The Sky, Upended: An Ethnography of Palestine, the Planetary, and Their Politics

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2022

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Abstract

When we look up toward the sky, what do we see? The answer may seem to be worlds detached from the colonial conflicts on our own, but in this dissertation, I contend that the sky reveals the contemporary struggles that Palestinians in the West Bank are facing. At a moment when the Palestinian condition is haunted by political malaise, I turn to these expanses overhead through an ethnography of Palestinian astronomy that unearths how ambition and exhaustion take shape in tandem in the airs above the West Bank. Astronomers’ projects frequently encounter Israel’s increasingly atmospheric military occupation, revealing the contemporary dimensions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, one eking into the sky. Yet at the same time, their profession balances the epistemological wonders of the universe with such wreckage of settler colonialism, providing new grammars for understanding civil aspirations and possibility today in Palestine.

Based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork alongside Palestinian astronomers who are largely based in Ramallah and its surrounding environs, this dissertation unfurls around their everyday labors to bring interstellar phenomena to diverse populations across Palestine through workshops, camps, lectures, community initiatives, and stargazing events. As they deal with land seizures and air raids, atmospheric pollution, Israeli surveillance from drones, helicopters, and even satellites, many astronomers attest that their work to learn about the galaxy also entails learning about how outer space is subject to human extraction, including the colonial appetite. The sky, then, is not simply an object of scientific study for Palestinian astronomers, but it becomes a scale of political reckoning through which they learn how forms of governance—Israel’s occupation or otherwise—can impact their own lives and enterprises.

Rather than ending my analysis at an understanding of the sky as political as such, I also query how these political transformations bear on the social legibility of Palestinian astronomers. By working to build up Palestinian educational fields that Israel has long targeted, and fulfilling a civil duty many would expect from Palestinian governments or municipalities, these astronomers understand that their work directly interfaces with the political histories that have led to present feelings of hopelessness in Palestine. And now that the sky houses Israeli byproducts of these histories, they frequently encounter the assumption—from other Palestinians and those abroad—that they have pursued astronomy to counter Israel’s occupation and be political agents themselves. I detail how these astronomers navigate such political expectations, attentive to their frustrations that astronomy must fit into political scripts that Palestinians have inherited since 1948. How they navigate the weight of these inheritances, I argue, reveals a contemporary portrait of political life for young Palestinians in the West Bank. I both draw from and add to the fields of postcolonial science and technology studies, Palestine studies, and political anthropology by thinking past these political affordances and, instead, more critically examining how the scale of colonial history can coopt Palestinian astronomers’ own subjectivities, implanting impersonal intentions within them.

As a whole, The Sky, Upended seeks to offer a political and decolonial anthropology of the sky that does not rely on existing political rhetorics, but instead uses ethnography to craft a social theory that more robustly illuminates the dimensions, effects, and affects of Israeli settlement today—along the y-axis in particular. By attending to these geophysical transformations and their relationship to Palestinian subjectivity, I offer new directions for recognizing and reconceptualizing Palestinian sovereignty and futurity under our shared sky.

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Silver, Jake (2022). The Sky, Upended: An Ethnography of Palestine, the Planetary, and Their Politics. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25220.

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