If I pay to skip the queue, what does that say about me?

Unthinkable: ‘Tell me what you do as a passenger, and I’ll tell you who you are’

There is no shortage of articles on planning your next holiday, nor any scarcity of books on what to find when you get there. But what about the in-between? Where are the novellas about winding you way through Dublin Airport 3½ hours before departure? And who dares investigate the boredom of long-haul flights?

Step forward Michael Marder who explores both the experience and the ethics of human transit in a new book, Philosophy for Passengers. An academic based at the University of the Basque Country, he identifies a number of key characteristics of "passengerhood". One is passivity: "to be a passenger is to be transported by something and someone else". Another is class differentiation: the randomness of passenger life "masks a rigidly stratified order".

The former can be a source of pleasure – it is liberating to feel that you’re in someone else’s hands, and there is nothing you can do about it. The latter – being shunted through a system in which you’re treated differently depending on “class” of ticket – can rankle.

Passengerhood is a microcosm of contemporary existence

“The mental flower that blooms most vigorously on the branches of passenger passivity is boredom,” writes Marder, and how you respond to the challenge says much about you. Are you a fidgeter? A daydreamer? A napper? A crossword-puzzler? “Since you are free to choose how to occupy your time during your trip,” says Marder, “a simple dictum holds: Tell me what you do as a passenger, and I will tell you who you are.”


He discusses further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Three features of passengerhood that you highlight are togetherness, loneliness and randomness. Can you explain how they manifest themselves?

Michael Marder: “The first two features you mention – togetherness and loneliness – are, obviously, mutually contradictory. But, strangely, they coexist in passenger experience. We ride a train or fly on a plane together, in the same space as other passengers, the crew, and the inanimate objects that accompany us. At the same time, we are isolated from one another as though each of us were in an invisible bubble of private concerns, activities, or passivities – such as napping.

“A similar sort of experience is prevalent in our mass societies, where it is easy to feel an intense sense of loneliness in the midst of the anonymous throngs of people.

“As you can tell, for me, passengerhood is particularly interesting as a microcosm of contemporary existence, a specific situation, in which more general trends come into sharp focus. I must say, however, that it is somewhat worrisome to reach this conclusion, because the coincidence of loneliness and togetherness is a distinguishing mark of totalitarian experience, according to Hannah Arendt.

“Randomness adds fuel to the fire: more often than not, seat assignments are random, except when they are organised by class. By chance, we find ourselves next to total strangers in our lives and in our travels. With constant mobility shaping our horizons, this alienating feature of our existence has tremendous staying power, completing the portrait of a quasi-totalitarian passenger world.”

You say the passenger industry perpetuates “illusions of class mobility”. How so?

“First of all, the passenger industry now caters to all price ranges, so that, with ultra-cheap flights offered by budget airlines, virtually everyone can join in the game of travelling. As a result, people who before could not, for example, afford overseas vacations now feel like they’ve made it, while their standards of living have hardly improved. Second, if different classes of travel mirror larger socio-economic classes, then the very possibility of an upgrade means that class mobility is not a pipedream: it can become reality.

“We can spot here an ideological trick, built into our predominant belief systems. Add to this the fact that sometimes upgrades are offered by companies for next to nothing – as part of their marketing campaigns, or thanks to an accumulation of points in frequent-flyer programmes – and the illusion of class mobility sustained by the passenger industry becomes more vivid still.”

Priority boarding and fast-track check-in are among the products offered by carriers. What does it say about me if I am willing to pay extra to get on board a flight ahead of fellow passengers?

“The upgrades you refer to are all intended to save time; the very time that ineluctably passes, leading to a chronic sense of loss and non-accomplishment. So, time becomes a valuable commodity, perhaps the most valuable of commodities. Time is money, because money is time, the objectified and abstract form of labour, as Marx would note. And, since each of us ultimately consists of finite time, it is a commodity that is inseparable from me, myself.

“Saving time, I save myself for more exciting pursuits, or for the more profitable ones. I would go so far as to say that the inequalities of access to ‘spare’ or ‘quality’ time are more significant than other material inequalities linked to consumption. Various passenger upgrades stress this point implicitly.”

Do we underestimate the value of passengerhood? We tend to think of it practically as something to get out of the way before we reach our destination. Is it rather something to be savoured or celebrated?

“Indeed! This was one of the starting points in writing Philosophy for Passengers. A very common experience, it is overlooked, underthought, and, as you put it, underestimated. That said, I do try to savour it intellectually and, together with Tomás Saraceno who contributed wonderful images to the book, aesthetically.

“Very often, it is the things that are dismissed as too ordinary to even merit our attention that are the most revealing about the world and about ourselves. Plants, dust, garbage, passenger experiences – all of these realities rarely dignified by philosophers have been the subjects of my work.

“To return to your observation, the question is: what are the implications of celebrating passengerhood? There are too many to list here, but one implication stands out: the process that unfolds in the middle, the in-between bookended by departures and destinations, the meanwhile or the meantime of a journey is at least as important as where we are coming from and where we are heading to.

“To savour passengerhood is to value such ‘being in the middle’, which, at bottom, is what life is.”

Philosophy for Passengers by Michael Marder is published by MIT Press

Ask a sage:

Where would a philosopher recommend going?

Mary Wollstonecraft replies (in 1796): “Dublin, the most hospitable city I ever passed through.”