Cyborg Astronaut: Disembodied Masculinity and the Imagination of Outer Space in Contemporary Science Fiction

Exposé

Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien
Doktoratsstudium der Philosophie
Betreuer: Doz. Mag. Dr. Assoc. Prof. Axel Stockburger

Cyborg Astronaut: Disembodied Masculinity and the Imagination of Outer Space in Contemporary Science Fiction

by

Eren İleri

erenileri@posteo.net

Table of Contents

  1. Working Title

  2. Abstract

  3. Description of the Dissertation Project

  1. Central Research Questions and Aims

  2. State of the Art

  3. Research Methods and Design

  4. About the Supervisor

  5. Bibliography

Working Title

Cyborg Astronaut:

Disembodied Masculinity and the Imagination of Outer Space in Contemporary Science Fiction

Abstract

The cultural and societal significance of space exploration and the imagination of outer space has been the focus of many research efforts in recent years (Cockell, 2016; Dickens and Ormrod, 2016; Dick and Launius, 2007; Geppert, 2018; Llinares, 2011; Redfield, 2002). Notably in cultural- and science fiction studies, critical debates concerned with the history of the social and political aspects of space exploration and outer space travel are emerging. Similarly, in game, film and television studies, the role of outer space in science fiction has been a crucial element. However, particularly in the realm of the critical analysis of science fiction, the relationship between actual real-world space travel and its cultural imagination, critical posthumanist theory has been largely absent. Since the 1960’s, the representation of the astronaut characterizes a shift in cultural perception: While in 60’s the virile figure of the astronaut was closer to that of the airplane pilot, embodying values traditionally assigned to masculinity, such as courage, resilience, bodily strength and performance, later representations of the spacefarer often render the body as an obstacle for spaceflight, perhaps best exemplified by the idea of hibernation or “cryosleep”, a common trope present in countless science fiction works where “frozen” space travelers in capsules deactivate their bodily functions and stop the aging process in order to travel vast distances in outer space. Also exemplified by the real-world astronaut, in outer space body becomes the weak link of the hybrid between human and machine, as weightlessness of space cancels out muscular strength and all bodily functions are aided by life support systems of the spacesuit or the spaceship.

In this landscape of the cyborg astronaut and outer space “colonization”, disembodied masculinity becomes associated with the realization of outer space. In the field of science fiction, as well as in the discourses of real-world space exploration, outer space becomes a domain where colonial imaginations of the Other are reproduced and re-projected. The positioning of outer space as the “final frontier” facilitates ideas of conquest and exploitation; as language, imagery and representations of colonialism are evoked again in the realm of outer space. Therefore, the investigation of the forms of representation of gender and race in contemporary works of science fiction in film, television and video games, specifically related to issues of disembodiment reflecting today’s political and philosophical realities, necessitates a critical feminist and post-colonial approach, that incorporates contemporary theories of the posthuman.

The aim of this research is to engage with the notion of the posthuman condition in contemporary cultural representations of the astronaut. By deploying a philosophical framework which draws upon central aspects of critical posthuman theory, this inquiry’s focus is to investigate how notions of “the conquest of space” echo core concepts of modernism and humanism, as well as how modern socially constructed categories of gender and race operate within the ideological sphere of space exploration, despite the spacefarer’s diverse forms of representation in contemporary media. Through a political and critical trans-disciplinary analysis of video games, films and television shows, and based on in-depth study of the current discourses of posthumanism this thesis interrogates the construction of (post-)humanist subjectivity in the contemporary imagination of outer space.

Description of the Dissertation Project

Outer space travel and exploration are backbones of science fiction since the early days of the genre. Since the 20th century and increasingly in more recent years, issues such as interplanetary travel, outer space colonization, human enhancement and use of, or conflicts with, artificial intelligence in the context of outer space frequently appear in popular science fiction. Although being a transnational subject that has captured the imagination of many sci-fi writers, filmmakers and video game developers; the conquest of outer space and its positioning as the “final frontier” has become particularly important for American science fiction and ideologically a key aspect for the creation of the American identity in general. Signified by bravery, individualism, intelligence and an unshaken faith in science, the astronaut - the subject of human space exploration - has become a cultural idol since the early 1960s, and outer space occupied an area in science fiction which was filled with imaginations and aspirations about the human condition, as well as the critique of it. As many representations of human-piloted outer space travel entertain different ideas of human enhancement, artificial intelligence, or in one way or another, cybernetically connected minds, what are the novel forms of representation of space exploration, that appear in conjunction with the posthuman condition in contemporary science fiction?

