Discover more from Against Mars: Space Colonization and its Discontents
Michel Foucault goes to Mars
Rebirth of the prison, in spaaaace.
Michel Foucault's classic Surveiller et Punir is a surprisingly useful book to understand the project of space colonization. The fan-fiction, the racism and the eugenics, the office park libertarianism, Elon Musk’s dime-store eschatology — all that second-rate sci-fi bullshit is Foucault in space.
Foucault’s argument is well-known: in the course of the transition from monarchy to bourgeois capitalism, new techniques of power were invented to monitor (“surveiller”) and to discipline populations so as to make them more economically productive. At first these techniques were deployed on so-called “deviants”, in the application of sentences. The utilitarian prison, the famous panopticon, created a space where the convicts always felt monitored by the guard, even when they were not. The desired effect was for the prisoners to internalize constant surveillance, and to reform their behavior accordingly. That model of carceral discipline, wherein the subjects are trained to do most of the work of moral correction, was so advantageous and economical that it quickly spread to armies, schools and factories.
These disciplinary institutions combined with what Foucault called “biopolitics” — the modern regime of power that targets the production and the reproduction of life. To Foucault, biopolitics was born of the necessity to control epidemics. During episodes of plague under the Old Regime, cities were closed off and citizens were ordered to quarantine in their homes and to report to the authorities. Officers would walk around the streets and each and everyday, people were to present themselves at their windows. Lists, census tables were drawn up, those alive and those dead were counted and mapped. Implemented as a temporary measure (a medical emergency), the forcible containment and checking of bodies gradually became a regular instrument of population management in society at large.
To Foucault, “power” is at once diffuse and extremely specific. It uses the tools of scientific rationality to monitor, correct and redress individual bodies, to make them fit and ready for labor. Its main instrument is perpetual guilt, the personal, self-reflexive feeling that one is always being watched, supervised and judged. Even more so than Bentham’s penitentiary, Taylor’s method of scientific management is probably the purest form of the kind of power Foucault describes. In Taylor’s workshops, every worker’s gesture is timed, measured and standardized, energy expenditure and replenishment are adjusted, while foremen and managers oversee performance but at a distance. The workers themselves do most of the disciplining, since they know they are always being observed, recorded, quantified.
Foucault’s account is a critique of the Enlightenment. Contrary to the usual (and somewhat naive) narrative of progress and human emancipation, he identified how liberal-capitalist societies generalized control and systematized subservience. Indeed, to Foucault, control and subservience (what he calls “knowledge/power”) were not solely directed at the abnormal, the deviant or the clinically insane — although these were the most visible subjects, swiftly turned and regimented into their own sub-categories of population. Case in point: at first eugenics justified the sterilization of the incarcerated poor, alcoholic and deviant. It later spread from the secret of confined institutions to the rest of society, devolving into a doctrine of population improvement and reproductive discipline (that eugenics is fake, pseudo-science doesn’t matter, what matters is society’s normative control over sexual reproduction).
Eugenics is a good example of the sweeping and universal nature of the disciplinary regime. It is located in each of us, in the most intimate of our psyche, to the point where our desires and our very selves are in fact trained by the constant gaze of power. To an extent, even to those who think of themselves as “free” or socially dominant, freedom and self-determination are a fallacy and an illusion — precisely because both categories are outgrowths of the disciplines. In short, you cannot escape power, regardless of your station in life.
Now let’s do a little fan-fiction. Don’t worry, nothing too wild, just run-of-the-mill pizza joint on Mars stuff.
Space is the promised land of technological discipline. If there is one place where all your vital signs and your body’s fitness will be constantly monitored, it’s space (or Mars, or wherever). It’s necessary, of course: in space you are breathing and living thanks to mechanical devices. Your biological functions and your continued well-being depend entirely on machines that must know about your every movement, every input, every output. But that control goes much deeper than dudes in spacesuits. At its heart, the goal of space colonization is to have babies in space. The objective is sexual policing and population management under extreme environmental conditions — radiation, low gravity, artificial atmosphere, scarcity of means, restriction on movement etc… etc… In the literature on space colonization, you see a lot of folks going into flights of fancy about “mutations” and “speciation”, the sort of casual and cruel Lamarckism of the suburban middle-manager (or astronomer). Who is deemed worthy to reproduce? What happens to those born with malformations? What kind of additional burden do unproductive children put on an enclosed and resource-limited outpost? What education, what training are they subjected to, especially because no-one’s body is fit to live in space?
In their broad outlines, fantasies of space colonization replicate and magnify the world that Foucault painstakingly charted. In space, just like in the quarantined, plague-ridden cities of yore, control and subservience are the prerequisites for survival. They do not guarantee it, but they are nonetheless demanded. Similarly, some form of population control, that is, eugenics, is indispensable. And everyone, even the emperor of Mars, has to live and breathe under the disembodied gaze of the machines that supply air. You are being watched and measured every second of your existence. There is no outside because outside is death.
In a sense, it is ironic that today’s Great Men of Science and capitalist tech lords (or wannabe tech lords) are all agog at the prospect of space colonization. They really want to go there. Obviously, they are not Foucault readers. These disciples of Doctor Pangloss think of it as a great feat of strength or as a mark of their own election, humanity’s vanguard, saviors and whatnot. In the end, they’ll be ruled and crushed by the carceral pettiness of absolute, technologically-enforced discipline, a panopticon where your farts and your every last drop of piss are automatically logged in a database.
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