Please note that this is a draft program subject to change.
Thursday, June 6, 2024
0900 Welcome and Introduction from the Organizers (James Miller and Ben Van Overmeire)
0910 Welcome and Introduction from the ASU Space Intersections Conference (Jack Traphagan)
0930-1030 Keynote 1: Jeff Kripal
Jeffrey Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University. He is the author of many books, including Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion and The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion. he is known worldwide as a leading theorist of religion, the paranormal, and the impossible.
1100-1230 Panel 1: Sincizing Outer Space
The Face of Space: Qian Xuesen and Chinese Astroculture
Alexander C.T. Geppert and Lu Liu
Qian Xuesen (1911–2009), widely recognized as the Chinese ‘father of spaceflight,’ is a household name within China but remains relatively obscure on the international stage. Trained at the California Institute of Technology, he co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory before returning to China in 1955, where he became instrumental in the space program and missile industry. Interrogating the discrepancy, this article investigates the social, cultural, and political rationale behind the making of a space persona. Utilizing digital visualization and reading methods, it charts the transformation of Qian from an aeronautical engineer known only within expert circles to China’s foremost rocket star. The analysis deconstructs key facets of Qian’s public image and explores forces and paradoxes that underlie the ongoing construction of this image. Transforming Qian into the face of space plays a crucial role in popularizing spaceflight activities, rendering outer space a conceivable frontier, and producing a Chinese astroculture. Examining a comprehensive body of visual materials, media reports, over 150 biographies, and posthumous memorialization activities reveals the celebrification of Qian as a carefully orchestrated transmedial project braiding together efforts of the state, science and education institutes, private publishers, professional and amateur writers, and the general public.
“Sinicizing” the Moon: the Promotion of Chinese Astroculture through Lunar Nomenclature
During the last decade, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) paid particular attention to the denomination of the topographical features on the Moon, submitting proposals of names ‘with Chinese characteristics’ to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for the official lunar nomenclature. For example, after the successful mission Chang’e-4, launched in 2018, a cluster of lunar sites was assigned with Chinese names, such as Statio Tianhe for the landing area and Zhinyu, Hegu, and Tianjin for three small craters around it. In trying to interpret the PRC’s interest in “sinicizing” the Moon, this paper looks at a corpus of Chinese names approved by the IAU between 2010 and 2021 as a sign of Beijing’s search for a national astroculture, a set of space-related practices used to promote national cohesion and to enhance the country’s soft power. The assignation of names to the Moon’s terrain is put in the context of the revival of tradition in contemporary China, showing how this operation is, in fact, the enactment of a practice deeply rooted in Chinese culture – the so-called “art of naming”. In doing so, the paper will also discuss how naming the Moon is an exercise of national power that seems to contradict, symbolically at least, the PRC’s rhetoric against the US, accused of claiming territories on the Earth’s satellite in the context of the alleged “New Moon Race”.
Chinese Perspectives on the NASA Voyager Golden Record
Evander Price, CUHK
What message should China send into space? What is the best face to show the cosmos? At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, I introduce my students to the Golden Record, a literal LP—made of gold—strapped to the Voyagers 1 and 2, launched into space in 1977. The Golden Record contains images, greetings, and most importantly, music, all meant as a collective snapshot of humankind to whoever (aliens maybe?) might retrieve one or the other of these golden gifts in some distant future. Safe in the erosionless vacuum of space, these golden records might very well be the most lasting vestige of humankind into eternity. Such an object is rife with mythical and religious interpretations. As an exercise, I ask my (mostly) Chinese students to propose what they think is missing from the Golden Record and make an argument for what they might add. The actual Golden Record contains only one piece of music from China,“流水”. In this paper, I analyze my students’responses to this strange, far-flung object, and consider what it means to them to make a Chinese Gen-Z Golden Record.
1400-1600 Panel 2: Comparative Perspectives
The Question Concerning Technology in Outer Space
In 1961, Heidegger proclaimed the dawning of a new era. He called it the “Rocket Age”(2000, 577). He thought Sputnik ruptured the fabric of history, meaning that rockets were not merely a new technology but that they brought a new cosmology. He felt they had so radically changed the relationship between the earth and the celestial sphere that the fundamental distinctions underwriting occidental metaphysics were shattered. That implied that the very relationship between words and world, the poetically generated sense of the order and place of the human with respect to what might be called the whole, were annihilated. As he himself put it: “There is neither ‘earth’ nor ‘heaven’ in the sense of man’s poetic dwelling on this earth. What the rocket’s orbit achieves is the technical realization of what since three centuries has always more exclusively and decisively been framed as Nature and which now stands as a universal, interstellar, standing reserve. The rocket’s orbit pushes ‘earth and heaven’ into oblivion” (2020, 157). The question thus arises: after the loss of heaven and earth, what remains? Moreover, is this cosmological deconstruction planetary, affecting not only western metaphysics but all terrestrial aesthetic orders, including Chinese thought? Is it a catastrophe after all and for all, or merely a re-articulation and an opening? This paper will pursue these questions, foundational for thinking critically about contemporary astroculture, in conversation with Yuk Hui’s presentation of what he calls Chinese “cosmotechnics” (Hui 2016, 2020).
