Monday, December 28, 2009

Taxiway Views

A little story of mine was in The New York Times last week: "A Night Spent on the Tarmac, With No Complaints." It made an especially nice coincidental pairing with another topic of the moment:

As if on cue, the past few days have offered a series of drab taxiway views that reflect a lingering preoccupation with the bleak drama of air travel, something people seem to crave and yet find revolting at the same time:

Dec. 25, 2009

Dec. 27, 2009

The philosopher Martin Heidegger once described the concept of "standing reserve" by evoking the image of an airliner waiting on the taxiway for takeoff. I wonder if airliners still hold such promise in terms of being able to illustrate philosophical ideas.

The recent headlines in the news and their accompanying taxiway views have led me to imagine a class I would like to teach on the discourse and imagery of the postmodern airliner. Don DeLillo's White Noise would offer an apt point of entry: in one section of the novel, DeLillo writes about a group of passengers who have just barely survived a plane crash. The survivors mill around the airport, unable to quite leave, opting instead to hear their story of near death recounted aloud by one of the haggard passengers. DeLillo writes, “They were not yet ready to disperse, to reinhabit their earthbound bodies, but wanted to linger with their terror, keep it separate and intact for just a while longer...” (91). For DeLillo, the near fatal plane crash throws bare life into stark relief, and yet it is also an experience doomed to be subsumed in a precession of simulacra.

Likewise, the current frenzy around near air disasters seems to reflect an attempt to grasp—only to lose touch with—what admittedly is a difficult subject: namely singular mortality, and all the physical risks and contingencies involved therein. In the monotonous taxiway views and in headlines such as "A ‘Nonserious’ Incident on Same Flight to Detroit," there is a tone of desperation, as if we are trying so hard to locate meaning in a subject that is rapidly losing distinction, its horizons gone gray.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Strange Plane Events

My colleague Mark Yakich and I have posted several excerpts from our current book project on flight. The book is a collaborative travel memoir of sorts that moves between two narratives: Mark's fear of flying, and my experiences working at an airport and becoming obsessed with the oddities of air travel. Our aim is to have this published as a true airport book: compact and easy to read while on the taxiway before takeoff, while in a holding pattern waiting for clearance to land, or while sitting at the gate during an indefinite delay. The idea is that the book can be read in little segments, a story here and a story there, at random—or taken together as a narrative whole, and read more like a novel. The rationale for the material object of the book is for all the times of travel (at an airport, waiting; or on an airplane when lower-tech forms of reading are demanded) when it is preferable to have some 'light reading' ready at hand. So, of course, we envision the book available at airport bookstores.

There was a New Yorker cover a few years ago that offered a utopian vision of airport reading; in a sense, Mark and I are trying to write the kind of book that the fictive passengers in this image might be holding:

In his illustration, Adrian Tomine presents the wish-image of "airport reading." It is a multicultural fantasyland where everyone is at peace, a cosmopolitan dream where instead of shopping, every subject is being enchanted by a book. (For an absurdly dark take on a similar setting, see Roy Kesey's short story "Wait" in the collection All Over.) The silhouetted aircraft in the background of this image hint at the unspectacular banality that jet travel has achieved in our contemporary moment: no one in this imaginary departure lounge seems the least bit in awe of (or afraid of) flying. The blustering snow out the window suggests the environmental limits of flight, similar to a recent USA Today headline that read "Bird risk to jets called a 'flashing beacon'" (so we often find ourselves reading about how flight ends). As the departures monitor displays a uniform stream of DELAYED signs, the passengers all go with the flow, calmly reading their unmarked (and hard-bound!) books. These are Platonic forms of the Book: objects that universally enlighten and make time irrelevant. The airport is a mythic space where time can stand still, but often not in a pleasant way. One might wish that the experience of an airport delay were more like how time flies when one is engrossed in a good book; but usually this is anything but the case.

And so Mark and I are attempting to write a book designed for airport reading, with a bit of double-edged irony, given our inclinations toward writing alternately about the quotidian details of flight and about the horror of airplane crashes. When you really think about it, flying is all the more strange for how plain it has become.