Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Placelessness of Airports

A non-place
I have probably done more traveling via plane in the past three years than I have in the rest of my life combined.  I could thus relate to Skyler Reidy's recent piece at the Front Porch Republic, "Airports are Non-Places."  Here is a taste:

Upon entering the innermost circle of the airport, the traveler is nowhere. Cool air shuffles slowly, driven not by the wings of a giant demon surrounded by traitors, but by a silent and sprawling air conditioning system. Other anonymous travelers shuffle past. The travelers here are arriving from disparate cities, each with their biological clocks set accordingly. In their various degrees of jetlag, the non-citizens of the airport do not share even a common experience of time’s flowing. Wandering in their isolation, what do travelers see?

Bright screens with crisp images display reams of times, flight numbers, and cities: Tokyo, Paris, Nairobi, Cleveland. These tables change constantly, reading out new instructions for the travelers watching them, as the configuration of machinery and services at the terminals shifts. The modern economy is hear in full force, with beautiful graphic design conveying constant creative destruction to eager consumers.
As travelers shuffle along the ley lines laid by these screens, they see various chain restaurants beckoning them. These are the fastest of fast food, heavily processed and unhealthy meals, sourced from factory farms scattered across the world, treated with sodium and high-fructose corn syrup until palatable. McDonald’s is perhaps the most ubiquitous of these chains. A traveler can step to the counter and receive the same burger and fries whether he is in Seattle or Savannah, and never have to trouble his thoughts or his emotions with a genuine gustatory experience. This is food for the stomach, and for no higher part. Indeed, McDonald’s newest advertising campaign seems cynically calculated for to appeal directly to the appetites: “Think with your mouth.”

Suppose the traveler does not want to spend his money on food. Surely he must spend his money on something while he waits. Knick-knack shops abound in most airports. Here, a glimmer of place is visible. These stores sell souvenirs meant to reflect the character of whatever town the airport is planted in. A t-shirt with a cute local saying, a shot glass with the city skyline, or other any other bric-a-brac locally imported from China. These are Baudrillard’s simulacra of souvenirs, imitations without an original. These trinkets reduce place to a commodity, and offer it to travelers drifting through the non-place of the airport.

Once a traveler has made it past the chain restaurants, the bright souvenir stores, and the anonymous crowd, there is only the flight left. The flight is the purpose of the airport, and it is also the kernel of hope in the whole non-place. The flight can carry you away from the airport; it carry you to a brand new place, rich in exotic rootedness; it can carry you to old friends with shared memories; it can carry you home.