Saturday, December 15, 2012

Writing about the Dreamliner

I'm writing about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

I'm thinking about this aircraft's composite promises and early reception.  I'm thinking about its innovations as well as its expected reiterations.  Its electrical shorts and its ultra-sleek toilet, its LED ambient interior lighting and its windows that are a little bit bigger than other commercial airliners' windows.

The Dreamliner (what a name!) has been called "a plane of the future," but it looks surprisingly familiar.  In this world, at this stage of species-being, what hopes and realities do we find in a new aircraft and its attendant aura?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Critical Air Studies

Two Flights

This is one of the exciting things I've been working on: I'm now accepting submissions for a special issue of Criticism shaped around the topic 'Critical Air Studies'. 

From the poetics of airborne perspectives to the halting grind of airport delays; from the politics of full body scanners to pressures on labor unions and massive corporate mergers; from narratives about contemporary globalization to the early instrumentalities of Empire; from serving as staging grounds for ecological crisis to acting as reserves for certain performances of gender & sexuality; from the secret machinations of drone warfare to the banalities of in-flight WiFi—air travel finds itself at the nexus of myriad popular conversations and charged discourses.  

Two Jet Streams

This special issue of Criticism will explore the cultural forms and philosophical implications of human flight, spanning from early modernist representations to the most current developments and heated debates. The articles in this issue of Criticism will bring timely critical perspectives to bear on ideological, theoretical, and aesthetic matters of air travel.  

Two Ospreys

The issue will feature six full-length articles, as well as a cluster of book review essays that engage recent work on global tourism, pre-histories of air travel, airport aesthetics, the labor of flight, aircraft design, aero-militarism, and other matters of transport. 

Proposals by 1 July 2013; final submissions will be due 1 December 2013. To submit a proposal, book review idea, or full article, contact me at

Two Air Force Ones

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Environmentality & the Visual Culture of Plane Crashes

"Project Mayhem" briefing card from the film Fight Club (20th-c Fox, David Fincher, 1999)

This post is a sneak peek of part of an essay of mine that is being published in a book called Beauty, Violence, Representation (as part of the Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies series). My chapter adapts Arun Agrawal’s term "environmentality" to think about how air travel disasters are represented and mediated in contemporary U.S. culture.

Agrawal uses the term environmentality to describe how people become political subjects through the creation and dissemination of environmental policies and ecological knowledge.  Agrawal demonstrates how, as land and resources become objects of statistics, ordered consumption, and conservation, environmentality emerges through people becoming certain kinds of subjects: environmental subjects.  This is not necessarily a specific way of inhabiting or treating an environment, but rather accounts for how people gradually become implicated in and subject to specific cultural and political designations about what an environment is in the first place. 

A couple pages into my essay, I discuss a visual text from the everyday culture of flight that helps illuminate how I employ this critical term. Environmentality in the sense I am using it is apparent on safety briefing cards in commercial airliners, where the inside technologies and outside ecosystems are juxtaposed stark form.

Segment of a safety briefing card from an Alaska Airlines MD80, circa 2003

On this Alaska Airlines briefing card, an idyllic alpine scene is depicted outside of the crash-landed aircraft. Let us suspend disbelief for a moment concerning the implausibly intact landing gear or the slim chances of such a graceful emergency landing in rugged terrain. Let us focus, instead, on the outside environment that appears in this info-graphic. Upon first glance, the scene simply suggests an open space that one can dash into after an emergency landing. 

And yet, as we consider further the informational incongruities located in these processual frames, the contrasting images become more curious. The technical diagrams detail various contingency escapes from the aircraft, including materially specific directions about how to deploy the tail slide, for instance. These diagrams are somewhat offset by boldly rendered (if technically unnecessary) landscape features, such as fecund foothills and sublime mountains jutting up on the horizon. What is the function of this highly aestheticized outside? My theory, as evinced in this example, is that there is a critical relationship between ideas of environment and technicalities of air travel disasters.

Lingering on this emergency briefing card, we can see how the potentially harrowing event is tied to an environmental-aesthetic register: the sky is intensely blue, and the dramatic snow-peaked mountains give way to verdant forests—it is an encompassing ecosystem rendered in miniature. The beauty and eco-logic of a world beyond thus somehow buttresses the violence of the plane crash. Outside the wrecked airplane and its tight seating configurations, one finds oneself in an ecological tabula rasa, a space open to inhabitation and free mobility. 

The shattered dream of the passenger traveling by air ends up on the ground, and the violence of the crash becomes a portal into a pristine, beautiful wilderness. The air travel disaster becomes a zero point for a survivalist fantasy, a reset button that places the human subject back in a pure state of nature, like Robinson Crusoe on his island. In other words, the techno-culture of modern air travel is subtended by a mindset of naturalism, and by an idea of beautiful wilderness as an always-available foundation point where human progress can begin afresh. 


