Cultural anthropologist Gerald Zhang-Schmidt argues that the modern terra incognita is found in the mysteries of culture rather than the frontiers of space.
Blank Spots on the Modern Map
Exploration seems a thing of the past. All that’s left is the frontier of space, but “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is the domain of science fiction (at least so far). Nowadays, if you want to become known through adventure, you have to run up mountains or be the first to traverse all of a continent running. Yet these are physical feats, not feats that serve the purpose of discovering something new. The blank spots on Earth, the “here be dragons” have been visited. The adventurous traveler must content himself with other perils: the local who serves him dog to eat. There are no more dragons. In fact, nowadays, there may be tourists there, and an internet café just around the corner.
Only too often, though, the familiarity hides other kinds of blank spots. In this age of tourists and adventurers, cultural anthropologists are a case of people in-between. Traditionally, they were quite close to explorers. Cultural anthropologists, of course, have sought out exotic peoples rather than peculiar geographies; reaching an uninhabited North Pole has no use when you seek to understand human cultures, after all. They also have different methods: it is standard practice to conduct long-term fieldwork with one group of people, not range far and wide. Anthropologists’ acceptance of “cultural relativism” has also, at times, separated them from explorers: one needs to understand a cultural phenomenon from within the logic of the society it belongs to, not interpret and judge it from the perspective of one’s own cultural background.
Still, cultural anthropologists were oftentimes quite public figures, rather like explorers, becoming well known for bringing back news of “the other” and their exotic ways. The whole fascination of the discipline, after all, came from the stories of persons who went out to live among other – maybe “primitive,” maybe just different – peoples and regaled us with stories of how diverse and wondrous human diversity is. Even when Japan experienced its economic boom of the 1980’s, a large part of the fascination was their different ways of thinking and acting (expressed even in popular culture, e.g. the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice,” or Michael Crichton’s novel – and the movie adaptation of it – “Rising Sun”). Recently, China has taken over the role of the powerful, yet mysterious, Asian rival that is increasingly close, yet strangely different.
Here we come full circle to how today is different: one can no longer go out to many places where no tourist has tread before. In fact, because of globalization, the traveler feels as if she has seen the world already, and while many places are still fun to visit (if exotic enough), there is nothing truly new.
Yet, even as the formerly exotic “Other” has come increasingly close – with economic globalization, with international migration – it is all the more unknown. It is even rejected for being too close for comfort, if it does not meet our terms of engagement. You find “Chinese” food virtually everywhere, but adapted to the local palate rather than how it is in China (and not just by omitting dog from the menu); you find “American culture,” but it’s really just Hollywood and McDonald’s, blue jeans and pizza.
It may not be possible to go out and find something new that will make one known as the first person to have seen it. However, the exploration of blank spots of our own personal knowledge, hidden by the superficial familiarity gained from TV and internet, has become all the more important, and worthwhile – and it is a whole treasure trove of possible experiences: about other peoples, about this planet’s ecology, and often beginning with our own cities and neighborhoods. How well do you know the people and paths in your community or the species that dwell in your own backyard?
Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is a cultural anthropologist and ecologist from Austria, specialized on East Asia. For the last two and a half years he has been living in China, working as German lecturer while researching and writing on what it means to be “at
home… in China”. He is also working on the ecology of happiness and has an enduring fascination with chili peppers and their cultural-culinary significance.
We’re free to fly the crimson sky
the sun won’t melt our wings tonight
take me higher
you take me higher
“Even Better Than the Real Thing” U2
In 1996, professor Richard Bartle wrote that explorers “try to find out as much as they can… mapping [the world's] topology.” Bartle was not talking about astronauts or cavers, but gamers. A developer of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), Bartle challenged the idea of MUDs as games in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they were complex social environments that attracted different players for different reasons: to gain points, to socialize with others , to kill opponents, or to explore the game environment.
To call a basement-dwelling, pajama-wearing gamer an explorer might seem absurd. There is difference between exploring virtual worlds and real ones. Still Bartle’s paper raises interesting questions. Is an explorer defined by places traveled, by worldly action? Or is “explorer” an identity, something that exists as a mode of personality? If the latter, does the real world matter at all? If so, how much? What is the role, if any, of simulation within the field of exploration?
This last question may seem better suited for science-fiction literature than sociology. The sci-fi world is populated by virtual travelers: Ender Wiggin of Ender’s Game, Neo of The Matrix, CLU of Tron, Henry Case of Neuromancer, and Jake Sully of Avatar. The list is long.
Yet simulations exist in the “real world” of exploration too. NASA conducts a number of “analog” expeditions: in the desert, in the Arctic, and underwater to provide training and allow trouble-shooting for other missions. Says NASA:
Analogs provide NASA with data about strengths, limitations, and the validity of planned human-robotic exploration operations, and help define ways to combine human and robotic efforts to enhance scientific exploration.
