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  • Performing Flight: From Barnstormers To Space Tourism by Scott Magelssen
  • James R. Ball III
PERFORMING FLIGHT: FROM BARNSTORMERS TO SPACE TOURISM. By Scott Magelssen. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020; pp. 204.

My first flight, accompanying my father on a business trip to Guatemala at two months old, heralded a lifetime of regular air travel: as a child living abroad in Asia and Africa, as a young adult touring Europe, and, most recently, on my way to research sites and conferences around the globe. Performing Flight: From Barnstormers to Space Tourism, by Scott Magelssen, may prompt readers to similar reveries, tracing our own (literal and conceptual) lines of [End Page 588] flight alongside Magelssen’s tour of performances that have accompanied aviation and space travel to shape public perception, government policy, and the writing of history.

The phrase “line of flight” is also Magelssen’s preferred way of describing his study’s structure. Via Gilles Deleuze, the term indicates movement that deterritorializes and destratifies, and that connotes fleeing, fugues, fugitivity, and taking wing. Magelssen employs this structure to interrogate what Adnan Morshed has termed the “aesthetics of ascension,” an aesthetic system that associates positive values with soaring upwards and that has been inculcated by a century of flying. Attractive though these aesthetics may be, they hide “entrenched hegemonic systems” that provide “upward mobility to some kinds of humans more than others” (10–11). In tension with the rhizomatic structure of Deleuzian lines of flight, Magelssen’s arc is also somewhat ballistic, rising with the barnstormers at the start of the twentieth century, reaching peak altitude with military test pilots and astronauts in the cold war, and returning to earth to meditate on the planes, buildings, and people that fell on September 11, 2001.

Magelssen’s line of flight begins, in his introduction, at “The Pan Am Experience,” an immersive performance in Los Angeles that recreates the experience of luxury air travel circa 1977. This brief case study reveals the distance between the nostalgic memory of a golden age of air travel (in which doting flight attendants would serve hand-carved chateaubriand on china plates) and the sexist and racist reality that prevailed during the same period (as those same flight attendants, tasked with performing a particular image of gendered hospitality, proved vulnerable to rampant sexual harassment). This disjuncture launches us into chapter 1, “‘Making Uncle Tom’s Cabin into a Hangar’: Bessie Coleman, Barnstorming Aviatrix,” an examination of aerial trick performances (barnstorming) at air shows in the first decades of the twentieth century. Here and throughout the book, war and the military are never far from view. Magelssen recounts how surplus military airplanes sold at a discount to pilot veterans of World War I led to a boom in barnstorming performances that also provided social and economic opportunities for Black and women pilots. The chapter highlights Bessie Coleman, who laid claim to the “aviator persona” (27) in her performances to “cut diagonally, in loops and rolls, through the striations of the racialized and gendered order of the early-twentieth-century United States” (34).

Chapter 2, “Hiroshima, the Enola Gay, and the Performance of the Atomic Age,” considers how the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was narrated by the pilot of the Enola Gay, a reenactment of the event at an airshow in the 1970s, and debates surrounding the exhibition of the Enola Gay by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1990s. This itinerary lands Performing Flight at the intersection of performance historiography and the study of tourist performance. As the historical event makes its way into collective memory and into the institutions that write history, the stakes of attending to the ways that flight has been performed become clear, and the bombing of Hiroshima gains meaning as either heroism or atrocity.

Chapter 3, “The Pilot Voice,” is a particularly compelling investigation of the unique, folksy vocal style used by commercial airline pilots when communicating with their passengers via a plane’s intercom. It is a drawl that contrasts with the vocal styles of the flight attendants and other crew, and that is “relaxed and casual, extempore, generously saturated with leisurely pauses” (54). Following Tom Wolfe, Magelssen locates the origin...


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