Here are the rest of the images that the essay refers to:

Slideshow on October 1, 2012

Continental Flight 1404 as shown on

Continental Flight 1404 aerial view, as seen in The New York Times online

Mike Wilson’s photograph of Continental Flight 1404 on TwitPic

Screenshot of Double Bird Strike!!! in The New York Times online

Screenshot of “The Last Minutes of Flight 3407” interactive graphic in The New York Times online

Screenshot of “Flight Path Simulation” for Continental 3407 in The New York Times online

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In the Thick of It, Visualizing My Writing Cabin

Last month I read D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and my review of the book appears on the recently revamped site of the New Orleans Review.

I enjoy writing book reviews; they are exercises in brevity, while also allowing one to make swift connections across fields and topics that may seem otherwise unrelated. Book reviews are like a way to cover a bunch of topics that are on your mind, funneling them all through a single title. One of my excellent students is working on his first book review right now (of Krista Comer's super sharp Surfer Girls in the New World Order), and I'm looking forward to helping him craft the review to submit to a hip new journal that is open to good writing from across the spectrum of disciplinary expertise and professional status.

Besides that book review and some experimental work on my sequel airport book, I haven't been writing too much myself, these days; I've been swamped with editing projects, committee work on my campus, and reading through the 200 applications for a single tenure-track position we're searching for in my department. The latter is particularly intense work: you get to see all the brilliant research scholars are doing in a certain field, but you also face the sad state of affairs in our culture, where we are producing multitudes of eager and ready professors for a scant number of actual secure teaching jobs. Let's hope that the academic job market is on an upswing, because there are so many fantastic people who deserve to get good jobs where they can do their research and teach people how to read, think, write, and imagine. I had the thought the other day as I was going through applications that we should convert retired aircraft carriers into free, floating universities where professors in transition could teach their dream classes for a year or two while on the job market.  I haven't figured out the details; I'm just planting a utopian seed.

When I'm in the thick of back-to-back-to-back committee meetings, when I'm in the trenches of grading essays, when I'm reading smart applications for dozens of people we just can't hire, when I'm conjuring up new course ideas and creative assignments, when I'm editing other people's writing and trying to mentally coordinate the overall shape of a book with individual chapters, sections, paragraphs, and sentences—in short, when I get really busy and bogged down in my academic work, I love to be reminded of my writing cabin in northern Michigan, where I go each summer to work, read, play, and plan the next school year. (This is where I first read all of David Foster Wallace, in anticipation of the seminar I taught on his work last year—and which I plan to teach again next year.)

True, it's not really 'my' cabin, and it isn't strictly a 'writing' cabin (we live in it, too, during the summer months)—nevertheless I like to think of it as my writing cabin, and visualizing it helps me get through the times when my hands feel dirty and stuck in the fecund muck that is day-to-day academic life. It is a good life, no doubt, and I really have nothing to complain about. But the truth is that academic life, which sounds like a breeze from outside (You get summers off! You teach just a few days a week!), is actually a totally permeating and immersive experience. As it should be, I suppose.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Problem

The problem with blogs is that you feel like you've got to keep them updated somewhat regularly—at least that's how I feel. I've always tried to keep a flexibly disciplined schedule when it comes to posting on my blog: I aim for two times a month, roughly. Any more and I start to get frantic. Any less and I feel like the blog turns into an archaeological dig.

Sometimes I get excited about various things and I write more than two posts. Other times, a month goes by and all I've had time for / been inspired to write is one meager post. Occasionally I really have to force it. That's never good, but it keeps the blog 'fresh' or at least appearing somewhat such.

And yet then there's always the curious performative aspect of writing: once you've put something into words, it's weirdly made real, or at least subject to a certain realist impulse. This is something I've been thinking about and reading about, and that has been distracting me from writing on my blog. Actually I've been tweeting about it a little, in very roundabout ways, thus further taking me away from the blog (as well as away from other things).

The last few weeks have involved some combination of the reasons for not writing a post. I've been busy working on other stuff, and therefore my creative energy has been drawn away from bi-weekly blog posts. I could describe some of the things that have been occupying my time (a couple of them are really thrilling, and a few others involve the sort of tedium that will crush the strongest of souls), but then I'd be using time writing a blog post about those things rather than working on them, and there's lots of work to be done on them, both the thrilling kind and the soul-crushing kind.

I should probably stop this blog post short here, before it forms into a full-blown vortex of solipsism and self-referential tunneling. Writing in our age of new media can be a bewildering experience.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Morning Walk Photo Essay II

It was about a year ago that I posted my first morning walk photo essay; I figured today that it was time to post a second one.  (I find myself telling students that things become so much more interesting when you do them multiple times—like reading, writing, etc.)  So here we go.

Loading up the stroller outside our house, I take a moment to capture the houses on our block.  I never tire of the block-by-block topography of New Orleans shotguns houses.  The colors and the decorative details, the rickety windows and crumpling stoops, the ferns punching out of the old brick piers, the geckos incognito or skittering across the sideboards...okay, my passenger Julien is eager to get going.

On our way, a few doors down the block we get to the house that has been raised entirely and beneath which a first floor is being constructed:

With property values increasing steadily in Uptown, I guess it makes sense to double the square-footage of the home while minimizing the construction and materials involved.  We were gone this summer when they lifted the house, but I wish I could have observed the effort that went into it.

