A Cup of Coffee in Outer Space: A brief interview with Valerie Olson

Posted by on Nov 4, 2013
A Cup of Coffee in Outer Space: A brief interview with Valerie Olson

With so much attention to large-scale anthropogenic impacts on the environment, it is easy to forget that human presence is still marginal in important ways. We can only exist for short durations, and only with sophisticated technological mediation, in most of the biosphere or in the vastness of outer space. We may also be troubled by environmental scenarios in which the margins of comfortable human existence shrink, where more of the world will become ocean, desert, and more prone to disaster. At the same time, these scenarios indicate that our incursions into these spaces, and the data generated by our interactions with them, are increasingly consequential.

Valerie Olson entering NOAA’s Aquarius
Underwater Habitat (photo Pam Baskin)

It is this general situation that fascinates Valerie Olson. First, as a graduate student at Rice University (Ph.D., 2010) and now as Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UC Irvine, she has been in close contact with many of the experts and explorers that mediate knowledgeable human interactions with extreme environments. Over the past eight years, Dr. Olson has conducted ethnographic research at NASA, on a planetary exploration program, in the oil-soaked waters of the Gulf of Mexico, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and in the Anza-Borrego desert of Southern California, where water overconsumption has become a critical challenge. Her theoretical and methodological fascinations have led her to rethink the possibilities for anthropological entanglements with the “non-living” through an ongoing collaboration with Andrea Ballestero (Rice University). Although her research, in one way or another, takes her from Houston to the horizons of human existence, she graciously found the time to chat for a while about her work.

Trevor Durbin:  You have twice conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Rice University’s back yard, but in each case the object of research has, in a sense, been environments that are horizonal, where people have a more marginal presence. Tell us a little bit about how one conducts ethnographic research concerning outer space, the deep-sea, and other extreme environments?

Valerie Olson:  I get this very valid question quite often.  An obvious answer is that everything within human experience, direct or indirect, tangible or imagined, can be a topic of ethnographic inquiry. From ghosts to interstellar space. But it’s interesting how some researchers in the human sciences can become perturbed about how to do ethnography in the domains of the marginally human and totally non-biotic. A fear is that people will be decentered in dehumanizing ways.  But I don’t see how testing the limits of ethnography presents any danger to larger humanistic projects – in fact, doing work that forces people to confront anthropocentrisms continues to be socially and politically relevant.

Anthropologists, in particular, originally got interested in extreme environments because of what they told us about human capacities for adaptation and survival.  I am interested in human relationships to extreme environments that people inhabit only temporarily with life support or that they access via remote sensing technologies, but which are nonetheless now socially familiar. Such environs are: the high atmosphere, outer space, the terrestrial subsurface, and the ocean depths.  These are spaces which influence powerful authoritative knowledge about ultimate boundaries, horizons, limits, and (scarily) something much worse than human marginality: human absence.  Those increasingly familiar human-less and abiotic spaces that social scientists consider horizonal are, as one of my space research interlocutors reminded me, “most of what nature is.”  Even so, this is not the nature that anthropologists are typically concerned with as they explore what it means to be human or to be biological.  I was interested in this paradox and in the extent to which growing knowledge and experience of horizonal and human-less environments does or does not impact social worlds.  How, for example, does knowledge about the apparent temporal and spatial marginality of life relative to the non-living in the universe have (or not have) social and ethical effects?  This is the kind of ethnographic question I like to examine, in all its fragmentation and uncertainties.

As a result, I spend time doing ethnographic research among small groups of people who concern themselves with incorporating outlier spaces (like space or the deep ocean) into ecosystems that matter to humans.  I observe how they do this through interconnected activities of exploration, knowledge production, development of powerful remote sensing and life support technologies, and environmental activism.  This means that I may end up going out into oily Gulf water on a small boat with a handful of biologists collecting water samples, or that I sit in NASA mission control with headphones listening to a rarified cacophony of technical conversations I can barely understand.  Even if there aren’t many people in the domains I study, they’re committed, can be well-funded, and their work fascinates and has traction in contemporary worlds.

