Jim Fleming: What would flight delays and layovers be without book? If you are like me you would dream about flying without something to read. Some escape to detract you from the fact that yo are about to board a slender metal tube that will travel 30,000 feet up in the air or maybe you are more inclined to take a serious piece of non-fiction something relevant to your trip in which case you might want to pack Christopher Schaberg's book . It is called "The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight."Schaberg tells Anne Strainchamps what he means by the phrase airport reading.
Christopher Schaberg: It's this paradoxical genre, because it is this disposable trash fiction stuff, right that you pick up and plan to leave in it in the seat back pocket or throw it away. That is airport reading as we most commonly know it, but it is also the way airports take on these heavy meanings. We are supposed to read airports as serious spaces sort of heavy with patriotic significance or national significance. That's what airport reading is too I think. Then, it is also the architectural dynamic of airports that give an enhanced mode of reading by the pace around you. So, I think that is airport reading too. And, then of course there is the way that airports read you. You have an identity check. You have a boarding pass. You get scanned. And, it tells you where you are going.
Anne Strainchamps: That is fascinating. I hadn't really thought about the airport as reading me before, but you are quite right. As all of these passengers, we have become all these dots and dashes in a great big teletype.
Christopher Schaberg: Of course, each passenger has their own story right and if they get delayed or if their flight gets cancelled your story becomes one of the more important stories and you have to tell it. Tell it to your friends. Tell it to the people you are sitting around at the departure lounge with. So, airport reading has a way of reproducing stories and building narratives on top of narratives.
Anne Strainchamps: Did 9/11 affect the way writers treated airports and their work?
Christopher Schaberg: It affected the way writers treated airports but in a way from all of the writing I have done on the subject it really just brought out what was there. It was sort of nascent or latent in airport stories and people's feelings about air travel. I think that in many ways 9/11 just gave us an easy frame in which to talk about it in which to feel a certain way about it.
Anne Strainchamps: What do you mean?
Christopher Schaberg: I think when you look back at the literal history or the representational history of flight, it is very haunted by things like dread and doom and there is this sublime experience of flight, but there is always the nagging feeling of dead time or wasted time or what am I really doing? Air travel is really fraught with existential dread which I think then really came out after 9/11.
Anne Strainchamps: You were using the term "dead time" to mean a sort of boring in-between time, but, of course, what we are all really afraid of is that it is going to be dead time. That we are going to get on a plane and it is going to crash.
Christopher Schaberg: That's right and I think the profound boredom that can happen during air travel in a way brings us all too close to that feeling of imminent death.
Anne Strainchamps: There is a Martin Amis short story that he wrote -- "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta." What does he do that story?
Chrsitopher Schaberg: Well, that's a really interesting story that begins and ends with Muhammad Atta waking up on the day of September 11, 2001. So, the story sort of dooms the character Muhammad Atta to this kind of eternal return to the same, but it is a bad fate, because he has to spend time and time again waiting around airports, because that's what a large part of the story accounts for, as far as him checking in for his flight, waiting around, and being uncomfortable in the airport chairs. So, his fate is airport existence. It is interesting, because this is all before the events of 9/11 really took place so, it is a strange story, because it images the pre-9/11 airport as already this receptacle of dead time.
Anne Strainchamps: Wait, he wrote the story before 9/11?
Christopher Schaberg: No, no, no. The story is written after, but because Muhammad Atta is in the airport on 9/11 the airport doesn't carry the post 9/11 feel, right? We remember airports over the last 10 years through a certain post-9/11 security regime lens, but the airport that Muhammad is in on 9/11 isn't that kind of airport. You see what I mean? It sort of predates airport dread.
Anne Strainchamps: Yeah, Muhammad Atta had a lot to do with that which leads right into this passage from this short story I was going to ask if you would read.
Christopher Schaberg: Sure, this is a scene that imagines in the Portland, Maine airport where Atta started out that day and Atta is checking in.
(READING) "Did you pack these bags yourself?
Muhammad Atta's hand crept toward his brow. "Yes,"he said.
"Have they been with you at all times?"
"Did anyone ask you to carry anything for them?"
"No. Is the flight on time?"
"You should make your connection."
"And the bags will go straight through?"
"No, sir. You will need to recheck them at Logan."
