Don’t Worry, It’s All Going To Be a Disaster
January 23, 2023
When I’m stressed, I watch plane crash reconstruction videos on YouTube. A few years ago, during a period of much anxiety in the midst of a difficult film production, the platform’s algorithm started to recommend me these videos. There must have been something in my Google searches that suggested I was anxious; other people must find watching digital plane crash reconstructions on Youtube bizarrely soothing, too.
Indeed, a well-known ‘cure’ for flight anxiety is researching plane disasters. You can pay to participate in physical plane crash simulators as a form of therapy. The popular Plane Crash Podcast was established by a couple of nervous fliers who explore the particulars of a given accident for each episode at the suggestion of a psychotherapist.
Theoretically, in learning about the complexities of a crash, you come to realise that the likelihood of an accident is nearly zero. In familiarising yourself with the safety record of the aviation industry, you learn that — a rarity under capitalism — profit and ‘progress’ have been sacrificed for safety. In 2023, we fly in machines that are not dissimilar to those used in the 1960s, although the chance of dying in one has been much reduced since then. And faster and more risky technologies like Concorde never really (pardon the pun) took off.
The turn to safety as a guiding principle of aviation can be witnessed in the transformation of flight from a once glamorous activity to a mundane and even onerous one today — the glamour was at one time the necessary, anxiety-assuaging cover story. Several decades ago, alluringly short-skirted air stewardesses served sumptuous meals to distract wealthy passengers from the dangers of early commercial flight. On a low-cost airline today, you’re likely to be told off for standing in the wrong queue or going to the loo at the wrong time and you’ll definitely be sold a scratch card.
In this way, the aviation industry today seems at odds with most other sectors under capitalism which ideologically project prestige and efficiency, but are in fact populated by divided subjects constantly making mistakes, toxically pursuing capital in a way that is rarely effective or productive. Instead, this sector has created generally fail-safe systems to mitigate against human error and our tendency to seek profit, despite (or perhaps because of) death, suffering and sacrifice. Crashes are the rare exception (which is precisely why airlines need to scrape a profit from passengers in the form of selling them scratch cards…).
But the compelling nature of watching plane crash videos goes beyond the desire to be reassured before my next flight — for me, at least, they soothe the kind of existential anxiety that pervades life as such and becomes particularly raw during times of stress.
You can find the best collection of these kinds of videos on The Flight Channel. Here, aviation disasters are rendered into a digital copy via flight simulation software. All the technical details involved in a given crash are programmed into the software and a high resolution video is rendered. This video is then edited down to a length of about fifteen minutes, with text - written in imperfect English - that appears across the screen from time to time, adding depth and detail.
At the beginning of each video, before take off, a handful of two-dimensional figures are seen boarding the plane. Inside the cockpit, there are no human characters. Scant biographical details are provided above two empty seats: the pilot and first officer’s first name and a single letter for their surname (Emilio P., Pablo S., Christopher W. etc.), their age, how many hours’ flying they have completed over the course of their career and how many hours they have helmed the particular model of aircraft that is about to crash with them in it.
There are several canonical plane crashes, disasters — like the Titanic — that stick in the mind for how terrifying they are, how tragic or shocking, or how much they embody some kind of cultural or economic contradiction. Air France flight 447 was caused by such basic human errors as to be horrifying; Alaska Air flight 261 was caused by maintenance cutbacks over the course of years and resulted in the plane flying inverted for several minutes over the Pacific Ocean, just outside Los Angeles; the pilots of Japan Airlines flight 123 fought with their wounded plane in what became a grisly rollercoaster-type sequence for over half an hour before it crashed into a mountainside in the early evening. Many passengers survived the initial impact, but because rescuers could only get to the site the next morning, only 4 out of 524 passengers made it out alive.
In part, the soothing quality of the videos comes in the pacifying way they recount the events at hand. This aviation ASMR carries the viewer to sleep, as the planes themselves carried their passengers to death. In the absence of fleshed-out names and characteristics, the viewer projects herself onto the two-dimensional passenger simulacra and drifts away to oblivion, perhaps imagining that she is finally free of the toxicity of the rat race, of contemporary society and anxiety as such.
Freud claims that fears — such as the fear of flying — are in many ways more comforting than they are scary. As Lacan later stresses, anxiety is a primary condition of subjectivity. With the right material, parental and social conditions — perhaps rarer today than ever given the conditions of contemporary capitalism — the subject can transform anxiety into phobia and thus is able to experience the much more manageable external threat of disaster as a means to avoid their own existential anxieties.
But flight ASMR is not just one of many examples of this transfer of anxiety into imaginary terrifying scenarios; it is particularly the one that embodies the issues of contemporary capitalism as such.
Towards the end of his writing, Freud delineated the concept of ‘signal of anxiety.’ When a subject fails to master her own original anxiety, a signal appears to warn the subject into a defensive position and allow her to avoid confronting it. We are all in such a moment today.
Plane crashes, precisely because they appear to be blips in the smooth-functioning system of capitalism (flight as epitome of progress, safety over profit, etc.) — rather than evidence of the lack of provision for the subject of capitalism today — mean the subject can avoid anxiety through the plane as fetish. More importantly, she avoids realising that her anxiety is signalling inadequate material provision from the market system, poor family support because of precarity and a lack of interpersonal recognition because of the destruction of civil society.
In other words, capitalism – which continues to create more and more anxious subjects because of its material failures and its consequent failures in terms of recognition — needs one industry to work smoothly so that the others can get away with not doing so. As a bastion of functioning industrial power under capitalism — with its horrifying disasters as the rare exceptions that prove the rule — it serves as the perfect displacement so that we can disavow the reality of the terrible material conditions and their consequences that plague us collectively today.