Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America


Image result for trouvelot new york chromolithographThe United States is presently in the midst of a new space age. NASA administrators advocate public-private partnerships for the development of space commerce. The United States military seeks to control strategic regions above the ionosphere. And wealthy tech industrialists are developing plans to mine asteroids for resources. Observers often imagine that these developments are the ultimate consequence of a mid-twentieth century space race, beginning with the Gemini and Apollo missions. But Star Territorysuggests that US efforts to exploit the cosmos have a much longer history. Since its founding, the United States of America has been a space power. The streets and avenues of its capital city were mapped in reference to celestial observations. The US flag continues to feature white stars in a blue field, a configuration that at once offers a record of US settler-colonial expansion and reveals the dream of continental elites in 1777 that former colonies might form a “new constellation” in the firmament of nations. And nineteenth-century efforts to colonize North America depended upon the science of surveying, or mapping with reference to celestial movement. Through its built geography, cultural mythology, and military power, the United States has treated the cosmos as a territory available for exploitation.

Star Territory suggests that the cosmic dimensions of the present-day US empire are no accident, and that the deep origins of the cosmic nation-state can be found in the long nineteenth century. Agents of the United States, from President John Adams to Navy Admiral Charles Henry Davis to astronomer Maria Mitchell, participated in a large-scale but disaggregated effort to map the new nation onto cosmic space—what Henry David Thoreau referred to as “star territory.” Disgusted with the expansion of slavery into Texas, Thoreau imagined a US nation-state that would one day extend its instrumental treatment of the natural and human landscape to the solar system itself, and eventually to the entire universe. For the US state, Thoreau suggested, the cosmos would only ever serve as more “waste land in the west,” suitable for economic exploitation and settler-colonial domination. Star Territory affirms Thoreau’s insight, and further claims that the US project of exploiting cosmic space and time was enabled by the production and distribution of print. Through print, agents of the US state transmitted practical information and exceptionalist mythologies to the nation’s surveyors and soldiers, its scientists, sailors, and citizens.

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Yet this is only part of the story. Dissenters emerged. From the first black publishers in the United States to the elected officials of the Cherokee Nation to Hawaiian resistance leaders, political actors across the nineteenth century established cosmic communities, assemblages, nations, and states, each configured through independent networks of communication. These peoples offered ways of understanding the cosmos that broke from the work of those US officials for whom the universe was merely measurable, merely exploitable. These black and indigenous astronomers, prophets, and printers built far-flung networks through which they could communicate their own accounts of the universe.

Long before the Gemini and Apollo missions, and before the Star Wars missile defense program, agents of the United States government sought to map and measure the universe as a means of controlling strategic territory in North America and around the world. The primary technology of colonization during this first, long space age was the printed text: the almanac, the map, the star chart. Star Territorysuggests that the deep origins of the US state’s cosmic instrumentalism, from geospatial navigation to the weaponization of space itself, can be found in the nineteenth century, and that efforts to rationalize space have flattened difference, erased alternative epistemologies, and enabled the fallacies of universality and exceptionalism. But it also suggests that there are other histories that might point our way to a more complex, more radically pluralist future.