Posthumanism

To be able to establish my argument, the term posthuman needs to be specified in a bit more detail. By posthuman condition, and the term posthuman in general, I refer to a philosophical framework of critical approaches to humanism, which question human nature’s supposed universality, its positioning as the apex of existence, it’s rootedness in heteronormative structures and the ardent anthropocentrism emerging from the traditions of humanism. The aim of critical posthumanism is to deconstruct the subject of humanism and replace it with a speculative being of the posthuman, which can embody different identities and attain a heterogeneity of understandings of the world. Like the antihumanist critique, posthumanism targets humanism and identifies its exclusionary subject of the “default” human as inherently male, white, heterosexual. With the aim of reconfiguring this subjectivity, posthumanism critically engages with what “informed the written and unwritten laws of recognition as to who was to be considered human” (Ferrando, 2013: 16)[1]. Critical posthumanism addresses new subjectivities for human and non-human and aims to break free of binaries between human and world, culture and nature, man and woman, white and non-white other. According to Rosi Braidotti, the humanist definition of the human is universalistic and dualistic, male and Eurocentric, which defines difference as pejoration, as “[s]ubjectivity is equated with consciousness, universal rationality, and self-regulating ethical behavior, all of them equating masculinity and European civilization, whereas Otherness is defined as its negative and specular counterpart: irrationality, immorality, femininity and non-westernness” (Braidotti, 2013: 15)[2]. By reassessing the pillars of Western understanding of the “human”, the critical posthumanism of Braidotti moves beyond anthropocentrism with her conception of zoe-egalitarianism, to “expand the notion of Life towards the non-human or zoe. This results in radical posthumanism as a position that transposes hybridity, nomadism, diasporas and creolization processes into means of re-grounding claims to subjectivity, connections and community among subjects of the human and the non-human kind” (Braidotti, 2013: 50)[3]. This necessity to challenge humanism is addressed by Ihab Hassan as well, in one of the earlier accounts of posthumanism: “We need to understand that the human form -including human desire and all its external representations- may be changing radically, and thus must be re-visioned. We need to understand that five hundred years of humanism may be coming to an end as humanism transforms itself into something that we must helplessly call post-humanism” (Ihab Hassan, 1977: 843)[4].

Disembodiment and the Cyborg

Alongside this critical philosophical approach, some scholars argue that by the beginning of 21st century, humans are taking the next step in their evolution, which is referred as the posthuman condition, and it is being enabled by the use of i.a. cybernetic technologies which lead to the creation of a hybrid between “machine and organism”, as in Haraway’s definition of the cyborg: “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs” (Haraway 1991: 150)[5]. Regarding this understanding of human evolution and visions of human enhancement, the distinctions between posthumanism and transhumanism are often conflated, and mistakenly so (Miah, 2007). With transhumanism, I am referring to a futurist ideology and a philosophical movement which aims to overcome the human body’s limitations and thereby enhance its physiological and intellectual capacities. Frequently in mainstream discussions, futurist visions of Ray Kurzweil or theories of Francis Fukuyama dominate the discourse of the transhuman future (Fukuyama, 2002; Kurzweil, 2017). This will be, among others, a crucial point of departure for my analysis of contemporary imagination and representations of crewed space travel.

