I’m traveling in a few days. Going to New York, a city that I adore and have spent a lot of time in. (I crafted a PhD dissertation that was in part about New Yorkish things, giving me a convenient excuse to go there on research trips.) I’m staying with friends and flying on points, so it’s a relatively inexpensive trip. But my very precarious financial situation has me nervous even about the play we’re seeing, one pricey museum admission, and a few meals out. I’m on EI for three months – that’s UI to you Americans – because of the charming new propensity of many of our Canadian uni’s to hire full-time faculty on contracts that are less than a year long.
Even in this financial mess, I am also planning a trip I will actually have to pay for, to London in October to visit my dearest friend. The ticket hasn’t been bought yet – I can’t afford to add to an over-inflated credit card right now. The very good salary I will get once my new job starts seems perversely to cancel out the worries of the summer, and I envision a carefree fall trip.*
All this trip-planning in the midst of a financial squeeze recalls to me my class position – profoundly middling, urban middle-class, not upper- or lower-middle – and the unexcavated sense of entitlement that comes with it. Most of that entitlement, for me, comes out in the feeling that travel is a necessity. I don’t have too much credit debt because I bought shoes or electronics or endless dinners out. I have it because even toward the end of my PhD, when my external funding had run out, I continued to indulge in travel that I couldn’t afford.
What does travel represent, that I imagine it as essential? Mobility, of course, but what need or desire does that speak to? I realize that though I am a fairly content homebody much of the time, travel offers itself up as a kind of phenomenology of reinvention. It reminds me of other possibilities, other pictures of what a life – my life – could look like. It lets me live those – that’s what I mean about its phenomenological quality. This itself is class-bound…there is a very real question of who has the psychic space and the tools, much less the time, to re-imagine themselves…(which should act as a check to those of us in the Humanities who are so enamored of the subversive potential of the imagination).
Travel also – and I cringe to admit this, but it seems important – adds to my cultural capital. And so I see how intimately cultural capital can function. Where travel brings me security is in my own rendering of it to myself. I’m not a big talker or a name dropper, or really a snob, I don’t think. (In this day and age, nobody’s going to be impressed by plenty of time spent in Europe, anyway.) But having traveled, and approaching travel with ease, gives me what feels like an entirely personal sense of self-satisfaction about my own expanded experiences, my own worth. Of course, it’s not just personal – nothing ever is – and in this I am, as are we all, a perfect illustration of the reproduction of social structures through our most intimate mythologies.
A lot of this, of course, is tied in with my identity as an academic, that is, as a member of a seriously "classed" profession. It’s difficult to imagine myself in this profession as a non-traveler…I would feel inadequate, wouldn’t I? For in this regard travel is tied to knowledge, the province of academics. It lends itself both to knowledge as accumulation of facts, and knowledge as understanding – even when we don’t truly understand. The experiential nature of the voyage seems to lend it a credence that other forms of knowledge-building can’t have.
I recognize all this and then don't quite know where to put the recognition. What do we do about the way class, the elephant in the (North American) room, structures our thinking? Or, more hopefully, how can that recognition itself help to restructure what we do in our travels? And in our jobs?
*Yes, I have problems being a sensible budgeter – or any kind of budgeter at all, really.