Technical Struggle

I am suggesting that the front cover performs and distributes agency in three distinct and overlapping sets of contrasts. The overlap de­rives from the way in which they share the common propensity of distributing active agency in favor of the aircraft and away from fea­tures of its ‘‘context’’—that is, from nature and culture. And the differ­ences derive from the specificities of the various contrasts performed.

Nature and culture are being made passive. They are being rendered mundane. And finally, they are being made vulnerable. By contrast, technology is by turns being made active, powerful, skillful, heroic, vulnerable, and invulnerable. No doubt there are various connections between these distributions; indeed the way in which the distribu­tions interfere with one another is probably crucial. But it is also im­portant that they are distinct. As we have seen, the possibility of dif­ferent, somewhat incompatible, and coexisting distributions is not necessarily a problem at all. Rather their interferences may repre­sent a source of strength rather than of weakness: where one dis­tribution seems uncertain, there is tension, ambivalence, and dis­placement into another: singularity thereby grows out of noncoherent multiplicity.20

So there are three overlapping distributions. But if we now open the brochure and attend to its contents, we will find many more. Nature appears in exhibit 6.2, but this time the contrast between the techno­logical and the natural is different: if the aircraft is still endowed with Aesthetics 125

Technical Struggle

EXHIBIT 6.2 ”The flightplan is initially defined in terms of fixing landmarks and the latitude and longitude of all turni ng points and objectives so that specific tracks are flown.” (British Aircraft Corporation 1962, 26) agency, then this has started to change in character. Now it is “practi­cal” or ‘‘technical,’’ a performance or a distribution as a skill holder or perhaps as a puzzle solver, while nature has been distributed beyond the boundary of skill, into the realm of utilizable resources—which, to be sure, indexes and reproduces a large set of themes in Western and, in particular, Enlightenment thought.22

Here, then, we have removed ourselves from the realm of the “aes­thetic” and been inserted back into the world of the ‘‘technical.’’ For the surrounding passages explain how this ‘‘fixing’’ is done, albeit only in limited ‘‘detail’’ (remember that this is a sales brochure, not a technical manual). So there is difference but also similarity, one con­sistent similarity in which the narrative echoes the message of the front cover. The aircraft remains active, while nature is being ren­dered passive. For instance, in exhibit 6.3 the work, the intricate and

EXHIBIT 6.3 ”The digital computer continuously calculates instantaneous posi­tion using ground speed and drift from the Doppler, and heading and velocity from the inertia platform.” (British Aircraft Corporation 1962, 26) skillful work of the TSR2 is detailed. It acts in this way and that, while nature does nothing. Indeed, nature does so little that in this particu­lar passage it has been effectively effaced. There is no need to detail the way in which landmarks don’t move or how the features of the ter­rain reliably reflect the Doppler radar signals. The inactivity of nature, its stolid persistence, takes the form of routine, of a kind of brute dura­bility, such that in the theater of aircraft action it is simple scenery.

Or, to put it a little differently, the distribution rests on, presupposes, and reproduces realism.23

Activity/passivity: this similarity strengthens my original method­ological conviction that it makes sense to treat the aesthetic and the technical symmetrically. For though the specifics of their distribu­tions are different, they overlap and coordinate in ways that interfere Aesthetics 127

with one another, and if we don’t look at the distributions performed by nontechnical means, then we hobble ourselves. It is as if we were trying to reconstruct the sound of Mozart’s Requiem while denying ourselves any knowledge of the woodwind.

But what of the differences between the contrasts? Much might be said of the distributions performed in exhibit 6.4. For instance, it

EXHIBIT 6.4 ”The forward screen provides for head up display projection and with­stands the hot air blast used for wi ndscreen clearance, i n additi on to havi ng ade­quate strength to withstand impact of a 1 lb. bird at transonic speeds.” (British Aircraft Corporation 1962, 34) simultaneously locates the proposed performance of the windscreen of the aircraft with respect to human, technical, and natural actors.24 But perhaps it is the nonhuman actor—the intrusive presence of the bird—that is most interesting here, for the bird maybe understood as an expression of nature. This means we’re watching a further rework­ing of contrast between machine and nature; for, like the landmark, the bird is scarcely being performed as a resource. And if it is being made vulnerable, then this is not because it deserves protection like some endangered species. Instead the distribution is the other way round. The vulnerability of the bird is of no interest at all; it is rather an implicit threat, for no pilot, we understand, wants a bird hitting him in the face at high speed: shades of fear and sweating bodies. This suggests, all of a sudden, that nature is capable of action: the birds are fighting back.

