The Unpredictable Zone of the Airport: Interview with Christopher Schaberg
By Anya Groner
About Christopher Schaberg
Christopher Schaberg is Associate Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis, where he specialized in 20th century American literature and critical theory. His research interests include mobility studies (especially airports), ecology and environment, and concepts of place and space. At Loyola, Schaberg teaches courses on contemporary literature and nonfiction, cultural studies, and environmental theory.
The End of Airports,Christopher Schaberg’s third book about aviation and airports, is both personal and expansive, chronicling his encounters as an employee at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport as well as his philosophical inquiries about the increasing banality of flight. Following The Textual Life of Airports and Checking In / Checking Out (NO Books, 2011), which he co-wrote with the poet Mark Yakich, The End of Airports is an energetic meditation, replete with ethnography and metaphor. The writing is not only illuminating, it’s also fun, allowing travelers the opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes at those parts of the airport—the tarmac, the break room, the luggage hold—where access is strictly forbidden. Published by Bloomsbury in November 2015, The End of Airports spans time and genre. I can think of no better place to read it than at an airport, waiting to board, while the dramas within pages unfold around you. Recently, I had the chance to talk to Schaberg about his newest book.
Anya Groner: The End of Airports moves quickly between the academic and the personal. The opening section, “Points of Departure,” includes a timeline of air travel: the golden age (beginning somewhere after the middle of the last century), the age of airport resignation (when travelers “didn’t ask for too much: just to get from origin to destination with minimal interruptions), and our current era, demarcated by a “numb acceptance of the beleaguered experience of flight.” In contrast, the section called “Tom” chronicles a friendship between you and a man whom you affectionately describe as “a big Montana cowboy.” Tom treats the tarmac like a rodeo and teases you for wearing your hat backwards because he only wears his hat like that when riding his bike or “sucking someone off.” Your writing switches effortlessly from the analytical to the intimate and even confessional. How did you think about genre as you worked on this project, and why, ultimately, did you choose this kind of hybrid, textured style?
Christopher Schaberg: It is so easy to get pigeon-holed as this or that kind of writer. In The End of Airports I had fun juxtaposing styles and trying new things—even at the risk of creating overall formal dissonance. The End of Airports reflects over ten years of thinking and writing about airports, and over this time my own ideas and attitudes have changed, so I wanted the book to have this… unsettled quality. This is also why I interwove the form of Twitter—140 characters or less—into the aphorisms that line the bottom of the pages. In the book I think about slick new media forms like Twitter alongside and within the sprawling concourses; I also recycle the material of Twitter into the older form of the book, if that makes sense.
Anya Groner: Frequently, your descriptions of working at an airport use the vocabulary of play. Loading baggage is like Tetris, with strategy and prediction. Dumping human waste from the interior of the plane into a “lav cart” is “almost fun.” Even the uniforms are a kind of dressing up, giving you access to the “back stages” of the airport and permission to perform the duties of gate agent and technician. For many, work and play are not only opposites; they’re incompatible. Is there something about aviation that lends itself to play?
Christopher Schaberg: I like this formulation a lot—because it hazards a risky notion: that the science and technologies of flight (so careful, so precise, so secure) might also necessarily involve a co-constitutive amalgam that is squishy, aesthetic, abject, and… yes, playful. Some of my first writing about airports looked at the art installations around the Denver International Airport, and looking at these pieces (for example, the sculptural paper airplanes hanging above a particular set of escalators) made me wonder about the curious dance between frivolity and seriousness, child-like play and the gravity of adult pursuits. This tension is something I’ve gone back to again and again—and I’m still thinking about it.
Anya Groner: Working at the Bozeman airport the day after 9/11, you write “As airline employees, we were not trained to explain the conditions and contingencies of a national state of emergency.” The next few days, you had to reschedule flights for stranded passengers, “creating complex itineraries that would never be,” an experience you compare to “dabbling in postmodern fiction.” How else did 9/11 inform your interest in airports and narrative? Are there other ways in which airport work feels postmodern?
Christopher Schaberg: It’s a common response that “everything changed” after 9/11. But having worked at the airport during—and through—that time, my overwhelming feeling was that things hadn’t changed at all. It’s just that people suddenly had a scapegoat for all the things they wanted to do, say, and enact around air travel. Racism especially: this became so ridiculously easy after 9/11. But it was already there, in the airport, of course. If the airport is postmodern, it is for the ways it struggles with and against Ezra Pound’s modernist mandate, “Make it new!” On the one hand, airports want you (the traveler) to feel the verve of the new. On the other hand, airports want you to feel—and to perpetuate—all the old comforts of the same, on and on and on.
