Into Thin Air, Out of the System

Just like everyone else I know, I was at first fascinated by the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. But as the playful theories that Lost was happening in real life faded out and were replaced with the ugly reality that hundreds of people were missing, probably dead, and nobody knew why, I got increasingly sick of the constant news coverage. It got repetitive, not to mention downright insensitive, to see 10, 20 stories reporting “BREAKING NEWS” on the same one-sentence sound bite from a government official telling the public one more time that they were “not optimistic” about finding the plane.

After about a month and a half of seeing this tragedy combed for news segments even as no new developments were made, I was genuinely excited to see a flashy new contender in the “weird stuff that happens with airplanes” category. On Sunday, a 16-year-old boy stowed away in the wheel well area of a plane flying from San Jose, Calif., to Maui, Hawaii, and survived. I was impressed. Not only had he made it through freezing temperatures and lack of oxygen, he had somehow managed to evade airport security, presumably without much of a plan. This kid had done something mysterious, and we were all waiting to see how, and why, and what airport and airline officials were going to do about it.

Hearing this story, or any story, rehearsed with no new details day in and day out by 24/7 news outlets can get frustrating. It can feel like the media is intent on keeping us focused on flashy stories rather than reporting thoughtfully on new events. Perhaps this is true, but what if we read this obsession with lost planes and stowaways a little differently? 

In the hope of understanding the shape of our knowledge in the news, I turn to Foucault. His concept of biopower outlines the idea that a government controls the life of its population—birth, death, and everything in between. If you look at big-ticket news stories about war, financial crises, laws and court cases, or other international issues, most of them revolve around the apparatus of the state and its authority over life. It’s great to be informed, but the information we’re getting is still consistently information about how governments and corporations are controlling health care and access to food and housing; it is information about violence against a government’s own citizens, and violence against citizens of other countries. 

Sure, there are local human interest stories that highlight, perhaps, activities not under some form of institutionalized duress. However, the reason we love something as ineffable as a lost airplane is because nobody is in control of it. We tell the story again and again in hopes of fitting it into our narrative of governmentality and order, but what fascinates us is the effective lack of ownership and power that any particular institution can claim in the aftermath of this event.

Over time, Flight 370 has been dragged back into the realm of regulation. Procedural updates from airline and government officials, and the legal claims being filed now that 45 days have elapsed, make this story part of the system again. The constant coverage we’ve been subjected to, though, has reminded us daily that we can still find fascinating those things that are uncertain, that are outside the field of knowledge and control we’re accustomed to. 24/7 coverage, as trite as it may be, is fundamentally focused on rehearsing our limited knowledge over and over in an attempt to make sense of things that don’t line up. It’s not an ideal intellectual exercise in many ways, since this style of reporting prioritizes instant updates over thoughtful analysis, but if it provides a break from the narrative of centralized power that otherwise pervades our processing of world events, there’s some value in it.

So far, it looks like the boy who stowed away to Hawaii isn’t facing charges. Coverage on this story has slowed down in the past day or so, as the news that he’s in the hospital and working with child welfare services has brought his narrative back to the ground. Our fascination will return, for better or for worse, to the bigger tragedies and greater unknowns of other stories.

But as we consider the landscape of the news, day in and day out, maybe now we can remember, for a little while, how the unknown can redeem our collective consciousness. The joy of discovery that plays out in the mad scramble for breaking updates and constant coverage brings us beyond the banalities of our daily lives, out of the system of power over life and death that pervades our cultural knowledge. I think there’s merit in our attempt to appreciate and tie together the inexplicable events of our world. After all, don’t we all live for that moment when everything is up in the air?

Julia Austenfeld PO ’15 is a music major from Fribourg, Switzerland and Raleigh, N.C.

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