Mark Dery on 22 Feb 2001 17:44:18 -0000

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<nettime> Excavating the Jet Age


FYI, an excerpt from my essay "Memories of the Future: Excavating the Jet
Age at the TWA Terminal." It's about the ruins of the future, nostalgia for
yesterday's tomorrows, the mythic echoes of plane crashes, class war at
cruising altitude, air rage, the "forensic aesthetic," and more.

It will appear, later this year, in the anthology _Prefiguring Cyberculture:
Informatics from Plato to Haraway_, eds. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and
Alessio Cavallaro (Power Publications, Sydney, 2001).

An investigation into "informatic culture," it will feature essays on the
Net, the Web, AI, VR, genetic engineering, and cyborgs by Evelyn Fox Keller,
Bruce Mazlish, Mark Dery, Margaret Wertheim, Gregory Ulmer, Elizabeth Grosz,
Donald Theall, Erik Davis, Richard Doyle, McKenzie Wark, Damien Broderick,
Elizabeth Wilson, Catherine Waldby, Julian Pefanis, Scott McQuire, John
Potts, Richard Slaughter, Russell Blackford, and Zoe Sofoulis. "In addition
to the essays," notes the promo blurb, "statements and images by acclaimed
cyberculture artists such as Stelarc and Char Davies explore the ways in
which informatic themes have been taken up and critiqued in the electronic


The future was supposed to look like Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal. Endlessly
celebrated in swooning design-magazine spreads and paid winking homage by Bo
Welch in his design for the intergalactic command center in the movie, Men
in Black, the TWA Terminal has evolved, from a touchstone of Space-Age
style, into a symbol of things to come that never came. The sad state of the
actual building, which every day looks more and more like a Ballardian ruin
of futures past, is a leading cultural indicator of the fact that the future
just isn't what it used to be.

Design freaks who know the swooping, gull-winged icon only from Ezra Stoller
's period photos in the reverent monograph, The TWA Terminal, are in for a
rude reality check if they make the pilgrimage to New York's famously
inconvenient JFK airport. Taken after the building's completion in 1962,
Stoller's elegant black-and-white studies make it look at once ancient and
futuristic: Brancusi's "Bird in Space" reimagined as a Pharaonic monument.
The information desk rises up out of the floor, all sinuous curves, its
elliptical display of arrival and departure information looking like a
television for aliens or a deep-space obelisk. Stoller's skinny-tied
businessmen and white-gloved women stroll beneath soaring arches and a
vaulted ceiling that give the terminal a decidedly churchlike air-an effect
that is surely intentional, given the architect's debt to Le Corbusier's
Chapel at Ronchamp.

(The church I attended as a boy, growing up in suburban Southern California,
reversed Saarinen's architectural metaphor. A pyramid-shaped artifact of the
Space Age, St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Chula Vista resembles a redwood
treehouse idling on a concrete launchpad: house of worship as rustic
spaceship, a visual trope that reconciled the era's crunchy-granola vibe
with its star-trekking pioneer spirit. Designed in 1966 by Robert Des
Lauriers, St. Mark's serves two masters, aesthetically speaking: the
Rousseau-ian back-to-naturism of the counterculture and the rocket-finned
futurism of the space race and mass air travel-culturequakes whose tremors
were deeply felt in Southern California, where the aeronautics industry was
a major employer. At the time he designed St. Mark's, recalls Des Lauriers,
"Everybody was thinking of doing space things." The architect went on to
make a name for himself as the creator of strikingly modernist churches
throughout Southern California. His flirtations with the aesthetic reached
their dizzy apogee in the Carlton Hills Lutheran Church in Santee, a
Jetsonian traffic-stopper whose "flying effects" exploit the hyperbolic

In its heyday, the TWA Terminal was a Jet-Age cathedral, consecrated to
speed and-unintentionally-to the double-edged sword of technological
utopianism, which staked its faith in a future whose chrome was never
supposed to flake. After his last visit to the construction site, Saarinen
(who died shortly before the building was finished) remarked, "If anything
happened and they had to stop work right now and just leave it in this
state, I think it would make a beautiful ruin, like the Baths of Caracalla."

His dream is coming true, though with far less sublime melancholy and far
more bus-station seediness than he could have imagined. Once upon a time,
the terminal was "a destination point in itself," according to the
architectural critic Mark Lamster. "Its chic dining facilities, clubs, and
lounges (the gallery level restaurant and cafeteria were actually designed
by the office of industrial designer Raymond Loewy) offered locals
spectacular views and the *frisson* of mingling with the new 'jet set' in
high style."[2]  Now, despite its landmark status, the terminal is in a
terminal state, its concrete walls scabbed by slapdash patch jobs, its
postage stamp-sized "midget" floor tiles crumbling, its once-stylish Paris
Café blighted by tacky updates, the upholstery in its Lisbon Lounge
splitting and leaking stuffing.