In ideological transhumanist visions of outer space, or in the condition of the cyborg in space, the absence of body, and the fact that the human body is a problem which has to be overcome, becomes crucially evident. In contemporary science fiction, this idea dominates the imagination of outer space and human-piloted space travel. Yet, both in real life or in fiction, there is something intrinsically cyborg about the space-traveling human, i.e. humans who conduct extra-terrestrial activities. It has been suggested by many scientists that in order for human or most non-human animals to be able to survive and sustainably live on extra-terrestrial solar system planets, there is a need for substantial body modifications or constant help of various devices to keep them alive (Clynes and Kline, 1960). Furthermore, when imagining the vast distances between planets and journeys into interstellar space which might take hundreds of years, the human body becomes the primary hindrance that needs to be overcome. One of the most apparent cases where the body is rendered as a problem and disembodiment is exemplified is the concept of “cryosleep”, the idea to induce astronauts into a state of suspended animation or hibernation in order to preserve their bodies for long deep-space travel, where bodies lie motionless in capsules during spaceflight. This concept is both scientifically researched as well as considered for future space travel and it has been a crucial element in countless science fiction novels, films, video games etc. Another aspect of space travel that threatens the human body as an agency of power and strength is the absence of gravity and the absolute dependency on life-support technologies. On the history of spaceflight, Llinares argues that "[s]pace flight, from the training to the journey itself, essentially removes the body as a reference point for masculine experience. When one considers the journey into space, the astronaut is strapped in, unable to move, while all piloting and guidance is controlled remotely from the ground. The entry into zero gravity is another stage in the disembodiment with weightlessness nullifying strength and the pressure suit facilitating all “normal” bodily functions. The very definition of an astronaut at this point was an “experienced zombie” who would lie there and do nothing […]" (Llinares, 2011: 141)[6].

For Donna Haraway, regarding NASA’s use of primates as test subjects for preparation to first human space flight, “the space ships, the recording and tracking technologies, animals, and human beings were joined to form a new kind of historical entity—cyborgs in a postmodern theatre of war, science, and popular culture” (Haraway, 1989: 138)[7]. This form - the cyborg- is embodied in many ways, but most notably culturally by the astronaut. The images of an astronaut with a spacesuit and various equipment standing on the moon, or conducting “extra vehicular activity” weightless in the vacuum of outer space, are prominent examples of representations of human and machine symbiosis at a very high level. Alongside this technological image, another layer of references to Western culture and history is operationally attached to the representations of the astronaut.

Empire in Outer Space

Often, imagination of outer space, whether in real-world extraterrestrial activities or in science fiction, is restricted by an understanding, which positions the extra-terrestrial as the “final frontier”. This cultural positioning of the final frontier, waiting to be explored, conquered or exploited; and the astronaut as brave explorer putting his or her own life at risk in his/her conquest of the unknown, bares a lot of similarities to central narratives of colonialism. The launch of the space race between United States and Soviet Union in the 1950s and decolonization overlaps in time, as well as in imagery and biomaterials (Haraway 1989, Redfield 2002). While we have moved into the post-colonial era, the language, imagery and representations of colonialism partially transcended into, or regenerated themselves in the imagination of outer space (Kerslake, 2007; Kilgore 2003) and by doing this it found a safe haven: “space offered the prospect of a renewed form of settler colonization, this time into a zone safely free from human difference” (Redfield, 2002: 792)[8].

“Outer space reflects a practical shadow of empire. […] From the very inception of influential modern dreams of space exploration, the masculine adventure of earthly colonialism was a constant referent, and the temporal pairing of rocket launches and the greatest anti-colonial movements only accentuated the parallel. Indeed, the realization of outer space – its initial domestication if you will – represents the effective provincialization of terrestrial empire from above. Once a few white men moved beyond the atmosphere they became newly, artificially human by virtue of the nonhuman space around them, cast as universal representatives by virtue of their transcendent, hazardous location. […] In the aftermath of the 20th century, advocates of space exploration constitute perhaps the last unabashed enthusiasts of imperialism, cheerfully describing conquest, settlement and expansion, and hesitating not a whit before employing the term ‘colony’. Theirs is a Columbus of exploration, nation building and risk taking, not of invasion, domination and genocide” (Redfield, 2002: 795, 796, 797)[9].

