Airscapes: Vision and Topography in the History of Aviation

Activity: Talk or presentation typesLecture and oral contribution

Dorthe Gert Simonsen - Lecturer

Airscapes: Vision and topography in the history of aviation.

 The cultural history of flight has focused on different representations of aviation and their cultural meanings. This paper aims to take this cultural approach one step further, by examining the visual experiences of air travel during the interwar years, and the new spatial dimensions they created. In the decades following the First World War, the idea of the airplane as a scopic machine – or as Le Corbusier put it, a device transforming the bird’s eye view into “a new function added to our senses” – was combined with mass distribution of aerial photography, and the widely-read accounts and depictions of airscapes in other media. Using significant examples from popular aviation books and articles, air photography, advertisements, and the published work of famed aviators, this paper demonstrates how visual experience from airplanes gave society, quite literally, a new world view while leaving commentators competing to define its meaning and future consequences. The new visual experience offered by airplanes were not a given, however. How to see to see from the sky, and what to look for below were only slowly and  partially consolidated in these decades. At the same time, landscapes were reconceptualized from above and the comprehension of the geopolitical layout of nations – and of the globe as a whole – were extrapolated from these aerial views.

The history of airscapes and aerial vision – from balloons to airplanes to satellites – is also the history of modernity, imperialism, and globalization. As airplanes reached ever higher altitudes in the interwar years, a panoptic airscape became the foundation for claims of a distinguished new source of knowledge, a way of looking not only onto the landscape but into the future. This paper argues, ultimately, that in many significant ways, these new aerial views became a means of translating time or temporal processes into space. In this way, the fast-changing, disorderly world of the interwar years became a stable, coherent presence, a reconceptualization which was also well suited for the radicalized ideologies of the period. By drawing on theoretical contributions ranging from cultural geography to visual studies, this paper will discuss the significance of airscapes for the history of aviation.

13 Oct 2008

Event (Conference)

TitleSHOT, Society for the History of Technology, Annual Conference
Date07/10/2008 → …

ID: 9510965