“Are we alone in the universe?” What a curious question. We have only recently been in a situation to even ask something like this, not because those who came before us believed in superstition, but because of the way they conceived of the universe. Don Lincoln, a physicist at Fermilab, traces the history of asking this question in his book, Alien Universe. For Lincoln, the question is a rather natural thing to ask in post-Copernican cosmology. This view of the universe, contra Aristotle and the teachings of the church, was taken up and extended by Giodorno Bruno and, according to Corey Powell, at least, English astronomer Thomas Digges. Their writings, however, never really asked the question. Rather, they implied life on other worlds simply because they were positing that other worlds existed. They didn’t yet know the variety of possible plants, their composition habitability, etc. As a result, Lincoln writes that in an era of Christian faith and early instruments, “There was no compelling winner in the debate over the question of whether other worlds carried life” (12). It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that Darwinian theories of life coupled with more refined instruments made the question legitimately scientific rather than theological.
Lincoln is careful to note that public imagination was also part of the debate and while in our contemporary time, we widely imagine the possibility of extraterrestrial life, it has only been so for the past seventy years or thereabouts. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t more public imaginations, as evidenced by the series of tall tales published in the New York Daily Sun in 1835 called “Great Astronomical Discoveries Made Lately by Sir John Herschel.” Lincoln relates these columns as “describing observation of life on the surface of the moon. And not just ordinary forms of life were observed, but rather intelligent life with an advanced civilization” (14). It wasn’t until the later 1800s and the close observations of Mars by Flammarion, Schiaparelli, and others, that there was again a “period of time when the broad public was transfixed by the idea of extraterrestrial life” (18). So, the question has only really been directly posed for a little less than two hundred years.
The history of the question is really of secondary concern. This is, after all, a book about rhetoric, among other things. So, a history is good for context, but not at the heart of the matter. Certainly the field of astrobiology is predicated on a positive answer to the question. I argue that the field of rhetoric can be seen as predicated on a negative one. To argue this takes some explaining and coming at the question in quite a different way than astronomers and the general public. I start out with this question, then, really as a heuristic. Put simply, just look around you. We are clearly not alone in any real sense. Our world is already populated by a tremendous number of others, many of whom we interact with on a daily basis and many who also shape and influence our societies and species.
I am, of course, referring to the general views coalescing around terms like “posthumanism” and “new materialism.” Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti, Jane Bennet, Graham Harman, and many others are leading voices in these explorations and reframing of not just humanity, but of our world and its systems. But of course, this isn’t quite what is meant by the question “Are we alone in the universe?” The questions is really referencing other intelligent species. Ok. But to examine this sense of the question, let’s take the “we” as the species of human beings with whom we engage in rhetorical pursuits. We still find a negative answer in our companion animals, both domesticated and wild. Certainly dogs, cats, poultry, cattle, and even the occasional reptile have been shown to interact and respond to us, just as we respond to them. The barriers of consciousness and deliberate thought break down quite easily with elephants, dolphins, or even ravens who, far from being bird-brained, have proven to be highly logical and capable of complex tasks requiring imagination and foresight. Ok, you say again, but the question was more, perhaps planetary, should we say, requiring those worlds beyond our own. And true, we can take the meaning of the question in this manner, but we really need go no further than the planetary and quasi-planetary bodies of our own solar system to find, yet again, a negative answer. We have evidence that water moved across the Martian landscape. Thus one substance moved another substance, persuading it in some sense that it had best get out of the way. In Burkean parlance, the substance(s) yeilded identification and what were once two, for a moment anyway, acted like one. The same holds for methane on Titan and the Great Red Spot’s continual yet diminishing vortex of gas on Jupiter. From a post-humanist perspective, these are forces of company, what Andrew Pickering (1995) has called a “mangle” and, so, deny a negative answer to the question, perhaps even denying the very term “alone” altogether. As Diane Davis put it, “the ‘art’ of rhetoric can be effective only among affectable existents, who are by definition something other than distinct individuals or self-determining agents, and whose relations necessarily precede and exceed symbolic intervention” (3). What might it mean to think such a rhetoricity from within the mangle, where we could not exist without others; “we” defined at every level: individual, familial, social, even special?
