Three days and counting since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and no definitive trace of the jet has emerged. As with missing vessels in the past, this is a story thick with mystery, soaked with potential horror and reflective of a particular brand of social anxiety exacerbated by an age of total surveillance.
Entwined in the disappearance of Flight 370 are a number of stories significantly representative of our current geopolitical spirit. There were early concerns about terrorist involvement based on two Iranian passengers traveling on the flight with stolen passports. As with many cases of terror suspicion, the Iranians’ story is transpiring to likely be about immigration, not malicious intent.
Meanwhile, the idea of a vanished jet carries with it a particular grotesque allure in our epoch. Myths and narratives about Bermuda Triangles, alternate dimensions and desert islands have long peppered the popular imagination. At a moment when more of the world has been placed on the grid — tracked, counted, enumerated and mapped — the idea that anything, let alone a whole airplane, can vanish without trace carries a new valence of the incredible. Flight 370 stands as a chilling and strange reminder that our gridded fabric can be torn. Planes can disappear, ghost ships carrying cannibal rats can float untethered through foggy seas for years, mid-air explosions can go unrecorded by advanced military satellites; some events will perhaps always escape — for worse and better — surveillance technologies and tracked topographies.
Fears and fascinations with vanishings, abysses and the unknown are, of course, by no means particular to this time of advanced technocapitalism. It was Kant, building on Edmund Burke’s work on the sublime, who suggested that terror itself is specifically the ability of “raw nature” to render helpless our faculty of imagination. At a time where the contours of the natural world are well understood, explained, mapped and predicted by science and technology, instances of the inexplicable stand out as rare vestiges of the terrible-as-sublime. Events like the disappearance for some days of a plane resonate as increasingly unlikely and thus more compelling in an ever more mapped out and surveilled world.
Yet, of course, the story of Flight 370 is a mystery with an end point as tragic as it is definite. Like Air France Flight 447, which crashed in an area beyond radar coverage in the ocean north of Brazil in June 2009 and required five days of intensive searching before discovery, the Malaysia Airlines plane will also be found, and likely soon. This moment of the fearful unknown will also be short-lived. It stands as a reminder, however, that the grid is not as totalized as we might imagine; we are not in an age beyond sublime terror and the unknown.