Howard Hughes: Prototype For the Global Citizen
By John David EbertÂ
Howard Hughes was the prototype for a new kind of human being: nomadic, uprooted, cityless, wandering, Hughes prefigured the coming inhabitant of our global aeropolis, the transurban world of “no-place” that has come to displace the traditional container of the geographically bounded cities which have, for the most part, composed the textile of human history. This new world of “No-Place,” however, is historyless, for in dislodging the human being from the city that has formed his environment for millennia, the airplane has carried him up into the sub-stratosphere beyond the reach of the temporal metabolisms of civic life, where he has entered a quiet but frenetic world of shopping mall airports, Styrofoam meals and plastic coffee cups in which everything, everywhere is denuded of local identity and cultural authenticity. Furthermore, the sub-stratosphere into which the human being has been relocatedÂ — for at any given time there are one hundred thousand people up in the airÂ — has traditionally been regarded as the realm of the gods and the home of the winged eternal soul exempt from the changing vicissitudes of corruption and generation which take place upon the surface of the earth down below. To live in the world of the skies, then, is to exist in a landscape carved out by Eternity, beyond the reach of historical rhythms of change, culture and ethnic identity.
In the 1930s and 40s, Howard Hughes was the first man who could legitimately call this heavenly frontier “home,” and he was therefore its single and (almost) sole pioneer occupant. Whenever Hughes wanted to go anywhere, he flew, and in those days, he flew everywhere, all the time, every day. The airplane was for him what our automobiles have become for us: a miniature environment that we carry with us on our backs like a tortoiseshell. Hughes, in becoming the world’s first global citizen, also became a kind of aviation equivalent of the Flying Dutchman, who was cursed to wander the seas and never put in at any port for very long.
In Steven Spielberg’s film The Terminal, based upon a real life story, a man spends his days living inside an airport as the result of a loss of citizenship from his mother country. Such a story is merely a startling metaphor for the way we actually live our lives today, for as the French philosopher Paul Virilio has remarked, the airport has become the new city. We no longer live in cities, for the incessant screeching of airplanes across the sky above us has effectively sealed us off inside a gigantic airport in which the dome of the sky is composed of the flight paths interwoven by air craft of all kinds and shapes. Indeed, when one lives in an age in which even the furthest geographically removed city is only hours away, one no longer really lives in a city at all anymore, for the airplane has dissolved the old containing walls which, since the days of Gilgamesh — who was legendary for having built the walls of UrukÂ — have been the defining characteristic of cities and substituted them instead for the containing vectors etched into the azure above us. These vectors have become the new walls, but since they are coterminous with the entire planet, we must recognize that we now live beneath the roof of a single giant aeropolis.
The overall architecture of air travel as it exists today, furthermore, would not even be remotely what it is without the pioneering flights of Howard Hughes, for he was the mythic prototype of the haggard and gangly inhabitant of the transurban “no-place” which has encompassed the planet today. And since it is well known that bad things happen to pioneers, we may suspect that the loneliness and isolation of being the only occupant (relatively speaking) of this sub-stratospheric “no-place” may have been the very thing that drove Howard Hughes to become the world’s first case of pressurized cabin fever.Â
The intense and erratic mobility of the first half of Howard Hughes’s life is a startling contrast to the sedentarization and isolation of the second half. During the 1930s and 40s, no one on the planet had as much freedom to move about the surface of the earth as had Hughes, but during the 1960s and 70s, no one was stricken with greater immobility than he. In these later years, Hughes confined himself to hotel rooms, where he instructed his aides to blacken out the windows and keep him supplied with codeine and Valium. He would very rarely meet with anyone beyond his immediate circle of aides, and many of his top executives had never even met with him face to face. Gradually, Hughes retreated to his bed, where he eschewed clothing, avoided baths and allowed his hair, fingernails and toenails to grow to absurd lengths. In his bed, he shot up with his beloved codeine and slept strange hours, usually awakening in the late afternoon and spending all night watching movies played on his projector.
In J.G. Ballard’s novel Concrete Island, a man whose car goes off a freeway overpass leaves him stranded on an “island” surrounded by mini-stacks and clover leafs, where he proceeds to make his home as a castaway of industrial society. The novel is a post-modern reworking of Robinson Crusoe, but it is also a perfect analogue of the later years of Howard Hughes, who became a castaway stranded in the midst of technological society.
In the early 1960s, however, Hughes’s mind was still productive, and he continued to chisel away at the contours of the electronic cavern within which we live today. Hughes had become interested in electronics in the late 1940s, and he developed complex weapons control systems based upon a fusion of radar and computers, as well as the first air-to-air remote controlled missile (known as the Falcon) which he mass produced for the military, who were now very happy to be in business with him.
In the early 1960s, Hughes Air signified its affiliation with the newly emerging aerospace industries by sending the first geosynchronous satellites into orbit around the planet.Â Â These were the prototypal commercial telecommunications satellites, and they made live broadcasts for radio and television possible (a direct evolutionary branch of the technological tree leads from these satellites to today’s DirecTV and Sirius radio). Syncom 2, launched in July of 1963, relayed the first satellite telephone call between President Kennedy and Nigerian prime minister Abubakr Tafawa Balewa. Syncom 3, the following year, enabled Americans to watch the Olympics in Japan live on television for the first time ever. Thus, the very technology which made it possible for Elvis Presley to wrap his own image around the planet during his 1973 Aloha From Hawaii concertÂ — the first planetary sized concertÂ — was created by Howard Hughes scarcely a decade earlier.
These satellites, furthermore, laid the groundwork for the cocooning of the earth with an electrospheric otherworld populated by the disembodied doppelgangers of celebrities, television icons and radio voices which have continuously covered the planet in a sheath of lightspeed phantoms ever since. Hughes’s satellites, in other words, enabled the actual physical creation of the old mythological cosmologies of the Arabs and the Greeks, in which the earth was thought to be enveloped by etheric spheres made out of very delicate subtle matter infected with the ghosts of angels, spirits and dead ancestors.
With the launching into orbit, furthermore, of another satellite, the ATS-1, Hughes created the first electronic doppelganger of the entire earth itself, for this satellite, equipped with a camera, was able to photograph huge strips of the earth which could then be synthesized in order to create an electronic duplication of the planet as a whole. For the first time, meteorologists could actually see the cloud formations which they had hitherto merely talked about. Hughes’s technology was like that of a god holding up a gigantic mirror to the planet, in which it saw itself reflected for the first time. Hughes, then, was the first man to accelerate the entire planet to lightspeed. This moment begins an important epoch in our culture, in which the replacement and displacement of the real which French philosophers like Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio have been talking about for the past three decades, now takes place, for from this point on, the planet is substituted by its own doppelganger, as with everything and everyone else in electronic society.Â Â
Appropriately, then, it was at about the time Hughes was working on the technology for the very satellites that would create a simulacrum of the earth and its etheric envelope of disembodied electric ghosts when he managed to generate his own doppelganger. This mythical idea took on corporal form in the personage of one Brucks Randell, who was hired by Hughes to help him dodge process servers during the years of his legal battles with TWA. Brucks Randell, it seems, looked exactly like Howard Hughes, for Hughes’s men found him working in a drugstore one day complaining that he couldn’t get a job as a movie actor precisely because he looked so much like Hughes. Randell was hired on the spot, and Hughes made use of him to create false Hughes sightings in order to keep the process servers off his trail.
The doppelganger is a staple feature of electronic society, and so it seems appropriate that though Hughes never accelerated himself to lightspeed through video monitor playback, he did nonetheless rather mysteriously generate his own doppelganger at just the time when he was working on creating a clone of the entire planet through the encircling of the globe with his geosynchronous satellites. The timing of the man’s appearance, around 1961, is eerily appropriate, and confirms Hughes’s standing as an electric icon.
Later, urban legends will arise to circulate the myth of Hughes’s murder and replacement by a double during the 1970 episode when he disappeared from his Las Vegas hotel room under mysterious circumstances. In reality, his aides had merely spirited him off to the BahamasÂ — for reasons which remain obscureÂ — while they took over management of his Vegas properties and real estate. The episode is significant, however, since Hughes never returned to the United States again. Urban legends arose, too, around Paul McCartney in which it was thought that he was replaced by a look-alike after a car crash.
The falsehood of these urban legends is entirely beside the point of their significance, for they represent the play of mythology in a society under electric conditions. In such a society, it is part of the mythology surrounding lightspeed technology that it generates doppelgangers, doppelgangers which, like the celluloid copy of Jeff Daniels in Woody Allen’s film The Purple Rose of Cairo, can detach themselves from the physical lives of their owners and become self-aware. Thus, the urban legends of doppelgangers which hover about the lives of Howard Hughes, Paul McCartney, Lee Harvey Oswald and others are part of the mythological architecture of human consciousness in the age of lightspeed technology.
–Excerpted from the forthcoming Death and Fame in the Age of Lightspeed by John David EbertÂ