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ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

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December 9th, 2009

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

One of the primary anxieties of late modern life is modernity’s gamble, the wager that the long-term dangers of a technology-intensive society will be avoided by continued progress.  And, as with any wager, it is driven not only by calculations of probability but also by an unrelenting desire to beat the odds  There is perhaps no better representation of the anxiety that has attended modernity’s gamble than the dialectical tension animated by the iconic photographs of the tragic explosions of the Hindenburg and the Challenger: the first a dark, gothic, dystopian warning against the excesses of technological hubris, the second a bright and forward moving, utopian celebration of the heroic frontier spirit.

Enterprise 2

I was reminded of modernity’s gamble when I came across the above photograph of the recent public unveiling of the “VSS Enterprise,” named in honor of U.S. and British naval vessels, as well the “Starship Enterprise” of Star Trek fame.  The VSS Enterprise is the first commercial passenger spacecraft that will offer 300 paying customers a two and one half hour suborbital space ride—including five minutes of weightlessness—for the modest sum of $200,000 each.

The first thing to recall when considering the Hindenburg and Challenger explosions is that the events leading up to the tragic moment in each case were orchestrated as media spectacles.  And note that here too, the “unveiling,” which takes place in the Mojave dessert and in the dead of night, accompanied by “dreamlike purple lights” and “an ethereal soundtrack,”  is heavily attended by the media dutifully recording the event.  But the comparison does not stop here, for as with both the Hindenburg and the Challenger, the development of the VSS Enterprise has been beset with one technological delay after another, as well as with tragic injuries and three deaths following equipment failures and explosions.  We can only assume that more will follow.  And yet, the fetishistic desire to conquer the heavens never seems to die, a point driven home by the billionaire Richard Branson who noted, “Isn’t that the sexiest space ship ever?”

These similarities notwithstanding, it should be recalled as well that both the Hindenburg and Challenger were statist enterprises driven by a martial spirit and distinct militaristic goals—the Hindenburg underwritten by Hitler’s Nazi Germany and an interest in exploiting the advantages of air warfare, and the Challenger a manifestation of the U.S.’s involvement in the Cold War “space race”—while the VSS Enterprise is an entrepreneurial, free market enterprise.   This difference, it seems, is worth remarking upon, for while one might imagine militaristic functions as part of a “rational” public policy agenda, the current enterprise seems driven by the same hubris that led Icarus to fly too close to the sun, and one can only assume that the current “enterprise” will have a similar ending.  How else to account for such space tourists as Natasha Pavlovich, a native of Serbia who bought her ticket “on credit” because she wants to “bring pride to her native country.” In short, the fetishized,  ritualistic thrill of modernity’s gamble comes in many guises, and the desire to “beat the house” is an unyielding addiciton for indivduals and states alike, regardless of how tragically fated its failure it might be.

It is little wonder, then, that agencies like NASA stay in business and that the citizenry is willing to support them with public dollars. Or that the media is always there to play its part.   Yogi Berra had it right.

Photo Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

3 Responses to ' Déjà Vu All Over Again '

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  1. Chris Curley said,

    on December 9th, 2009 at 8:16 am

    No caption needed — but here’s a half-cocked Marxist screed on the dangers of free enterprise. You say, “The current enterprise seems driven by the same hubris that led Icarus to fly too close to the sun, and one can only assume that the current “enterprise” will have a similar ending.” Why? Your proofs, from all the scientific innovations (and attendant media blitzes) of the last century are the Challenger and the Hindenburg? I can’t help feel that you’re bowling over a straw man.

    Granted, the space shuttle was always a dangerous, expensive brick built more for pizazz than practicality. I don’t contest that. The Hindenburg comparison makes less sense. The Germans had forty years of hydrogen-powered airships under their belt when the Hindenburg crashed, and the event, while it became a media sensation, was not constructed as one. It’s remembered because of the photographs and the first live radio recording of a disaster, but I don’t see that it illustrates your point. Yes, it was to be the first transatlantic solo flight to America – what of it? Had the Spirit of St. Louis dropped into the ocean, would you be decrying the same hubris? No doubt you feel that it was merely a fetishized desire to “beat the house” that drove Columbus across the Atlantic. And maybe it was, but can you really contend that it was a bad thing? If the Hindenburg hadn’t exploded, it would have been unremarkable. No records were being broken; no real story. Just media exploitation.

    And why jump to the conclusion that the VSS Enterprise will have the same ending as a Hindenburg or Challenger? If the occasional accident does happen, is this any more remarkable than the infrequent downing of a commercial jetliner? Tragic, yes. Unfortunate, sure. But I don’t see you’ve met the burden of proof to say that Virgin is unsafe or doomed to failure. And the fetishism? Because some woman mortgaged her life to go on a space ship? People mortgage their houses to play slots. As a species, we do innumerable silly things for innumerable silly reasons. At least Ms. Pavlovich will presumably get something out of it.

