Distraction Free Reading

System, Space and Ecobiopolitics: A Conversation with Valerie Olson About “Into the Extreme”


[This week we present excerpts of an interview with Valerie Olson conducted by Lisa Messeri focused on Olson’s new book, Into the Extreme (U Minnesota P, 2018). Valerie Olson is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California – Irvine whose work focuses on the anthropology of environmental systems, technologies and extremes.  Lisa Messeri is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University focused on the role of place and place-making in scientific work and the author of Placing Outer Space (Duke UP, 2016). The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.]

Lisa: Into the Extreme is an ethnography of human space flight based on fieldwork at NASA Johnson Space Center most prominently, but then also other space sites throughout the United States. What I think is most significant about this book is that it activates “system” as an ethnographic object. Valerie Olson, the author of Into the Extreme, defines system as a relational technology. To me this is the big picture of the book, so I would like to start by diving right into that terminology. Can you just unpack what you mean when you say that system is a relational technology?

Cover of Into the Extreme

Valerie: Sure. So I got introduced to systems thinking and systems engineering through my project because it is the practice, the basic modality, that NASA uses to coordinate vastly different practices and disciplines. People doing medicine, building spacecraft, working on propulsion, doing planetary science, and doing work on ancillary projects like feeding astronauts all use the “system” concept. It provides a kind of conceptual lingua franca for NASA. But I did not understand that going in. I was steeped in medical anthropology, political theory, STS theory, anthropology of science, and anthropology of technology. So, I was thinking about outer space as being an expansion of nature, or the container of natures of all kinds, or the background of earthly nature and natural politics. And I was thinking about technologies as mediating structures and objects that created an expanded sense of nature. So I would ask my interlocutors questions like, “Is space a part of nature?” in order to get at those kinds of questions. Which would usually be met with blank stares or snorts of derision or other kinds of reactions, because it was an odd question to ask. Nature was not a term used in the field sites that I went into. And technology was a given. So I did something then that I advise my students to do now all the time. About three months into the field I stopped and did a lot of transcription. This was before we had programs like ATLAS.ti or NVivo easily accessible to us as grad students. I did a lot of searching and word analysis and even some programming in an Access database in order to find out word frequencies and clustering in my transcriptions and field notes. I was shocked to discover that the word “system” was the most prevalent commonly used term – and it was not just an idea but also a technology, as in, something being made, assembled, and used to build and assemble other things. And environment was the term that people were using for any kind of space, biotic or abiotic, natural or built, including outer space. So I had to be true to what the data were telling me. So I dug into it and started to understand the history of systems thinking in the United States and in domains like the history of philosophy and settler colonial history.  I was unpacking and doing genealogy as a good Foucauldian – I know it’s not cool to be a Foucauldian [laughter] anymore, but I am still a methodological Foucauldian. I knew I needed to do a critical genealogy of “system” to understand what it actually was, materially and politically.


Rendering of an astronaut holding onto netting on an asteroid. There is a satellite in the distance.Lisa: Absolutely. And I think that idea about “system” being both a term that has a technical meaning as well as a colloquial meaning is really prescient, especially with regards to something like “solar system”. I had never thought about what “system” might mean in that context until, years ago, you had pointed that out to me. As I was reading your book, every time the phrase “solar system” came up, I had to kind of stop and be like, “Right. System.” It’s right there. It’s almost like, for me, system is so invisible that it actually takes a lot of work to shake it into something that has activation and energy or, as you say, something that is an ethnographic object. So that is certainly a great accomplishment of your book. You take this word that is everywhere and make it strange, giving us a new way into thinking about it. As I understand it, the importance of “system” became apparent quite early in your fieldwork, which was 2006/2007, is that right?

Valerie: Yeah. I started in 2005 but I really began to travel across NASA centers and across NASA disciplines in 2006, 7, and 8. Those would be the heydays of the project.

Lisa: How did you get access to NASA?

Valerie: So, being an anthropologist is my third career. My first career was in women’s health. My second career was, interestingly enough, being a health systems manager and administrator within the University of California healthcare system, which is where I got introduced to the system concept as a term that organized my own life inside and out. And I went to graduate school in 2002, and in 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry and I became caught up, living in Houston, Texas, with NASA’s response to that disaster. And I realized through asking around, asking in the [Rice University] anthropology department, that no one had ever made NASA a field site in any of the projects there, and no one knew of anybody in the area who had. And in fact, as I began to learn more, it was not really a field site that had any sustained engagement from cultural anthropologists or social anthropologists. So, I decided to go there and the way that I got access was that my former career, having been a research project manager and NASA needed research managers during this period to help with new biomedical research. But I didn’t want to do that, because I didn’t want to have that kind of job status as a fieldworker. So I worked as an intern to help support and then sort of through my expertise train people in research management. So that’s how I got in. It was trading for some kind of expertise that I, strangely enough, already had.

Lisa: The result is incredible access to one of the highest technological sites in the United States. Not only do you take us to Johnson Space Center and inside Mission Control, but you also take us to project NEEMO (an underwater analog site), into the work of people designing spacesuits and habitats for astronauts, and even to the work of scientists who are concerned with planetary protection, both of earth – making sure it doesn’t get hit by these pesky “near earth objects” – but also how we treat any planet we might go to. The book takes us through these projects, chapter by chapter creating a beautiful arc. We start underwater, then we learn about the astronaut’s body and how, alongside a suit, this body is part of a system that protects astronauts from the outside. You then give the reader a little bit of breathing room so to speak, and we learn about habitat architecture and what long-term space settlements might look like. And then we zoom up to this bigger perspective of thinking about the habitat of earth itself and what systems protect our own planet. As the book progresses, we move up and out.


As the title suggests, the book brings us into the “extreme,” a concept that,  in contrast to “system” needs little work to make it sexy and cool. Am I reading that organization of the book correctly, and would you like to reflect on this journey into the extreme that the book takes us on?

Underwater photograph of a fish and coral in the foreground and a structure in the background.Valerie: Great. Yes. Absolutely. You nailed it. That’s exactly the way I organized it [laughter]. The way that I organized the book reflects to some extent the ways in which system – as a relational technology – organizes contemporary scientific embodied perception, thought, and responses to boundaries and the interaction of things, whether or not they’re mechanically built systemic things or biological bodies. So I’m gesturing to the history of system as a form of authoritative relation-building power.  It gains traction as a concept among Western early modern elites in order to reconcile problems with understanding things not “in and of themselves” – such as believing planets are placed by God in outer space -, but of understanding the essential relationships between things at a distance, small parts, and large wholes. These ideas are important for the sort of organization of empire in the West through the imposition of scientific and governmental technologies across colonial sites. System is also the concept that allows science and technology to become cross-cutting organizing activities in the West in ways that are associated with its imperial, military and also social and conceptual social and governance forms. But also, when people propose counter “systems,” such as ways to recognize the politics of ecological interdependence, that challenge or resist hegemonic imaginaries of systematized “wholes” that connect or separate social groups and nonhuman beings.

This is the frame through which I’m trying to offer a new anthropological understanding of outer space as a conceptual, perceived, and powerfully occupied form of environmental space – for domiant social groups already there and for those in the global south who are relating to it in new ways for emergent reasons and purposes.

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