McCormack Aerostatic Spacing

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Aerostatic spacing: on things becoming lighter than airDerek P McCormackThe development of practical aerostatic or lighter than air balloon flight in 1783 marked the emergence of a new way of being and becoming mobile, one that also involved an important technical and experiential transformation in earthatmosphere relations. This paper narrates an account of the distinctive kinds of spaces of which aerostatic flight is generative. At the centre of this account is the claim that the affective materiality of aerostatic flight is simultaneously processual and possessing of what political theorist Jane Bennett calls thing-power. In developing this claim, the paper draws from a range of historical and contemporary accounts of aerostatic flight in order to elaborate upon three aspects of the spaces of things becoming aerostatic: the distinctive kinds of sensing of which aerostatic flight is generative; the differential qualities of affectivity in which the movement and materiality of aerostatic things participates; and the kinds of vertiginous events in which the felt movement actual or anticipated of aerostatic things is implicated. The paper concludes by speculating upon how attending to the distinctive and sometimes disquieting materiality of aerostatic things might contribute to geographical engagements with the spaces of air and atmosphere. key words air affectivity atmosphere balloon materiality mobility

School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QY email:

revised manuscript received 18 July 2008

PreambleIt begins rather suddenly, torque-like: a sense of anchorage giving way to tensile instability. It happens as a minor corporeal reorientation, an incremental rebalancing of body-space, an unthinking adjustment of feet: the sensing of a kind of torsional ungrounding. This sense is quickly replaced however by something else: steady uplift, generated by 5500 metres cubed of enveloped helium, the force of which is balanced by the steel cable unwinding, slowly, from a point hidden somewhere below the ground. And so commences the experience of ascent, one which, save for wind, metalcreak and audible cablestrain, is largely silent.

Located in Parc Andr Citron in Pariss 15th Arrondissement, the Eutelsat balloon has been in operation since 2002. So long as the weather is reasonably calm, and the wind moderate, on most days between 9.00 am until the park closes, the

balloon ascends to a height of 150 metres or so at intervals of about 30 minutes.1 In May 2007 I spent a day in the park, making three ascents in the Eutelsat balloon. Between ascents I observed the balloon and other park users acknowledging, responding, ignoring or orienting themselves to the variable presence of this aerostatic thing rising and falling at reasonably regular intervals in their midst. The visit to the park was made as part of a research project about the 1897 Andre balloon expedition to the North Pole (see McCormack 2008). While the expedition was Swedish, Paris, and Parisian balloons, were central to the material, imaginative and affective geographies of the enterprise. The expedition balloon The Eagle (rnen) had been constructed in the factory of Henri Lachambre on the Rue de Vaugirard; one of the expedition members Nils Strindberg had made

Trans Inst Br Geogr NS 34 2541 2009 ISSN 0020-2754 2009 The Author. Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2009


Derek P McCormack

his first balloon ascents in the city, undertaking six training flights during March and April 1896; and the expedition leader Salomon August Andre had also visited Paris on a number of occasions, once during the 1889 World Exhibition, an event which itself featured two large tethered balloons as one of its main attractions (see Sollinger 2005). On one level then, ascending in the Eutelsat balloon is part of an attempt to trace the distributed assemblage of process, material and experience from envelope to ascension through which the event of the 1897 Andre expedition continues to resonate. But the repeated and ineffably embodied process of ascension, even when tethered, is generative at least potentially of differential affects and divergent lines of thought (Wylie 2002, 445). And, as I seek to show in this paper, the repeated event of ascension of the Eutelsat balloon becomes implicated in the movement of more than the Andre expedition: it begins to draw in and to become enveloped by accounts of other ascents, some actual, some fictitious, but all involving the differential movement of aerostatic things. And over time, the resonant after-effects of the experience of ascent coalesce into a sustained attempt, narrated in the lines of what follows, to think through the multiple spaces of aerostatic things.