They have other functions too. Anthropologist Valerie Olson points out that analog missions function as justifications for the broader idea of human spaceflight. The analog mission community tend to see these simulations as more “real” than others, authentic human programs rather than robotic expeditions or computer simulations.
The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), for example, takes pride in the danger and scientific rigor of each expedition. Says one NEEMO technician “This is a real and real shit happens.” [Quoted from Olson, "American Extreme: An Ethnography of Astronautical Visions and Ecologies," Ph.D Thesis, Rice University, p. 63]
Yet “mere” computer simulations also contribute to modern exploration in ways that cannot be ignored. X-15 test pilots such as Neil Armstrong (yes that Neil Armstrong) used flight simulators to train, preparing themselves for the difficult conditions of hypersonic travel 65 miles (100 km) about the earth.
In the end, however, simulators could not adequately prepare pilots for the challenges of flying in the upper atmosphere. At lower altitudes, the X-15 behaved like a plane, and pilots relied on wing surfaces to steer through an ocean of air. At higher altitudes the X-15 acted like a rocket, and pilots used reaction thrusters to change direction. Moving from one set of controls to the other at the boundaries of space, however, proved extremely difficult especially when traveling 4000 mph (6500 kph).
Engineers at North American solved this problem by placing one of the X-15 flight simulators (the MH-96) into the X-15 itself. The pilot would, in effect, fly the simulator. The simulator then translated the pilot’s actions to the aircraft. As Steve Mindell writes in his book Digital Apollo:
The MH-96 could cause the “real” X-15 to fly like an “ideal” one, which would make it behave exactly the same under all flight conditions, from the vacuum of space right down to the ground. It would automatically mix the reaction controls and aerodynamic controls, so that the pilot only needed one control stick, whether flying in the atmosphere or in space, or during reentry. [Mindell, 58]
In short, simulators were not just for practice: they were an integral part of the mission itself. As for the test pilots, they were not entirely unlike the pj-clad gamer holed up in the basement. Humans can only survive at the boundaries of space by being protected from space. While the pilot/astronaut is going to places never traveled, she is doing so cocooned within a space suit, cockpit, and environmentally controlled capsule. Says Mindell:
The X-15 was an unusual craft to fly. The pilot could not see the nose, and he could not see the wings. His full pressure suit wrapped him up tight and isolated him from the outside world. He could not feel or touch anything directly other than the suit and gloves. He could smell nothing other than the pure oxygen he was breathing. In [test pilot Milt] Thompson’s words, “I was in my own little world. I was comfortable and secure and protected from harm.” [Mindell, Digital Apollo, 54]
This is the irony of exploration technology in general, and simulation technology in particular: they allow us to go longer, further, and faster even as they prevent us from experiencing such feats directly. They take us higher into universe even as they keep it out of reach.
I’ve been slow to update the past two weeks, due to the collision of teaching and writing projects. One of these projects, an essay for an edited collection, looks at the relationship of science and exploration in historical context. I’m including the first paragraphs of the intro below, just so you don’t think I’m playing foosball.
Westerners began to think differently about exploration in the nineteenth century. Whereas they once talked about it as a fascination, a symbol of progress, they began referring to it a “fever”: something rampant, contagious, and immune to reason. During this period, explorers poured out of Europe and the United States for regions remote and dangerous. Some raced to the limits of latitude, to stand first at the polar axes.
Others set off for the equatorial regions seeking lost tribes, lost cities, and lost explorers. Survey expeditions mapped the American West, inventoried the ocean depths, and facilitated the “Scramble for Africa.” States sponsored some of these efforts. Museums and universities sponsored others. Meanwhile private adventurers set off to write, photograph, and hunt their way through the world’s remaining terrae incognitae.
Taken together these activities produced oceans of text: articles, technical papers, and personal narratives. One writer for Nature, buried by stacks of expedition literature waiting to be reviewed, wondered what was driving the process. Did exploration fever grow out of a deeper love of science, a “craving for knowledge by stronger stimulants than can be obtained by books” ? Or was it —as the metaphor of fever implied— beyond human control, an affliction activated by some instinctive desire, “a remote ancestral habit which still clings to us.” If it was the latter then science would seem to be artifice, a veneer applied to expeditionary endeavors in order to mask true motives, deeper and atavistic urges that lured explorers up mountains and into malarial jungles.
 Robinson, Michael, The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 159-164; Robinson, “Maybe I Was Wrong” http://timetoeatthedogs.com/2009/01/29/maybe-i-was-wrong/
 “Two Amateur Explorers,” Nature 13: 264 (3 Feb 1876)
Notes from Montreal
Montreal: place of cobblestones and canals, of spicy Pho and this year’s History of Science Society (HSS) meeting (and Philosophy of Science Association meeting, PSA).