Next we encounter a very pregnant mama cat who lounges and watches us with big yellow eyes.  I want one of the kittens.

On every block we see tremendous piles of debris leftover from the hurricane.

The sheer density and diversity of these piles is hard to capture with the iPhone camera: masses of organic matter the most obvious, but also telephone lines, plastic baggies that say THANK YOU with dog shit inside, putrid rodent carcasses, soggy mattresses, towels, and rugs, bird feathers....  Here's another pile a bit farther along the walk; look how the huge black garbage bags are dwarfed by the palm fronds and the banana tree stalks:

And one more for good measure:

By the way, this isn't just a banal account of my morning walk (but it is that, too).  In the "Literature & Environment" course I'm planning, I'm going to have my students compose walking photo essays, and so I'm actually thinking about the parameters and possibilities for such an assignment as I write this.  I want to teach my students how, in the spirit of Tim Morton's book The Ecological Thought, environment is "stunningly vast and disturbingly decentered."  Maybe this walk seems pretty small-scale and centered, but I think the point is to ratchet up the perception and awareness to the point where the seemingly ordinary becomes overbrimming with uncanniness, expansiveness, and ontological richness.

Take, for instance, the telephone pole that we walked under a few blocks later. This thing was making sounds that resembled a barely legible song or an alien language that compelled us to pause beneath it and listen as it chattered and bleeped, as if announcing its presence.

Onward then, toward the river.  Things always get weird when we get close to the river.  An omen of this is an espresso machine that somebody jettisoned onto the curb.  I almost want to take it, but I don't.  There's something daunting about it.

When we get to the river we hear a whir of machinery and the scrapes and clunks of forklifts moving pallets of stuff around.  There's a new food packing (I think?) facility that has twenty-some loading docks for semi trucks, as well as its own feeder railroad track where they are loading a line of refrigerated boxcars.  Two of the cars have faces painted on them, a motif that fascinates me—animated and leering cargo.

Now at the river, as we amble along the boardwalk I spot something in the water: a fin, and a tail—an enormous fish cruising right at the surface of the water.  It must be four feet long, at least.  I can't get close too it, so I try to zoom-in with my camera, but it gets pixelated.  Still, you can see it out just above and to the right of the center of the frame, leaving a slight disturbance in the current behind it:

This thing is huge, and I watch it for a while.  I'm tempted to trudge down the riprap and wade into the water to get closer to it, maybe even grab it—but Julien is getting restless, ready to get out of the stroller and do his own adventuring.  

So we move along, and soon we find another feline surprise: two of the wild cats that live in the riprap. There are dozens of these scrawny but beautifully shaped cats living in the ecotone between the river and the park.  They slink among the willows and the Chinese tallow trees, and usually dart off before you can get a good look at them.  But one of them, a young small black one, turned and looked at us, and I managed to snap a picture of it before it bolted into the vines and out of sight.  

We turn away from the river and head back toward Magazine Street, pausing when we get to the big live oaks in front of Audubon zoo, where Julien likes to play.  After a summer in northern Michigan foraging and playing the woods and meadows, Julien now looks for the pockets of wild vegetation around the urban landscape—and once he finds a good spot, he'll spend thirty minutes or so collecting, breaking, making, and jabbering to the branches, acorns, moss, and leaves.

Then we head home.

And there you have it.  A 90-minute walk, documented by fifteen photos and brief commentary (just under 1000 words).  This is a working template for an assignment in contemporary literature & environment.  I'm assembling a funky and unexpected reading list for this course (mixed in with some classics), and I'm excited to see what my students make of it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Getting Back to Things

We made it home after a long drive back, full of anticipation and uncertainty, wondering how our home had weathered the storm and hoping everything was (at least mostly) all right.  The last hour of the drive was stunningly beautiful, cruising over the bloated wetlands as the clouds built and tumbled in the distance.  Beautiful, of course, with a post-sublime sort of caveat.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how the smells of New Orleans seep up from the ground.  I've experienced this in a whole new way on returning, after hurricane Isaac slowly organized, sat and spun for a while over the city, and finally blew through.

The garbage around town wasn't picked up for days, in some cases a week, and to walk the blocks now is to rather swim through pungent scent clouds of slimy plastic wrappers; collapsed cardboard boxes; dead rats and mice that crawled into the garbage cans and could not get back out; stale beer, orange juice, milk; rotting paper diapers; decaying chicken and ham bones and ribs and shrimp heads; moldy bread; waterlogged plywood; dead name a mere few of the recognizable objects festering on the street post-hurricane.

Driving back into town I was struck by the bent road signs, ripped up billboards, and piles of debris in the neutral ground.  The lights at intersections were either blinking red and yellow, or altogether dark—cars chaotically stopping and going, traffic somehow moving along.  People ambled down the streets in what looked like a semi-daze.  Utility trucks could be seen in every direction, cherry pickers raised and men with fire-proof gauntlets hard at work, in the balmy afternoon temperature of 95 degrees.

