Christopher Schaberg: Making Meaning at the A=I=R=P=O=R=T

New Orleans’ resident airport scholar Christopher Schaberg, author of The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight and co-editor of Airplane Reading, will present his book at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 20, at the Bayou St. John branch of Maple Street Books (3122 Ponce de Leon St.).

By Nathan C. Martin

Thanks in large part to layovers and delays during a string of months lousy with travel, I was able to read Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight almost entirely inside airports. Just as Under the Volcano might evoke gusty sentiments for a reader venturing through Mexico or reading A Confederacy of Dunces while in New Orleans might make a visitor’s sensibilities more acute, the experience of reading The Textual Life of Airports in airports amplified for me in real time the rich and bizarre tapestry of elements that, as Schaberg points out, are often designed specifically not to be noticed.

The Textual Life of Airports, recently out from Bloomsbury in paperback, results from a confluence of Schaberg’s occupations-turned-preoccupations. The book is adapted from the doctoral dissertation he wrote as a student at the University of California, Davis (he currently teaches English at Loyola University New Orleans). Much of it deals with the ways in which airports are presented in literature, examining texts such as Don Delillo’s Underworld and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. But it also draws deep inspiration from the time Schaberg spent working at the airport in Bozeman, Montana, where he realized that, far from being the generic “non-places” that theorists such as Marc Augé peg them to be, airports are fascinating environments that demand and reward interpretation.

Schaberg illustrates a variety of paradoxes inherent in air travel. For instance, he uses a character from Delillo’s play Valparaiso—a sad bastard who attempts to fly to Valparaiso, Indiana, only to end up in Valparaiso, Chile—to show us the airplane passenger is “at once the free flying liberal subject and the determined body whose life is subject to an elaborate orchestration involving ‘computers and metal detectors and uniformed personnel and bomb-sniffing dogs.’” At another point, Schaberg uses a journal excerpt by the crotchety naturalist Edward Abbey—“Sitting around, two hours, three, in the wretched clamorous rotten and crowded fucking Denver airport. Christ, you have to wait in line for every damn thing here”—to discuss the incongruity that, in airports, we consider ourselves “traveling” but, for the most part, we’re sitting there waiting around.

Along with his examination of airports in texts, Schaberg’s book also looks at airports as texts, asking what we can decode from their symbols and systems. By the end of the book, although it was very clear that airports fascinate Schaberg, it remained ambiguous to me whether he likes them. The places he depicts manipulate their occupants through a series of control systems that at once enervate and dehumanize. The design, jargon, and security apparatus of airports exact a sort of soft brutality upon passengers, encouraging—nay, demanding—they conform to a certain regiment of actions, all within a benevolent décor of muzak, pastels, and instances of regional flare inserted among an aesthetic that’s homogenous from Honolulu to Hamburg.

Airports read us.

Of course, while we can read and read about airports, airports also read us. Schaberg’s chapter “The Airport Screening Complex” begins with the author’s account of receiving the “No Fly List” at the Bozeman airport shortly after the 9/11 attacks and the perverse pleasure the author and his coworkers took in consulting it if “a passenger seemed suspicious; this was a totally subjective exercise, based entirely on the passenger’s appearance or the level of pronunciation difficulty that a passenger’s name posed.” Airports, post 9/11, have become intimately entwined with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal “intelligence” agencies that cull information about our lives—criminal histories, etc.—and determine our suitability for air travel. Airport security agents also “read” our bodies as we pass through body scanners that produce for them a slightly distorted digital version of our nakedness. From the screens on which these images appear to the “screening” we’re subjected to that might land us on the “No Fly List” to the screens in terminals that show news and those in the backs of airplane seats that show movies, Schaberg uses the notion of “screen” to illustrate the complex interplay of looking, examining, entertainment, boredom, and surveillance in airports, and how they at once enhance and pierce the sense of mysteriousness that, he argues, permeates air travel.

Some of the ways in which Google suggests we look at a blackbird

Associations such as those Schaberg creates around the notion of “screens” generate much of The Textual Life of Airports’ intellectual energy—they create links between the innocuous (TV screens) and ominous (body scanner screens), revealing their interconnectedness as parts of larger systems. In the book’s longest and finest chapter, “Bird Citing,” Schaberg employs a similar set of associations revolving around birds to show the continued symbolic dependence of airports on our fine feathered friends and to position airports as environments that transcend human exceptionalism. He notes the design of airplanes, airline logos, airport architecture, and art inside airports all pay heavy homage to birds, but also that birds frequently die in large numbers as flocks and planes collide in the air, and that the open grassy expanses around air strips often serve as birds’ habitats. He includes in the chapter a series of deft moves: from Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” to a Gary Snyder poem that describes a cargo plane landing at Beale airport, then to a Google satellite image of Beale that shows a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, followed by a Google search of “blackbird” that tells us that, while Stevens found 13 ways to look at a blackbird, Google suggests that there are about 1,630,000 ways of looking at a blackbird. It is in this manner that Schaberg’s examination of airports and their constituent parts and relations as “texts” flowers outward in unexpected and exciting ways.

It seems clear that air travel is becoming increasingly intolerable. Fares are becoming higher each year, with added costs for baggage. There are fewer flights and they’re always full. Amenities such as in-flight snacks are becoming crappier. Security checkpoints are onerous and in about one in every ten or so visits, it seems, passengers get to stand in silent embarrassment as some “Middle Eastern-looking” person is pulled aside. Body scanners shoot us with questionable rays or we’re subjected to groping “pat downs.” Airlines tailor their services more acutely to the super rich. Planes burn an obscene amount of fossil fuels, poisoning the atmosphere and heightening our dependence on oil. Underpaid pilots go on strike, leaving those of us labor-minded travelers to sympathize with them while grumbling curses as we’re delayed for hours or days. Security agents steal our pocketknives and toothpaste. The whole thing seems like a tanking enterprise, and even if it’s not, it’s in unquestionably in flux. Air travel has been a defining characteristic in modern life in the 20th century, but as Internet technologies allow us to symbolically traverse space from our home office and the actual process of transporting our bodies across great distances becomes more onerous, it’s unclear what its role will be in the 21st. For this reason, Schaberg’s study of airports is timely, and his insistence on examining them as “texts” beyond their mere functions provides a platform from which a larger study of airports—and other apparent “non-places”—as environments or objects can and should be built.