[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]
Earlier this summer, I read several studies of national airmindedness, which inspired two previous posts. By way of a coda, here's a reading list on airmindedness, comprising these works and others I am aware of, along with some scattered thoughts as to what it all means.
There are plenty of important gaps, at least in English: in particular, French and Italian airmindedness would certainly repay close study. Non-Western airmindednesses, too, perhaps? Similarly, there isn't much in a comparative or global vein, but I do know of the following:
- Bernhard Rieger. Technology and the Culture of Modernity in Britain and Germany, 1890-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Robert Wohl. A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.
- Robert Wohl. The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2005.
So, what is this "airmindedness" thing that I keep bandying about? In contemporary usage, it referred to the abstract state of being airminded, that is, enthusiastic about flight. Scott Palmer (who blogs at The Avia-Corner) defines it slightly differently:
I have chosen to employ "air-mindedness" in reference to the particular set of cultural traditions, symbols, and markers that, combined with existing political culture and social institutions, constitute a given nation's response to the airplane [...] Although Americans, Britons, Germans, and French may all be said to have been enthusiastic about aviation (or, air-minded), the specific manifestations of that enthusiasm (air-mindedness) were the products of those nations' unique historical and cultural traditions.1
I like this definition, because it highlights the connections between aviation and the larger narratives of a nation's history. The works cited above demonstrate these connections. In Russia, aviation continued a pattern (going back to Peter the Great) of trying to compensate for perceived inferiority in comparison with the West by jump-starting entire industries and exaggerating successes, which anyway were often more symbolic than useful. In Germany, widespread enthusiasm for Zeppelins served as a unifying symbol for a nation only a generation old, while in the Weimar period the new sport of gliding became a way of expressing hostility to the Versailles treaty. In the United States, an enormous faith in technology (combined with the more traditional kind of religious faith) led to hopes for an airborne millennium, with an aeroplane in every family's garage. In Australia, like Germany a new nation, the motivation was more practical: the need to bind together cities and towns separated by hundreds of miles of trackless bush and desert, as well as to shorten the effective distance to the mother country. In Britain, the primary concern was how to defend the integrity of the nation against the power of the bomber, but by the same token, there also appeared to be possibilities for holding the Empire together by use of airpower, military and commercial.
Leigh Edmonds (talking about the Australian context, but it applies more generally) suggests that the word "airmindedness" fell into disuse after the 1930s, because people were now 'so airminded that to use the word would have been as useless as referring to all people as bipeds'.2 There's something in that: flying is now taken for granted and air travel democratised. Most members of affluent societies, and affluent members of poorer ones, can choose to fly, and usually do, for long distances. But it seems to me that it's not that everyone is now airminded, rather it's that airmindedness itself is superfluous, because aviation's potential has largely been realised. Faith and imagination (a word which appears in the title of four of the books listed above) are no longer required to see the benefits of flight: just go to any international airport and watch all the people come and go. There's no need for aerial evangelism anymore, and so airmindedness is now more personal than public, a hobby or a job rather than a vocation.3 But as I hope I've at least hinted at here, the study of historical airmindedness is much more than an exercise in mere nostalgia: it's a way to explore a nation's hopes and fears.