Our small house made it through okay, no major damage on the outside.  An old crape myrtle tree in front of our home was snapped off at the base of its trunk, and is now lying in the street right where our car would have been parked had we stayed.  And part of our front room ceiling is ballooning with old rainwater, cracking in some places.

I had left a plastic bucket beneath this spot before we left town (it dripped a little during the last tropical storm a couple years ago), and I'm glad I did: there were about four gallons of yellowish water in it when we got back.  The house has a peculiar smell now, wafting down from the cracks in the ceiling; I need to crawl up to that point in our attic to check it out, but I'm procrastinating—it's not going to be pretty.  I know we'll probably have to have significant work done on that part of the roof, termites are attracted to it, etc.—but we want to put a metal roof on the whole house, which is going to be a major endeavor, so I'm delaying for now.

And anyway I'm busy getting back to things, trying to reclaim something like everyday life.

The semester began, just a week late and with everyone slightly frazzled.  My class this semester seems full of bright and excited students.  This will be the fourth time I've taught the class called "Texts & Theory" at Loyola, and I like it more each time I teach it.  It's basically an introduction to literary criticism, but it's also a class that expands and explodes what we mean by text, and shows how theory sometimes weirdly means practice.  I tell my students that our goal is to get really confused by texts and theory—and then to articulate and explain this confusion as clearly as possible.  I've never really taught the class the same way twice; I design it with enough wiggle room that it allows us to toggle between literature, culture, and philosophy—as well as linger on surprise topics and go down unexpected paths.

This year we started with some Lydia Davis and the first two pages of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, all by way of easing into discussions of what the heck 'literary theory' might be.  We're going to work our way toward Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing which we'll finish the class with, corresponding with a visit from Ian.  I'm conjuring an unusual final project for this course; it's going to involve something that the students 'make', or some kind of 'paper' that might not look paperish at all on first glance.  We'll see.

In other mundane news, I was very happy to see my essay "Flying Objects, Sitting Still, Killing Time" published in the journal Transformations; it's about the shared sensations of airport seating and airplane seats.  I started working on this topic back at Davis in 2006, presented it at ACLA a couple years ago, and it took on several different forms before finding a place in this issue dedicated to "hyperaesthetic culture."  I'm grateful for the astute suggestions from the blind reviewers who read my essay—they helped it become a piece I'm really proud of, an essay that draws from my airport book while also moving in new directions.  This photograph taken by my old friend Ryan Williams sort of sums up the topic of the essay:

Another offshoot of my continued interest in air travel, I thoroughly enjoyed reading and reviewing Peter Adey's excellent Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects—a book which will bend your mind and reorient your sense of the history of flight. My review will appear in the inaugural issue of the journal Interstitial, whose advisory board I'm honored to be on.

My current book project Deconstructing Brad Pitt is gradually coming together; I've got a range of fascinating chapters from an eclectic array of scholars, and I plan to work my way through each piece over the course of this fall.  At some point in the near future I'll post the working table of contents.  I'm eager to meet with my editor at Continuum and talk about the cover design of the book.  (The cover on the righthand side of this blog is just a stand-in that I whipped up.)

I also started another book this summer, which I'm tentatively calling Notes from the Sleeping Bear.  It's going to be a book about ecological thinking, written from (and largely about) the area where I spend every summer, the Leelanau peninsula of Michigan.  I'm conceiving of it as a 21st-century Walden, of sorts.  I realize that sounds grandiose, but Thoreau's book is grandiose—and yet so aware of its grandiosity, at the same time.

That's my fall update.  I've got a couple other projects in the works, and some new courses I'm planning—but I'll stop rambling on, for now.  There's still some cleaning up to do around here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Notes on Evacuating

Last night at this time I was building a model of our home out of Legos, showing my two-year-old roommate Julien how we had prepared for the storm: how we had boarded up the vulnerable back window, and how the wind would slam into the house and whip around the next-door palm tree when the hurricane hit. We played out various scenarios, and Julien would grunt his affirmative "Hm!" with each demonstration.

Overnight the winds picked up, rattling our old windows, and the air started to change.  At three in the morning I got up and packed the car; at 4:00 we drove off, Julien still slumbering in the back seat.  We didn't necessarily know anything more about the storm at that point—it was still "trying to become better organized"—but it was time for us to go.  

The roads were empty as we drove out of the city on US-10.  As we merged onto the highway we saw the first droplets rain on the windshield.

You could practically feel the heavy penumbra of sherbet spreading over the city—and what a strange feeling to be speeding way from it, sitting in a reclined chair in a somewhat aerodynamic 2700-lb metal box on wheels. During those predawn hours I kept looking back in the rearview mirror at the glowing cloud mass.  How big was it?  Was it building?  How bad would it get?  What about our house?  Had we made the right choice?  Should we be there with our friends who had stayed?  All these questions and more were at turns enhanced and subsumed by the necessary myopia that is driving.

Later in the morning as we zoomed up I-55 we saw shattered turtle shells from ruined would-be highway crossers, and shredded armadillos balled up on the side of the road.  And of course, there were the ubiquitous black forms of ejected truck tire husks, sometimes dangerously curling up in and between the lanes.  There's something singularly terrifying about watching a big-rig shed a tire in real time, everyone speeding along merrily at 80 miles per hour while a certain tire that only you can see starts to buckle, flap on its wheel, and begin to disintegrate, leaving its carnage to flip and tumble behind, for other cars to veer around or run over.

