On Airplanes

Airplanes are placeless:—this is my insight about airplanes. Travelling by airplane is essentially a form of teleportation, in that it involves travelling from a starting point to a destination without traversing any of the intervening places. One does traverse some kind of intervening space (namely, some part of the atmosphere), but this is not humanly habitable space – not space that has the capacity to contain places.—What then of mid-journey airport layovers? Well, airports tend to be placeless, or un-placed, or deprived of place-context, or only-quasi-places, in a different sense: they are typically very poorly connected to the urban fabric of the city which they serve.

In this way airplanes stand in contrast from bicycles, feet, horses, and most other land-based modes of transport (even automobiles, to a degree, although less so if the journey mostly involves controlled-access highways), as well as non-motorized boats. They may also be contrasted – interestingly – with hot-air balloons, which are vulnerable to the whims of the wind, like sailboats – and thus susceptible to a part of the particular character of the place they are in. Motorboats, then, distance themselves somewhat from place, because they have a degree of indifference to the wind and other environmental conditions. (Cruise ships are very obviously – and very deliberately – removed from place.)

(I was in a class this summer on the History of the Marine Sciences, and in one lecture the professor told us about a theory of the modern scientific laboratory as a ‘placeless place’. I suppose this could be elaborated as: a laboratory is a place, but it is not in a place. Maybe. In any case, presumably whoever came up with that formulation thought it through; whether, then, airplanes are non-places or whether they are placeless places is, strictly speaking, undetermined.)