Ironically, Saarinen's masterwork was ready for the wrecking ball almost
from day one. Designed with propeller aircraft in mind, it was too small for
the human traffic it was soon forced to accommodate, a flood unleashed by
the advent of commercial jet aircraft like the Boeing 707 and the Douglas
DC-8. Aerodynamic archetype of life lived at Mach 1, the TWA Terminal was
anachronistic from the very beginning.


Time and irony have transformed Saarinen's masterwork into an elegy to the
Jet Age, when the world above cloud cover was reserved for sharp-dressed
executives and smiling stewardesses while the antlike masses traveled via
earthbound modes more appropriate to their station. A seductive blend of
upper-class elegance and ultra-modern chic, equal parts Cunard liner and
moonliner, once prevailed at cruising altitude.

In a January 2001 Op-Ed on the passing of the bankrupt TWA, whose assets
will be acquired by American Airlines, the former TWA flight attendant Ann
Hood reflects wistfully on the bygone era when white-gloved attendants like
herself carved chateaubriand, mixed the perfect martini, and "dressed lamb
chops in tiny gold foil booties"-worldly skills acquired at the company's
training academy, "a Jetson-style office complex with sunken living rooms
and modular furniture."[3]  To a small-town girl like Hood, the glamorous
airline "represented the future." She mourns the end of the age "when TWA
was all first class," a decline and fall marked, in her eyes, by the
transition from cream pitchers spirited away on silver trays to Styrofoam
cups collected by dreary attendants dragging garbage bags down the aisles.

The '70s witnessed the deregulation of international air travel, enabling
cheap fares; also, Boeing introduced its wide-bodied 747 "jumbo" jet, which
carried twice as many passengers as any previous plane. Thus was the jet set
democratized-to a minus effect, in the minds of some. By 1978, a United
spokesperson was already complaining, in Kenneth Hudson and Julian Pettifer'
s social history of air travel, Diamonds in the Sky, "Air travel is not the
big thing it used to be. It has become the bus service of the nation."[4]
As the authors note, "Many people, especially those in positions of power
and influence, dislike travelling by bus."[5]  And, it might be added,
travelling with the class of people who usually travel by bus.

The well-rewarded should count their blessings. For the masses, air travel
means inedible food, cattle-car conditions, and frightful displays of bad
breeding back in steerage. In his neo-gothic novel, Hannibal, Thomas Harris
evokes the horrors of air travel among the lower orders when his anti-hero,
Hannibal Lecter, has to fly (heaven forefend!) *Economy Class*. Lecter is a
highborn cannibal whose penchant for Mozart, Steuben chandeliers, and
eviscerating the "free-range rude" places him squarely on the George Will
side of the culture wars. But lo, how the mighty are fallen: on the lam,
Lecter is forced to travel incognito with the package-tour untouchables.

Harris sets the scene: "Shoulder room is 20 inches. Hip room between
armrests is 20 inches. This is two inches more space than a slave had on the
Middle Passage. The passengers are being slopped with freezing-cold
sandwiches of slippery meat and processed cheese food, and are rebreathing
the farts and exhalations of others in economically reprocessed air, a
variation on the ditch-liquor principle established by cattle and pig
merchants in the 1950s."[6]
It's understandable, given such conditions, that "air rage," if not serial
cannibalism, is on the rise. The term entered the media lexicon in 1995,
when a drunken customer filed a complaint against the crew's refusal to
serve him another martini by yanking his pants down and taking a dump on the
drink cart. Since then, flight attendants have been punched, peed on, hurled
into bulkheads and bashed with bottles. Clearly, the barbarians are at the
boarding gates.
In keeping with the time-honored, middlebrow tradition of policing the
border between the rabble and the power elite, some experts have hinted that
"air rage" is the inevitable result of the erosion of traditional values,
specifically our unquestioned respect for a Man in a Uniform. "Passengers
have lost respect for the pilot, the flight attendants and each other, and
this is what happens," admonishes Dr. Arnold Nerenberg, a Whittier,
California-based authority on "road rage."[7]  The square-jawed guy with the
right stuff-every man's fantasy of grace under pressure and every woman's
dream of rocket-jock hunkiness-has gone the way of Airport and Coffee, Tea
or Me?.
Hudson and Pettifer offer a dryly funny Freudian reading of the pilot as
paterfamilias. "Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and certainly during the war
years," they write,  "pilots had almost god-like status, both for what they
did and for what they were.Psychologists have gone further and seen the
pilot as an essential father-figure. As such, his strengthening, encouraging
influence should be all-pervasive in the aircraft. If his first task is to
fly the plane safely, his second is to reassure passengers that they are in
good hands.Only the word of the captain contains the assurance needed to
reduce passenger's anxiety to the fullest possible extent. If information
had to be relayed instead of coming directly in the voice of the
father-figure, the communication should reach passengers in some such form
as 'Captain McGregor says that we will be in Paris in about an hour and that
the sun is shining there.' The ritualistic use of his name is essential if
the message is to have its maximum effect. Or so the theory goes."[8]