Trevor:  I’m really intrigued by your concern with processes of “incorporating outlier spaces into ecosystems that matter to humans.” Could you give us an example of what you mean, maybe an illustrative moment from your work on the BP oil spill?

Valerie: Certainly!  One example is the amount of attention now being turned on the Gulf of Mexico’s deep-sea benthos. The benthos is the seabed, a dark and muddy but microbe-rich place that is foundational to the vitality of the whole marine world.  However, as anthropologist Stefan Helmreich has described, it remains largely socially invisible as a place that matters. The Gulf’s deep-sea benthos is triply invisible. It is not well-understood as a biological place even to Gulf Coast scientists. Despite all the deep-sea drilling and energy exploration science the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is, unlike Pacific or Atlantic benthic spaces, largely unmonitored by marine biologists.

Then came the 2010 BP “oil spill,” which had a different spatiality than other major oil disasters:  the oil came from the bottom up, rather than top down. Unparalleled amounts of chemical dispersants were experimentally used at the wellhead and on the surface to make the oil droplets small and to make them sink rather than to rise and float to shore where they would be amply socially visible. So the oil sank slowly and the loop currents concentrated it in certain places. As a result, the Gulf’s deep-sea benthic animal/plant communities took a big hit, and Gulf scientists have realized that there is a “shallow versus deep” prejudice in science, policy, and social imagination.  People care about near and top-level surfaces they can see and smell rather than far away depths that they do not. When previous spill disasters happened, deep-sea mud and its creatures were not imagined to need saving as much as valuable near shore or water column fisheries animals or “charismatic marine megafauna” (birds, otters, dolphins et al).

I held a sample tube full of this benthic mud in my hands in a Texas lab, where I smelled as well as saw the yellowish Louisiana sweet crude suspended in the silt. One of the scientists supervising the sample collection complained to me that the sea is usually imagined to be a hearty, circulating, and inexhaustible system of water.  But now we know mud’s and rock’s vital roles in this system, and how fragile, in particular, the benthos is.  So, the scientific questions are:  How can we “restore” the deep-sea benthos if we don’t know much about it?  What will be the slow motion effects of deep-sea benthic death and change?

My social science question is:  How is deep, dark, invisible seafloor mud made to matter politically and scientifically?  In this way my two projects, on outer space and sea, overlap because they deal with how ecosystems are imagined and reimagined. So in both cases, I have been captivated by examples of how places which are symbolic outliers, even “dirty” in a social sense like the seafloor, are being remade into normative, vital, generative, and even integrally “pure” parts of ecosystems and are imagined to require monitoring, maintenance, and restoration. To see what happens I have to do what anthropologists like to do:  pay attention for the long haul. I have to follow this for the years necessary to understand and interpret these post-spill ecosystem representation activities. One emerging effect of the post-spill work being organized around the “Gulf of Mexico ecosystem” is how it brings outlier spaces, and their sometimes “outlier scientists,” to the fore in social discourses and activities.

Trevor: What you’re finding brings to mind Rachel Carson’s declaration in The Sea Around Us: “Nowhere in all the sea does life exist in such bewildering abundance as in the surface waters.” It seems to me that part of what you’re seeing in the processes of making outlier spaces meaningful and visible is the relationship between technologies of expert imagination, such as Carson’s or those of your interlocutors, and horizonal spaces. I would love to have you reflect on the imaginative practices of experts as ways of relating to environments. These relationships seem to be under-researched in anthropology but also a great opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration, for example with folks in the environmental humanities.

