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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

October 5, 2016: AmericanStudying The Americans: Stealth

[Earlier this year, I belatedly but excitedly got into The Americans, the FX drama about two KGB agents (the great Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) living in deep cover as a married couple in Reagan’s 1980s America. It’s a wonderful and very AmericanStudies show, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy five issues and themes to which the show connects. Leading up to my latest Guest Post on another set of pop culture texts and questions!]
On the historical limitations and imaginative possibilities of a secretive technology.
Russian spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings have pursued missions relating to a number of 1980s political and international issues in the course of the show’s (to date) four seasons, including Nicaraguan Contras and (tomorrow’s topic) the war in Afghanistan. But perhaps the most recurring and consistent mission has been their investigation into and attempt to both derail and steal the US military’s development of stealth technology. That artistic choice makes a lot of sense, as stealth is a perfect metaphor for the show’s vision of secret spies—not only because the technology was literally intended to produce invisible instruments of surveillance and warfare, but also because (as Elizabeth and Philip’s missions and contacts reveal again and again) the quest to develop that technology took place in a clandestine, shadowy world that it might be difficult for our internet age to imagine but that comprises a significant percentage of the show’s plotlines and situations. If the name hadn’t already been taken by a much less interesting action film (on which more in a moment), Stealth could have been a less evocative but still accurate back-up name for The Americans as well.
There’s one more level to the resonances between the TV show and those technological histories, though: stealth technology appeared to be one thing (a vital new weapon toward which the superpowers were racing in a new arms race; a narrative that, as that hyperlinked article illustrates, continues to exist) and turned out to be something very different (a hugely expensive and largely failed—or at least only partially successful—experiment). The US spent billions of dollars in the course of the 1980s (and before) to develop a stealth jet, and yet as this list reflects more such projects were cancelled then were ever brought to fruition. Moreover, even those fighters that were completed have still been found (as the article hyperlinked above under “largely failed…” indicates) to be visible to radar, the opposite of which is of course the entire purpose of developing a new stealth vehicle. The military has used stealth bombers successfully in some military campaigns, most notably the 1989 conflict with Panama and its dictator Manuel Noriega. Yet to say that the technology did not turn out to be the game-changing weapon (in or after the Cold War) about which the spies in The Americans are so worried would be to understate the case.
The show isn’t a documentary, though, and it’s also far from the only cultural text to appreciate and utilize the imaginative possibilities of stealth technology. There’s the aforementioned action film, for example, which links stealth to fears over artificial intelligence to pose the question of what would happen if an “inhuman and invincible” stealth bomber started thinking and acting for itself. There’s John Woo’s first Hollywood movie Broken Arrow, in which terrorists led by John Travolta take advantage of stealth technology to help them steal nuclear weapons from the US military (until Christian Slater and a national park ranger foil their plan, natch). And, to take things a bit further afield (literally and figuratively), there’s the recurring science fiction trope (and semi-scientific technology) of “cloaking devices,” stealth technologies for spaceships that have played significant roles in Star Trek, Star Wars, and a number of other fictional universes and futures. Judging by these and other cultural texts, we both fears and are attracted to the possibilities offered by stealth technology, and by the ability to move through the world—even in our most powerful vehicles—unseen.
Next AmericansStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other AmericanStudies shows you’d highlight?

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