Dreaming of Space in the USSR
It is generally accepted among Cold War historians that space exploration on both the Soviet and American sides is primarily related to the goal of achieving military-strategic priority. Thus, in the USSR, enormous financial, scientific, and human resources were spent on the intercontinental missile project starting in the mid-1940s. However, it was not only the interest in state security that drove the space exploration process. The key figures who were directly involved in the development and production of space technology were driven not only by the desire to prove the superiority of communism over capitalism. These Soviet engineers and scientists at the dawn of the space age regarded space as the main source of energy that fuelled their boundless enthusiasm. The latter was not backed by hopes of world fame (due to the secrecy of the entire sector), nor by material benefits in their Western sense, nor by guarantees of personal safety (just remember the purges of the 1930s). So, what drove these pioneers of Soviet space? Based on their memoirs, as well as biographies written by their relatives, contemporaries, and historians, I will try to reconstruct the ideas about space that guided the space explorers in the USSR at the early stage of the Cold War.
Dark Space in NewSpace: Jeff Bezos’s “Great Inversion,” William Shatner’s “Black Ugliness,” and the History of the Cosmological Imagination
On 13 October 2021, the second crewed flight by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin company included the actor William Shatner, famous for his role in the original Star Trek series of 1966–69. One of few civilians to witness stratospheric descent in daytime, Shatner singled out the experience in a widely reported post-flight statement, notable for its emphatically negative response to space: ‘[E]verybody in the world needs to do this. […] To see the blue colour whip by you, and now you’re staring into blackness’, ‘black ugliness’, and ‘death’. Drawn from a larger project titled When Did Space Turn Dark?, the paper discusses Shatner’s statement, along with the ‘NewSpace’ moment more generally, as episodes in the long shift from bright to dark space in the Western cosmological imagination. Analysis of the statement reveals it as a carefully coached performance, promoting not only Bezos’s space tourism venture but also his concept of the ‘Great Inversion’: a model of space colonization influenced by the work of Gerard O’Neill, where heavy industry is moved off-Earth, preserving the planet as humanity’s ‘national park’. The paper situates these developments within broader perspectives on the perceived colour of space and its complex cultural and political dynamics.
Transcendence of Time and Space: Outer Space Religion as a Trans-Cultural Phenomenon
The idea that imaginings of outer space exploration and religion are intertwined has been gaining traction during the last 10 years. Before this it was common to argue that UFOs and religion are connected, just as it was common to point out the religious dimensions of what I call “psycho-occult” ways of exploring outer space and the encounter with extraterrestrial beings. Likewise is has been pointed out that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence displays spiritual dimensions. The appearance of religious sentiments in these areas indicates that a common spiritual ground unites them. This common ground might be termed “outer space religion” and its mythos can be uncovered by studying science fiction. Stipulating that sci-fi is apocalyptic in nature, apocalypticism is the key to unlocking the religious underpinnings of both space exploration, SETI, the UFO-phenomenon (when seen as origination from outer space) and psycho-occult experiences of outer space. Theoretical in nature this paper explores the possibility that a common outer space religious mythos unites the aforementioned areas across cultures, from the West to the East, the latter exemplified by science fiction movies such as the Indian Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) and the Chinese Wandering Earth (2019).
1630-1730 Keynote 2: Su Meng
Su Meng, founder and chief scientist of Origin Space is one of the world’s leading space scientists. Professor Su received his BSc from Peking University and his PhD in astrophysics from Harvard University. He received a Pappalardo fellowship from MIT, an Einstein fellowship from NASA (now part of the NASA Hubble Fellowship Program), and was the co-winner of the 2014 Bruno Rossi prize for high-energy astrophysics for the discovery of the bubble structure of the Milky Way.
Friday, June 7
0930-1030 Keynote 3: Mary-Jane Rubinstein
Mary-Jane Rubenstein is a philosopher of science and religion and author, most notably, of Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race. Her work offers a vision of exploring space without reproducing the atrocities of earthly colonialism, and encourages stories that put cosmic caretaking over corporate profiteering.
