Issue 11 Flight Summer 2003

The Mile High Club

David Serlin

In December 1984, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration conducted an experiment called the Controlled Impact Demonstration in which they crashed a Boeing 720 aircraft with crash test dummies onboard. This photograph, taken minutes before their final flight, suggests that in their collective awkwardness test dummies look far from inanimate.

Crash test dummies may be human “simulations” intended only to endure a fiery, painful end. But their faces seem to belie their sealed fate. Indeed, in their repose they seem to possess the ecstatic countenances of martyred saints. Perhaps that is why their faces evoke a metaphysical longing reminiscent of Catholic devotees like Saint Teresa or Persian mystics like Rumi. On another level, this phalanx of dummies reaffirms the popular appeal of J. G. Ballard’s fantasy of heightened sexual pleasure through imminent danger or death, especially when it involves fast-moving vehicles. With their heavy-lidded expressions of orgasmic bliss, these crash test subjects, more than their human counterparts, expose the very fine lines that distinguish sexual gratification, death, and religious ecstasy.

Yet, powerful whiffs of neither sex nor death nor spirit seem to resonate on the dark brown faces of the ones we might call the crash test dummies of color. Their taut expressions and bandaged heads, in contrast to those of the white dummies, convey not sexual release or spiritual transcendence but the speechless panic and hopeless resignation produced by the knowledge of an imminent crash. Perhaps the message offered by this photograph is that if white people are going down on a plane, then at least they can look as if someone’s going down on them.

David Serlin is an editor and columnist at Cabinet. An expanded version of his column in this issue will be published next year in his forthcoming book Replaceable You: Engineering the American Body after World War Two (University of Chicago Press).

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