    You say, “It is little wonder, then, that agencies like NASA stay in business and that the citizenry is willing to support them with public dollars.” That’s fair. There’s a good argument to make that we throw good money after bad when it comes to government-funded programs and institutions — none of which apply to the story in question. Virgin, a private company, is the opposite of this. The financial load is shouldered by private investors. And while Virgin Galactic’s motives might belong in part to some hubristic desire, you seem to neglect that they’re still driven primarily by profit. It’s a service to meet a demand. People want to see the stars. They do. And of their own agency, they plunk down the money to travel there. But it’s not a game of one-upsmanship. It’s part of that inborn human curiosity and desire to explore the unknown. It’s a pretty fucking beautiful thing, actually, and it’s not hurting anyone who isn’t consenting to accept the risks.

  2. Lucaites said,

    on December 9th, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Chris:

    Well, gee, What to say. “Half-cocked?” I’d like to think I was whole-cocked, but really we’ll have to let others who read all of this decide that. I must say, though, that after reading your comment it seems like you and I agree on very many things – although we draw somewhat different conclusions from them. More on that in a minute. What I want to be very clear about is that I am not now, nor have I ever been a Marxist. Indeed, I have nothing against free enterprise. The difference between us, I think, is that I see the cup half empty, and you see it as half full: I am suspicious of the risks attendant to such enterprises and want to call attention to them, you appreciate such risks and want to call attention to the possibilities of productive results. And the point is that prudent decision making requires both points of view to be there in something like equal parts. My sense is that historically we have tended to ignore the costs as simply part of the gamble—the price we pay for progress—and I’d like us to question that. As you note yourself, “the space shuttle was always a dangerous, expensive brick built more for pizzazz than practicality.” And yet we tend to forget that as we endorse similar enterprises over and again simply in the name of progress.

    My problem then, is not with free enterprise, but with hubris—the opposite, I suppose, of what I would consider an unfettered “curiosity and desire to explore the unknown.” And I don’t believe the fact that it is being exercised by private investors or consumers willing to take the personal risk changes that all that much. You say its not hurting anyone who doesn’t take the risk. But that too is a somewhat shortsighted view. Free enterprise (and technological advances) have given us many good things, but never without costs. Ask native Americans what they think about Columbus crossing the ocean? And usually those costs are borne by more than those who gain the most immediate advantages. Environmental pollution as a result of such technological progress is only one such cost and it is borne generally and perhaps even globally.

    There’s more that we could say, but let me note that I truly do appreciate your point of view (except for that comment about being a Marxist). And I think that we would all be better off if we had more debates that tested and called to attention the competing and often contradictory tensions built into our cultural sensibilities. I think the notion of modernity’s gamble points us in that direction and the discussion here calls out what might be at stake – all the more so because of your engagement.

    P.S. The Hindenburg event was actually staged as a media spectacle, perhaps not quite in the same way as the Challenger, but a spectacle all the same. It is not by accident that there were so many cameras – still and moving – and radio broadcasters sitting there waiting for it to arrive. And as to Lindberg, he didn’t fall into the sea—which means, of course, sometimes the gamble pays off … sometimes we beat the house, at least for a little while—but I still think it was an act of hubris.

  3. Chris Curley said,

    on December 9th, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    My apologies. Whole-cocked, indeed.

    I suppose whether you decide to look at this half-empty or half-full, I would arguable that this tension of curiosity/hubris is intrinsic. Part of that fussy stuff that makes people, people. I mean, in a way, selling your possessions to afford a ticket on SpaceShipTwo isn’t all that different than pouring your life’s resources into climbing Mount Everest, or exploring the Antarctic, or any of the litany of historically brave and prideful actions that men and women have done. And we remember them as heroes and tragedies, sometimes in the same breath. Which is not to say buying a plane ticket (or space ticket) is heroic, but plenty of people still climb Everest long after Mallory perished on the summit, just to say that they did.

    I don’t know that I’m more a glass half-full person, rather that the traits you find dangerous I find both dangerous and admirable. I think it’s part of the fundamental human suspense. It reminds me of the Kardashev scale, that measure of human technology and civilization, which fascinated me as a kid. Underlying it was this idea of constant conflict between technology, its repercussions, and our ability to use further technology to address those problems. At the terminus, we either ascend to a Type 1 civilization, full of wisdom and self-sufficiency — or we annihilate ourselves. Today, I don’t ascribe to that theory wholesale, but I do think that while hubris is a thing that can be cautioned against, I don’t know that it can be stanched.

    Anyway, apologies for any flippancy. I appreciate the dialogue.

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