1030-1100 Coffee Break
1100-1230 Panel 3: Vision, Technology and Media
Native Soil Goes to Space: Chinese Planetary Fictions in the Anthropocene
Focusing on the new Chinese science fiction wave in the literary, cinematic and visual art scenes, this presentation offers an ecocritical examination of recent fictional narratives that center on space travel, and discuss how they could foster transcalar perspectives and tackle ecological concerns across local, global, and planetary scales. Drawing from examples such as Chen Qiufan’s short story “Space Leek”(2019) and Liu Chuang’s multi-screen video art installation “Lithium Lake and the Lonely Island of Polyphony” (2023), this presentation explores how Chinese “planetary fictions” navigate the intricate balance between local/regional and global planetary concerns. Do we see a revival of the spirit of “native soil” (xiangtu) and hometown writing that characterized the 20th century modern Chinese literature in recent works about space travel and exploration? How do they expand the notion of “home” in the Anthropocene present and the post-Anthropocene future? This presentation argues for a need to develop a comparative, pluralistic ecocritical paradigm that is built upon concepts such as eco-cosmopolitanism (Heise 2008); cosmopolitics/ cosmotechnics (Hui 2017,2021); and classical Daoist and Confucian thoughts, in order to examine the interplay between technology and religion, modernity and tradition, when facing the environmental challenges in the Anthropocene epoch.
Technoecological Eyes: The Compound Eyes in Space and Nature
In 2018, China started constructing a new radar system called “China’s Compound Eye” to observe asteroids and Earth-like planets for planetary defense. Inspired by insects’ compound eyes, this system employs an array of smaller radars to extend its reach into deeper space, overcoming the constraints of traditional centralized aperture radar systems. Similarly named, Wu Mingyi’s ecofiction The Man with the Compound Eyes portrays a natural environment inundated with the detritus of modern material civilization from a non-anthropocentric perspective. Thinking with Latour’s actor–network theory, this paper juxtaposes this space exploration radar system with this ecofiction to explore the relationship between human, animal, nature, and space. Focusing on the concept of compound eyes, this paper studies the plural form of vision and the extended vision, investigating how multifaceted perspectives can lead to a comprehensive understanding of complex systems, and how this extended cognition/perception can shape our relationship with environment and space. By drawing a parallel between the planetary defense purpose of “China’s Compound Eyes” and the allegorical “man with compound eyes” Wu’s fiction—an anthropomorphization of nature/a mosaic vision of nature—this paper argues that how scientific and artistic expressions offer dialectical insights into the dynamic between technology, human, the Earth and beyond.
Elemental Mediality of Light: Infrared Waves in Cosmic Information Ecologies
Situated within the nascent field of outer space humanities, this contribution brings together recent scholarship focused on exploration of media affordances of waves (Greenspan 2023, Helmreich 2023) with the concept of elemental media (Peters 2015, Schuppli 2020), while applying these theoretical elaborations to the context of contemporary space exploration, mostly in the field of exoplanet astronomy (Turrini 2022). By doing so, it poses two key questions: What does exoplanet research tell us about the nature of mediation and information on cosmic scales? How are these insights relevant for conceptualizing human condition in the Anthropocene? Answering these questions, the first part of this contribution introduces research of exoplanet atmospheres using analysis of emission and absorption spectra of infrared light waves (Seager 2010), and it theorizes these light waves as cosmic information infrastructure if sorts, using the vocabulary of elemental media (Jue and Ruiz 2021). The second part of the paper then turns the focus to the discussion of waves as both metaphors and media phenomena, elaborating especially on Anna Greenspan’s unique synthesis of media theory with Chinese thinking. The paper then concludes with addressing the human condition in Anthropocene through concepts of human mediality (Likavčan 2023) and cosmic media ecologies.
1400-1530 Space Research At DKU: Scientific Perspectives
- Kai Huang
- Changcheng Zheng
- Marcus Werner
1530-1600 Coffee Break
1600-1730 Space Research at DKU: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
Gaia Theory as a Cosmological Investigation of Buddhist Dharma
Travis Wilkerson, Ding Ma, and Erin Wilkerson
Gaia theory, developed by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis, is a hypothesis that the Earth is a self-regulating and complex system of entanglement of matter that works towards the homeostasis necessary to maintain life, questioning the western binary between organic and inorganic and their perceived sentience, or lack thereof. This work was expanded by biologist and anthropologist Donna Haraway’s work on “sympoiesis,” wherein multispecies entanglement, or the diversity of species working in collaboration, is described as essential for the prevention of mass extinction. Some of these relationships are currently understood, such as lichen as a composite organism of fungi and algae, and the inseparability of rocks and the carbon cycle, but many of these relationships, in regards to microscopic organisms and other scales beyond human visibility, remain unknown, making the extractive policies of the Anthropocene, and accompanying climate change, particularly troublesome. Buddhist dharma’s cosmic law provides an opportunity to explore Gaia theory in an expanded scale, looking out towards the cosmos. This can be read alongside physicist and posthumanist theorist Karen Barad’s “agential realism” and her investigation of the materiality of nothingness, wherein she describes void as anything but empty. Utilizing Graeme L. Sullivan’s practice-led research methodology of collaborative cross-disciplinary invention, this panel will also function as sympoietic inquiry.