In fact it is more complicated, though interestingly so. Two points. First, if the distribution of agency has shifted from aircraft to bird, then this is because of the extreme speed of the aircraft. In other words, it is precisely the performance of technological action that has also endowed nature with the capacity to act.25 And second, it is the role of the windscreen to protect the aircraft and its pilot from the ac­tivity of these newly empowered birds, a distribution that is indeed effected in the text. So we are witnessing a process in which tech­nology passes out agency with one hand while taking it away with the other, a trope, perhaps, of domestication. It allows the possibility of 128 Aesthetics nontechnological action but only within the constraints of the tech-

EXHIBIT 6.5 ”The results of vibration and other rig tests on human subjects showed that with the aerodynamic design of T. S.R.2 for minimum gust response, no special seating provisions are required.” (British Aircraft Corporation 1962, 38) nical and thereby sustains the active/passive distribution and, in par­ticular, the performance of aircraft invulnerability.

This distributive mechanism recurs. For instance, in exhibit 6.5 nature (in the form of gusts) is again being performed as a potential threat by virtue of the actions of the aircraft (for the gusts would be no problem if one were standing still). But, in the same move, they are domesticated into a form of unproblematic passivity.

But what would happen if the bird weighed two pounds, a kilo? Or the gusts became extreme? Wouldn’t this imply a redistribution of agency? This question is always elided in the brochure, though it is, to be sure, endlessly implied. Indeed, given both its contents and what we know of air-force thinking and practice in the early 1960s, one way, a very important and relevant way, of reading the brochure is precisely as an exercise in threat containment. For why else would the distributions endlessly perform the mastery, the agency, and the invulnerability of the aircraft? The answer is straightforward: this in­vulnerability is quite uncertain and the methods that it performs to secure whatever invulnerability it has achieved are (as they say) at or beyond the cutting edge of technology, which is another way of say­ing that they are iffy, open to doubt, and might break down, rendering the aircraft vulnerable.26

But if the vulnerability is not admitted directly, if it is distributed to nature—or to culture in the form of the enemy-then how is it ad­mitted indirectly? The treatment of the birds and the gusts establishes the paradigm procedure. Vulnerability is admitted indirectly by per­forming the agency of the Other only if it can be countermanded and agency can be redistributed back to the aircraft. This is visible in ex­hibits 6.6, 6.7, and 6.8. The potency of agents other than the aircraft

EXHIBIT 6.6 ”Although provision is made for medium altitude bombing, in attack­ing a defended target it is desirable to remain at low altitude in the target area.” (British Aircraft Corporation 1962, 12)

Technical Struggle

EXHIBIT 6.7 "Typical Loft Manoeuvre” (British Aircraft Corporation 1962, 13;

© Brooklands Museum)


is implied in exhibits 6.6 and 6.7 without being explicitly performed. Exhibit 6.6—and certainly this would have been understood by any likely reader of the brochure in 1962 — implies that at medium alti­tudes the aircraft is vulnerable to surface-to-air, radar-guided mis­siles but that this isn’t the case at low altitudes (at which point the desired distribution of agency is reaffirmed). And, as we know, the aircraft flies low, which means that invulnerability is performed yet again.

But there is a tension, for if exhibit 6.6 performs invulnerability, then exhibit 6.7 depicts a typical method for nuclear bombing, a ‘‘loft manoeuvre.’’ In this maneuver the bomb is lobbed in an arc from some distance away onto the target so that the aircraft can escape destruc­tion in the subsequent explosion. To do this the aircraft is flown up­ward at a predetermined speed and angle and the bomb is released at a precisely calculated moment. The picture, exhibit 6.7, shows this. The maneuver is tricky, but it works to distribute potency in favor of the aircraft and vulnerability to the target. Such is the effect of exhibit 6.7, in which we observe a conventional depiction of a large explo­sion in a factory—while the aircraft has turned away and is already making good its escape.

So there is a distribution that makes aircraft invulnerability and tar­get vulnerability. On the other hand, the loft maneuver contains and domesticates one possible self-induced vulnerability (here, nuclear

EXHIBIT 6.8 ”The serious exposure of the aircraft to ground fire which occurs when release angles of more than 90 degrees are used can be avoided by using a ‘but­ton hook’ manoeuvre. In this attack the pilot flies over the target and returns to conduct a shallow loft attack from another direction. Vulnerability studies indi­cate that this is preferable to the use of over-the-shoulder loft attacks.” (British Aircraft Corporation 1962, 13)

self-destruction) but induces a second,27 for when we look at exhibit 6.7 we discover that at only two miles from the target the aircraft reaches an altitude of four thousand feet. This may not be a ‘‘medium altitude,’’ but is certainly more than the recommended two hundred feet and so reorganizes the vulnerability/invulnerability equation yet again such that both the aircraft and its target are destroyed. This cer­tainly poses a serious problem for the economy of vulnerability, and the problem is treated overtly in exhibit 6.8, one of the few passages in the brochure that distributes military vulnerability quite explicitly back to the aircraft. But (here is my proposition) it does so because the risk of vulnerability can be contained and defused. For in this pas­sage the ‘‘button hook’’ maneuver plays the role of windscreen and the distribution accordingly, once again, contains the threat.

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>