Gender, Masculinity and Femininity

In this perspective, outer space became white men’s playground, either in real life aspirations or in science fiction, where the language and images of colonialism can be reproduced. Renewed colonialist imagery in the realm of extra-terrestrial space and the manifestation of a new kind of relationship between human and the machine, embodied by the cyborg, together constituted the image of the astronaut, that is defined by supposedly intrinsic qualities of masculinity, such as risk taking, pathfinding and having an insatiable curiosity to explore and to progress (Llinares, 2011). Yet, this image of the space explorer, whether as the spacefarer, or the visionary behind the technology (like scientists such as Wernher von Braun or today’s billionaire business men like Elon Musk) is a complex one, incorporating issues of gender, race and class. What is relatively stable in this construction of representation is that space exploration has always been driven by unquestioned, axiomatic curiosity or drive for exploration which was frequently ascribed as a masculine quality. For Llinares, “[i]n most evocations of space history ´man´ stands in for a supposedly genderless expression of humanity’s innate subjectivity. Think of Neil Armstrong’s now legendary phrase: ´That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind´, or Star Trek’s mantra, ´to boldly go where no man has gone before´. These phrases have become a naturalized parlance and defining rhetoric of space exploration. Far from being neutral semantics however, they are part of an underlying discourse within space history in which ´man´ implicitly means men” (Llinares, 2011: 5)[10].

Considering the access to outer space, human spaceflight has not been particularly diverse in terms of gender and race/ethnicity (Dovey, 2018). Out of approximately 600 people who traveled to outer space, only 62 of them were women, while 24 astronauts who traveled to the Moon were all white men[11]. Only until recent years, after efforts to bring diversity to the selection process of astronauts, NASA has achieved a 50% ratio of men and women with the 2013 astronauts class, where out of eight graduated astronauts, four of them were women and four of them were men[12]. Historically, NASA’s criteria for astronaut selection required the candidates to be chosen from military test pilots, which consisted only of men since it was not possible for women to become test pilots in the American army in 1960’s and 70’s. Soviet Union’s first woman cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova traveled to the earth orbit in 1964, much earlier than NASA’s first woman astronaut Sally Ride, who flew to space in 1983. Despite the early date of Tereshkova’s flight, it was nearly 20 years until another woman flew to space. Towards the end of the Apollo program in late 1970’s, there was a shift in the qualifications of the astronauts and more astronauts have been selected amongst scientist, instead of from the ranks of military test pilots. Today, it became natural to conceptualize astronaut as a “scientist in the lab”, an identity that starkly contrasts with the 1960’s conception of the military-originated, risk-taking, masculinized adventurer astronaut. As space travel becoming gradually more inclusive to women and people of color, the traditional language of space travel is also being challenged. For instance, since 2006 NASA’s guidelines for space travel language suggest the usage of gender neutral terms such as “human-piloted” or “crewed” instead of the much-used and almost standardized term of “manned spaceflight”[13]. In science fiction, the diversification and democratization of space travel in recent years have also been represented and celebrated, as we increasingly see women and people of color characters in the forefront of fictional space exploration.

Yet, considering the “techno-masculinized” subject of space travel, one could argue that masculinity shifted its operation away from the physical body, while tensions relating the traditional binary understanding of gender are rearticulated through the relationship between bodies and the technological. The traditional hierarchical dualism of masculinity and femininity, frequently positions femininity as masculinity’s inferior other. In the landscape of the cyborg, these traditional definitions of masculinity are being re-articulated, taken away from the body and ascribed to hybrid technological subjects. The traditional model of muscular masculinity, which defines strength, bravery, independence and virility as masculine qualities, has been destabilized by the cyborg, while being valorized by it at the same time. Human bodies have been “feminized”, rearticulated as needing protection, while technology has been*“techno-masculinized”* (Fernbach, 2000; Masters, 2005).

As discussed, masculinity serves as one of the main pillars for the construction of a dualistic, earth-centric understanding of outer space (Kilgore, 2003). But what does masculinity mean in the context of disembodiment and how is it represented in the posthuman condition?