IntroductionIn early June 1783, in Annonay, near Lyon, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier conducted the first successful public launch of a hot-air balloon.2 With

a circumference of 110 feet, their balloon reached an altitude of 6000 feet during a flight that lasted about 10 minutes. By late August of the same year the Montgolfier brothers had a serious competitor: the physicist Jacques-Alexandre Charles made the first public ascent in Paris using hydrogen, or inflammable air. While neither ascent involved any living passengers, subsequent flights carried animals, before Piltre de Rozier and the Marquis dArlandes became, on 20 November 1783, the first human passengers to make a balloon ascent in a craft designed by the Montgolfiers. These early balloon ascents generated enormous interest: indeed, depending upon the account read, the first flights in Paris in 1783 were witnessed by anything from 100 000 to 400 000 people (Kim 2004a; Rolt 2006; Olivetto 2007). In the months following, aerostatic things became highly fashionable, their design replicated in a range of popular materials and practices: miniature balloons were all the rage, dresses and shirts were fabricated in the style of the aerostat, and artefacts from clocks to lamps were produced in the shape of the balloon (see Dessauce 1999; Topham 2002; Rolt 2006). The interest generated by these events is hardly surprising: as a technical transformation in the human experience of earthatmosphere relations, the development of practical balloon flight marked the public emergence of a distinctively novel way of becoming and being mobile: one that was genuinely aerostatic. This paper narrates an account of the distinctive spaces of materiality, movement and experience associated with the invention of

Trans Inst Br Geogr NS 34 2541 2009 ISSN 0020 -2754 2009 The Author. Journal compilation Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) 2009

Aerostatic spacing


these aerostatic things. In narrating this account, the paper is intended as a contribution to and development of recent efforts to deepen conceptualisations of the geographies of air and atmosphere. Clearly, these geographies have been the focus of a great deal of work by physical geographers. Yet they have received much less attention from human geographers. This situation is, however, changing as human geographers become interested in air and atmosphere as zones in which a range of important disciplinary concerns might be addressed. For instance, Fraser MacDonald (2006 2007) has recently argued that the critical orbit of geography be extended to outer space, albeit in ways that both acknowledge a long-standing concern with earth atmosphere relations within the discipline and develop this concern through greater attention to space as a sphere of geopolitical and technological geo-power. At a lower altitude, but no less significantly, Peter Adey, Lucy Budd and Phil Hubbard (2007) have drawn attention to the value of engaging with geographies of aeromobility through a discussion of the social and cultural geographies of global air travel. As they observe, while premised upon the promise and dream of becoming mobile, flying is very much routed through particular sites and spaces of surveillance and control which are, in turn, both facilitated by distributed technological assemblages and generative of a range of distinctive experiences (see also Cresswell 2006; Adey 2004 2008). Yet, while increased attention is being paid to how aero-mobility is organised, regulated and controlled, arguably less is known about the specificity of experiences of being in and indeed of witnessing things becoming airborne. Thus, as Adey et al. observe, the embodied, emotional, and practised geographies [of airspace] remain to be adequately charted (2007, 774). A key contention of the present paper is that any geography of air and atmosphere needs to attend to the specificities of different techniques and technologies of becoming airborne. The difference between aerostatic and aerodynamic flight is crucial here (but see also Cwerner 2006). Understandably, the latter has garnered most contemporary attention because of its speed and commercial importance. But aerostatic flight pre-dates its heavier than air relation by well over a century. And, while the former is often now understood in terms of amusement and pleasure, its development was crucial to the emergence of both air and atmosphere as technicalscientific, aesthetic and experiential spaces. Focusing

as it does upon aerostatic flight, and on the process through which things become lighter than air, this paper therefore contributes to geographical understandings of the differentiated emergence and experience of airspace as a zone in which a range of cultural, technical and political questions are mobilised. One point of departure for understanding aerostatic flight would be to situate it within a longstanding conc