Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On Crashing: An Inquiry of Fragments

We chose this plane because we didn’t know that
It would become the subject

Of a poem. To us poetry is ludicrous,
As if telling a hawk he has talons.

—Mark Yakich, “Last Flight out of a State of Mind”

A recent article from the Times reports that the crash of Continental Flight 3407 near Buffalo, New York was possibly caused (in part) by "specifically, large cool droplets of water that freeze on contact with an airplane." I am no scientist, but I wonder about the specificity of the terms "large" and "cool" in relation to matters that would seem to require precision (i.e., aeronautics). Now the debate seems be turning from matters of ice to matters of the autopilot: if it isn't nature, it's the robots that kill us. (But what happens when climate and machines collude?)

A similar problem can be considered in further reporting on the circumstances around US Airways Flight 1549's emergency landing in the Hudson River. It turns out that the plane went through a flock of Canada Geese:
But researchers are still trying to determine if they were migratory geese from Canada, or resident birds from the New York area. Those that migrate typically weigh from 6 pounds to nearly 11 pounds, the safety board said, but nonmigrating geese are fatter and “can exceed published records.” Either kind is too much for the engines to handle, however.

It also turns out that the engines of the Airbus A320 are required only to be able to "choke down" (is that a technical phrase?) birds of up to four pounds. Yet at stake in this investigation is not why this plane's engines seem built drastically below levels of reality (the Airbus A320 has not been grounded; there are several hundred taking off and landing as I write this), but whether the birds in question were locals or tourists, corpulent or svelte. Yet still, the masses in question are so disproportionately greater than the certification standards of 1996. Have Canada Geese really gotten that much larger in recent years? Should we blame the chubby geese on urban sprawl, or on migration patterns being affected by global warming? Or is this a postmodern Icarus myth, a cautionary tale about underestimating a flying machine's "choke down" levels? I find myself utterly flummoxed concerning the competing values of technical science and everyday mythology in such reporting.

There is an aesthetic history to trace here. Of course these thematics go at least as far back as Icarus, but for our purposes here, let us consider two 20th-century examples from U.S. literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (the original, non-authorized edition of 1941), and Michael Crichton's Airframe (1996).

Fitzgerald's unfinished novel begins with a late night, transcontinental flight that is grounded by thunderstorms in Tennessee; Fitzgerald had sketched out an ending that would have involved a midnight plane crash into snowy mountains, a month after which a group of children on a hike in the vicinity find the wreckage and pillage the plane's contents, thus learning about the main characters in a grizzly sort of ramshackle anthropology of the present. The narrative is framed by the tremulous status of human flight.

Crichton's novel opens with a scene eerily similar to the descriptions we are being given about Flight 3407's last moments of flight: "...the plane seemed to shudder, the nose of the plane turning down. Suddenly everything titled at a crazy angle. ... The plane went into another steep dive" (4-5). Compare a passage from the Times article today: "Then the airplane nose pitched up, then down, as the airplane rolled to one side. It was far too close to the ground already for the crew to regain control."

Incidentally, Crichton's novel refers to planes again and again as "birds." This is not at all an uncommon trope, but it is worth reflecting on given our current preoccupation with "bird strikes." The bird, in other words, is both a figurative model for human flight, and the animal that can endanger human flight. In my dissertation I call this aesthetic trend "bird citing," for the ways in which birds and planes are symbolically juxtaposed and occasionally literally collide into one another around the space of airports. Birds are sometimes cited as inspirations, and other times cited as threats.

A complexly layered instance of bird citing can be seen in a public art sculpture at Chicago's Midway Airport. Ralph Helmick's installation "Rara Avis" is a diaphanous bird comprised of 2500 tiny metal airplanes. Here is the City of Chicago's Public Art Program description of the piece:
Suspended sculpture visible from center of ticketing hall and mezzanine level...an epic suspended sculpture poetically linking natural and manmade aviation. Comprised of thousands of precisely suspended pewter elements, the artwork employs three-dimensional Pointillism wherein numerous small sculptures compose a larger, composite form. From a distance, the sculpture is perceived as a monumental image of a cardinal, Illinois’ state bird. Upon closer examination, a perceptual shift occurs and the large avian form reveals itself to be composed of over 2500 small renderings of aircraft. Over 50 different aircraft are represented, ranging from Leonardo da Vinci-inspired designs and 19th century balloons to classic passenger airliners and 21st century spacecraft.

