What is “astroculture”?

“Astroculture" is a term that identifies a particular field of study within research in cultural history. As it is central to this particular blog, there is good reason to examine the meaning of the word in some detail.

Defining "astroculture"

The book Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan and in the preface the editor, Alexander C. T. Geppert, introduces the concept "astroculture". In what follows I will, by and large, paraphrase Geppert’s presentation of the concept, with a few ideas and observations of my own thrown in for good measure.

Geppert presents several definitions of astroculture. The one that will likely become the most cited runs like this: “astroculture comprises a heterogeneous array of images and artifacts, media and practices that all aim to ascribe meaning to outer space while stirring both the individual and the collective imagination.”

The emptiness of outer space

The breakthrough of the Copernican worldview accentuated the Earth’s insignificance by removing it from the centre of the solar system and inserting the sun instead. The medieval celestial spheres were shattered and the unknown depths of a vast universe took their place.

As a reaction, a flood of attempts to fill the void arose in the form of stories, pictures, poems, philosophical theses, theological treaties, astronomical works, films, toys, comics, computer games, etc.

It is all these diverse and varied cultural products that have now collectively been given the term "astroculture". Geppert’s focus is particularly on the so-called “Space Age" of the 20th century and one of the questions he asks is whether one can say that this age has now ended or not.

The study of astroculture

So, there are vast amounts of source material for the historian to throw himself at and the continual production of astrocultural artifacts seems to be unstoppable. But why is it relevant to study them?

According to Geppert, the Copernican revolution has never really been fully completed. This means that the ideas that rushed in to fill the emptiness of the modern conception of outer space are largely geocentric and thus reflects earthly humanity’s fears and longings, and hope and despair in face of this new vast domain.

Thus, in the various expressions of astroculture the historian finds important source material that complements other forms of cultural source material. Conversely, Geppert hopes, historians of astroculture will learn from the theories and methodological apparatus of mainstream cultural history and apply them to the study of astroculture.

The overall project is to de-exotisise astroculture as an academic subject and bring it into mainstream historical research.

A European perspective

Of course scholars have been able to study astroculture before Geppert introduced the concept – and have done so. Especially in the U.S., research in astroculture has had good conditions, not least thanks to NASA's long-standing commitment to writing its own history. But also, for example, in the former Soviet Union the history of outer space has been treated fairly in depth.

However, says Geppert, largely speaking the astrocultural history of Europe is still to be written. Admittedly, the European Space Agency (ESA) has to some extent done something about it, including a two-volume work on ESA's history and a series of forty particular studies of individual ESA countries’ space history. Besides this, however, ESA does not excel in reaching out to the humanities and engaging it in a broader process of historisation of Europe and its relation to outer space.

Questions and paradoxes

One of the questions which Geppert puts on the agenda is whether one can speak of a special Western European perspective on space in the period between 1945 and the early 1970s.

Furthermore, there is a paradox Geppert wants to find a solution to: How can one explain the widespread enthusiasm for outer space in Europe throughout the 20th century, when one compares it with the fact that Europe has largely had to refrain from manned space flight?

A unifying effect

Time will tell how fruitful these issues are as objectives of the writing of European astrocultural history. But the mere fact that these goals and questions have now been posited at all is a marked improvement and may very well set the ball rolling.

Also, the very introduction of the concept of "astroculture" in itself will perhaps serve as a focal point for future research, as such newly coined concepts sometimes do.

The cultural history of outer space should be taken seriously on European soil too, thus providing an important input to the understanding of ourselves and our history. Indeed, the history of outer space should be written with the cool distance that a balanced and contextualised historiography requires.

As Geppert puts it: “Space enthusiasm and terrestrial geocentrism are two faces of the same coin. Aiming to observe and to comprehend rather than to believe, to preach or even to predict, it is particularly imperative that space historians find the right measure of benevolent, yet critical, distance from historical actants and propagandists of spaceflight and extraterrestrial expansion, the powerful promises they made, and the time-tested rhetorics they employed.”

Popular notions of space

One of the perhaps most important arguments that Geppert puts forth for the importance of the study of astroculture is that it is precisely through astrocultural artifacts and phenomena that the popular understanding of outer space is formed.

This is something that space scientists are themselves painfully aware of, whether they use it for propagandistic purposes or mourn it as a troublesome and irremediable fact.

Whichever way one relates to this, it is certainly a fact that makes it relevant to examine these diverse representations of outer space further.

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Alexander C. T. Geppert (2012), "European Astrofuturism, Cosmic Provincialism: Historicizing the Space Age" in Alexander C. T. Geppert (ed.), Imagining Outer Space: European Astroculture in the Twentieth Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 3-24.

An overview of ESA's 40 particular studies can be found here: http://www.esa.int/esapub/pi/hsrPI.htm.

ESA’s two-volume work on ESA's history can be accessed online here:
J. wars and A. Russo (2000), SP-1235 - A History of the European Space Agency from 1958 to 1987 (Vol. I: The story of ESRO and ELDO, 1958-1973), Noordwijk, The Netherlands: ESA Publications Division.

J. wars, A. Russo and L. Sebesta (2000), SP-1235 - A History of the European Space Agency from 1958 to 1987 (Vol. II - The Story of ESA, 1973 two 1987), Noordwijk, The Netherlands: ESA Publications Division.

This blog-post is an English version of a Danish blog post on videnskab.dk from March 1, 2012.