To answer this question and to be able to investigate forms and representations of disembodied masculinities in the context of “space exploration”, we need to employ a posthumanist approach and challenge the anthropocentric perceptions of the cosmos, referring to Rosi Braidotti’s critique of humanism and her post-anthropocentric view (Braidotti, 2013). Furthermore, to deconstruct the dualistic view of nature/culture, Karen Barad emphasizes: “[t]he relationship between the material and the discursive is one of mutual entailment […] Neither discursive practices nor material phenomena are ontologically or epistemologically prior” (Barad, 2003: 152)[14]. To emphasize a critical proposition towards the understanding of the extra-terrestrial, I will draw upon arguments from discourses of posthumanism, new materialism and – albeit with a strong critical distance, transhumanism. I aim to investigate how disembodied masculinity manifests itself in the cyborg, i. e. in the real-world spacefarer, or in its representations in the media, sometimes being an adventurer or scientist, other times being present in various sorts of militarized versions. In relation to the cyborg, I refer to Haraway’s description of “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway, 1991: 149)[15]. In more positive perceptions, the cyborg can pose an alternative against dualisms of humanism and “can reveal the multiplicity, contextuality and contingency of gendered subjectivity by blurring distinctions between, for instance, mind/body, self/other and man/woman” (Masters, 2010: 2)[16]. While acknowledging the origin of the cyborg, Haraway optimistically suggest that “the main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism […] But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential” (Haraway, 1991: 151[17]; Masters 2010). However, Cristina Masters crucially points out that “[…] in contrast to Haraway’s hopeful observation, the figure of the cyborg remains rather faithful to its origins. Thus, while the cyborg may provide new grounds upon which to reveal gender representations as contingent and historically grounded social constructs, we need also to attend to the ways in which the figure of the cyborg may continue to represent a desire for total masculinist control and domination” (Masters, 2010: 2)[18]. One of the most apparent examples for this kind of disembodied masculinity is incorporated by the cyborg soldier of the American military, where the body is the weakest link in the chain, as Masters argues, “[w]hat we are witnessing, and indeed participating in, with the constitution of the cyborg soldier is a radical rearticulation of subjectivity. Contemporary military techno-scientific discourses have profoundly altered the subject of discursive power productions, with the fleshy body of the soldier no longer standing in as the agent of politics by other means, or in this case, war by other means. With the discursive positioning of military technologies as superior to the human soldier, machines are now the subjects of the text. […] Technology, not the male body, becomes the subject capable of the discursive transcendence of embodiment” (Masters, 2010: 5)[19].

Disembodied and militarized Techno-Masculinity

As it becomes apparent in the example of the American soldier - there are organic and formal similarities between the American soldier and the astronaut - the cyborg can become a continuation of patriarchal capitalism and hegemonic masculinity. A similar proposal was also made by Braidotti regarding the condition of the posthuman, recognizing the ambiguity about the end of humanism and “man”: “[t]he Vitruvian Man rises over and over again from his ashes, continues to uphold universal standards and to exercise a fatal attraction” (Braidotti, 2013, 29[20]; Matthews, 2018, 91)[21]. Likewise, humanism’s capacity for resistance was also drawn to attention by Neil Badmington: “Apocalyptic accounts of the end of “Man”, it seems to me, ignore humanism’s capacity for regeneration and, quite literally, recapitulation. In the approach to posthumanism on which I want to insist, the glorious moment of Herculean victory cannot yet come, for humanism continues to raise its head(s)” (Badmington, 2003, 11). This capacity of “man’s” perpetual insurgency for its validation will form the basis of my thesis.