In a flip of scales, this bird is apparently able to "choke down" thousands of flying vessels, from across historical moments, and remain a contemplative, airborne register for human flight.

The links between "nature" and "manmade aviation" are made in the air, and undone on crashing. Or perhaps this formulation gets it all wrong: what if there were never any links to be made or undone in the first place? What if 'man' could never be closer to, or farther from, 'nature'? How might we think of flight differently, then? Might we be able to build a better vocabulary for talking about things like air flow, ice, and birds—not to mention, ourselves?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"A New Epoch of Piracy"

The recent "Pirates of the Caribbean" films provided much fodder for discussing the subject of 'piracy' in the classroom. What does it mean to 'copy', 'cut', and 'paste'? (Are these mere aesthetic metaphors, or real acts of violence/creativity?) How does one come up with 'original' ideas out of a common language? Can an iPod distinguish between legally and illegally downloaded tunes? (Can the ear?) Personal computers and similar technologies allow networked citizens to hold a double status as everyday pirates. A modern mise en abyme: someone burning pirated DVDs of "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Today we read in the Times:
More than 100 ships have been attacked in Somalia’s pirate-infested seas in the past year, but no hijacking has attracted as much attention as this one, in large part because the freighter was loaded with arms, including tanks. It stirred fears of a new epoch of piracy and precipitated an unprecedented naval response. Warships from China, India, Italy, Russia, France, the United States, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, Britain and Germany have all since joined the antipiracy campaign.

Meanwhile, a history class at George Mason University created a brilliant collaborative hoax called "The Last American Pirate." Part of their assignment was to compose a fictitious Wikipedia entry that would make it past the surveillance of the notoriously scrupulous (if also occasionally arbitrary) Wikipedia editors. (It passed, for a while—but now is prefaced by a meta-critical disclaimer of sorts.)

I would like to design a course in which we would confront the myriad specters of piracy that haunt the discipline of English—such as plagiarism, pastiche, and dissemination, to name a few. Are writers always pirates? Or, is writing automatically on the side of "the antipiracy campaign"? Either way, English classrooms would seem to be, unavoidably, "pirate-infested seas" indeed.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Airport Art

This post reflects on a Wall Street Journal article about the controversial public art installation (“Mustang,” by Louis JimĂ©nez) located at the gateway of the Denver International Airport. I wish to elaborate briefly on a few specific passages from the article:
"It looks like it's possessed," says Denver resident Samantha Horoschak. "I have a huge fear of flying anyway, and to be greeted at the airport by a demon horse—it's not a soothing experience."

Who said that flying should be a “soothing experience”? Human beings in flight are hardly stable subjects. Perhaps the horse conjures all too uncannily the contemporary, possessive attitude toward airborne mobility—what the Greeks might have simply called hubris.
Now a local developer, Rachel Hultin, has launched a campaign to get the wild horse moved so it isn't the first thing visitors to Denver see. In the past month, Ms. Hultin has signed up about 7,600 supporters on her Facebook page, Bye Bye Blue Mustang. This week she dropped off 200 protest haiku at the mayor's office. (Sample verse: Because of this thing / People think they are in hell / Instead of Denver.)

First, what should be the first thing that visitors to Denver “see”? How are airports supposed to function as infinitely inviting gateways, when we know that their everyday operations are far more mundane—not to mention rife with intimations of mortality? Second, what do haiku have to do with A) protest, and B) Western American art? (Come to think of it, I've seen the movie, and it stars Tom Cruise.) How is it that this particular instance of airport art has provoked a completely unrelated literary genre as a form of response?
"When they unwrapped it, I was just horrified," says Dena McClung, who watched from the airport tower, where she worked as an air-traffic controller until her recent retirement. "It makes me feel like I'm looking at something out of a science-fiction movie."