Come to think of it, the captain sounds a lot like another unseen,
omniscient patriarch: the Judeo-Christian sky god. As Ronald Reagan's eulogy
to the crew of the ill-fated _Challenger_ ("They touched the face of God")
suggests, fans of Bronze-Age belief systems still think of the Big Guy as,
you know, somebody *up there*. Hence, it's understandable that pilots, at
home in the heavens, should have "almost god-like status."

Inversely, it also stands to reason that Our Heavenly Father should be
conceived of as a pilot. Remember _God Is My Co-Pilot_? And isn't the
biblical Cap'n Yahweh always issuing prophetic bulletins over some sort of
cosmic P.A. system or through uniformed emissaries who return from that
exalted flight deck, the Holy of Holies, with messages validated by "the
ritualistic use of His name"? A hardcore fan of Xtreme exegesis (pushing the
envelope of overinterpretation to rocket-sled extremes), I can't resist
noting that the traditionally female flight attendant stands in for the Holy
Mother, in our Jet-Age theology. As Hudson and Pettifer point out, "If the
pilot is father, the stewardess is mother, waiting on her children hand and
foot, listening and watching to see if one is crying or unhappy, always at
hand with comforting words and an understanding smile."[9]

Nevertheless, in the same way that mid-century visions of terminals as
modish "jetports" have given way to the drab reality of our overcrowded
Greyhound stations of the skies, pilots have been demoted from deities or
dashing starship captains to sleep-deprived Airbus drivers. As the comedian
George Carlin puts it in his routine, "Airline Announcements" (on Jammin' in
New York), "Who made this man a *captain*, might I ask? Did I sleep through
some sort of armed-forces swearing-in ceremony or something? He's a fucking
*pilot*, and let him be happy with that!" To add insult to injury, computer
systems inch closer, every day, to the science-fiction goal of HAL at the
helm; nowhere does the shadow of impending human obsolescence fall as long
and dark as it does in the cockpit of the jet fighter or the commercial
airliner, where autopilot and flight-director systems may one day put human
pilots out of a job.


Then again, as common sense (and Hannibal Lecter) would seem to suggest, the
recent nosedive in civility in the air surely has less to do with our
plummeting respect for authority than with the simmering class war that
rises to a boil when one too many proles are penned up in Economy Class,
breathing recycled farts and choking down McGlop, while the scent of
First-Class cuisine wafts tauntingly down the aisle, hinting at the
privileges of rank.

(This is *not* an apologia for zero-forehead assholes like the former Stone
Roses singer Ian Brown, who provided unscheduled in-flight entertainment on
a 1998 British Airways flight. After threatening to cut off the hands of a
flight attendant, Brown pummeled the cockpit door while the pilots attempted
to land the plane. Obviously, he and other escapees from Darwin's waiting
room should fly alongside the tranquilized Rottweiler in the cargo hold, if
at all.)

There's no denying that the industry's clueless pursuit of profit
maximization has turned airliners into social and psychological
pressure-cookers. A typical example of the calculus of greed: the
introduction of "thinline" seats, whose composite materials and ergonomic
styling reduce seatback thickness by as much as 40 percent, has exacerbated
the sardine-can overcrowding in steerage. Carriers could pass the legroom
freed up by slimmer seatbacks on to their passengers; instead, they're using
the newly available space for-you guessed it-more seats.[10]

In these times of mounting income disparity, the have-nots have one thing to
burn: serious attitude. Air travel, a magnifier of class differences since
the days of the jet set, is an unpleasant reminder to the "classless"
American masses that the socioeconomic chasm between them and the new, new
rich is a veritable Grand Canyon. The cultural critic Tom Vanderbilt reads
commercial cabin design as "a microcosm of the rising global wealth
imbalance.rarely is the divide between have and have-not under
'turbo-charged capitalism' so nakedly, if politely, expressed."[11]  For
every digeratus contemplating that Lear-jet time-share advertised in Wired,
for every geek genius flying high in his super-cool helicopter like Jim
Clark in The New New Thing, for every dotcom mogul like Mark Cuban buying a
$40 million Gulfstream V jet "because I can," there are countless lumpen,
crammed into airborne cattle cars. Muddle their oxygen-starved brains with
booze and rub their noses in the ample legroom and complimentary cocktails
on the other side of the curtain, in Virgin Atlantic's "Upper Class" or
Delta's "Elite," and you've got the makings of class war at 35,000 feet.

