Retiring Endeavor and the Meaning of Spectacle


The retirement of the space shuttle USS Endeavor provides a rich opportunity to examine the role spectacle continues to play in the political culture of the postmodern imperial state.  The citizen-subjects of the United States enjoyed the opportunity to gaze upon the Sovereign embodied in the technology of the space shuttle program.  The vehicle that provided the means for the empire to break the barrier of the atmosphere and return multiple trips has always meant more to the image that the U.S. state has wanted to project to the U.S. public and the world than merely its scientific value.  In mid-October, it began its new old semiotic life.  The spectacle of the shuttle being carried across country on the back of a jumbo jet allowed the citizen-subjects to gaze upon the body of the Sovereign-Republic reconfigured in the display of power in its aspect as technology; it also allowed them to experience an imagined real transfixing moment. The Sovereign-Republic, twice embodied in the space shuttle and the plane big enough to carry it, doubles itself again in the joining of its two aspects, State and Civil Society, characterized by the political economy of government military spending on contracts with private industry. And the national and local media happily played their role as imperial criers, readying the population for the display of the Sovereign’s train.

The sight of the Endeavor riding piggy-back on a jumbo jet should have delivered a sufficient display of power, but it turns out that for Los Angeles, piggy-back space technology only provided prologue to the main event.  That was like the cartoon movie houses used to show before the double feature back in the days before the multiplex. In my neighborhood, we had a close up view of the spectacle. In fact, we joined in the spectacle, although joining in might not be exactly accurate. The engineers pulled the Endeavor from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center at Exposition Park.  That journey goes right through Inglewood and Southwest Los Angeles, among L.A.’s Blackest and Brownest neighborhoods, and also neighborhoods where barely working class, working class and lower middle class families live near some of the most affluent neighborhoods just up the hill or across the freeway.  This symbol of the Sovereign’s power took a two day journey through the midst of the U.S.’s historically repressed and exploited internal colonies, U.S. and immigrant Africans, First Nations and Chicano-Mexicanas, Central Americans and Puerto Ricans, Pacific Islanders, East Asians and South Asians.  People came out in droves to see the shuttle, and upon seeing the crowds, maybe to see each other.

Still, I question whether we joined in anything because most of us did very little. That is, the event, and it was an event, required minimal participation. The event required us to come forth and view. That is the meaning of spectacle, a thing to be seen, and that’s what most of us did, look, try to get a close-up, snap photos, post to Facebook or Instagram.  So despite the carnival atmosphere, the sense of celebration, there was no celebrating really happening beyond the official performances and speeches from politicians and community…leaders?  Those too were to be seen.  That aligns quite well with late modern popular culture in the U.S. So much of it requires watching: watching movies, watching parades, watching the game, watching TV, watching computer screens, watching smartphone screens, watching celebrities, watching our words, but not watching the watchers.  We waited, and we simply watched the shuttle sit on its raised, be-wheeled platform, or watched it get pulled ponderously, achingly slowly down the Inglewood and L.A. streets, being maneuvered to avoid telephone and lamp posts.  Many trees gave their lives for Endeavor even before the journey began, a little less shade in the ‘hood.

The Endeavor made an extended stop at the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard, in the heart of the last U.S. African majority neighborhood within the city limits of Los Angeles.  King runs east and west and marks the southern border of Exposition Park.  Besides the California Science Center and Aerospace Museum, Exposition Park also “houses” the L.A. County Museum of Natural History, the Rose Garden, the California Afro-American Museum, the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the Olympic Pool and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  Pointing east on King, the Endeavor was positioned for its final expedition, from Crenshaw to Exposition Park.  Befitting a city known for its entertainment industry, the Endeavor sat on its platform in the intersection flooded with lights, underscoring the (anti) drama of the moment and lending a bit more of unreality to the scene, as it felt like a movie set.  That night, as I joined the crowd to get a close up view of the thing that had blocked traffic in the neighborhood all day and had been attracting thousands since ten that morning, hours before its arrival in the early evening, I heard a sister on a cell phone behind me. “There it is,” she said, “right in front of me. Well, I’ve seen everything now. I guess I can move out of the neighborhood.”

When Exposition Park, Inglewood and Southwest L.A. were first designed and built, they were white neighborhoods.  That the display of the Sovereign wound its way through Black and Brown neighborhoods occurred as a result of history, shifting demographics, and white flight.  Nonetheless, the spectacle offered the local residents their chance to share in the delusion of inclusion as many of the country’s most marginalized people chanted, “U.S.A.,” for the local news crews.  For the weekend of October 12 through October 14, they occupied the patriotic center of attention, certainly in the region if not elsewhere.  Very much the way the spectacle of a black president has given permission to many otherwise disaffected people of color to express openly long held desires to feel a part of the project of the United States, the people most often found newsworthy for pathology, embraced their roles as the faces of U.S. patriotism.

Now, Toyota has launched an ad campaign for the Tundra, highlighting the truck for pulling the tonnage of the Endeavor.  In fact, Toyota’s advertising campaign is what has got me thinking about the Endeavor again.  The fact of a Japanese auto company capitalizing on a U.S. American patriotic display, and Time Warner Cable using their participation in clearing the Endeavor’s path as a public relations move, points us in the right direction: behind the sentimentality associated with this display of U.S. technological achievement, the Endeavor tells a story of the profit motive and military advantage, obscured themes of the United States’ story of itself.  The tales of brave astronaut-scientists routinely tempting death and defying the confines of the atmosphere in the pursuit of knowledge situate the U.S space program in a fictional space outside politics in the mainstream discussion.  The actual losses of life with the Challenger and the Columbia have demonstrated the real danger associated with human space travel and have only enhanced the seeming apolitical character of the space program.  But like all military contracting and aerospace projects, questions of jobs, resource use, spending priorities, disbursements, and budgets always carry political implications. 

The relationships between the technology present in the space shuttles and the procurement of the “strategic minerals” necessary to produce and maintain the now grounded shuttle fleet and other U.S. military technology remains primarily obscured.  But when we gazed upon the shuttle, we gazed upon the empire’s resolve to maintain control of those “strategic minerals,” minerals primarily found in the Global South, the ancestral homes of the people of color who lined the streets to see the body of the Sovereign, pulled down the street by a Toyota Tundra.  I am going to guess that few of us thought of the Endeavor as implicated in mineral wars in Congo or Western Asia, or ruinous mineral extraction in South America or the Caribbean Basin. I’m going to guess that most of us did not think of rocket testing in the Pacific.  I’m going to guess that few of us drew a connection between our under-funded public schools, libraries and medical centers and the government contracts awarded for shuttle construction, even as the shuttle program promised to enhance and inspire research in these areas.  Science is not free of the stains of imperialism and capitalism.

So now, the Endeavor sits in its new home, covered by a large tent in order to protect the State’s investment from weather and vandals.  It represents a tourism coup for Los Angeles County, one more destination for school field trips and visitors to our lovely city.  That means revenue, and revenue matters, which is why Toyota and Time Warner have seized the opportunity to use the Endeavor to sell Tundras and telecommunication services.   But more than the money, or at least as importantly as the money because of its implications for the continued flow of the money, the cultural meaning of the Endeavor also matters, matters very much.  The cultural value of the Endeavor’s display, which is to say its ideological value, must be measured in its ability to intimidate, to awe and to pacify the public at large, especially the colonized public.  It must be measured in its ability to foster a sense of credibility and inevitability for the Sovereign’s reign.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure that the Endeavor has retired at all.