Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Nonsense of Air Travel

A NY Times article reported this week on how airlines are having to "rethink" First Class and Business Class, because they are too expensive to maintain as is. United, we are told, is considering a new class of service just below Business: it will be called "Premium Economy." Are we supposed to forget that this has existed in effect in the guise of "Economy Plus" for several years now? Rhetorically speaking, how does the flip of Economy and the shift from Plus to Premium constitute a serious 'rethinking'?

The article goes on to illuminate the state of air travel as such:
“In building up their premium classes, airlines have been building themselves a castle in the air that’s ultimately unsupportable,” said Peter Morris, the chief economist in London for Ascend Worldwide, an aviation consulting company. “Unless the business world carries on expanding its needs for these services, the castle, to some extent, will come crashing down.”

Wait: when is a "castle in the air" ever 'supportable'? (When it is an Airbus A380?) Furthermore, can one even imagine the sight of a castle in the air crashing down only "to some extent"? I cannot picture this, as hard as I try. It seems as though the popular discourse of air travel is approaching a surrealist aesthetic. Is there a threshold to such nonsensical language in the realm of something alleged to require a certain technological precision (e.g., flight)?

Another article (can we call these email-in interview pieces "articles"?) discusses the subject of manners on planes. Larry Winget expounds,
I don’t know what people are thinking when they travel nowadays. It’s like they leave their brains in the airport parking lot, and forget about common sense and courtesy.

Initially, one might be inclined to agree with Larry Winget's sentiment. The article goes on to narrate three episodes of bad manners on a plane; in two of the cases, Larry Winget intervenes, once with comic wit and once with a firm hand. Larry Winget's anecdotes are solid evidence for the tattered state of air travel: on planes people are rude, generally self-absorbed, and when they do communicate with one another their tempers are short, to say the least. Larry Winget emerges as a civilian arbiter of such situations. But Larry Winget looks like a pretty big guy, and kind of imposing; there is a colorful picture of him next to the article to prove it. This article seems to imply that what we need is a citizen task force, a sort of ad hoc brigade of unofficial (but serious) 'air marshals':
I am really trying not to let people’s behavior get to me. Most of the time, I keep my sense of humor, take lots of deep breaths, read a good book and don’t let the idiots get me down.

But sometimes, you just have to take a stand.

What are the limits of this injunction to "take a stand"? What brute force do we condone when it comes to flight? At what point is the rational, self-controlled liberal subject allowed to dominate, to flex within the aluminum-thin structure all around?

Perhaps literature can instruct. Larry Winget posits a civilized coping mechanism for this context: "read a good book" in order to avoid being annoyed by others on the plane. But what does one do when 'good' fiction reflects the absurdities of air travel? We would seem then to be caught in a möbius strip, or on an infinitely rerouted trip. Last week's short fiction piece in the New Yorker, "Land of the Living" by Sam Shepard, stumbles into this problematic terrain. Shepard begins this sardonic vacation story in the drab interior of a sweltering airport in Mexico. At one point the narrator observes:
We’re being herded, shoulder to shoulder with all the other Minnesota “snowbirds” frantically fanning themselves with their customs forms.

The familiar use of an airport setting to begin or end a story relies on what I elsewhere call "the poetics of no-man's land." Here, this involves a figurative disjunction between the "'snowbirds'" and the 'herding' taking place: animality is plainly overdetermined in the locus of the airport, and the setting resembles Larry Winget's worst nightmare: humans stripped of humanity, bumbling along, trying to get somewhere. What is the end of this spectrum? Sheer animality, or death? Later in "Land of the Living," during the characters' return trip, an unexpected landing at the St. Louis airport suggests that the end of flight is mortal death—which is to say, figurative evacuation, literally. Perhaps, then, the nonsense of air travel anticipates a more general, final vacation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some Comments on the Curiosity of Blogs

Stanley Fish's latest NY Times blog post "Does Curiosity Kill More Than the Cat?" has provoked 399 comments as of this morning (17 Sep).

Fish basically presents 'curiosity' as a vice that when given a "positive twist" morphs into "the scientific project"—leading all the way up to present efforts on behalf of the National Endowment of the Humanities to digitalize "just about everything." Fish seems to be unimpressed with the promise of digital archives.

In short, Fish concludes that 'curiosity' seems to be the God that humans want to worship. I keep placing 'curiosity' in scare-quotes because it seems like such an unwieldy concept, and an odd one to take on in a brief expository form such as a blog post. The 399 comments generated in the three days since the post appeared tend to either ridicule Fish for sounding like a religious fanatic, or applaud Fish's critique of hubris.

For one commentator, a welcome apocalypse is on the near horizon:

Do not despair, however, because soon there will be a collective, intellectual revolt, at which point the compasses will be righted once again and everything will be given its proper place.


There is something so, what, curious about this kind of certainty. It makes me almost suspect that Fish's post was a provocation, a calculated ruse intended to expose just these sorts of impulses. Clearly, to maintain a blog (or comment on one) involves more than a little faith in human curiosity, and such faith would be more than a little resistant to the "revolt" anticipated.

I wonder then if, really, Fish's post is a (perhaps unconscious) reflection on the curiosity of blogs in general. Let me explain.

Stanley Fish could have written a blog post with the title "Does Chocolate Kill More Than the Cat?" Then, using some clever passages and strategic citations, he could move swiftly toward an argument about a general idolatry concerning chocolate. One can imagine concluding sentences that would read something like this:
The question, posed by thinkers from Roald Dahl to Frederick Shilling to Timothy Morton, is whether this is the God—the God, ultimately, of indulgence—we want to worship. Given the evidence, including the philosophy of Green & Black's, the answer would seem to be yes.

Within three days, Fish would have around 399 comments that would account for a dispersed field of praise, agreement, disagreement, counter-argument, and sarcasm—over the subject of chocolate. And here we are: in a world of blogs, communicating about communication, right at home in the world. The argument was never about 'chocolate' or 'curiosity' all along—it was about ways of reading and habits of writing, and how these acts become ingrained over (digital) time.