1930-2130 Film Screening and Discussion with Travis Wilkerson and Erin Wilkerson
- A Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)
- Pluto Declaration (Travis Wilkerson, 2011)
Saturday, June 8
0930-1100 Panel 4: Sinicizing Outer Space
Bridging Traditions: The Confluence of Eastern Philosophies and Space Exploration in China’s Contemporary Astroculture
This paper aims to explore the intersection of Eastern philosophical and religious traditions with contemporary space exploration efforts in China, drawing a contrast with Western narratives in astroculture. China’s burgeoning space program, reflecting its rich cultural and scientific heritage, offers a distinct perspective on outer space, diverging from the dominant Western narratives often influenced by Christian ideology and the notion of space as a frontier to conquer. By examining the philosophical and religious underpinnings of China’s space endeavours, the paper seeks to uncover how traditional Eastern thought, particularly Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, interplays with the nation’s aspirations and ethos in space exploration. This analysis will highlight how these age-old philosophies might inform and shape China’s approach to extra-terrestrial exploration, ethical considerations in encountering alien life, and the broader implications for global space norms. The paper will contribute to the dialogue on global astroculture by providing an alternative viewpoint, one rooted in Asian cosmologies and ethical systems, thereby enriching the discourse on humanity’s place in the universe and our collective responsibility towards our home planet in the face of space exploration.
Exploring the Philosophical Underpinnings: Buddhism and the Possibility of Extraterrestrial (=Alien) Life
Ujjwal Kumar and Haoqin Zhong
The concept of extraterrestrial life and its relation to Buddhism sparks contemplation regarding the existence of beings beyond our planet. Buddhism, primarily focused on understanding suffering and the nature of existence, does not put much emphasis on the existence of aliens, though the mahabodhisattvas and devas in Trāyastriṃśa (Pāli Tāvatiṃsa; thirty-three heavens) might have reminded us of the modern concept of extraterrestrial life. Moreover, its philosophical perspectives offer intriguing parallels and considerations when pondering the idea of extraterrestrial life. This paper will explore the intersection between Buddhism and the concept of aliens, emphasizing the multiplicity of worlds in Buddhist cosmology and its implications for contemplating the existence of extraterrestrial beings.
On Star work and Dharma: Contemporary Buddhist Visioning of the Universal and the Universe
For many people around the world the experience of the night is heavily mediated by the presence of electric lighting which, whilst illuminating building interiors and city streets, simultaneously conceals the night sky. Yet, as the heavens recede behind artificial lighting and smog, there is a new wave of ambition for travelling into outer space. This talk will look at a Buddhist community in Western Australia for whom the contemplative practices of absorption animate an expansive vision of the Earth’s place in the solar system, while other practices such as Star Work encourage an experiential mode of exploring the cosmos. Within Buddhism light, and its capacity to illuminate, is often seen in opposition to darkness and ignorance. Electric lights are frequently used to enhance the revelry of Buddhist festivals, yet the night time can provide a space for quietude and reflection. Buddhist practitioners frequently sit in dimly lit rooms, reading mantras, practicing meditation and carrying out rituals before dawn. Buddhist astrologers interpret the stars, and the lucent glow of the full Moon is auspicious, marking important ritual dates and the renewal of calendars. This talk will offer an exploration of the dynamic tensions between the partial divorce with the cosmos attendant to obscuration, the vertiginous immersion of an unobstructed night sky and modernist imaginaries of intergalactic travel from a Buddhist perspective.
1100-1130 Coffee Break
1130-1230 Keynote 4: Chen Qiufan
Chen Qiufan (aka Stanley Chan) is one of China’s leading science fiction authors, and a translator, creative producer, and curator. He is a Berggruen Institute Fellow and a Yale University research scholar, and co-author, with former Google China president Kai-Fu Lee, of AI 2041: Ten Visions for our Future.
1230-1300 Closing Ceremony and Photograph
Please contact James Miller <email@example.com> or Ben Van Overmeire <firstname.lastname@example.org> if you have any questions.