The conference was my introduction to the Toronto bloggers who are tearing through the HSS/PSA neighborhood. I met Jaipreet Virdi who writes From the Hands of Quacks and Aaron Wright, author of False Vacuum. Justin Curtis and Mike Thicke from The Bubble Chamber were also in attendance but we didn’t cross paths. To all of you: keep up the excellent work!
Of the travel and exploration panels I attended, I was most impressed with a talk by Christopher Parsons (University of Toronto) on 17th century French settlers in North America. He argued that these settlers organized species according to a generalized “folk taxonomy.” While exploration scholars often highlight reports of marvels and wonders, Parsons described the reverse: settlers cataloging new plants and animals according to the most general and conventional of categories.
A Short Rant
One thing I also appreciated about Christopher’s talk was the way he delivered it: framed by issues, guided by images, and given from notes. Some other presenters did not do these things adequately: giving little context, offering no images or outlines, and reading from the text.
I don’t understand this.
Most historians make their living by teaching. Most of the ones I know are attentive, innovative, passionate teachers. They care about communicating ideas. They engage their students and foster their interests in history.
What happens when we go to conferences? What force transmutes vibrant instructors into paper-reading scholastics? Who decided that the best way to present one’s ideas was to sound like a medieval instructor lecturing at the University of Paris?
I’ve heard many arguments for why academics read papers: “It’s the only way to fit my material into 20 minutes.” “I need to be precise.” “I get too nervous to go from notes.””I can write my papers in a conversational style.”
All of this may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that someone speaking from notes is easier to understand than someone reading from a text; the words and cadence are more natural and, I think, better able to carry the weight of a complex argument. I don’t have hard data on this, but consider this: most of us would recoil at the idea of reading a lecture to our students. If we wouldn’t suffer this upon students, why do it to our peers? What’s the point of maximizing time, precision, or peace of mind if, in the process, we lose the attention of our audience?
Ethics of Exploration
In other news, Peter Stanford challenges the heroism of modern day adventurers in his article in the Independent (Thanks to Richard Nelsson for alerting me to this). The article complements longer treatments of this issue by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild) and Maria Coffey (Where the Mountains Casts Its Shadow).
Curtis Forbes, writing at The Bubble Chamber, discusses the discovery of the exoplanet Gliese 581g and the hype its generated in the media as the “Goldilocks Planet.” Forbes convincingly argues that the eagerness to imagine this world as an earth-like place tells us more about culture here than environmental conditions there. Meanwhile, Cosmic Variance has raised questions about the concentration of space science funding into the James Webb Space Telescope which is scheduled to replace the Hubble Telescope in 2014.
As NASA enters the post-Constellation era, I think we will be seeing a lot more debates about science and space funding.
Last week explorer Mikael Strandberg published an interesting post on his blog about Academics vs. Explorers . The post described some of the tensions that exist between explorers and university professors on issues related to exploration. I think that many of Mikael’s points ring true: academics are less than comfortable at times collaborating with travelers and explorers on matters of geography, science, anthropology, and exploration.
Why? I think there are a couple of reasons.
First, academics usually approach their subject matter from a specific viewpoint or research methodology. For example, anthropologists, field biologists, archeologists, and historians all have different frameworks for understanding the world and its peoples. Information obtained from explorers (or other fields) often doesn’t fit very well within these frameworks and, therefore, remains difficult to integrate. Most travelers and explorers, by necessity, need to approach new peoples and new regions with versatility, sensitivity, and creativity. They do not have the time to settle in one place the way an anthropologist does. They cannot carry thousands of pounds of equipment the way archeologists do. They cannot afford to set up their travels as controlled experiments.
Second, academics often don’t know how to categorize explorers. For example, as a historian of exploration, I am interested in the culture, experience, activities, ideas, and biases of explorers. This is the subject of my research. Working with explorers is exciting for me because it sometimes gives me insight into the historical expeditions that I focus on in my work. But it can sometimes also be uncomfortable because I don’t know which hat to wear. Am I a colleague listening to a fellow expert in the field? Or am I an anthropologist, analyzing my subject for information about his or her ideas, beliefs, and behaviors?
Still I think that academics and explorers would benefit from closer contact.
One way explorers might help professionals in general (and academics in particular) is in thinking outside the disciplinary box. Sometimes my greatest insights come from sources far removed from my field of expertise in the history of science and exploration. As Will Thomas has pointed out at Ether Wave Propaganda, historians sometimes forget that their “subjects” are often sophisticated observers of events and their place within them.
One way that explorers might benefit from academics is in looking at exploration more critically. I often hear travelers and explorers speak about exploration in rather visionary terms: as a way of escaping overly commercialized and routinized life in order to find a “core” self….or as a deep-seated, instinctive behavior that humans express in order to achieve their full humanity. While these ideas are inspiring, they don’t really conform with data on the history of explorers and exploration.