My suggestion is that “man’s” crisis in the face of the posthuman condition is exemplified by various representations of the astronaut across popular science fiction. Returning to Master’s cyborg soldier, similarly, the crucial point of contemporary representations of the space explorer is its “masculine desire to transcend the organic body by constructing the perfect technological subject […] We can read cyborg desires as dominated by anxieties around threatened masculinity, indicating a deep crisis in American representations of self in its attempt to construct an invulnerable subject position by ridding itself of the fleshy body.” (Masters, 2010: 5)[22]. In science fiction, the ascription of masculinity away from the human body and on to technology outlines the Vitruvian Man’s resistance to the posthuman threat. In the case of the space explorer, the battleground is outer space and the fight is against the othered alien, that being extraterrestrial species, “irrational” artificial intelligence or the hostility of outer space itself; its planets, radiation, lack of breathable atmosphere etc. To develop my argument and expose these tendencies, I will analyze sci-fi video games, film and television, where complex depictions of masculinity are in play. In video games, as discussed by many scholars in the field of game studies, hyper-masculine tropes of man are a common sight (Healey, 2016; Krampe, 2018; Snyder, 2015), but I intend to investigate models that are more intricate in their embodiment of gender constructs, such as Mass Effect series (BioWare, 2007 - 2017). One of the most prominent models for relatively complex representations of gender and embodiment as well as imagination of outer space as frontier is the video game series Mass Effect. For my research, the most current game in the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda (BioWare, 2017) is of significance, since its the narrative exemplifies the dynamics between men and technology and its concept of the “Pathfinder” signifies the idea of militarized and disembodied masculinity. Mass Effect: Andromeda’s plot revolves around the protagonist Scott or Sara Ryder (depending on the choice of the player to take control of either character), who leads the colonization effort in Milky Way’s neighboring Andromeda Galaxy and becomes humanity’s so called “Pathfinder” tasked with finding a habitable planet for colonists to settle on after a 600-year journey. In relation to this, National Geographic’s popular television series, Mars (Ben Young Mason, Justin Wilkes, 2016 - 2018) is a notable case for television and streaming media that complements the archetype of the contemporary space explorer. Similar to Mass Effect: Andromeda’s colonization of the Andromeda Galaxy, National Geographic’s Mars “docudrama” takes place in a human colony on Mars. The series has a particular approach that blends fiction with non-fiction, as the fictional narrative of future Mars colonization is complemented with non-fiction footage of interviews that comments on the story. Its “docudrama” style and its narrative blending non-fiction with fiction relating space exploration or environmental issues and future Mars “colonization” endeavor make Mars a prime example for the complex relationship between science fiction and popular image of real-world space science. Two other prominent cases for my research will be the video game No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016) and Netflix science fiction series Lost in Space (Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Zack Estrin; 2018). Both of these cases exemplify a contemporary iteration of the “robinsonade” genre, as in the case of Lost in Space, quite literally with the narrative of the Robinson family, which is an outer space adaptation of the 19. century novel The Swiss Family Robinson (Johann David Wyss, 1812). With these two cases, the literary genre of robinsonade will be emphasized to track the issues of colonialism and decolonization in science fiction. Films and TV shows such as Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009), The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015), Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016), Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), Star Trek: Voyager (Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor; 1995-2001), Star Trek: The Original Series (Gene Roddenberry, 1966-1969) and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964) will be incorporated in this analysis of the “space robinsonade”. Robinsonade’s importance in the construction of my argument is not only warranted by its reference to colonialism, but also because it exemplifies core humanist tensions and dualities of human and nature, or the alienated “other”, as well as its emphasis on its subject’s necessary qualities for their survival, which is his courage, will for adventure, their positivist faith in science and their Western intellect and training they required back on Earth. In this respect, the robinsonade narrative becomes a theater where tensions between its subject’s core values can be tested or reaffirmed in the face of the posthuman condition.

When investigating this issues, culturally specific patterns in science fiction are intended to be reflected in relation to the research context, where the primarily American phenomenon of final frontier and space exploration in contemporary mainstream science fiction will be examined, but I will also attend the possibility of a transnationality of ideas about settling in outer space, investigating for instance Chinese, Russian and Japanese science fiction, drawing upon the present research in the fields of cultural studies and media studies. (Boczkowska, 2015; Itakura, 2015; Song, 2013; Paglen, 2018)

Alongside my discussion of video games, film and television, I will also focus on their reflections on online fan culture, or on “gamer” culture and study the construction of images of the space explorer, not only in respective video games or film narratives but also throughout their afterlife in online communities.

Central Research Questions and Aims

This research engages with following questions:
How is the notion of the posthuman related to representations of the astronaut and the cultural production of outer space in contemporary science fiction film and video games? How does a posthumanist reading of science fiction benefit us to analyze contemporary accounts of space exploration?