Wait, let me get this straight: An air traffic controller sees a horse and thinks of “science-fiction.” Meanwhile, sleek metal tubes thunder into the sky all around...but nothing ‘science fiction’ to notice there. The animal as art-object becomes a fictive semaphore of horror; at the same time, the scientific machinations of human beings slide out of focus, and turn into natural arcs on the horizon of consciousness. On the approach to the terminal, an equine sculpture evokes cinema—airport screening is a given.
"It's disturbing," says Nancy Harris, a Denver painter. "As an artist myself, I totally respect the artist's vision. But I don't think it's representative of the Denver community."

This is a sneaky assertion, with grave implications: Art (here represented by a painter, a metonymy for the art form par excellence) is first and foremost about representation. The more true to life the “representative” force of the artwork, the less we have to pay attention to the actual re-presentation of humans (and all the politics involved therein) from place to place, consolidated in and facilitated by airports. An odd proposition: Soothing art as a supplement to airport banality.

Finally, a curious turn:
Resigned to looking at it for at least the next few years, Ms. Hultin, the leader of the anti-Mustang campaign, now plans to launch a public-education effort to demystify the sculpture. … Her goal: Instead of being scared, "when people see it, they'll be like, 'Oh, that's interesting,'" she says.

Is ‘demystification’ a product, or a process? Demystification is never something to be achieved once and for all; rather, it is an ongoing, critical comportment of sorts. To suppose that it is ‘art’ that requires demystification is to get the arrangement entirely wrong: art exists precisely on the seam between reality and mystery. Sadly, it seems that for Ms. Hultin, being “scared” could never be “interesting.” At the intersection of the Denver airport and public art, one may glimpse the threshold of the Sublime.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


There is an interesting way in which emergency recordings can tune people in to ambient poetics. Consider, for instance, one comment in the Times article concerning the air traffic control tapes from US Airways Flight 1549's water landing in the Hudson River last month:

For a recording with so many long dead spaces, the suspense is oddly gripping. Just reading the transcript doesn’t capture the tension surrounding “we’re gonna be in the Hudson” and “radar contact is lost”.

That was one cool pilot.

This description of the recording evokes synaesthesia: the "long dead space" is in fact no more and no less than silence; the "suspense" that 'grips' the listener is felt in a bodily way; the visuality of "reading" is both called attention to by the quotation marks and yet put under erasure by the "just"; finally, the comment is temperature-controlled by the "cool pilot." Many senses are fused together in this heavily mediated recording of a feeling of a recording...a recording that, finally, is meant at some level to communicate an actually felt experience in a 'real time' of the past.

Writing lesson: While "just reading" may be insufficient for feeling the liveliness of language, perhaps writing—which necessarily rereads—is a way to "capture the tension" that always surrounds communication.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Web Elements, Imagery, Reservations

Last week I guest-taught an introductory literature class at Loyola University in New Orleans. The students were extremely adept at seizing on and describing imagery in Louise Erdrich's story "The Red Convertible," and I found myself thinking about ways that one might discuss the formal aspects of imagery in terms of Web elements. In other words, how might we understand the work of narrative imagery through familiar online media forms?

We might speculate, for instance, that narratives with stuttered temporal distributions of imagery function the manner of hyper-links, spinning the reader off into a multiplex of tangential story lines while still ostensibly comprising a single narrative. I could imagine bringing up a completely arbitrary NY Times article on the big screen in a classroom, and then attempting as a group to both read the self-contained story and follow links outward in order to discover the thresholds of narrative coherence in a new media landscape. Then we could turn to a paragraph from "The Red Convertible" and follow geographic and cultural 'links' in a similar fashion, perhaps even recreating the annotated road-trip on Google Maps. Arriving at the prolonged description of the photograph of Lyman and Henry in the story, we might try to understand literary ekphrasis as operating similarly to Subaru's slow, painterly detail shots of their Forester. How green is the online Subaru Forester, and how red (or well read) is the Olds convertible of the story? What reservations might we detect around the imagery of automobiles?

Why read literary imagery alongside Web elements? Four tentative reasons: 1) to read literature through familiar new media forms, 2) to question the very "newness" of new media, 3) to foreground the mediation of narrative devices, and 4) to discuss how Internet 'pages' can be effectively analyzed as 'texts'. This final point is crucial for any class that engages the visual culture of websites. I'm thankful for the excellent students at Loyola for prompting me to think down these paths.