Valerie:  I’m glad you mentioned Rachel Carson – she had a big influence on the American environmental imagination.  One of the little remarked upon aspects of her broadly influential manifesto, Silent Spring, is her assertion that human futures depend not only on our capacity to understand “the environment,” but “the total environment” – that which we cannot know as human individuals.  This indicates how the mid-century biological spatial imagination was beginning to diverge from that of previous natural philosophers. This new biological imagination was being re-shaped by sensory and experimental data that created new cross-disciplinary ways to perceive nature’s and life’s multiplicities, scales, and even gradations.  Nature was becoming a system of systems, and spaces that count as “surroundings” were being redefined – the poles were seen as mattering to equatorial life, and vice versa.  But, if Carson were here to interpret her statement about the liveliness of surface waters, she might argue that it harbors provisions for future discoveries about where and what “sea life” is as a “total” whole. What Gulf scientists try to imagine these days is the cradle-to-grave interdependent lives of organisms from the mud to air, bacteria to birds.

For example, one of my biologist interlocutors who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill has on his office wall some striking drawings made by a biologist colleague friend who worked in the style of Northwest Native American formline (or totem) art. In one, he drew a gull in the formline style, but included a beneficial parasitic worm that lives in its gullet. This drawing invokes the interspecies continuities of Kwakiutl art and cosmology, but adds figures from contemporary ecological notions of environmental order. The biologist-artist’s experimentation with what we might call “ecosystem totemism” shows us that imagination plays a big but, unlike Carson’s intervention, not always publicly visible role in scientific work. This is especially true if we regard expert collaborations, as linguistic anthropologist Keith Murphy does, as forms of “collective imagining.”

Albatross (Diomedea) [with kinorhynch worm] by R.P. Higgins, Ph.D. Used with permission

Albatross (Diomedea) [with kinorhynch worm]
by R.P. Higgins, Ph.D. Used with permission

A key to putting statements like Carson’s into perspective is to recognize that experts’ imaginative work is usually perturbed by questions about what is imperceptible, undocumented, and unimaginable.  “Sealife” in Carson’s time  represented scientists best efforts to represent “bewildering” accretions of data about unimaginably huge populations of visible, trackable, documentable organisms.  She wants us, as non-experts, to imagine what experts were seeing then.  But at the same time, those experts were struggling with imagining trophic chains and biological interdependencies they couldn’t see or track well, which are a matter of imagination but also of intuition — like the benthic scientist who imagines the BP disaster’s effects as worse than experts can measure or publics can perceive.

So, anthropologists end up pursuing how experts imagine what they can’t directly experience, and how those become represented as certainties about constructs that are not directly perceivable, like “environments,” “total environments,” “sea surfaces,” and “systems.” We also investigate non-scientific imaginative and descriptive processes, like drawing or decorating offices with drawings, metaphor- and analogy-making, image-making, even dreaming and revelatory experiences.  For example, part of what makes astronautics so powerful and enduring as an expert practice in America is what brings my interlocutors to it – processes they often describe as epiphanies or sudden, life-changing realizations. In addition, anthropologists are now attending to the play of the imaginable and unimaginable.  An example in my work is the role of the unimaginable in scientific and technical politics, such as when some of my Gulf interlocutors continue to describe the BP blowout as an “impossible” accident.  Another is something I learned from anthropologists in Japan who are focusing on how the concept of sotei-gai (what is beyond expectation, the unimaginable) is shaping science and politics after the recent tsunami and nuclear disasters.

Trevor:  A common thread here is the ways in which the beyond is made present, through imagination, through exploration, through disaster. Of course, as soon as we do so, the horizons move away. There is always a beyond, which is part of what makes your work so fascinating. In that spirit I would like to end with an opening rather than a closing: As an ethnographer I’m sure you have had the experience of noting something trivial or mundane only to have it reappear as significant. What was something apparently trivial from your research that is of consequence? In your answer, however, I would like you to tell us something trivial without explaining its significance. To mark your recent return from Japan, let’s work roughly in the form of a haiku.

Valerie:  How about just one line?


A cup of hot coffee in outer space.