Battaglia Looks at the Inner Effect of Outer Space


On December 4, Mount Holyoke Professor of Anthropology and Five College Anniversary Professor Debbora Battaglia presented a talk on “Translating Outer Space” at the invitation of Indiana University's prestigious Sawyer Seminars. Her lecture considered the imperfect translation of humans to outer space habitats, focusing on moments when astronauts and cosmonauts become “untranslatable to themselves.”

“Long-duration space workers have reported feeling deeply unfamiliar with the entity they've become ‘on orbit,’ ” Battaglia explained. “They can find themselves in a sense ‘recoded’ to outer space--bodily, psychically, and socially. ‘No longer an Earthling,’ as one astronaut puts it, the experience of being in outer space cannot fully be simulated in Earth analog environments or exercises. And space nature exceeds the languages that humans posses for describing it.

“For example, Apollo astronauts were unable to find a word for the smell of Moon-- the smell of lunar regolith. For a very few astronauts and cosmonauts their faith in science was shaken so profoundly that they had a conversion experience to belief in a Higher Power or Higher Order. One cosmonaut writes of struggling to return a container to its casement and tossing it into the air in frustration--only to watch it float into place all by itself. One crew sprouted thick hair 2-1/2 inches long all over their bodies, as if once again furry primates. Such instances lead us to understand space workers not as exceptional creatures endowed with ‘the right stuff’ or outer space as an environment distinct from Earth's, but nature and culture intimately articulated in extremis. Warm bodies in space offer Earthlings lessons about our planet and about ourselves. Offering space for science and for diplomacy where territorial imperatives can for a time be suspended, it also resists military agendas for mechanization, and weaponization, of space.”

The subject of Battaglia’s Sawyer lecture stemmed from her current research on the fieldwork journals of cosmonauts and astronauts, which she had the opportunity to explore while on sabbatical recently at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as a Senior Verville Fellow.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Sawyer Seminars program was established in 1994 to provide support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments. The seminars, named in honor of the foundation's long-serving third president, John E. Sawyer, have brought together faculty, foreign visitors, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from a variety of fields for intensive study of subjects chosen by the participants. This year’s theme was “Rupture and Flow: The Circulation of Technoscientifc Facts and Objects.”