The airport is a totalitarian space; sometimes the truth is hyperbolic.
You re-enter the United States, land of your birth, as part of the stream of arriving passengers. It is an everyday experience. You leave the airplane slowly, on stiff limbs, trickling with the mass of travellers into Newark airport.
The imperatives are issued as soon as you enter the terminal building. No smoking. No cell phones. Stand in line. Fill in your declaration form. Foreigner here. Citizen there. Wait behind the red line till you are called. The armed immigration officer checks your papers, holding the power to pronounce your worthiness to enter this sanctified space.
With the imperatives come the questions. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? As if the answers are clear. As if these are simple questions. The man with the gun, holding your passport, asks, “Where are you flying next?” But he already knows and he answers for you, “Chicago, on Friday.” This is a test.
“What were you doing in London?” You answer but the officer is not interested, he looks at you with an unarticulated accusation, why would you leave your homeland? Your suspect status is confirmed when he asks, “How long are you staying?” Until you please the armed man with your answers everyone is a foreigner no matter where they were born.
With the questions comes the paperwork. Stamps in the passport. Scribbles on the customs forms. Tags on your luggage. Everyone leaves a trail as they move through the world and every trail must be made legible. Even your fingertips are traced on the scanner. Before you arrived and presented yourself for inspection the trail began, unseen by you.
Your credit history, your financial information is passed between corporation and government when you buy your ticket. All of your earlier passings over these secured borders have been logged. Your purchases, your card numbers, your preferences, are pumped into the river of information rushing through the air, making it flow a little faster.
And this work of legibility renders us computable by the armed men, by their computers, by the networks of machines that monitor us. To be made safe is to be rendered predictable, absolutely knowable. To be made safe today is to be made ultimately vulnerable.
Once outside the terminal the undercurrent of control continues to carry you along. Waiting for the airport train you realise the imperatives are still echoing as robot voices issue yet more commands. Watch your bags. Be suspicious. Get on the train quickly and make room for others. Stand back from the doors. Do not smoke. It is a strange choice to give the work of public morality over to robots without acknowledging the abdication. As the work of production and service is given over to machines, so to is the work of maintaining order.
The imperatives, the questions, the paper work – the apparatus of order always carries a veiled threat. Every reminder is a warning, a prelude to a punishment to come. The airport is a hub for the transfer of populations, a site of vulnerability and power, such that the elements of control stand out in high contrast – hence the need for the elements of comfort to be exaggerated: fancy restaurants, high-end shops, the whole buzzing scene meant to reassure.
But the discordance of that space cannot be ignored and its resonance stays with you, makes you aware of the undercurrent that pushes at you long after you’ve left the terminal, demanding your obedience quietly, constantly.
You leave the airport behind, getting on the train that will take you to the city. The mechanized voices still clamour; the calculated conscience impels you to move quickly, informs you of the next stop, reminds you of your final destination, and to be alert to the dangerous edges in this fast moving machine driven world.
After you leave the airport, riding the trains and buses of America’s great cities – New York, Chicago – you encounter a world of gates, fences, bulletproof windows, and cages. Little prisons that separate the women and men who monitor the safety of society from the rest of us, so that they can ensure that fares are paid, rules are followed, forms are filled in, and that the great social machine ticks along as it should. And around you everyone seems to be moving through the parts of this machine with ease – compliant with a tense smile.
In the spaces away from the centres of control, away from the social body’s steel organs and electrified arteries, the sound of imperatives fades – you feel some control returned. But it also seems these spaces are closing up, tightening, and being invaded – you feel paranoid even having such thoughts. Maybe you are.
Yet, the world around you is being made more uniform. The neighbourhood bars, the little storefronts and the local factories you remember from childhood trips through Chicago are slowly being replaced with identical corporate units. Manhattan makes you uncomfortable with its cleanliness, its order, as if the madness of those streets promised in the pages of Kerouac and scenes of Scorsese is now tended like a garden in a California theme park.
And wading in that expanding uniformity you feel the undercurrent pushing you once again. Streets are monitored by cameras, corporate security agents, police policing the image of the city, and all of us – armed with suspicion. As you stop on the streets, watch, and you can see the invisible barriers that hem us in. You suddenly feel less paranoid. And you feel the source of your true vulnerability in this world of safety and order.
And then you must return to one of the centres of the social order: to their airports, needing to ride the fast current of the social machine once more. You return to the securitised space of the airport, a vital organ of the social body, which depends on the movement of women and men like other lesser beasts depend upon the movement of blood.
To re-enter this space you must be made clean. You produce your ticket, your proof of payment – your offering. You hand over your identity papers. You produce yourself as obedient and legible to the human eyes of the social body. They relieve you of your baggage so that your things can be screened for contraband. Your possessions disappear into the guts of their security machine, out of view until you are ejected back out into the unruly world on the other side of your journey.
And then you move to the antechamber of the security machine, to be cleansed. You again present yourself, your papers, obedient, ready to receive orders. You disrobe, you stand exposed before the others waiting, you stand exposed to the eyes and hands of those who operate the security machine that guards the social body. You then pass through the centre of that machine – to be approved or spit out – waiting as its x-ray eye scans you, looking past your own self-presentation, seeing you as a body that cannot hide, which holds up its hands in supplication.
Once you have been judged safe, you collect yourself, your papers, your clothing. The airport is made secure by demanding you give up your personal security. It is the perfection of the collectivist imperative for safety. But even within this space the imperatives ring out. So many uniformed hands of the security machine crisscross this space. There’s beeping and sirens and announcements, the humming of machines so loud you stop thinking.
There are lines and there is waiting. And there is patience, endless patience – patience that, especially when threatened by frustration and embarrassment, is held in place by the horrible threat of the security machine crashing upon you. You are safe because you are powerless; you are patient because you are afraid. In this space there is obedience, endless obedience.
You wonder how such an order was built. You wonder why we consent. But this moment is only the abscess that forms over the infection. In a world where we pursue the feeling of security to the point of total vulnerability we have no right to be surprised when we consent to, participate in, and are then subjected to the brutality of control.
The airport is a totalitarian space. It is a distorted but true reflection. America is a civilization always overflowing with violence ready to be directed at whatever the social body deems dangerous. We lovers of obedience and control make anything possible here.