Thursday, May 31, 2012

Theory for Airports

photo courtesy of J. Ryan Williams                 

1. Fear and Ticketing

2. Being In Time

3. Hardt & Negri International Terminal

4. Theses on Cinnabon

5. The Task of the TSA Agent

6. Security Checkpoint, or Bodies That Don't Matter

7. Dialectic of Moving Walkways

8. The Categorical Imperative To Wait

9. Thus Spake Richard Branson

10. The René Descartes Departure Lounge

11. The Phenomenology of Spirit Airlines

12. A Thousand Concourses

13. Passenger Network Theory

14. The David Hume Nondenominational Chapel

15. The Poetics of Spacing Out

16. Ludwig Wittgenstein Room for Unaccompanied Minors

17. The Work of Art in the Age of Really Long Escalators

18. The Maurice Merleau-Ponty Observation Area

19. When Species Meet in Airports

20. Emmanuel Levinas Food Court

21. Structure, Sign, and Plane

22. Democracy in American Airlines

23. Can the Stand-by Speak?

24. Tractatus Theologico Upgrade Us

25. The Anxiety of Enplaning

26. The Sublime Object of Carry-on Luggage

27. Discourse in the Jetway

28. "You can never step twice into the same Airbus."

29. The Second Roller-bag

30. Seat Pitch and Bare Life

31. What is the Post-departure?

32. Delay and Punish

33. SkyMall and Simulacra

34. The Well Wrought Seat-back Pocket

35. The Banality of Emergency Exits

36. On Boredom and Being Late

37. How to Do Things with Boarding Passes

38. Pedagogy of the Deplaned

39. The Cultural Logic of Late Arrivals

40. Welcome to the Airport of the Real

41. The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Family Restroom

42. Leibniz-Keks Kiosk

43. Structures of Feeling Jet-lagged

44. Boeing and Nothingness

45. Signature Event Currency Exchange 

46. Plato's Baggage Claim

47. Course in General Lingering

48. Curbside Lucida

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On new media writing & Twitter

Let's be frank: writing has become really strange in the age of the internet.

Often enough I find that I can't write unless I have a high speed connection and the ability to toggle between several screens and sources—integrating, juxtaposing, and linking as I go. No longer do I sit only with a pile of books and underlined passages. (Okay, maybe sometimes.) Certainly, I still have to track down a lead at the library now and then; but I have to admit that these times are becoming fewer and farther between. I'm a little ashamed to admit this; but it seems disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Usually I can find what I need with Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature; yet what I perversely like about this technology is that it still does not allow for copy and pasting. Instead, you have to do a screen grab of a page selection, and then still transcribe. I think that's an important hassle, and one to retain.

I used to plan for the rare times of no connection to focus on a single Word document alone, and to write some serious prose. For me this was often the time of flying, though that time as bracketed from internet connectivity is becoming an extinct phenomenon. Increasingly, we demand in-flight Wi-Fi—or we're told to "expect" it, anyway, as in this Delta ad:

I used to like to read on airplanes, too, but the proliferation of flashing screens on seat-backs (or the monochromotone of "30 Rock" on flip-down screens above) has made reading in-flight near impossible, at least for me.

This past week while revisiting (I wasn't flying anywhere) David Foster Wallace's essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," I was struck by his account of (allegedly) writing in Mead notebooks, on cocktail napkins, and in otherwise pen-driven ways. Of course this was the mid-90s, but it still shocked me with a mixture of nostalgia and revulsion. On the one hand, it's so precious: the writer taking notes in real-time, to be made formal much later. On the other hand, I don't know if I could write like that any more. I remember buying journals and notebooks and filling them up with observations, citations, witticisms, and other scribbles; but these days when I buy a new journal, it usually becomes a dormant object on my desk—pure potentiality, absent of inscriptions.

Over the past eight months I've become a Twitter convert. I went into my experiment with Twitter very suspicious, and even somewhat cynical about its seeming tendency for slapdash commentary, glib pronouncements, and an often sneering tone. (But then, has writing ever been immune to these things?) My savvy colleague Tim Welsh was helpful early on by giving me a succinct insight: it's just a tool. So I went into Twitter with a mindset of practicality and utility. The reason I was starting a twitter feed was to publicize the site that Mark Yakich and I launched around that time, Airplane Reading. And Twitter has definitely been a very effective way to direct people to the site and meet some terrific writers, travelers, and thinkers.

But the expressive power of Twitter quickly outstretched the purely functional aspect of promoting our site. Indeed, if Twitter is a tool, it's like a Leatherman multi-tool. And I don't mean the cheap knock-off kind; I mean the real thing—well made, versatile, and sturdy.

As I look back over my 893 tweets (as of this morning), I see an array of ideas, images, links, exchanges, and re-tweeted quips—all of which that call out for further unpacking.

