I just want to get this idea out there before it fizzles. That is to say, this isn’t a completely researched thought, just an observation with some meat on it.
Yesterday I read an Alter Net article, written by Tad Daley, about Why Progressives Should Care about Human Destiny in Space. If you don’t know, Alter Net is a self-identified liberal news-outlet, and attracts probably a largely self-identified liberal readership. In light of that I was surprised, though not entirely, by the comments in response to this reasonable plea for renewing interest in and funding for space travel. Most of them were negative, and either flat-out called space travel a pipe-dream or, while not objecting to space travel in the abstract, argued that we should “focus on making life better on Earth first.”
This kind of response, though particularly the latter, stinks of the ideological rationale Zizek attributes to the regression of Left Wing politics. It’s what Zizek, in The Sublime Object of Ideology borrowing from Peter Sloterdijk, argues as “Cynicism as a Form of Ideology.” In America at least, we know very good and well that the space program is underfunded by all standards. However, the most common critique against the space program, the most popular among even liberals, is that it costs too much. No one is for one minute going to say that defense spending or consumer goods cost less than the space program, and yet no one is going to suggest that these areas should be gutted before something like the space program is. In other words, they know perfectly well that the space program doesn’t cost nearly as much money as most other areas of spending, private or public, though they act as if it did.
Daley notes that Carl Sagan made with some prescience the observation that space travel is subversive. That comes from a passage in Sagan’s most famous book, Contact, which couchs the subversive quality of space travel in a context of nationalism. It’s subversiveness goes beyond the vulgar politics of nationalism though. It is obvious that seriously turning our collective activity towards space travel means turning it away, not from the poor, the sick, or the environment, but from Capitalism. It means turning the frenetic activity of Capitalist production and the kind of activism it allows into useful and directed endevours—not just space travel, but all the ills of this planet and its inhabitants.
To most liberal-progressives seriously turning towards space travel appears as impossible, if not utterly invisible. To the extent that it doesn’t, to the extent that science gives us glimpses of its feisability, it appears to them as repugnant. This is why they will reproach the space program in terms of helping the poor, the sick, or the environment. It is this impossibility or grotesque closeness of revolutionary change that Zizek critiques in Repeating Lenin. What is maintained in the cynics’ reproach is not the possibility of better alternatives to how we organize society or treat the Earth, but the positive impossibility of any alternatives.
The point is obviously not that we can create utopia if we establish a colony on the moon or whatever. Rather, it is an ardent rejection of the “until this…” rationale that we apply to serious endevours like feeding the world, going to the stars, taking better care of the environment, or all of those at the same time, which feigns practical caution when all it is reactionary, false pragmatism. It is not that utopia flows from the rocket exhaust as we barrel towards Mars, but that opening up the possibility to as species collectively enact those kinds of projects embodies freedom.