"You mean, I will have to go through all this again?"
Whatever terrorism had achieved in the past few decades, it had certainly brought a net increase in world boredom. It didn't take very long to ask and answer those three questions, about 15 seconds, but those dead-time questions were answered and repeated without any variation whatsoever hundred and thousands of times a day. If the planes operations went ahead as planned, Muhammad Atta would bequeath more perhaps much more dead time planet wide. It was appropriate perhaps and not paradoxical that terrorists should sharply promote its most obvious opposite. Boredom.
Anne Strainchamps: That's such a great point though. I was asking if airport writing has changed after 9/11. And the experience of airports, of course, has changed a lot since 9/11. It's become much more boring.
Christopher Schaberg: It has become more boring and we see it as a much more gradual buildup of a combination of terror and boredom, right? Through the 20th century, you have more airborne terror and you also have more grounded and airborne boredom.
Anne Strainchamps: And, all that screening. You've got kind of an interesting take on airport screening.
Christopher Schaberg: Yeah, I have a chapter called "The Airport Screening Complex." I start by describing my experience. I was working at the airport when 9/11 happened. My airports stint went from the spring of 2001 to the fall of 2003 and I saw the change firsthand as an airline employee. I was pretty amazed at how ad hoc and cobbled together a lot of the responses were. In particular screening, when you think of screening you are being screened by the TSA, but I sort of widen the lens and think about the screening things like the informational screens that are scattered through airports. The way that screens operate as displays and as entertainment. You have airport CNN. Then, of course, now you have personal screens which you can also use to capture if the TSA agent is handling you roughly, you can capture them and post it to YouTube. So, screening in airports has taken on this multiplex feel.
Anne Stainchamps: What do you make of that? That suggests that there is something mediated about airports that everything is seen through a screen rather than really being there?
Christopher Schaberg: Absolutely, I think that mediation is the right word. It should cause us to wonder about the limits and the promises of mediation. I sort of like to say to my students sometimes when I am teaching airport tech, Look if Facebook gets good enough we won't have to travel in airplanes. Airplanes are rather inefficient and clunky compared to the ideal Facebook page where you could just have your experience via a screen. I sort of wonder if screens at airports are hinting at this travel crisis point that we are getting at? It has nothing to do with day to day terrorism but how we like to have our experiences in the world.
Anne Strainchamps: Someday the screens will take over and the airports will become obsolete.
Christopher Schaberg: Yeah. The airports will become art museums.
Anne Stainchamps: Well, you kind of write about that. You write about the airports becoming art spaces especially with respect to Sacramento airport which sounds like it must be the artsiest airport in America. What kind of art does the Sacramento airport have?
Christopher Schaberg: Sacramento airport had one piece of art that I was really interested in that was installed in 2004 and it was by Dennis Oppenheim. It was called "Flying Gardens." It was huge sort of van-size metal birds, metal robotic looking birds that were hanging off the parking structure. It was like flying out of the parking structure and they were pointing at the airport terminal from certain perspectives it almost looked violent like planes banking into the building. Then, this was 2004 when it was installed. So, they had this proto-violent and again this is Sacramento which is also the home of more bird strikes than any other state in the US. So birds and planes have this very textual relationship. I found it very peculiar and interesting this relationship that bird as art would take on this interest in Sacramento airport.
Anne Stainchamps: Yeah, that is not a cheery image when you think birds brought down planes.
Christopher Schaberg: But, the funny thing was they are beautiful. They really are great pieces of art. I am wondering about how art is necessary at airports and again inconsistent with the airport reading that wants us to tune out those darker connotations with flight.
Anne Stainchamps: There is a song by Ani DiFranco you write about.
["The Arrivals Gate" by Ani DiFranco plays]
Christopher Schaberg: I spend a lot of time talking about this in my book because it is 1999. It turns an upbeat and melancholy song where the singer is talking about going to the arrivals gate and watch people being reunited. It sounds very upbeat but by the end this person is asked to leave by security because they call it a quaint little fetish that she is in the airport just to watch people and the tone of the song shifts. I love it because it contains in the late 90s this vexed feeling this ambivalence. Airports are a spectacle and spectacularly eerie.
Jim Fleming: Christopher Schaberg the author of the Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight." He spoke with Anne Strainchamps.