Christopher Columbus, Robert Peary, and NASA astronauts all reached “new worlds” far away from the civilizations they knew. Yet all of them remained deeply invested in the practical and personal payoffs of exploration back home (eg. fame, glory, professional advancement). My research leads me to believe that the desire to explore flows as much from the influence of modern culture as it does from our innate drives or inner curiosity.
In the end, however, I am fine if academics and explorers don’t see eye-to-eye as long as they keep talking to each other face to face.
For other posts here on related subjects see:
So much exploration news rolls through the wires that it’s impossible to write posts about all of it, even a small fraction of it. So I tweet when I can, but 140 characters is not a lot of space to offer analysis or even useful links. So I am going to the occasional round-up here: a short, annotated, links page to developing stories. Think of it as a expeditionary snack: more calories than a tweet, less filling than a post.
The biggest exploration story out of the high Arctic in recent weeks is adventurer Bear Grylls’s report of finding human bones, tools, and large campfire remains near King William’s Island. He suggested that these might have been the remains and artifacts of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition of 1845. Russell Potter has been following the story closely on his blog Visions of the North.
Roger Launius’s Blog profiles former NASA administrator Dan Goldin lecture about NASA’s efforts in astrobiology. The Journal of Cosmology just published a special issue Colonizing Mars: The Human Mission to the Red Planet. Many of the essays are quite pro-Mars. Mine is not. In The Problem of Human Missions to Mars I discuss the reasons why plans for human missions to Mars (and there have been many) never seem to go anywhere.
Mikael Strandberg takes up the issue of Fakes and Cheats in exploration, focusing on the motives of explorers in lying about their claims. This issue has a long history, one that I’ve written about here in regards to the North Pole Controversy of 1909. Yet its a subject that never seems to goes away. The claims of high-altitude climbers routinely come into question today. In January, ExplorersWeb wrote an editorial about rampant fabrication of claims by climbers in the Karakorum. More recently, Jake Norton, author of The MountainWorld Blog, discussed the revelation of speed-climber Christian Stangl’s faked climb of K2. The BBC also challenged Oh Eun-Sun’s claim to be the fastest women to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks. Yet not everyone’s ducking the hard routes. Those Who Dared profiles the survival stories of climbers who barely made it back. And for some brilliant photos of climbers in the field, The MountainWorld Blog features photos from Sir Younghusband’s 1903 expedition to Tibet. The Asia Society’s Rivers of Ice project offers a more sobering photographic record of the Himalaya today, chronicling, in mega-pixel detail, the effects of global warming on glaciers.
There is a scholar, call him Mr X, who received his training within the academy, but who found it wasn’t enough. He wanted more: to move outside of his wonky circle of colleagues, to engage the public, to communicate ideas in a manner that was artful as well as illuminating.
While his peers wrote difficult books and debated obscure issues at their meetings, Mr X took part in the communication revolution that was bringing academic ideas into greater contact with the wider world. He wrote shorter pieces for broader audiences, telling one colleague “Publish small works often and you will dominate all of literature.” So when Mr X was offered a position far away from his bustling city home, he took it, feeling that his community was no longer defined by geography but by ideas, communicated through the new social technologies.
The new social technologies wern’t blogs or Web 2.0 applications, but the pamphlet and the salon. Mr X is not Steven Jay Gould or PZ Myers but Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, an 18th century French explorer and polymath who led a geodetic expedition to Lapland in 1736.
Maupertuis is usually remembered as the scholar who described the actual shape of the earth by measuring a degree of arc at high latitude. In so doing, he helped settle a dispute with French cartographer Jacques Cassini over whether the earth was prolate (that is, longer along its N-S axis), or oblate (longer along its diameter at the equator). Cassini believed that the earth was prolate like a lemon. Maupertuis, following in the footsteps of Newton, helped prove that it was oblate like a jelly donut.
Yet as Mary Terrall points out in her book The Man Who Flattened The Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences of the Enlightenment, Maupertuis’s most interesting work takes place back home as he tries to make a name for himself in this new theater of conversation, a world that connects elite academies and educated polite society.
As I read about the radical effects of social technology on academic writing and reputation today, I wonder: how much of this is really new? Perhaps the boundaries between elite institutions and general public have always been squishier than we’ve made them out to be. Blogs and twitter feeds feel so new, so world changing, because they have in fact changed the world we live in, the way we communicate with friends, peers, and random passers-by. Yet it’s bound to feel like this. The flood feels strongest when you’re standing in the middle of the stream. The story of Maupertuis makes me think that it is a seasonal event, a spring flood that returns with some regularity, the latest iteration of social technology (and sociable science writing) that probably dates to the printing press. Vive le café.