Haptic Air-scapes, Materiality, and the First World War
: An Anthropological-Archaeological Perspective, 1914 - 2018

  • Melanie Winterton

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Abstract

This research focuses on First World War aviators’ relationships with their aircraft from a sensorial anthropological-archaeological perspective. It offers a dimension of materiality that makes an original contribution to knowledge and complements our ideas about culture and aviation history. The diaries and memoirs of First World War aviators were ‘interrogated’ for their experiences, which were, in essence, first-person subjective phenomenological accounts. Participant observation – a sensory ethnography – was adopted by the author flying in an open-cockpit biplane.
A conceptualisation of ‘haptic air-scape’ is proposed to structure aviators’ descriptions of their sensory experiences while flying open-cockpit biplanes, and to materialise their phenomenological experiences in terms of charting the beginnings of modern sensibilities in aviation. Pilots experienced new corporeal feelings, and their senses were reconfigured and culturally constructed as they learned to engage in a new way of moving in the hitherto unexplored realm of the air.
The conceptualisation of haptic air-scape has many dimensions. The material world shaped aviators’ responses to the emotions of fear and anxiety they experienced on a daily basis. The thesis examines how the physical, supernatural and superstitious relationships between First World War aviators, their aircraft, and the haptic world of flying became reified in material culture. It categorises different kinds of lucky mascots carried by airmen in an attempt to focus on the nature of their attachment to objects within their conflict air world.
Adding an emotional dimension to this concept, the thesis also focuses on wooden aeroplane propellers that were retrieved from crashed aeroplanes and recycled into temporary propeller grave markers. Adopting a biographical approach, the thesis identifies and analyses events in the social life of these propeller grave markers. These objects directed the behaviour of visitors to cemeteries (the bereaved, comrades, and tourists), thereby lending substance to the idea that objects make people as the living created a relationship with the deceased.
The First World War, a war of matériel, caused unprecedented death and destruction, yet also initiated creativity and individuality in unexpected ways. The thesis analyses how pieces of crashed aircraft were transformed into trench art that became memory objects in key locations of post-war homes, imbued with stories and emotions, and thereby affording the objects a new significance, and providing them with a powerful presence today as commemorative legacies.
Date of Award23 Jan 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorJoanna Bruck (Supervisor) & Nicholas J Saunders (Supervisor)

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