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  • Modernity’s Object:The Airplane, Masculinity, and Empire
  • Robert Hemmings (bio)

And all look up, in absolute amazement At those airborne above.

—Ovid, “The Story of Daedalus and Icarus,” in Metamorphoses

French modernist architect Le Corbusier recalled the effect of the first airplane over Paris in 1909, when he looked up to see the Comte de Lambert’s Wright biplane circling the Eiffel Tower. “It was miraculous, it was mad!” he proclaimed. For Le Corbusier “the airplane, the advance guard of the conquering armies of the New Age, the airplane arouses our energies and our faith.”1 For Le Corbusier, the airplane was the mad harbinger of a futuristic modernity. He was not alone. In America, an air-minded nation looked upon the Wright brothers as quasi-messianic inventors of a “wondrous, even miraculous machine”:2 “Aviation was the future. … Many viewed airplanes as prophetic machines, promising enhanced mobility, enlarged prosperity, cultural uplift and even social harmony and perpetual peace in the emerging ‘air age.’”3 In 1906 Britain, the Wrights were initially seen as secretive Americans selfishly unwilling to collaborate with other would-be aviators to secure what the Spectator referred to as the “Conquest of the Air.”4 No matter, the inevitability of heavier-than-air flight was by this point assured, thanks to burgeoning technological ingenuity in England and abroad. Certainly in the first decade of the twentieth-century the airplane was a figure of transfixing spectacle.

Embedded in the very language of Le Corbusier’s and others’ celebratory pronouncements of the new technology is the military application of the airplane: “advance guard,” “conquering armies,” “conquest.” The [End Page 283] air, like the future, so said these early enthusiasts, would be conquered by the airplane. Around the time of the Spectator article cited earlier, the Wright brothers were secretly negotiating with the British War Office to sell their flier and aeronautical knowledge. Negotiations broke off in December 1906, not because the War Office lacked interest in military potential of this wondrous invention, but because the Wrights insisted on signing a contract before allowing their clients to observe their aircraft in flight.5 Far from being committed to advancing a gospel of peace and uplift, the Wrights were complicit from the very beginning in recruiting the airplane into the armies of a new age of European empire, literalizing Le Corbusier’s proclamation.

Le Corbusier’s “New Age” accords nicely with Enda Duffy’s claim about “the age of speed” powered by the development of the airplane and the motorcar.6 I refer to the airplane as an object of mobility rather than a mechanical thing because I am interested in it as an entity whose meaning inheres within not only its material essence—its thingness—but within its relation to the human (typically masculine) subject who seeks to control it.7 As W. J. T. Mitchell succinctly puts it, “Objects are the way things appear to a subject.”8 The airplane is an object that, to paraphrase Bill Brown, “produce[s] use value, sign value [and] cultural capital.”9 What the airplane signifies, and indeed its uses within masculinist, nationalist, and imperial frameworks, are important parts of this essay.

Coming in the early years of the twentieth century, the “age of speed” coincides with the age of European empire at its height and, paradoxically, the onset of its decline.10 Duffy asserts that the age of speed contributed to the winding down of empire insofar as speed and the mechanical objects, automobiles and airplanes, through which human agents attain speed served, pragmatically, to de-exoticize distant colonized lands. The airplane arrived “at that paradigm-shattering moment,” argues Duffy, “when it became clear that the whole world had been mapped and conquered, and that global space was finite.”11 The airplane, with its speed and its godlike capability to fly above gravity-bound mortals, seems at first blush to be ready-made for imperial conquest. It is after all the “advance guard” of a “conquering army,” in Le Corbusier’s terms, an object figuratively inflected with subjugating imperial powers. It is an object of “brute necessity,” as Mitchell has it, that modern empires require, one of the key “multitude...


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pp. 283-308
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