Then there were billboards advertising hamburger choices, and others lambasting the choice to have an abortion—and still more billboards selling billboard space, a veritable landscape of meta-advertising.

We'll spend a few days in St. Louis, where Julien is getting some unexpected quality time with his grandparents.  It's good to see him running around the yard and making up games in this new place.

But I miss our home. In my mind I keep trying to inhabit it—to check a certain leak in the ceiling, to mop up the drips around the fireplace, or to stand over that one crack in the floorboards where the wind always whistles in underfoot. I find myself imagining what the house is feeling as the storm moves through.  The house is old, and this is one of many many storms it has been through—it probably has its own patterns and flexions for dealing with such torrents of wind and rain.  The power appears to be off in our neighborhood now, and I imagine the whine of generators interspersed with the gusts and the downpour.

On our way north on I-55, we passed several dozen energy company bucket trucks that were headed south, driving in teams, toward the Gulf Coast. Help on its way.

We'll be back in New Orleans soon, back in our home.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Waiting for a storm

Right now we're just waiting for a storm, to see what it will do.  It's eerie.  There's the god's eye view provided by satellites, but this form of 'knowledge' is hardly commensurate with life on the ground.

The planes overhead seem louder than normal, today; maybe one of them is a NOAA Hurricane Hunter.

I can't decide if that name—Hurricane Hunter—is comical or heroic, an absurd misnomer or an admirable attempt at something more primitive within our techno-media maelstrom.

Beyond the planes and helicopters chopping above, there's a different kind of buzz outside: the buzz of people stocking up at our neighborhood market, and other people frantically loading their cars in order to evacuate.  Some cars drive down our skinny street startlingly fast—panic in action.  Other people gab and laugh and stroll down the street with cases of Abita and Miller High Life on their shoulders.  We've got our bags packed and the house all tied down—but we're not leaving, at least not yet.

This morning it was dead-still, and the sky was a brilliant azure —I've never quite appreciated the phrase "calm before the storm" until today.  Now, at 3:30, the light in the sky is diffuse in a weird way. There isn't exactly a cloud layer yet, but it's as if a sheet of fine linen has been pulled over us.  The wind is starting to gust, and I can hear it sporadically whistling through the 100-year-old chimney a few feet away from me as I write this.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Back in New Orleans

After eight weeks in the woods of northern Michigan, I'm back in New Orleans.  I love this city.  The way smells seep up from the ground.  How, when the rain pools in the streets, I'm suddenly uncertain as to whether they are mere puddles, or if the entire city is in fact made up of millions of tiny floating islands always ready to be submerged.  And how the clouds tower and move, a perpetually shifting panorama that never fails to send my mind reeling.

When our plane touched down at Louis Armstrong International airport, I was elated to see the great suspended masses of force and liquid somersaulting above the concrete stacks of the terminal.

The view out the aircraft window as we nestled into our gate put me in the mindset of Walker Percy, who describes the Louisiana skyscape so well in his wonderfully bizarre novel The Moviegoer:
"It is a day for clouds. The clouds come sailing by, swelled out like clippers. The creamy vapor boils up into great thundering ranges and steep valleys of cloud."
And then there was our 100-something-year-old house, which had been sitting empty while we were gone.  There is a distinct feel of a home that has been left to breathe on its own, with no human inhabitants, but only assorted cockroaches and occasional mice foraging for hidden crumbs, their tiny turds barely discernible here and there.  A small cockroach crawled out of the sink drain this morning, appearing startled that we'd usurped its territory.  I scooped it up in an olive jar and dropped it outside, where it skittered under the house.  Even as I write this post in the predawn hours, I can hear a sizable periplaneta americana cruising through the dark across the kitchen, its broad wings making a sound not unlike a small helicopter as it transports itself from one crevice to another.

Re-inhabiting our home and re-calibrating the lines of coexistence therein, I've also had to re-familiarize myself with the old heartpine floorboards, which ones creak and which ones don't.  (Especially crucial knowledge during nap-time.)  A house several doors down from ours is being added on to; they've lifted the entire four-bay shotgun structure and are building a new first story beneath.  It's fascinating to see the underside of the house, raised as it is about fifteen feet above ground.  When we first moved into our home, I put on my work pants and a long-sleeved canvas shirt, grabbed a flashlight, and crawled beneath the house for an hour, filling five huge black trash bags with miscellaneous debris and rubble.  These were different kinds of globular accumulations than the romantic clouds above, but likewise full of history and mystery.  While looking skyward can seem like a more reliable place to look for beauty, this was a reminder not to dismiss the rich ecology of what's down and dirty. 

This fall I've decided to incorporate Ian Bogost's new book Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing into my class, as I think it opens up exciting possibilities for reading and writing in my discipline (and of course for all sorts of creative practices beyond the squishy bounds of English).  I'm eager to see what my students make of Bogost's book after we've worked through earlier movements in literary theory and textual analysis.

