Once again, I’m going to use an incident as a jumping-off point for a more general thematic discussion, largely ignoring the issue itself. This time, it’s about authority, technology, and situated knowledge. And SPACE!
There was a story broadcast by a newsmagazine program about a week ago (might have been 20/20) about the advent and current ramping up of privatized space exploration. A man in charge of a large corporation that develops spacecraft was the primary interviewee, but I would like to discuss a small segment within the larger story. At one point, the interviewer brought up the fact that an Apollo astronaut (we’re going to go with Neil Armstrong because I’m pretty sure it was him, although I wasn’t taking notes at the time) testified in front of Congress against privatized space travel. He stated that no one but the government (NASA) had the technology or training to safely venture into space. Period. The interviewee was very sad that one of his heroes had spoken out against his dream.
Let’s unpack a bit before we blast off. Not that we’re going to blast off, because we’re not NASA and unpacking is the journey/focus here and deal with it. I’m not going to get into the private vs. public -ness of space travel at all. Rather, what I want to discuss revolves around issues of rhetorical authority–who has the authority to speak and about what subjects–historically situated knowledge, and hero-worship. These are all intertwined within this case and exemplify larger patterns in American culture.
1. Neil Armstrong is arguably held up as a national hero. He not only flew into space on a rocket, he walked on the moon! Our culture has remembered him as an icon of our incessant urge to conquer things. A living symbol of the American spirit. Someone who has inspired many a six-year-old to declare that someday, they are going to grow up to be an astronaut. This hero status affords people it is bestowed upon a certain measure of authority: we tend to listen to what they say. Even if they might not know what they are talking about…
2. Knowledge is situated. You know what you know because of your position in society (think occupation or whatnot) and in time (someone in 1670 wouldn’t know how to work my computer, and I don’t know how to work a plow). As I listened to the excerpt of Armstrong’s testimony, I blurted out “but what does he know now?!!” Armstrong was an astronaut in the 60s. Fifty years ago. As I’ve discussed before, as technology changes it tends to pass most people by. Unless the good astronaut has kept abreast of all the technological developments over the years, he has no way of actually knowing how capable a private company is of safely venturing into space. Armstrong’s knowledge–the knowledge he’s using to bolster his credibility as someone whose testimony matters–is situated in the quite distant past, technologically speaking. These issues of credibility bring us to…
3. Authority–where a speaker or writer gets the authority to speak on a topic. I’d argue that Armstrong’s authority is firmly planted in his status as a hero, although he is ostensibly drawing upon his scientific knowledge and that is partially how he is presented at the hearing and probably understood by the audience. But the point is that he’s given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his actual grasp of this technological knowledge because he’s a hero and has the public’s respect. The public sees him as an authority on all things space travel because he went into space and we have spent 50+ years celebrating him for this accomplishment. He’s the face of all the (old) technology he’s alluding to. Because of his hero-status, we–the public and Congress–overlook the fact that his understanding of today’s technology (and arguably economic markets, as that plays into this whole debate as well) is out-dated. His argument is based on credibility that isn’t there anymore and charismatic authority (hero-status).
It’s fairly dangerous when we allow our heroes to influence our thinking–and our national policies–without first thinking critically about what they know and if we should give them the authority to speak about it. Since rhetorical authority is granted by the listener/reader, one has to wonder if his testimony was taken seriously. If it was, then Congress is as blinded by our culture’s tendency to lift our heroes up to infallible heights. (Of course, Armstrong may actually know what he’s talking about, technologically speaking. Unfortunately for him, my analysis about the interconnectedness of rhetorical authority, hero status, and situated knowledge assumes that he is not because that’s what I felt like writing about.)