Once the outlier territory of astrophysics and the staple of pulp novels, the question of whether or not life exists beyond our planet is a powerful one now that we survey the heavens and find exoplanets matching not just our Sci-Fi fantasies, but perhaps even our own world. We owe a debt to science writers like Carl Sagan who masterfully opened our sense of wonder in such a thought. And yet, might we not miss something in our search for extraterrestrial life, in its capacity to perhaps be “out there” like the truth so long sought after by Agent Mulder, though whose revelation can be grasped in between the findings of Agent Scully’s relentless scientism? Or, consider it this way: it is said we know more about the area of space between the earth’s atmosphere and the moon than we know about the depth of our own oceans. We have been relentlessly preoccupied with the external. Yet, submersibles into the depths of water on our planet have yielded life in ways we could never have imagined if we had stayed on land, near the shores, and within only the depths reached by sunlight. By looking beneath and beside us, we have been able to better imagine and conceptualize what we might look for in the world above and beyond us.
We are at a point where new ideas are springing forth about how to examine “man, the measure of all things” after the humanist tradition of the Enlightenment. Yet, we cannot sunder the past. Posthumanism, object-oriented ontologies, actor-network theory, robotics, and ecological views of existence cannot be built from the ground up. Even they must acknowledge their socio-historical beginnings. The inquiries into faculty psychology, the formulation of the unconscious, programs of alienation of labor both for and against worker rights, and understandings of evolutionary processes are indisposable as we continue to think about how humans have always integrated machines into their communal habitus and modes of existence. Ideologies and consciousness have always provided software and tools developed to run the programs, often with the two modifying one another just as DARPA Net allowed for large computer organizations, which led to Internet browsers and social media platforms that then influenced the rise of personal computerized devices such as the iPhone and Android, neither of which is complete without its own operating system software. From our vantage point after analyses that have been socio-historic-epistemic, critical material, and phenomenological, we find ourselves not on some objectively transcendent vista, but ever more firmly emplaced on the very ground of our own understanding. Like Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby, the more we struggle, the more we are stuck.
If I stop struggling and look around, I see that we are not alone. Indeed, we are surrounded by potential allies in the mangle. We share in that mangle as we are crossed and traversed and exposed to others in it, just as we cross, traverse, and expose ourselves with them. Following Jean Luc Nancy, Diane Davis argues that “the challenge today, the social, ethical, and political challenge is to learn to think the sharing of community without effacing precisely this sharing by conceptualizing it, turning it into an object to be grasped and put to work” (8). Identity politics, a major influence on critical materialisms, under thinks this concept of sharing. Rather than take the critical approach — that approach which would try to ascertain the least ideologically objectionable vantage to enter into some alliances but not others — I note the occasion to reflect on the very idea of allies themselves. What does it mean to be allied with? For what purpose does one require or desire allies? What does it look and feel like to be an ally? In what sense can being an ally be actively thought? And what role might rhetoric play in a robust and rigorous philosophy of alliance? These are important questions for the new century as society shifts from overturning old hegemonies and the rather binary culture wars to a more multiple and networked social order where identity is not reduced to anything singular and static. Attention to alliances will need to address intersectionality and the protean nature of our individuality/ies as well as ecological contexts that shape them.
What I am trying to do here is think more deeply about a productive future with social media as a salient technology of relations. By this, I mean to address the issues brought to the fore by these new communicative technologies and how they actively shape our polity. Granted, the polity I have in mind is yet to be fully realized, being informed less by old versions of humanism(s) and more informed by the still nascent ideas of post-humanism. Extraterrestrial life may seem an odd place to begin an inquiry on rhetoric and alliances, especially when the term, “ally,” is so often used in spaces of cultural, racial, labored, and gendered difference. But I maintain that keeping the boundaries within the scope of “human,” as traditionally defined, does the work of allies a disservice and we can learn much more about and invent far more rhetorical practices for alliance if we take a more expanded measure of rhetorical activity. In short, where might the “new materialisms” help the visions of the old?