I particularly love how Alien Phenomenology ends with a quasi-manifesto on behalf of wonder, and I hope to put this sentiment into practice with my students in their reading, writing, and thinking, as well as in their daily lives around New Orleans.  It might start as simply as watching clouds, and then learning that clouds, in the discourse of meteorology, have genus and species types and further varieties beneath that—they are living things, able to transmogrify and even dissipate at once.  And this kind of awareness is precisely what Percy is up to in The Moviegoer when he notices the atmosphere:
"The cloud is turning blue and pressing down upon us. Now the street seems closeted; the bricks of the buildings glow with a yellow stored up light."
How do clouds interact with people and cities?  How do things seem?  How can open space be not disclosed?  How can built structures stash ephemeral qualities, only to become illuminated unexpectedly?  These questions and more lurk in Percy's lines, and they lurk everywhere—waiting to be asked, speculated about, and multiplied. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Logging Camp

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can.
                                                                   —Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
Last spring I enjoyed reading Richard Scarry's classic book Cars and Trucks and Things That Go to my small roommate Julien. It's basically an introduction to Object-Oriented Ontology: it turns out that pretty much everything goes, and has a perspective—even nonliving things. One page that kept catching Julien's fascination was the page where the pig family (the road-tripping main characters of the story) passes a logging camp.

It turned out to provide a useful, if unexpected, education of sorts: for this summer, people are logging the woods behind my family's house, on a piece of conservancy land. The near constant buzzing of the STIHL chainsaws mixes with intermittent cicada sirens in the trees. Each time a tree falls, the booming crash cascades down the hillsides, strangely amplified and muffled at the same time, and practically shaking the ground underfoot for an illusive moment.

They drag the felled trees through the woods along a fresh path that shows the gouges of the tremendous logs, with surprising glacial rocks and yellow beach sand churned up in the process. What used to be my favorite valley of dense, waist-high bracken ferns is now a staging area where the huge logs are cut into eight-foot lengths.

I used to climb these trees. My brother and I would take a compound bow and an old arrow with a lead line attached, and one of us would shoot the arrow up into the highest branches of some giant oak or beech. Then we'd pull a static climbing rope up and over, hooking it into a firm branch fork. With a climbing ascender attached to a harness, and another beneath with webbing for foot loops, we could go vertically straight into the upper canopy of the forest, fifty or sixty feet above. And then...just hang out. There is a whole other life world in the upper story of a deciduous forest. Different birds and bugs, and the way the leaves move around in rustling undulations.

I haven't done that in probably fifteen years, but I can recall the feeling quite vividly. Now I'm seeing some of these very trees lying on the ground, their upper branches—useless because worthless—shattered and scattered around. Tangles of discarded biomass left behind in the wake of the destruction. It's sad, and more than a little depressing.

But I'm not simply waxing nostalgic. I'm actually attempting to be enchanted by the spectacle and the tremendous effort that goes into logging a forest, visibly imprinted as it is in the incredible tire tracks made by the Timberjack skidders.

This is hardly clear-cut logging. What's happening back here is selective—one might even say 'sustainable'—logging. (We need to bracket that word 'sustainable', though, as it begs uncomfortable questions concerning for how long, and for whom or what purpose.)

The logging happening here is fairly targeted, thinning out the white ash and northern red oak trees and thus making room for new growth—the millions of seedlings and saplings sprouting up from the floor below, but which struggle to get light when the canopy is too dense. You wouldn't believe how dark it can be in the middle of the day in the thickest parts of the woods. Now, after the loggers have moved through an area, there are bright splotches of sunlight on the forest floor, jagged puzzle pieces flickering on the undergrowth.

I'll admit that there is a latent part of me that drifts toward the mindset of Edward Abbey's seminal study of eco-terrorism, The Monkey Wrench Gang: I sort of want to sabotage the whole operation. Yet I'm restraining myself, and instead just spying on the outfit from afar, perched on an adjacent ridge. Here in the distance you can glimpse one of the skidders, an orange one, crashing through the trees:

In the canon of wilderness writing there's also the poetry of Gary Snyder to entertain—especially pertinent to this post, the section "Logging" from Myths & Texts. Here, Snyder dutifully lists the various goings on around an active logging camp:
The D8 tears through piss-fir,
Scrapes the seed-pine
                            chipmunks flee,
A black ant carries an egg
Aimlessly from the battered ground.
Yellowjackets swarm and circle
Above the crushed dead log, their home.
Pitch oozes from barked
            trees still standing,
Mashed bushes make strange smells.
Lodgepole pines are brittle.
Camprobbers flutter to watch. 
Each line has multiple objects interacting, violently or just barely, or passing by one another oblivious...and the human becomes one thing among many in this scene. It's not just a logging camp; it's kind of campy, too, in the sense that Susan Sontag might have described it. For Sontag, "an important element of the Camp sensibility [is] the equivalence of all objects...." 

When Snyder notices that "mashed bushes make strange smells" it's as if the bushes are making the smells not just for the humans, but for the very strangeness of the smells themselves. I've felt this in the forest over the past few weeks: the smell of the cut trees is so pungent that it jerks me out of my own nose—I feel thrust into the underbrush, into an alien world. Likewise, in Snyder's evocation of the brittleness of the lodgepoles and the watching of the camprobbers (or gray jays), these things happen on their own trajectories, intersecting with the logging operation but also entirely of their own being. Snyder's lines might at first sound sad about the shorn forest, but the more you read of this poem, the more other entities emerge and rise up to an equal status alongside the loggers—even in the midst of the apparently human-caused turmoil.

As hard as it is to watch, and as destructive as it seems, this logging is good for the forest—in the sense that it spurs regeneration and new growth. The other day when I told a biologist friend of mine about the logging, he said, "It would really be great if they burned it all down to the ground back there—then you'd really see some exciting species return to the area!" He's of course right. Forests thrive on dramatic upheavals and wholesale razing. It often happens on longer timescales than we can imagine or come to terms with, but to quote Sontag once again, "Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary." The logging camp—and the forest at large, a domain without bounds, commingling with tractors and chainsaws—is indeed an attempt at something extraordinary.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Petoskey Stones: Decorative Objects, Hyperobjects

Shortly into Ernest Hemingway's "Ten Indians," one of the Nick Adams stories, we read the following paragraph:
They drove along. The road turned off from the main highway and went up into the hills. It was hard pulling for the horses and the boys got down and walked. The road was sandy. Nick looked back from the top of the hill by the schoolhouse. He saw the lights of Petoskey and, off across Little Traverse Bay, the lights of Harbor Springs. They climbed back into the wagon again.
What is this place, Petoskey, that twinkles in the middle distance of this passage?  A sort of answer: a preferred activity in the region where I'm from is to rove the shoreline looking for the Michigan state stone, the petoskey.

The petoskey is an aesthetically pleasing, hexagonal fossilized coral from around 350 million years ago. When the stones are dry the fossil is nearly imperceptible, but when wet the pattern sticks out brilliantly. Here are a bunch that I found the other day:

Wading knee-deep in the clear water along the lakeshore, you can see these unique stones, fragments of a vast coral reef, mixed in with the various and innumerable other rocks that were ground smooth by the glaciers that made the Great Lakes.

Discovering petoskeys on the beach is fun and stimulating; I can spend hours wandering the shore looking for them and finding them in all different shapes and sizes, usually hurling them back out into the surf as I go. Sometimes I keep one or two particularly striking or unusual ones, and I have a small pile of them at home in New Orleans, on a bookshelf. (Geologic activity happens in funny ways in the anthropocene, with little rock chunks flying across continents in Boeings and Airbuses...)

This summer I've gotten into finding petoskeys in the woods, too. There's something weird and jarring about stumbling upon these ancient fossils lodged under massive beech and oak trees. While these rocks are known for being easiest to find along the shore, they're really everywhere up here, once you start looking.

The Wikipedia entry for petoskeys mentions that the stones are often made into "decorative objects." Indeed, in shops and farmers market stands around the area you can get all sorts of baubles and trinkets made from petoskey stones: bears, butterflies, turtles, fishhooks, crosses, wine bottle stoppers, ear rings, necklaces, even entire human skulls.

Beyond their use as "decorative objects," though, I wonder if these rocks might also be thought of as hyperobjects.

My mentor Tim Morton coined the term "hyperobjects" to describe things that are "massively distributed in time and space in ways that baffle humans and make interacting with them fascinating, disturbing, problematic and wondrous." (That's a particularly elegant formulation from one of Tim's blog posts about the Everglades.)

Remember, petoskeys are the remains of a coral that lived around 350 million years ago. In other words, these beached and subterranean stones that I can see and hold are traces of an aquatic, unfathomable life-form that existed so so long ago, in a world inseparable yet totally dislocated from this place that I recognize as home. It's completely uncanny to ponder.

Here are a few other pithy points from near the end of Tim's wonderful book The Ecological Thought: "Hyperobjects do not rot in our lifetimes. ...hyperobjects outlast us all. ... Hyperobjects invoke a terror beyond the sublime, cutting deeper than conventional religious fear."

The term hyperobjects is often used to describe things like pollution and climate change, things that are terrifying because they seem at once out of our control and longer lasting than us, yet intimately caused by and connected to us, too. But hyperobjects can also be things like petoskey stones, which by being merely apparent fossils can remind us of vast expanses of time, and can spur us to to think about how we shape our own fossilization.

Tim also says about hyperobjects that "suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by them." I think I've been feeling this lately with petoskey stones. Even when I'm holding one of these rocks, I get the strange sense that, really, I'm engulfed by something so much larger than me—and yet, bizarrely, it's in my hands, too.

Thanks to my sister Zane for the photographs in this post.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Airport Reading, Airplane Reading: Definitions & Distinctions

Airport reading, airplane reading. What's the difference? These two phrases often are conflated or used interchangeably. I use these phrases in fairly distinct ways, which I want to delineate briefly here.

