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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Long Distance Mom: Airports and Non-Places
December 16, 2009 - 9:21pm

What does ‘home for the holidays’ mean when you aren’t really sure where your home is located?

Marc Auge’s book, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, begins with a description of a man driving to an airport, parking in “row J of underground level 2,” getting his boarding pass, leafing through magazines, and pleasantly boarding his flight. On the plane he leafs through more magazines, puts on earphones and enjoys the fact that he is “alone at last.”

Mothers so often crave it. A little alone time. Time to read a magazine. Or to cut your fingernails. No young voices asking us for a ride to a friend’s house. Or clamoring for a few extra days to turn in their final research projects… After the hectic close to the semester, our campus buildings are strangely vacant now. I’m “alone at last” in my office. Funny, how quickly I crave community and a crowded home.

30,000 feet in the air, surrounded by a hundred other passengers commuting home, I don’t feel much community. Nor do I crave much alone time. Commuting between two homes and my job twice a month, I have plenty of alone time. Sure, I complete a lot of work while commuting, and it’s nice to catch up on The New Yorker for a change, but I don’t feel as if I need that time. I have become acutely aware of the alienation that Auge describes emanating from our supermodern “non-places,” such as airports.

This question of home and place came up recently with my father when we were discussing where we’d both like to be buried — a sign that I am over 40… Would I choose Chicago (where I work and live with my partner) or Tampa (where I’ve raised and schooled my two children) or Jacksonville (where I was born and raised, and where my parents will be buried)?

Since I have not been actively involved with any one religious institution, I find the question difficult to answer. I’m fine with donating my organs and being cremated, but I think that I would like to locate a plaque somewhere for my grandchildren to visit. There’s some connection to history in locating your burial place it seems. A cemetery is very much a “place,” in the classical, anthropological sense of the word. Not knowing where I want to be buried indicates my spiritual confusion and difficulty with pinning down my homefront. It makes me “supermodern,” and it makes me think about my need for community.

Reading Auge’s work, I was struck by how similar writing for a blog is to Auge’s description of modern, ethnographic research. If the writers of “Mama, Phd” were studied as a whole, their similarities — all moms with advanced degrees -- would be weighed against their differences — different economic backgrounds, geographic locations, fields of study. We’re quite a kinship group (not just a marketing demographic), and we’ve started to form an ethnographic community, that’s both real and virtual.

Auge is as interested in the ontological question of research objects, as he is with defining the supermodern vacuity of non-places. In our global, well-traveled world, anthropology and ethnography are suffering through disciplinary crises. No longer does anthropology study the exotic “other” for their differences from modern, industrial societies. “Objects of research” are no longer as pure nor as separate as they initially appeared to be. (You can Skype with them now.)

Auge points out that anthropology’s new interest in what he calls “private otherness” essentially makes it impossible to “dissociate the question of collective identity from that of individual identity.” That’s a pretty good description of a blog community. The “Mama, Phd” blog has a collective interest in educational pursuits and in our particular experiences as mothers. But who cares about our private particulars if you can’t relate them back to the collective interests of the group?

Which brings me back to the non-place of the airport…

I’ve started to recognize a few folks on my repeated Southwest flights to Florida. Maybe I’ll strike up a conversation with another commuting mom next time, and see if she’s had any recent experiences with her kids failing Honors Algebra? Maybe it's possible to have a community of commuters?

Safe travels home everyone!


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