Despite his hilarious protestations that he is neither a communist nor a
Democrat,'s "Crabby Traveler" columnist Christopher Elliott
shows alarming signs of (Economy) class consciousness when he recounts the
experience of a reader named Julie. Sitting in First Class, watching other,
less fortunate souls shuffle by, Julie experienced a sudden spasm of
solidarity with her comrades in the cheap seats. "As they filed past her,"
writes Elliott, quoting Julie, "'a little boy-about 3-said to his mother,
who was holding an infant, "Mommy, let's sit in these seats. They look more
comfortable."' Of course, they headed on back. 'Somehow,' Julie concludes,
'it just does not feel right.'"[12]

The First Class/Economy Class divide offers a marvelous civics lesson,
dramatizing the fact that, in an ever more privatized nation, the gains of
the wealthy can be the lower classes' losses, purchased at the price of a
smaller, meaner public sphere. Acknowledging that space is a scarce resource
on commercial airliners, Elliott proposes a radical solution: jettison First
Class. "Get rid of those oversized seats [and] space the Economy Class seats
further apart," he argues, in a column subtitled "Few Luxuriate at Expense
of Many."[13]  (Not that he's a *communist* or anything!) According to
Elliott, "Airlines know that it's the right thing to do, but they're hiding
behind a number of tired excuses. They claim their frequent fliers wouldn't
tolerate the elimination of First Class and that they couldn't turn a profit
with a one-class configuration. (In fact, more than half of First-Class
seats are filled with passengers using upgrades, which erodes the profit

The stratification of airline seating by class has less to do with market
logic, it turns out, than perpetuating the myth that the Jet Age never
died-that air travel is still about gracious living and creature comforts
and smiling servants who come when the call button is pressed. First-class
seating is to commercial air travel what the Horatio Alger myth is to
American capitalism: the juicy morsel on the end of the hook. The myth of
the self-made man and the level playing field keeps working stiffs punching
those time cards. It ensures, too, that they'll endure the inequities of a
system rigged in favor of those born with the right skins, the right
chromosomes, and the right zip codes.

Similarly, the fantasy of one day landing in the tax bracket that comes with
a First-Class seat or of being suddenly upgraded, Cinderella-like, to
upper-class status helps the unfortunates in budget class make it through
the flight. "For semifrequent travelers, First Class can be like the
lottery," says Margaret Frey, of Jericho, Vermont. "There's always the hope
that you might get bumped into one of those seats."[15]  Drowsing bolt
upright, at the inhuman angle only a cabin designer could call "reclined";
suffering the skull-busting headache that comes with cutbacks in air
rations; processing the aftereffects of that slippery meat and processed
cheese food, we can dream, can't we?


1 Quoted in Mark Lamster, "Introduction" to Ezra Stoller, The TWA Terminal
(New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), p. 5.
2 Ibid., p. 4.
3 Ann Hood, "When T.W.A. Was All First Class," The New York Times, January
13, 2001, p. A13.
4 Kenneth Hudson and Julian Pettifer, Diamonds in the Sky: A Social History
of Air Travel (London: The Bodley Head/British Broadcasting Corporation,
1979), p. 199.
5 Ibid.
6 Thomas Harris, Hannibal (New York: Delacorte Press, 1999), p. 247.
7 Quoted in Christopher Elliott, "Cabin Fever Rages: Flight Attendants Take
the Heat,"
8 Hudson and Pettifer, ibid., pp. 156-7.
9 Ibid., p. 157.
10 As long as we're on the subject of greed, the moral fungus that thrives
on the underside of turbo-capitalist cultures, I can't resist mentioning
that greed is a factor in airline safety as well as cabin design. In Deadly
Departure: Why the Experts Failed to Prevent the TWA Flight 800 Disaster and
How It Could Happen Again, Christine Negroni argues convincingly that the
explosion that ripped apart Flight 800 was caused by Boeing's lunatic
decision to use the plane's fuel tanks as heat absorbers for its
air-conditioning units. As every high-school science nerd knows, fuel
becomes more flammable when heated. Combine that fact with the intriguing
bit of trivia that the faulty insulation on Boeing's wiring has been known
to cause sparks, and you have the makings of an explosive exposé. What makes
the story more stunning still is that Boeing likely knew about the dangers
of its fuel-tank design as early as the late '60s and, weighing the cost of
less flammable-but more expensive-systems against the cost of the number of
fatal accidents expected to happen in the next decade, opted for the
laissez-faire approach (in both senses of the word). But I digress.
11 Tom Vanderbilt, "Class Wars," Artbyte, October 2000, p. 73.
12 Christopher Elliott, "Is Banning First Class a Political Statement?,"
13 Christopher Elliott, "Make Room for the Masses-Can First Class,"
14 Ibid.
15 Quoted in Christopher Elliott, "Is Banning First Class a Political
Statement?," ibid.

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