My Twitter feed has become a place of real writing, research, and thinking for me. I'll often wake up in the night with a tweet forming in my head. Sure, some of these are just playful and attempts at being clever. But many are serious questions. And as they accumulate, I'd like to think there is a logic or at least an interesting accretion that starts to form. I'm not trying to suggest that Twitter is a 'finished product' (but of course it is in its own right). As far as traditional writing goes, Twitter is more like a collective, collaborative version of David Foster Wallace's smudgy and highlighter-blotted cocktail napkins that bear the messy traces of a finished product to come.

When Tim Morton noticed how the hashtag #OOO actually performs or even is object-oriented ontology, it got me thinking more about how Twitter contains surprising archives and spontaneous constellations. In my next book, which will be a sequel to The Textual Life of Airports, I'm going to do something with Twitter and airports, as one of many examples of how new media forms and air travel coincide in curious ways—and often with weird results. I have this hunch that human flight and digital technologies are approaching an uncanny convergence, and maybe even a crisis point. I guess I do expect the internet, at least for the time being.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Airports: The Interview

Sacramento Airport (SMF) Terminal A, circa 2005

A couple weeks ago I was interviewed for the Wisconsin Public Radio show “To the Best of Our Knowledge” for an hour-long program about airports. The fantastic producer of the show, Doug Gordon, discovered my book and read it with flattering care and attention to detail—and he provided me with a slew of potential questions in preparation for my interview.  Here are a few of Doug's questions, with my written responses: 

You used to work for United Airlines as a “cross-utilized agent” at the airport that serves Bozeman, Montana. What exactly did you do? 

Because the airport outside of Bozeman is a rather small one, the airline employees are trained to do myriad things: check in passengers and board them at the gate, but also turn on and off all sorts of machines around the tarmac, load and unload bags, sweep heavy snow off the wings and de-ice the aircraft, vacuum the floors of the planes at night and restock the SkyMall catalogs…the list of tasks goes on and on. As I write about it here, it occurs to me that it was a job that involved numerous cyclical activities, like some sort of religious or mystical practice, spinning things around and around. Of course, it didn’t exactly feel like that at the time. It felt like work.

What was it about that experience that you found so fascinating that you wanted to delve deeper into it?

To put it succinctly, what intrigued me about working at the airport was how it was a site of intense connection and yet also disconnection. What I mean is that airports are all about making connections—to certain places, loved ones, distant destinations, homelands—and yet airports are also able to induce extreme feelings of alienation, abandonment, spacing out, and futility. Particularly around the subject of space, airports require an awkward sort of double imperative: people are supposed to want to leave the present space (of the airport) in order to get to a more special place (back home, a vacation resort, whatever). I think this makes for an anxious state. 

Your book is called “The Textual Life of Airports.” What do you mean by this phrase –“the textual life of airports”?

By "textual" I basically just mean words, and other containers for meaning. Things that have to be read in airports. I use the phrase "the textual life of airports" to refer to the way airports involve layers and layers of written and spoken commands, personal stories, knee-jerk interpretations, ID checks, sudden gate switches, where the bathrooms are (and whether you've just entered the right one, or not), endless calls to distraction (Airport CNN, Hudson News, etc.)—all the demands to read in the airport, and all the different meanings that ‘reading’ acquires in this space. 

In your book, you argue that “airports have been situated as the place to read in contemporary culture.” (p. 2) How so? 

By this claim I mean to point out how reading in airports has been used as a way to promote e-reading (as in a Sony Reader ad I discuss on the book), and also other commonplace imperatives to focus on books, magazines, and other pieces of writing while in the space/time of air travel.  

Besides viewing airports as texts to be read, you also explore the idea of reading in airports. As a matter of fact, the first chapter of your book is called “What Is Airport Reading.” So let me ask you – what is airport reading?

It's pleasure and distraction, stress and boredom, time to kill as well as the most valuable time (don't dally!), it's light reading and heavy matters of safety and security...all at once, constantly converging and crisscrossing. 

You devote a whole chapter to how airports function in fiction after 9/11. How did 9/11 affect the way writers treated airports in their work? 

Well, airports became either more obviously tense and fraught with manic security measures and fear; or, they were just seen to be as bad as ever, as if revealing tensions and fears that were already nascent. It's this sort of question that interests me in the chapter on airports in literary reflections of (or on) 9/11: Did "everything" really change after 9/11? Or was it more accurately just more of the same, only more overt and ramped up? 

You write about “the airport screening complex.” The obvious example is the screening that we have to undergo when we go through the security checkpoint. How does this figure into the textual life of airports? 

The security checkpoint is a site where everyone has to read and respond in very specific ways: interpretation is the most guided here—we might even say hands on. But it is also the most urgent, pressing, and uncertain space for textuality (or meaning). What will people find out or disclose at the checkpoint? What deeply personal stories will be made public (or be successfully concealed) as people take off their shoes and shuffle through the metal detector, or hold their hands high like it's a stick-up and get scanned? 

But you say that screening spreads beyond the checkpoint and that it penetrates all aspects of air travel. (p. 81) How so? 

