Sunday, October 11, 2009

Air Travel Absurdity, Part 2

The latest article in the NY Times on air travel is awkwardly titled "What Not to Say in an Exit-Row Seat". Passenger Jim Dwyer tells how he was pulled off a flight by security personnel for making a joke in the exit row; but he claims he made no such quip. It turns out that it was an identity mix-up due to a seat swap, and the security personnel were really after a man on the other side of the aisle. Dwyer concludes: is one thing to be belligerent on the street, and quite another on a commercial flight. And in truth, I did not care much about justice for the man who got thrown off, as long as I was let back on.

These two sentences expose the conceptual crisis of commercial flight in U.S. culture. On the one hand, airports and airliners are deemed to be elevated states of exception, isolated mobilities imbued with a higher level of consciousness and awareness, reliant on a tacit understanding of a certain civil and social conduct. Dwyer implies that commercial flight involves a way of being that is markedly different from life "on the street."

Yet on the other hand, in airports and in airliners civil society is seen to be on the verge of total collapse. Dwyer's utter lack of interest in "justice" for the exit-row joker suggests that the ambience of flight is, after all, not unlike the 'street life' derided above: the conditions of commercial flight inspire a cutthroat attitude, self-interested to the core, and a feeling of being outside the law. Outside the law, we find ourselves "on the street" inside a floating, flexible regime of protocols and paranoia, all in an effort to secure the liberal traveler, a category that anyone can be speedily exempted from, at almost any time. This is the experience of contemporary flight in U.S. culture: we have achieved brute existence, with complimentary beverages and exit-rows.

I am looking forward to Slavoj Zizek's new book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, which appears to have (at the very least) a surface correspondence with these matters: