Christopher Schaberg - Drawing from his own experiences working at an airport, as well as interpreting these spaces from the perspective of a cultural critic, Schaberg explores the secret lives of jet bridges, seating areas, concourses, and tarmac vehicles, showing how the ordinary objects of flight call for wonder and inquiry
Christopher Schaberg, The End of Airports, Bloomsbury, 2015.
read it at Google Books
If air travel was once the bold future, it has now settled into a mundane, on-going present. We no longer expect romantic experiences or sublime views, but just hope that we get from here to there with minimal hassle. In The End of Airports, Christopher Schaberg suggests that even as the epoch of flight approaches a threshold of banality, there are still mysteries to be unraveled around our aircraft and airfields. Drawing from his own experiences working at an airport, as well as interpreting these spaces from the perspective of a cultural critic, Schaberg explores the secret lives of jet bridges, seating areas, concourses, and tarmac vehicles, showing how the ordinary objects of flight call for wonder and inquiry. The End of Airports is not an obituary-it's more like an ode to terminals in the digital age.
“A strong and innovative book. Tracing speculative paths around and through airports and commercial flight, The End of Airports finds new ways to think about, among other things, drones, airport/aircraft seating, weather, jet bridges, viral stories about flight, tensions with new media expectations and technologies, and seatback pockets. A fascinating read for anyone interested in airports and airplanes, but also for readers of cultural studies, media studies, and creative nonfiction.” – Kathleen C. Stewart
“The golden age of air travel is over, but thanks to Schaberg the airport may become the new figure with which to think place, time, labor, leisure, organization, and communication, as well as hope, fatigue, loneliness, and desire-in other words, the most fundamental problems of life in late capitalism. In the tradition of Benjamin, Barthes, and Baudrillard, this book is theoretically incisive, intimate, pleasurable, and on time. Air travel in all of its multidimensionality, as idea and experience, but also as mood, may finally assume its rightful place in the modern psychic infrastructure.” – Margret Grebowicz
“Schaberg, an associate professor of English and Environment at Loyola University New Orleans, waxes philosophical as he contemplates the role airports play in today's society. His short essays and anecdotes draw on his years as an airport employee as well as other personal experiences. In his eyes, airports have gone from magical to mundane, enjoyable to tedious, joyful to grim. And yet his stories of working at them have traces of humor and fascination, revealing the type of behind-the-scenes knowledge that always feels a little bit exotic to the uninformed.” – Publishers Weekly
“Schaberg's provocative theme implies the end of our ability to appreciate airports as bustling and forward-looking spaces....A prescient requiem for contemporary airports as abetting agents and reflectors of America's declining cultural standards. Recommended for specialists in the fields of aviation and transportation, social and intellectual history, sociological studies, media, and libraries.” – Library Journal
Schaberg (The Textual Life of Airports), an associate professor of English and Environment at Loyola University New Orleans, waxes philosophical as he contemplates the role airports play in today’s society. His short essays and anecdotes draw on his years as an airport employee as well as other personal experiences. In his eyes, airports have gone from magical to mundane, enjoyable to tedious, joyful to grim. And yet his stories of working at them have traces of humor and fascination, revealing the type of behind-the-scenes knowledge that always feels a little bit exotic to the uninformed. Sadly, as he moves to “the new dilemmas and lingering problems of flight,” he loses much of the intimacy and charm, his unfocused narrative drifting across the lanes of thought. At the bottom of every page, he includes pithy sayings that read like free-form poetry, leading to observations such as “the airport contracts about you. It is a sharp-edged, massed, metallic airport,” and “if you listen to the faintest but constant suggestions of the airport, you will see to what extremes, even insanity, it may lead you.” This curious work doesn’t quite live up to its potential. - Publishers Weekly
Christopher Schaberg, The Textual Life of Airports Reading the Culture of Flight, Bloomsbury, 2013.
This is a book about airport stories. It is about common narratives of airports that circulate in everyday life, and about the secret stories of airports-the strange or hidden narratives that do not always fit into standard ideas of these in-between places. Tales of near disaster, endless delays, dramatic weather shifts, a lost bag that suddenly appears-such stories are familiar accounts of a place that seems to thrive on and recycle its own mythologies. The Textual Life of Airports shows how airports demand to be read. Working at the intersection of literary studies and cultural theory, Schaberg tracks airport stories in American literature, as well as in a range of visual texts (film, airport art, magazine illustrations). It accounts for how airports appear in literature throughout the twentieth-century, while also examining the influx of airport figures in markedly post-9/11 literature and culture. These literary and cultural representations work together to form "the textual life of airports."
“"For most of us, time spent in airports is filled with inconvenience, discomfort, and often explicit insult to our psychological well-being. Reading Christopher Schaberg's The Textual Life of Airports is guaranteed to dispel your tedium and inspire you to join along with him in a rich foray of cultural inquiries about these colossi and the complex narratives they convey. From the canon of airport reading to aesthetic images of baggage, from the resonances of 9/11 to the semiotic absence and presence of birds in the terminals, Schaberg approaches airports with a keen critical energy that will make you welcome your next four-hour layover in Atlanta or your missed connection in Newark as an opportunity to explore his fascinating insights. I have sometimes felt that all the good topics in cultural studies have been exhausted; this book restores my faith that fertile ground remains. I savored every paragraph." - Randy Malamud
“"From The Hardy Boys to Don DeLillo, from early aviation to 9/11 and after, The Textual Life of Airports explores that most quotidian space of ennui-the airport--to argue that it is a complex contact zone of travelers and workers, readers and screeners. In this lively, erudite, and elegantly written book, this place shaped by hard architecture and ambient music becomes transformed from an epicenter of dread and boredom to a site of intense inquiry, a place in which we might even wish to linger." - Caren Kaplan
“"The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former Masterpiece Theatre host Russell Wayne Baker once lamented that the public imagines reading poetry to be worse than carrying heavy luggage through Chicago's O'Hare airport. In The Textual Life of Airports, Christopher Schaberg offers a shrewd response: the airport is the poetry." - Ian Bogost
“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.” – Nathan C. Martin
“[O]ne of the striking virtues of the book is that it introduces readers to a wide array of flight literature by authors who are part of the environmental canon, but whom we may not associate with the supermodern, highly mediated site of the airport-e.g. Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Annie Proulx. In doing so, [Schaberg] reminds us that travel and transport networks are central to the study of literature and the environment.” – Marit MacArthur
“In a play on the double meaning of 'airport-reading' – both as the undemanding reading that helps pass time in airports and as the reading of airports themselves – The textual life of airports sets out to explore its subject in terms of the co-shapings, enfoldings and complicities of site and text…. The overall effect of the book is reminiscent of Escher's pictures – such as Drawing Hands (1946) – in which figure and ground are always redrawing each other: airport writing and writing the airport. The textual life of airports should, I suggest, be of interest not only to students of cultural studies (Schaberg's main target audience), but to all those interested in the day-to-day accomplishment of 'grammatocentric' (Hoskin & Macve, 1994) organization.” – Organization Studies
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.
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.
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. - Nathan C. Martin
Transcript for Christopher Schaberg on "The Textual Life of Airports"
Christopher Schaberg is Associate Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, USA. He is the author of The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight (2013) and co-editor of Deconstructing Brad Pitt (2014). He is series co-editor (Ian Bogost) of the series Object Lessons.