

Once upon a moon

But surely I had some excitement about space travel once. Remember that beautiful photograph in 2014 of staff at ISRO — women in jewel-coloured saris with flowers in their hair — celebrating the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission? Or the fervour surrounding the Cold War-fuelled race to the moon? Or all national space missions for that matter. Bezos vs. Branson does not have quite the same theatrical appeal as America vs. Russia. Individuals who carry the name of nation, community, cause and so on seem so much more worthy of emotional investment than your cheap paperback book-turned-movie of visionary businessmen struggling to poop at the Kármán line. Could we read Messrs. B, B and M, then, as a shining sign of the times? Nations that lose the imagination of nation-state-ness — to paraphrase political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson — will only have despots to show the world. Despots of little imagination, much money, and obscene disregard for the nation-state in particular, but also the world at large.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of national contestations either, even as the nation-state is embedded in my subject formation. I’m a good modernist subject, who is attached to the nation as much as to a critique of the nation.

Said with stamps

What comes to mind is a wonderful installation by French-Algerian artist Kader Attia titled Independence Disillusionment that I saw at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014. This was a series of 26 paintings of stamps from African and West Asian countries. Attia was commenting on how postcolonial countries’ hectic bid for modernity could be seen via images on these stamps — images of space shuttles, moon landings, and heroic scientists. To newly independent countries, the need to explore space à la the global modern stemmed from both a bid for legitimacy and the newly felt capacity for freedom. Attia’s installation was also a lament, however, of the state of the postcolonial world many years later in the wake of these images — the preponderance of strife and the absence of prosperity, imagination, or even for that matter, whole nation-states.

Let me return, then, to the image of flowers worn by women of the Mars Orbiter Mission. Chennai-based travel photographer Naveenraj Gowthaman has a series on his Instagram page with the hashtag Poochoodal — these are photographs of flowers worn by women in their hair as they go about their daily lives. I have often marvelled at these flowers. Women up and about at the crack of dawn, on foot, bus, bicycle and in trains in Chennai, with beautiful roses, jasmine and crossandra in their hair, off to do the work of propping up the home and the city.

Perhaps this is the only sort of verve worth marvelling at, this sense of daily purpose, this willingness to inhabit the day and not some unknown future of bunkers on Mars and escape pods. I think often of that portion of the Berlin Wall that reads “Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.” The billionaires can have their spaceships; I’ll take the flowers.

The writer teaches anthropology for a living, and is otherwise invested in names, places, animals, and things.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 11:03:23 PM |

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