Published in  
February 13, 2023

Becoming airports

The body isn't a natural thing that serves as a substrate for cultural embellishments; the body is unnatural.

Having gone through too many airports and terminals on my way to destinations around the world, I recently began to think about my experiences: in particular, the ways these monumental facilities shape us, discipline us and use us.

Think of the specific ways airports arrange human bodies; how the stanchions and the velvet queue line ropes make us walk in absurd zigzagging formations; how we are made to assume specific postures to convey that we can be trusted; how our bodies are bombarded, penetrated, scanned, detected, rendered intelligible, and modified by anxious x-rays, and then fed into screens that either green-light access or flag us as suspicious entities; and, how certain desires and needs are instigated by the luxury consumer section - gratuitously delayed until after the ordeal of immigration lines.

In some 'advanced' airports, the human traffic of rushing feet and rolling boxes is ingenuously employed to generate the very power that keeps some sections of the airport functional. In other airports, the incessant glow of touchscreens mediates even the most basic human interactions, giving some sort of cyborgian feel to the place.  

Ever since body scanners were introduced in 2009, they've sparked controversies about matters related to social justice, privacy, and corporeally intrusive modifications of traveling bodies - conjuring popular theories like the idea that these technologies change DNA. It's becoming a perennial ritual to keep reassuring global travelers that "airport body scanners do not alter DNA" - and that all these machines really do is try to detect threats. However, what is called into question here is the presupposition that detection isn't already a form of intercession. Not just that: the idea that the body is already a prefigured thing, already done, hard and ontologically closed off to mutability, a fait accompli, merely serving as an object of conversations about safety and security, is the 'privilege' of modern ways of knowing. In "seeing" bodies, airports do not merely represent bodies as generic outlines or avatars available for scrutiny, they transform bodies by enforcing expectations that feed a milieu of conformity - one that privileges a public order that manufactures subjectivity in specific ways.

In a sense, one does not go 'through' the airport; one BECOMES the airport. Airports perform embodiment and manufacture the body - all kinds of bodies. We are part of its furniture - those of us that travel. We become 'aerodrome bodies', part of an ecosystem that racializes access and emphasizes security as a survival value. Part of the text of its more-than-human arrangement. We feel rewarded when we join the queue, and then guard the queue's integrity by politely reminding intrusive others that "there is a line, you know?" We know the signage and the symbols - the fonts and the stylized blunt edge arrows that point us to Gate 54B. Our senses are well trained by the smoothness of the concourse flooring, by the blinking lights announcing 'Boarding' in a different language. And when we pass through the gates, an unvoiced sigh often escapes our lips: the initiation is complete. We can claim our seats in the metal bird that bends time and space. We become the gut bacteria of the mighty eagle - cleaning its stomach, soiling the seats, performing flight.

I wonder about the other ways airports - transient though they are to occasional travelers - shape, penetrate, re/modify and perform 'us'. Are certain modes of knowing possible for the 'aerodrome-human' body that are impossible for other kinds of bodies? Perhaps, more pressingly, what other systems are we already a part of? And how are we being performed as furniture in larger political, geological, hydrological assemblages? How do we answer the question ("who are you?") when identity is always queered, 'disorganized', postponed, relational and yet-to-come?

No items found.