Screening spreads out across the airport and becomes about entertainment, display, capture (closed circuit security cameras; iPhone videos sent to YouTube), commerce,'s a metaphor that works across many systems, scales, and technologies. 

You offer an extensive analysis of Ani DiFranco’s 1999 song, “The Arrivals Gate.” (p. 93-96) Can you tell me about this song? What is it about this song that you find so striking? 

It's this beautiful yet somber song, with a catchy tune about someone who goes to the airport to just watch people and take in the ambience. But then it's an ambient song, too, sort of sounding like an airport—and the ambience ends up being almost creepy, and the person's hobby of going to the airport ends up a little creepy, too. It's a song that feels really uncertain about what sort of space the airport actually is—and this is all pre-9/11. I discuss this song in a chapter called "airport studies"—and this song, like a lot of other things I look at in that chapter, studies the airport, while also serving as a kind of still life or snapshot of the airport. 

You also write about the airport as an art space and you focus most of your attention on the Sacramento airport. You make it sound like this airport might be the artsiest airport in America. Can you tell me about some of the art there? 

Actually, Sacramento was just my local airport at the time that I started researching this topic and writing about the affects of airports. Part of my interest is in taking these "non-places" (the anthropologist Marc Augé's term for airports and other transitory spaces) and thinking about them really locally—almost, I would say, bio-regionally, as in how to do they exist in specific ecosystems and seem to depend on concrete (or perhaps imaginary) boundaries for their definition. What do airports tell us about how humans are inhabiting any given location or region? What animals move about these spaces? I start my book with an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau's Walden: "I have travelled a good deal in Concord..."  This is kind of a joke line, one that shows how Thoreau knows that he's making big claims from limited experience. Likewise, in my book I'm not talking about all airports, or trying to catalog airports once and for all, but rather I treat them as I encounter them—and Sacramento was an airport I spent a lot of time exploring or just sitting around in, waiting for flights.  At the same time, Sacramento does have some spectacular pieces of art, and I try to do justice to some of these pieces throughout my chapters, linking them to broader themes and problems that course throughout the book.   

It makes me think of a “New York Times” article from a few months ago in which you were quoted. You said that we should think of the time that we spend in an airport as an art walk of sorts. Can you explain what you mean?

I said something like while waiting around a terminal or wandering around the concourse, imagine that "you are actually part of a giant, living art piece, the architectural matrix and social swirl that we recognize as airport life.” I really mean this: a slight focal adjustment can make the airport come to life as a vast choreography, one with all sorts of set acts but also full of spontaneous sounds and unexpected scenes. Of course, this kind of airport appreciation has a limit, for if too many people tuned in to airport life in this way, air travel would cease to function very well. We wouldn't necessarily want to go anywhere, if the destination became the airport.  

Do you have a favorite airport? 

I really don't. I sort of fall in love with whatever airport that I'm in at the moment. For instance, I was connecting through Dulles a few weeks ago, and I was amazed by the circuitous routing of passengers up and down escalators, over taxiways, underground, on trains and off again, on people movers that look like something out of Star Wars, and into jammed concourses that look like any other. The airport had its own haphazard feel that was then assimilated back into the familiar fabric and texture of airport life. It could go from feeling so different to absolutely the same, in an instant. And then there were all the United Airlines ads that staged Mileage Plus Visa cardholders proudly displaying their credit cards in simulacral airport spaces. In other words, while schlepping through a subterraneous tunnel, you'd look on the walls and see fake passengers in fake baggage claims and departure lounges, an infinite regress of perceived airport spaces! 

You and your colleague at Loyola University, Mark Yakich, have created a website called “Airplane Reading.” Can you tell me about it? 

It's a site that collects nonfiction narratives from all sorts of people: travelers, airline employees, writers...anyone with a story to tell about the culture of flight. We focus on nonfiction in order to limit the scope of the site, and we publish pieces that are generally under 1000 words.  

Is there any one story that one of your readers has submitted that especially resonates with you? 

I like Ander Monson's piece called "Holding Patterns," which is about rethinking the seat-back pocket as a kind of miniature library, and all the reading material one finds there.  Monson inhabits the airliner seat as a small yet concentrated space that blurs public and private. But there are so many other pieces on the site that are worth reading. It's been fascinating see all these micro genres form out of the general trope of "airplane reading." Mark and I are now in the process of turning a collection of the pieces from the site into a book, and we are quite excited to see what shape it will take. We fantasize about the day when travelers will be able to discover a book called The Airplane Reader among other titles in airport bookstores...

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Report a problem": Missing Planes

Consider these two images, both captured from Google Maps satellite view, the first one three years ago, and the second one just last week. You can compare the images by orienting your gaze by the triangular pattern at the bottom, to see how the spaces match up.

In the bottom right-hand corner of the satellite view, it says "Report a problem." I'm not sure I'm quite ready to report this as a problem to Google, but I do wonder: what happened to all those airplanes? There are dozens that were there a few years ago that have now (apparently) vanished. Have they been redeployed? Sold? Scrapped? Where do airplanes go after they've done time in the boneyard?