Professor’s Perspective: Musings of a traveling philosopher

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A view of Greenland's landscape from an airplane. Photo courtesy of Philipp Rosemann.

As a European who has lived in Dallas for the past 20 years, I have done my fair share of air travel, back and forth between the New World and the Old. Years ago, when I counted the number of times I had crossed the Atlantic, I arrived at 38. Then I stopped counting.

My favorite route is via Iceland. I fly from Dallas to Boston, where I catch Icelandair to Keflavik. Often I spend a night or two in Iceland — not more, since prices there are not commensurate with the salary of a philosophy professor.

Iceland has a mythical landscape. Much of the Reykjanes peninsula, where the international airport is located, looks like the surface of the moon: it’s all rocks and lava fields — plus thick mosses, since it never stops raining.

One of the best-known bands from Iceland is called “Of Monsters and Men.” Gives you an idea of the spirit of the place.

During all those years of air travel, I have noticed a number of changes. One concerns the sheer number of people traveling. No wonder some airlines now fly the Airbus A380 double-decker plane, which holds over half a thousand units — pardon, I mean consumers, travelers, human beings — squeezed into tiny, uncomfortable seats that seem to be made for hobbits. The VIP crowd in the front of the plane enjoys fully reclining seats and gourmet meals. The increasing differentiation among the classes on a typical intercontinental flight (even Icelandair has three: Economy, Economy Comfort, and Saga — yes, it’s called Saga) reflects the development of society, with its widening economic gaps.

Why are so many more people traveling? There are economic reasons, such as the emergence of a middle class in many formerly poor countries and the lower ticket prices that have resulted from airline deregulation.

But there is a cultural reason as well: the less people are rooted in their own traditions, the more they desire to visit other places that they do not understand any more than they understand themselves. It is as though distraction is necessary to conceal one’s loss of self-knowledge. Thus, a German couple will not vacation in the beautiful Alps, but rather take a flight to Borneo: the more exotic, the better.
The tourism industry will in turn destroy the culture of the places invaded by the vacationing masses. Heidegger already bemoaned these tendencies in his famous technology essay from the 1950s.

Something else I have noticed: people no longer dress properly for air travel. Not that they dress properly in any other context.

There used to be a distinction between the private sphere, in which one was allowed to let oneself go, at least a little, and the public realm, where one wore a mask — where one was a person, a persona, playing one’s part on the stage of the world.

Now there is just sloppiness everywhere, which is regarded as being more “authentic.” This situation reflects a genuine political problem that Michel Foucault has termed “biopower.”

Modern governments no longer treat their populations as citizens, who are equal at the level of their political being, but rather as bodies: male bodies and female ones, straight and gay bodies, black bodies, brown bodies, white bodies, able bodies and bodies in need of Medicaid.

Is there anything more important in contemporary politics than these issues at the level of bare life? It is hardly surprising, then, that people no longer feel the need to put on an appearance of civilization. It’s their bodies that count.

It used to be that planes were darkened during overnight flights. Now they are darkened at any time of day or night. Since a large majority of travelers spend the entire journey staring at the screens in front of them, they prefer the window blinds to be lowered, for reduced glare.

As for those who insist on some daylight (like yours truly!), such strange misfits are met with incomprehension and hostility. When I dozed off recently in my window seat, upon waking up I realized that the person beside me had reached across me to darken that irritating window.

For, why would anyone want to look outside! The screen, that’s where real life is. Another French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, argued that in contemporary society, people increasingly live in a simulated reality: simulation has displaced the actual world. Baudrillard advanced this claim in 1981, long before the digital age, in which human beings are accompanied by little screens to which they pay more attention than to the physical world.

This is what the darkened plane symbolizes for me: the replacement of the world by a simulation of reality. And just as in Plato’s cave, anyone who challenges the status of the dark world, pointing to the light outside, becomes an object of resentment and hate.

So, dear friends, here is some advice for your next Saga Class trip to Europe. Wear something nice — and keep those blinds open! You never know what amazing part of the world might pass beneath you.

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