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.