Aerial Perception and the Social Construction of Targets
Design by Raegan Kelly
"Traditionally, the geographer, like the mythical Atlas chosen as a symbol by the Flemish cartographer Gérard Mercator, looks down on the earth from the top of a watchtower. The distance his gaze must cross to reach the ground, and his "detachment" from any concrete involvement in the material substance of things, lead the geographer's eye toward a sort of abstraction, and grant him a powerful understanding of reality which would not have been possible had he remained focused on the details of the world. From such a great height, what the eye sees is the world in miniature, already laid out like a map or a diagram. This means, in turn, that any cartographic understanding of the earth presupposes the capacity to raise oneself above the ground. This kind of panoptic vision is implied in the very definition of geography, and from Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite in the 2nd century AD to Onésime Reclus, author of A Bird's Eye View of the World, in the nineteenth century and beyond, the geographer has been characterized by his voyage through the air."
Jean-Marc Besse, "Aerial Geography," in Alex S. MacLean et al, Designs on the Land, London: Thames and Hudson, 2003, 340
"Altitude is the muse of enlightenment. We seek high ground in order to gain perspective on our environment and our lives, to steal away from the clamour of the streets and low places and reflect on our being-in-the-world. Elevation extends our vision, literally and figuratively. The complexity of life is reduced to utopian simplicity, a living diorama as benign as a child's train layout... In almost every area of cultural production-literature, philosophy, urban design, even politics-elevation is a symbol of knowledge and power."
Thomas J. Campanella, Cities From the Sky: An Aerial Portrait of America, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001, 121
In this piece I explore the idea that altitude-the view from above the ground-inspires and creates some of the most powerful social relations of sight and knowledge in the European Enlightenment and its imperial and neoliberal aftermath. That geography has depended heavily on the "bird's eye view" comes as little surprise to anyone who has navigated a locale by map (climbing a hill or building almost always seems to enhance the navigational experience of using a map). But the extent to which this set of discourses and practices pervades art, science, and popular culture remains a matter of some urgent scholarly attention. As the aerial photographs and satellite images of the devastated Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina demonstrate all too clearly, views from the air can represent seemingly everything and nothing. The particularism of thousands of pixels reveals startlingly detailed images of submerged rooftops and decimated levees yet the information cannot convey, apparently, the sheer need of thousands of people in a convention center waiting for evacuation. The expectation that the picture will deliver the truth, that the higher you go the better the view of that truth, and the more precise the information will be bears directly not just on social policy in an era of heightened national security but on the ways we imagine and act on national identity. Aerial perspective and the rise of an imperial world view become intrinsic to the discursive representations of contemporary nation-states.
This piece is book-ended, as it happens, by disasters wrought by human beings. I began to think about this piece of the book I am working on after the attacks on September 11, 2001 when I became preoccupied by the irony of the use of civilian airplanes and "peacetime" air space to wreck havoc and destruction. To many of us, air space is the epitome of "free" space. When did the air above the earth get divided into national, state, civil, and military portions and at what strata and markers do such borders begin and end? And how interesting that commercial airplanes-first, symbols of individual, entrepreneurial freedom and invention and, then, exemplars of popularized mass tourism and corporate might-delivered the "bomb," as it were. I had been working on questions of cosmopolitan world views, discourses of location, and navigational technologies. At the juncture of 2001, I redirected the project to study the rise of "air power," militarization of space, and the emergence of new kinds of targets and warfare. Thus, this Vectors project on Euro-American air power began with an inquiry into "mobility" and, in collaboration with Raegan Kelly, my Vectors' designer/programmer, it has morphed into a tutorial on technologies of sight in Western Euro-American modernity. Mobility remains a vital part of this piece since all vectors go somewhere. In this piece we have been working to figure out a few of those places and some of the effects of aerial perception in this age of US imperialism and global warfare. Hurricane Katrina, billed by the media (who seem to have short memories), as one of the worst disasters to affect the United States, occurred as I was finishing most of the work for this online piece. As we viewed the reproductions of images from Google Earth or any other commercial or non-military source of aerial visual data last year, we could well have wondered if targets are natural like the storms and surges that swept into people's lives or whether they (the targets and the devastating forces of destruction) are made by us, by our country, painstakingly, at great cost, only to be validated by the violence and made again.
"Dead reckoning" has a number of different meanings. For many of us, it simply means the ways in which we figure out where we are or what we are aiming at by using the naked eye-it is, then, the first order cultural construct of directional sight. In strictly navigational terms, especially at sea, it refers to the use of measured distances between points to discern longitude. A reckoning is also a form of retribution or punishment as well as a collection of accounts. Many of these meanings come into play in a militarized context where the determination of position enhanced by technology enables the annihilation of enemies. In this piece, Raegan and I came to see this term as the one best suited to describe what we were working through over many discussions. Although many other techniques of sight are involved in this piece, the reckoning of the cultural politics of sight in modernity leads, unfortunately, to state-sponsored death as much as to anything else and, thus, the aptness of the term becomes almost unavoidable.