How is the post- and/or transhumanist space traveler/explorer gendered in contemporary sci-fi? In what ways is his/her masculinity rearticulated, or disembodied? In what manner is disembodiment manifested in contemporary science fiction film, television and video games about outer space? How is the problem of the astronaut’s body represented in science fiction’s posthuman landscape of human-piloted travel into outer space?

What does the imagination of outer space “colonization” mean after decolonization?

How do masculinities in the context of “space exploration” take shape relating to popular contemporary science-fiction video games and films? What kind of reflections does the posthuman condition engender in the context of video game culture?

In the light of these issues, how are science fiction and real-world outer space travel interlinked, and in what forms are contemporary issues related to real-world space travel, such as privatization of outer space, and “space colonization” ambitions manifested in media?

To engage with these questions, a critical framework of philosophical posthumanism is to be developed in conjunction with video game, film and cultural studies.

State of the Art

In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of research dedicated to the cultural impacts of outer space. Despite the recent interest in social and cultural significance of the cosmos, in cultural and visual media studies issues related to outer space remains to be relatively underresearched. Resting on some of the comprehensive works dedicated to this issues in cultural studies, as well as science and technology studies, I intend to address the questions about the imagination of outer space, its cultural impacts and its ideological operation for race, gender and body in media studies and game studies.

In the field of cultural and media studies, Llinares examines the mythology of the astronaut of the 20th century and its embodiment of complex cultural representations of masculinity (Llinares, 2011). For Messeri’s ethnographical approach on the outer space, place making and mapping practices becomes evident, as she crucially interrogates the legacy of colonialism in understanding of the outer space (Messeri, 2016). Dickens’s work focuses on the “sociology of the universe” and critically engages with the relation between capital and outer space (Dickens, 2016). Similarly, Al-Rodhan interrogates the political notion of use of technologies in the Earth orbit with the notion of meta-geopolitics of the outer space (Al-Rodhan, 2016). For Redfield and Kerslake, respectively, the understanding of the outer space exploration and outer space in science fiction become domains of operation for the empire (Redfield, 2002; Kerslake, 2007). Billings traces the ideology of spaceflight and importance of American exceptionalism for the ideology of spaceflight to understand the cultural implications of space advocacy as Young puts out Native American perspectives on the outer space exploration (Billings, 2007; Young, 1987). On the questions about the technology and embodiment, Chun does not just examine the relationship between technology and race but considers race as technology, which draws attention to the performability of race that rejects purely biological or cultural views of race (Chun, 2009). Extending upon this proposition in his post-colonial inquiry, Syed Mustafa Ali place transhumanism as whiteness, as he analyzes transhumanism’s ideological entanglement with the “White Crisis” (Ali, 2017). Atanasoski and Vora reflect on the relationship between logics of white supremacy and racial liberalism by sketching the contours and workings of technoliberalism; while Bostrom, Hauskeller and Hughes’ work deal with political, ideological and mythological aspects of transhumanism (Atanasoski, Vera, 2018; Bostrom, 2005; Hauskeller, 2016; Hughes 2002). The aesthetics of techno-utopian, transhumanist visions in right wing reactionary discourses and their relation to colonization of outer space are shown in the writings of M. Ambedkar (Ambedkar, 2017). Fernbach, Masters and Mackinnon engage with the notion of disembodied masculinity in the cyborg (Fernbach, 2002; Masters 2010; Mackinnon, 2018). About the social and ethical implications of human settlement in outer space, Ferrando points out the necessity of a posthumanist reflection on space migration (Ferrando, 2016).

In the field of science fiction studies, Hsu-Ming Teo outlines science fiction’s affiliation with American nationalism and the concept of space as the “final frontier”, as well as what it draws from the Enlightenment, such as its views of science, rationality, progress and perfectibility (Hsu-Ming, 1994). Bajaber on the other hand, opens up the genre’s possibilities of its usefulness for post-colonial writers who engage in decolonization (Bajaber, 2013). Grewell and Pak’s works also investigate the role of colonialism in the imagination of the “conquest” of the outer space, as well as of terraforming, while Nama and Kilgore draws upon the notion of race in American science fiction (Grewell, 2001; Pak, 2016). Matthews crucially analyses the posthuman masculinity and humanist “man’s self-preservative resistance to an ontology that heralds his obsolescence[23] in film (Matthews, 2018).