Airport reading can mean just the trashy stuff that you buy in the airport and maybe read while waiting for a flight. Magazines, thrillers, newspapers—it's trashy either for its content, or for where it ends up when you board the aircraft or deplane. Airport reading can become airplane reading, or be relegated to the dustbin of the departure gate.

But airport reading is more than this: it's also the profusion of message, screens, information signs, and wrapped marketing that requires air travelers to navigate and negotiate space, time, and consumption while in the airport. You have to read your way to the gate (likely buying something along the way).

The way I use this phrase, it's also airports in texts, or how airports read as particular types of narrative settings (whether in literature, films, advertising spots, or TV shows), where predictable and recognizable things can happen to characters. Airport reading is one of the key topics of my book The Textual Life of Airports. In that book I also use airport reading to stand for a kind of method—a way to be aware of (and interpret) what goes on inside and around airports. It's a sort of heuristic device that allows certain types of scenes, sensations, views, and events to mean more than simply another day at the airport. These include:
  • Feelings of "dead time" (Don DeLillo's phrase), or profound boredom
  • Existential dread or deep loneliness when staring at choked or empty runways, depressing departure gates, or rubble strewn horizon
  • Encounters with strange art—especially installations that may seem incongruous with air travel
  • The whims of sudden cancellations or unexplained delays
  • An overwhelming sense of arbitrariness (who get selected for further screening, who gets to fly First Class, etc.)
  • Notions that progress has stalled, or has reverted to a brutish state
  • Wondering how it all works—marveling in all the systems and chance involved
These are just a few of the things that can prompt analysis or reflection, and that I consider airport reading. You can see some of the meanings of airport reading at work in a still from David Fincher's 1999 film Fight Club:

This is the scene where we get the first sustained view of the elusive and illusive Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt (the subject of my next book project). The nameless main character, played by Edward Norton, is in the midst of a voice-over montage detailing the tedium of ordinary business air travel, and this particular shot shows him zoning out while being moved along a moving walkway, conceivably on the way to his gate. Pitt's character passes in the opposite direction, on the background, oblivious yet oddly relaxed and flamboyantly present.

This scene evinces airport reading by relying on a host of familiar oppressive architectural motifs and directional forces. The airport is rendered as a gloomy place, with its low ceiling and people who appear automated and totally cut off from one another—even though, in the parlance, they are in fact in the process of "connecting." The normal operations of the airport showcase automation, disconnection, and malaise. As we watch this scene unfold, we read the airport as a heavy place, in which the characters themselves read their fortunes in the dreary patterns of predictable affects and repetitive acts. The voice-over concludes with Edward Norton intoning glumly, "This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time." Dead time, indeed.

While airport reading can overlap with airplane reading, the latter phrase also comes to mean a different set of things—and we actually can use a later scene from Fight Club to unpack some of these meanings.

This is the scene where our main character actually meets Tyler Durden for the first time. They are seatmates on a routine commercial flight. Brad Pitt mutters the safety instructions in a barely audible voice, and chuckles at the cartoonish briefing card diagrams of emergency evacuations and crash bracing positions. We follow the two characters' awkward introduction, their exchange of innuendos and jokes, and flippant storytelling. This is airplane reading: it all starts with someone reading while sitting in an aircraft. It then turns into casual conversation about flying a lot, and the stirrings of intimacy—or at least its potential. How people interact on the plane, then, can also a be part of airplane reading. (Think of the storytelling that can spontaneously take place between seatmates.)

Mark Yakich and I called our site for nonfiction about flight Airplane Reading because we wanted it to be able to reflect the range of stories, interactions, meditations, and epiphanies that can happen while sitting in or around airplanes. Then there is the feeling of actually reading while in-flight, which can produce an odd sort of alertness: attention can be at its most acute, or at its most distractable—and it is often hard to gauge what state you'll be in when you actually sit in your seat and try to read. Beyond seatmate scenarios and absorbed reading during in-flight transit, there's also a geographic register: views out the airplane window that can be exhilarating, sublime, and humbling. This is the valence of airplane reading that Marit MacArthur considers in terms of "the poetics of passenger flight" in her recent PMLA article on air travel and perceptions of the global.

Airplane reading can also connote feelings of enjoyment, desire, or expressive pleasure while seated in an airliner—or even just thinking about it. Our site has become an archive of hundreds of stories trips, flights, connections, delays, near accidents, deaths—and most of them are memories, people thinking back on flights they took earlier in their lives, and recounting these stories. I keep hoping that someone will 'live blog' or 'live tweet' a trip and then submit a transcript of it to our site. The closest thing to this has been Randy Malamud's wonderful account of his attendance at the simulation run for the opening of the new Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal in Atlanta.

Twitter is a dynamic forum for airplane reading. Alec Baldwin's infamous flaming of American Airlines on twitter created a multiplex venue for airplane reading, from the live site of the aircraft to the thousands and millions of followers who read about and responded to the situation from afar, on different planes, terminals, and screens.

For twitter's ability to trigger, accommodate, and route all sorts of flights of fancy; for tracking people's trips, aviation stories and tidbits, and the daily grind of air travel; for the weird ways that these two technologies coexist and collide—these are a few of the reasons why my own twitter handle is @airplanereading.