Ontologies of Aerial Observation: Panoramic Reconnaissance and the Pre-History of Air War

Event Date: 

Friday, February 22, 2013 - 1:00pm

Event Location: 

  • SSMS 2135

Caren Kaplan

Professor of American Studies, University of California at Davis

Before the advent of aviation, industrializing nations sought to produce increasingly accurate surveys of territorial possessions, drawing on new technologies and sciences to interpret and reproduce sights and images. I will argue that most analysis of the imagery of air power--reconnaissance analog and digital photography--situates this kind of visual data as universalized panopticism; total, rational, and complete. According to this approach, reconnaissance imagery can reveal meanings which are always already there waiting to be read. Yet, instances of aerial or elevated viewing before the invention of the airplane suggest a more ontological approach to perception; one that requires habits of observation over time to assemble things like "views." The strange perspective of vertical views from balloons, the dizzying "pirouette" of the oblique panorama, and the triangulated precision of the ordnance survey--these diverse instances demonstrate the uneven nature of representations of terrain that required the development of new habits of visual expertise. In the effort to make sense, to make "something," out of numerous sights, sounds, and sensations, aerial observation offered neither rational panopticism nor irrational multiplicity. Instead, these technologies of vision and representation were "put together" by viewers who sought to repeat the experiences of aerial and elevated observation for pleasure, knowledge, and also, for war.

Caren Kaplan is Professor of American Studies and affiliated faculty in Cultural Studies, Science & Technology Studies, and Cinema & Technocultural Studies at the University of California at Davis. She is the author of Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement (Duke 1996) and the co-author and co-editor of Introduction to Women's Studies: Gender in a Transnational World (McGraw-Hill 2001/2005), Between Woman and Nation: Transnational Feminisms and the State (Duke 1999), and Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices (Minnesota 1994) as well as two digital multi-media scholarly works, Dead Reckoning and Precision Targets. Her current research focuses on aerial views and militarized visual culture.

This talk is co-sponsored by the IHC and the Film and Media Studies department