The relationship between the construction of masculinity and the outer space, as well as how race comes in to play requires additional research, since research done about this question for the most part revolves around the history of space travel, rather than focusing on its contemporary implications and impacts, regarding the issues of privatization of outer space travel (MacDonald, 2017; Dubbs, and Paat-Dahlstrom, 2013) and the rhetoric of “leaving the earth” in the face an environmental crises caused by the global climate change (Impey, 2015). In the light of this aforementioned works I intend to emphasis contemporary critical posthumanist theory in relation to this research’s context. By deploying a feminist and post-colonial critique on the issues of embodiment, or disembodiment of masculinity in the context of imagination of the outer space, this research addresses the necessity to integrate critical posthumanist theory into science fiction, film and game studies fields.

When discussing the issue of masculinity in game studies; gender, diversity (or lack thereof), sexism, misogyny and hypermasculinity or hyperfemininity in character representations in video games have been the focus of many researchers (Lynch, Tompkins, Driel & Fritz, 2016; Trinh, 2013). Particularly on the issue of masculinity in video games, what is mostly discussed is how narratives, aesthetics or gendered gameplay of video games embraces tropes of hypermasculinity. This research aims by approach the gap in previous research by encompassing the disembodied white male subject in the context of outer space in video games, by analyzing complex representations of gender, which sometimes can not necessarily be categorized as “hyper” forms of exaggerated gender representations. This approach necessitates an understanding of philosophical and critical posthumanisms for its investigation of disembodiment and through this addresses a new philosophical framework for video game, television and film studies. Furthermore, the question of imagination of outer space in video games entails more comprehensive interest in the field of game studies, as outer space is by no means a niche or under-presented topic in video games. First ever examples of video games created not for research proposes all involve spaceships and outer space: Spacewar! (Steve Russell, 1962), Galaxy Game (Bill Pitts, Hugh Tuck; 1971), Computer Space (Syzygy Engineering, 1971). This research addresses the under-representation of this issues in game studies and attempts to investigate the interlinked relationship between space travel in real world and its representations and imagination in contemporary science fiction by employing a trans-disciplinary approach.

Research Methods and Design

The aim of this research is to apply a posthumanist analytical framework to cultural representation of space exploration in science fiction film, television and video games.

Based on an in-depth literature review of relevant texts, a critical framework of enquiry drawing upon the fields of posthumanism, gender studies and science fiction studies will be elaborated.

This trans-disciplinary approach will be further enriched by specific methods from the fields of literature-, film-, television- and media- as well as game-studies in order to facilitate a content analysis of a range of different exemplary works in the form of case studies. (Lankoski and Bjork, 2015; Hill and Gibson, 2000)

At present, the works that will be analyzed in more detail are the following (subject to change);

Video games: Mass Effect: Andromeda (BioWare, 2017), No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016)

Television shows: Mars (Ben Young Mason, Justin Wilkes, 2016 - 2018), Lost in Space (Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Zack Estrin; 2018)

Film: Lost in Space (Stephen Hopkins, 1998), Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009), Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015) and Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

About the Supervisor

Dr. Axel Stockburger is relevant as an advisor, because he has done a dissertation in the field of game-studies and has engaged with science fiction and cultural studies in his current research.

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Films & TV

Mars (Ben Young Mason, Justin Wilkes, 2016 - 2018)

Lost in Space (Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Zack Estrin; 2018)

Lost in Space (Stephen Hopkins, 1998)

Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

Passengers (Morten Tyldum, 2016)

Video Games

Mass Effect: Andromeda (BioWare, 2017)

No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016)

Spacewar! (Steve Russell, 1962)

Galaxy Game (Bill Pitts, Hugh Tuck; 1971)

Computer Space (Syzygy Engineering, 1971)

Wing Commander: Privateer (Origin Systems, 1993)

The Dig (LucasArts, 1995)

Eve Online (CCP Games, 2003)

Eve: Valkyrie (CCP Games, 2016)

Elite: Dangerous (Frontier Developments, 2014)

Take on Mars (Bohemia Interactive, 2017)


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