Today I’m off to Ireland. I was meant to leave yesterday, but my flight was delayed and… well today I’m off to Ireland. Yesterday was an interesting experience though, spending so much time at the airport (five hours?), and not actually getting anywhere. One of the reasons it took so long is that when they told me to leave, I had to pass through Canadian customs. So technically yesterday I entered and left the United States, all without stepping outside of Toronto.
Travelling to, or in this case travelling through, the United states, is always an opportunity to raise a few eyelids. Sitting here in the terminal at Newark airport, everything looks about normal. However the drone of CNN in the background discussing the “Boston Bombing” reminds me I’m in a fascist country. Just a little bit fascist, mind you, a kind of Germany 1931.
I make an effort when I’m travelling to look people in the eye, to engage with them on a human level whether it’s at a shop or an airport desk. Probably more so than when I’m in Toronto, actually. I’ve been told customs officials refuse to engage in any human level interaction, but in my experience that’s not true. We were heavily delayed (waited about 2 hours) on the tarmac before take-off to Newark today. But everyone’s mood seemed good, and I had a very informative and friendly discussion with the staff, who were happy to explain that the delay was caused by federal government’s cuts to the air traffic control system.
Flying into Newark, everything looks a kind of placid and plastic nightmare. The airport looks dirty, and is located next to a dozen freeways and an oil refinery. It reminds me that America is a poor country, or at least it is becoming an increasingly poor country for the 99%. A country over stretched, that can’t maintain its infrastructure, that doesn’t value keeping things clean. When you fly into England or Switzerland, the values of the place are laid out for you to look out in the towns and villages, and parks and waterways and forests. North America (including Canada) by comparison always have a kind of wild-west look to the development when seen from the air.
Above all, I’m reminded that every situation has a mood, a befindlichkeit, and the mood of this place is languid and dusty and not very life affirming. Not depressing persay, just deeply boring.
I start to wonder, and for some reason New York really elicits this wondering, why we value cities so much. We build in this very high density around a centre, which we celebrate as a centre of culture and architecture, basically a high point of human achievement. But why? Some cities fit into the geography in a way that makes them look natural, and insofar as the physical geography influences the development of the city then there is a natural aspect to them, but this doesn’t resolve the question, in fact it’s only an illusion because the geography never gives the fundamental cause of why a city is built, or what attracts people to a place. And most cities, it just seems so arbitrary where they are. Why is Manhattan such an expensive place to buy property?
Perhaps it is appropriate to wonder about cities while I’m on my way to Ireland, because the summer school I’m teaching at is most assuredly not in a city, but a small village. And at the location itself there is no internet (thank heaven). Perhaps it is mere pastoralism to feel malaise at the city, and at the endless suburbs. But if we take seriously the idea of a situation proscribing a mood, then we should also think at what limits a place puts on thinking – what can be thought might be different in a city cafe, in an airport terminal, and in a mountain castle.
Perhaps most of all, sitting in an airport terminal reminds you how small you are. How many people whizzing by in every direction. It reminds me of an Old Phoebe song, “The Machine”
We’re trying to make sense of things
We’re trying to change things
We don’t wanna be a part of the machine
it just eats your work, and ploughs over everything
Maybe this song, written by two pure-spirited teenage girls in Nanaimo, BC, actually does a better job of expressing the paradox of man in modern society than a dozen key texts in sociology or psychology. What more is there – people working, trying to make things better, all while recognizing that the systems that we enter into co-opts our efforts, and makes our wills other than our own. Maybe this isn’t just a particular situation, but every situation, every situation insofar as someone is committed to not only their own interest but the interests of all. I realize we’re trained by modern economics to believe we’re essentially selfish, but we’re also trained by traditional moralities to care about the whole, and we shouldn’t reductively give into neo-liberal normativity because maybe it only functions because people still believe they are acting virtuously? This is probably too abstract. There remains something very appealing about the simple thought uttered in the song, a thought somehow appropriate to sitting at this airport, in a little-fascist country, in a deathly ugly city, waiting for a flight to the green and gold paper tiger to live in a Castle for a week.