Hayden White and the Art of Paper Plane Construction

This morning my three-year-old and I took an online crash course in paper plane construction and then tested our brave prototypes on the infamous precipice that is the stairway of our town home. It was a fantastic time. As we glided those little cleverly folded pieces of typing paper towards the bottom of the stairs I thought of the brilliant Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story character Laura Sanchez when, searching for Senator Onésimo Sánchez,  enters his office doorway:

Laura Farina was struck dumb standing in the doorway to the room: thousands of bank notes were floating in the air, flapping like the butterfly. But the senator turned off the fan and the bills were left without air and lighted on the objects in the room. ‘You see,’ he said, smiling, ‘even shit can fly.’ (1)

We made four paper models, ones that I had never made before. “The Kite” was my favorite. Its name is an appropriate description of its flight pattern; it glided, swooping low, only to arch at the bottom of the stairwell, landing upright. It had a graceful way about it. “The Dart” was my least favorite. It shot straight and narrow, with twice the speed of the prior at least. It landed violently, snub-nosing its front, ending its brief lifespan looking like a porpoise. “The Moth” was artwork, nearly a piece of Origami itself. It had a special folding where a center diamond of folds is turned backwards in order to secure two other loose ends. It reminded me of the last fold of the most famous Origami piece “The Swan,” the fold that is inverted and slanted downward to form the head and beak. Before folding this model, I had never thought of comparing the art of Origami with paper airplane construction. But I suppose anything is art, if you will it to be. One of my favorite professors in the humanities use to say, “You can slap some mud on a canvas if you want, and call that art. And I will love it.” “The Stealth” was the second most difficult model to fold, and is the only paper airplane I have ever made that required the use of a pair of scissors. In the early stages of the fold, small incisions are made, resulting in small, triangular air flaps in the back that are pretty much functional. Flaps turned downward, and the plane zips forward onto its nose, prematurely ending its flight. Flaps tilted just slightly upward cause a slight incline, although too much incline causes it to stall, flip, and drop to the floor, much like Sánchez’s banknotes. My daughter loved every second of it. Tomorrow we plan to test new models and to experiment with new factors like weight (paperclips and tape), and more precisely created wind flaps.

Hayden White describes the body of postmodern scholars who shape this era’s academic products as “positively allergic to what is condescendingly called grand theory.” The postmodern turn in Academia brought on the desire “to abandon theory and get back to the text, back to what Wittgenstein called ‘the rough ground,’ back to personal experience and attention to the phenomenon of everyday life; these cries go up regularly after every era of efforts to envision the whole, whether of culture, society, civilization, history, or being in general.” (2)

I am deeply sympathetic to such a distrust of grand theory. What is needed is far less Brief History of Western Civilization monographs and more specific, nuanced, and detailed microhisotories. Oversimplification is out of style, and essentialism, although necessary at times, is problematic. I suggest academics start investigating the seemingly insignificant parts of peoples’ lives, starting with the phenomenon of paper plane construction.


(1) Please forgive the crude language, but this is probably one of my favorite literary scenes. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Death Constant By Love,” in Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978).

(2) Hayden White, Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect (Baltimore, MA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), vii — viii.