Anya Groner: Throughout The End of Airports, you focus on paradox, noting, for instance, how “Air travel distances us from the reality of living with others, even as it also brings us closer together” and the ways that airports “blot out… region” while also insisting “on regional value.” Why is it, do you think, that airports forefront paradox?
Christopher Schaberg: It’s the paradox of human beings in flight. It is so unnatural! Just recall Icarus! And yet… it is what we do everyday, again and again. Perhaps less profoundly, though, the paradox of airports is that they are this concertedly in-between zone that, by definition, can never be here, and can never be there. They are just stranded somewhere in this existential abyss that we’d really rather not talk about, most of the time. What is the space of the airport? Decidedly forgettable, and yet absolutely important in terms of getting us places where we want to be.
This first struck me in Bozeman at the airport, when I would see these angry, impatient, jittery souls who got delayed—but conceivably they had come to this very place (the American West) to experience a bit of “the tonic of wildness” (that’s Thoreau’s famous line). But what is more wild than the unpredictable zone of the airport? Thus, the paradox of airport phenomenology.
Anya Groner: You often describe airports and airplanes as wilderness zones. Discussing airplane cleaning, for instance, you say, “Like an isolated butte or a forest with dense undergrowth, seatback pockets became one of the natural features I learned to navigate.” What can these comparisons teach us about both aviation and the changing ways that we view wilderness?
Christopher Schaberg: We’re at a crisis point, or approaching one anyway. We don’t know how to inhabit this planet. We (humans, that is) don’t know whether to embrace our role as a species, or to be (or pretend to be) oblivious to this fact. So we continue to fly around in a hurry, making deals big and small, and ignoring conditions on the ground. There was something about working at the airport that tuned me into this eerie disjunction between how humans travel and how humans think about place. If place is assumed to be settled—politically, geographically, domestically—then our modes of travel are anything but. We’re always bracing (even though we might deny it) for outbursts, “air rage,” catastrophic failures, runway skids, lost aircraft… the stuff of your daily aviation news updates. That’s our wilderness, however we attempt to repress it.
Anya Groner: Towards the middle of the book, you spend several chapters considering how air travel changes the way we understand time. Because of its speed, air travel is recognized as a time saver, and, yet, you note that flight is “experienced as profoundly wasted time: hours and minutes to be suffered and gotten through.” How do you reconcile these two seemingly incompatible experiences?
Christopher Schaberg: This time is not reconciled. We think of airport time as “dead time” and as hours we have to waste (or try in earnest not to). But then this time is crucial: you have to make your connection; you’re on the clock, paid for by your employer. You’re hurrying to your vacation. You’re trying to satisfy your appetite in between flights. You purchase something impulsively, at an exorbitant price—perhaps to regret it later, at 2:34 a.m. Still it was just that time at the airport, utterly forgettable.
But once on that plane, you speed to your destination. You sit back and relax—or sit tense and nervous—as you are hurled through the air at 560 miles per hour. These incompatible experiences are what make air travel fascinating to me—partly because they cannot be resolved, at least not in any easy sense.
Anya Groner: Digital communication is outpacing aviation. You note, for instance, “the weird continuum—between wide-body airliner and handheld device.” Do you have predictions about how digital media will further impact the airports and air travel?
Christopher Schaberg: I wonder about this a lot. I am eager to see how iPhones and their ilk will continue to improve and become sleeker, faster, more immediate… and I am curious to see how airliners will try to adjust to accommodate and nuzzle up to these devices, and how or where or when these two modes of meditation—travel, communication, exchange—will cease to be compatible. To me, this is a fascinating, ongoing dilemma! I’m here to watch the show, and to write the review as it plays out.
Anya Groner: This is your third book about airports. What’s next?
Christopher Schaberg: Recently I realized I have written several pieces (published in various places) that deal more or less explicitly with the environmental implications of air travel. I am collecting these pieces, and writing some new things, that take on flight as an ecological issue. I’m not talking about resource management or pollution—although those issues are surely present and critical. But I’m looking more at the assumptions, ideas, and attitudes about flight as they relate to living on this planet. So my new book on this topic is tentatively called The Nature of Flight: Ecotheory for Air Travel.