Is the Jet Age Over? (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 1)

This is the first instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH


The U.S. National Archives


Is the Jet Age Over? 


If anything could stand-in as a primary culprit in the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus that is circling the globe with seemingly unprecedented speed, it might be the jet plane. At the same time, cancelled flights and empty airports also stand as potent symbols of how life during the pandemic has been coming to a standstill almost as rapidly as the jet flies. But carrying symbolic weight is nothing new for jet planes. They have always seemed to function as heralds –proclaiming more than they could actually ever measurably deliver. In 1957, architect William Pereira, who with his partner, Charles Luckman, led the mid-century redesign of Los Angeles International Airport, explained, “At this very moment, history is classifying the Jet Air Age…we are realizing our future now almost as fast as we can visualize it.” The jet inaugurated not just the availability of a new speedy mode of transport but also gave rise to a new age, “the Jet Age.” Is the COVID-19 pandemic, complete with the possible moratorium on air travel, the end of the jet age?

The jet defined an age because it changed subjective experience, not because it went fast. As the historian Daniel Boorstin noted in his classic book, The Image (1962), “The newest and most popular means of passenger transportation to foreign parts is the most insulating known to man…I had not flown through space but through time.” Boorstin even complained that the non-experience of jet flight did not merely lead to in-flight boredom, which resulted in the airlines’ introduction of movies and bars aboard. It also led modern people to lose all sense of history, which he considered a function of people understanding how time was located across space. The jet, he complained, robbed passengers of the experience of the landscape. He concluded: “We look into a mirror instead of out a window, and we see only ourselves.” Boorstin predicted that the jet would lead to a hyper-individuated society of narcissists. Writing in the same year, cultural critic Marshall McLuhan noted, that “travel differs little from going to a movie or turning the pages of a magazine.” These prescient observers understood that the jet was about more than fast travel. They dug deeper than pointing to the jet as a key element of the globalization that seems to make the world smaller and thus, for example, facilitate the spread of epidemics more quickly. (We have heard this invoked endlessly to explain how the COVID-19 pandemic differs from the Spanish flu.) The jet, they could see, participated in a larger cultural shift from the late 1950s to the late 1960s — a jet age aesthetic — which glamourized fluid motion.

During the period, the experience of being in the jet was extended, in a variety of new cultural forms, to life on the ground. Jet age people learned to toggle between the material and immaterial worlds; navigating between such newly built spaces such as jet-age airports, Disneyland (which was one of the era’s most enduring creations and is a place built around transportation and people-moving – also closed during this current epidemic), as well as via contemporary media forms such as weekly picture magazines, which saw their heyday during the jet age. The jet age did not just make the world smaller because people (and viruses) could travel faster, it ushered in a culture that would conceive of the “networked society” in which we could imagine being connected without being physically present.

As people around the world prepare to “shelter in place,” we may not be happy that we are grounded and we are right to be extremely afraid of the costs of the current pandemic. At the same time, we are also ready to live and survive while staying in place. We will teach online for the duration. We visit and socialize with each other via Zoom and FaceTime. We stream a remarkable selection of fiction films, documentaries and series. We order essential provisions on-line. Daniel Boorstin was both right and wrong. He understood that the fluid motion of the jet would lead to a society that would invent its own fantasy of “surfing” the internet and literally go no place at all. But he could not have anticipated that we don’t just look in the mirror and see ourselves. We will have been able to go through this looking-glass in a time of crisis and create new forms of human community and connection. To be able to shelter in place from a deadly pandemic while eating freshly delivered provisions and seeing one’s geographically distant friends and family may not always be better than being physically together – until it saves your life.

Vanessa Schwartz is director of the Visual Studies Research Institute at the University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, and the author of Jet Age Aesthetic: The Glamour of Media in Motion (Yale UP, 2020)


March 30th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

Olena Lyubchenko on Whiteness, Expropriation, War, and Social Reproduction in Ukraine (via LeftEast): “[…] when we hear on the news that ‘Ukraine is fighting a European war’ and ‘Ukraine is defending Europe’, amid images of fleeing ‘poor white’ women with children prioritized over racialized ‘Others’, ‘Ukraine’ is being made ‘white’ in the global imaginary. That is, “the injunction to ‘return to Europe’ by way of Europeanization is enabled and conditioned on the mythologies of Western civilization, and that Europeanization at once marks (promulgates) and unmarks (naturalizes) racial whiteness” [Nadezhda Husakouskaya and Randi Gressgård]. The paradox is that Europe’s existence as such has only been possible precisely because of the exploitation of global working peoples through expropriation of resources and today neoliberal economic reforms and reproduced by feminized labour.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn about the “inertness, hiding behind the European Wall” (via L’Internationale): “Many Western institutions that have been claiming ‘radical political engagement’ for years, have simply resorted to a white cube radicalism and self-satisfying humanitarianism, too afraid of acting politically beyond their comfort zone and unsettling their publics and authorities by attempting to affect the decision-making process regarding the Ukrainian cause.”

May 28th, 2022

Tatsiana Shchurko on the War in Ukraine, Entangled Imperialisms, and Transnational Feminist Solidarity, via LeftEast (May 2, 2022): “[An] uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.”

Vasyl Cherepanyn on that “It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt” (via Politico): “Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European ‘peripheries,’ and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was ‘deeply concerned.’ Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often ‘balanced’ with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.”

An unnamed anarchist and art scholar, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces, quoted by Olexii Kuchanskyi in an essay on “Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail” (via Your Art and e-flux notes): “At dawn, Dima and I talked about cinema. Dima believes that cinema is inferior to literature as a means of expression because you spend much more time with a book than a film. It’s a really interesting point, something to dig into. I studied at the department of art theory & history and I never thought of it. Dima served in the military after school and worked at the factory all his life. He listens to rap, smokes pot, and tries to have fun. He is thirty-eight, his child was born last year. He likes Wong Kar-wai and is a fan of Asian cinema in general. Dima communicates by quoting Omar Khayyam, Confucius, and other awesome guys.”

April 20th, 2022

Vasyl Cherepanyn (Visual Culture Research Centre, Kyiv) on Putin’s “World War Z” and the West’s deadly “foot-dragging”, via Project Syndicate: “The main feature of this Western condition is constant belatedness. The West has always been too late, incapable of acting ahead and instead just reacting to what has already happened. As a Ukrainian joke went at the time, ‘While the European Union was taking a decision, Russia took Crimea.’ Then as now, Ukrainians wondered, ‘What is the West’s red line? What will compel the West to act instead of waiting and discussing when to intervene?’”

Barbara Wurm on Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravičius, killed in Mariupol, via Die Welt: “Kvedaravičius unfolded a whole spectrum of visual anthropology over a decade with only three films [Barzakh, Mariupolis, Parthenon]. It now awaits evaluation and exploration. The time will come. The films themselves make possible an infinite immersion in the matter of the world, between dream and reality, horror and everyday life, facts and phenomenal imagology.”

April 5th, 2022
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