(In)Attentive Bodies

This is a draft I wrote in 2009. Based on ethnographic research at Chicago’s Midway Airport, it’s shaped by a time I was especially attentive to affect/management in public spaces. This was thanks to a graduate class on the subject of Public Affect, in which we read Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, among other things. I found that book to be written in a way that opened up possibilities for connection, imagination, for the most part. And, when necessary, cut them off. Stewart’s non-linear, loosely narrative lyrical style in that book continues to influence me. Recently, I found Zach Savich’s Diving Makes the Water Deep, which, though from a different set of trainings and concerns, does a similarly striking job of incising lyrical moments out of the fabric of daily life, in its pains and awkwardnesses. As I transition from writing-as-graduate-student to writing-as-scholar-in-the-world, I am working on finding the lyrical parts of my voice again. Comments welcome.

(In)Attentive Bodies


Moments of encounter in non-places have shells. They protect themselves from, or are resistant to, penetration. That is, there are only so many ways it is acceptable to behave in these conditions. Our delimitation as subjects builds shells on our interactions—rule- or custom-bound, it is difficult to parse out that feels real and why. The problem is not so much that airports are non-relational, ahistorical and un-identitied as Marc Augé has argued. Instead, what is troubling is that these processes happen in a different register, one that is overdetermined and abstract. The nature of the contact zone that is the airport—contact between subjects, between subjects and the state, mediated by motion—is magnified and hyper-real. The historicization and identifying of non-places is ‘temporary and ephemeral’ as well as spectacular.[i]

A sense of singularity is what gives places their place-ness—of induplicability within which subjects can enact their own tenuous and shifting individuality. Non-places are duplicated: subjects are curtailed within them.


Bomb-Making Chemicals

You are singled out, led to the line with the puffer. You ask what it is, and are told that it will jet high-velocity air onto your body, suck it up into an orifice and there test it for bomb-making chemicals. It’s manufactured by GM and costs too much money.

In front of you is a woman in full chador veiling. She is with her young son, whose rolling backpack has Spiderman leaping across its side. Behind you is someone who you might call a ‘white bread American’ if you were in a judging mood. You turn to her after several minutes of the security-line shuffle, after watching several people get puffed.

‘This is ridiculous,’ you say, by way of conversation. She looks at you and replies, ‘Well, I don’t know about that. If this is what they have to do to keep our country safe from terrorists, I’m happy to do it.’ Uli Linke says that political and national spaces are ‘corporeal, somatosensuous formations, fundamentally bodied productions.’[ii] Here, a woman has taken responsibility for the state with her own body.

‘I’m sorry?’ you say to her.

‘Well, I mean, you don’t know what she could be hiding under there,’ she gestures towards the woman in the chador. You turn away, with no words.



The body is under fire. We have been subject to scrutiny in the past, but perhaps not with such technologies of surveillance—watching-machines in other bodies as well as in the cameras. So many bodies in contentious non-places, in limin, in motion. We are each lent power against other bodies, in a sort of mobile or transitory Salem.

‘Please keep your personal belongings with you at all times. Unattended baggage is subject to search, confiscation, damage, and removal. Do not accept items from people unknown to you. Please report any suspicious behavior to airport police using the white courtesy telephone. We hope to see you again soon.’ An escalating scale of threat to each individual 30-litre rolling black suitcase.

Listening, you move from a forward fold into Warrior 2. People are trying not to stare, as they always do. Nobody else stretches before flights—nobody that you have seen. Is that how suspicion is constituted, by the fact of doing something with your body that nobody else does? The body and the nation are normative—a certain kind of blank slate on which power draws. Transgressions are diseases, quarantined and shunned. Contact between the body and the nation happens in zones that are ‘sites for the making of subjectivities through the production of terror and violence.’[iii]


The Bunny Slope

A young man says goodbye to his parents. Hugs his mother, shakes his father’s hand. His father awkwardly pulls him in for a one-armed man-hug. They pull away, wave, and he heads for security. Mom and dad turn towards you, and you want to tell them he will be o.k.—an upswelling of feeling in response to the expressions on their faces. Son walks partway down the blue-circle line, for passengers with young children or infrequent travelers. He sees where he is, and determinedly walks out of the blue-circle line into the green-square line, for casual travelers with light carryons. He is young and male—he knows what he is doing.


“We do things with power, and to it”[iv]

Power here is baby-faced, innocent. It swirls up from the crackle of a radio, the unfocusing of a newly-minted T.S.A. agent’s eyes as she listens. Where did it come from? You imagine a three-month training course, phrases like ‘work for the security and freedom of the American people.’ You begin to think you see it in the way they stand at the security gates, embodied state authority, complete with bored, vaguely arrogant eye rolls. Please go back and remove your belt.


 Precious Cargo

The sensation of looming or fluctuating unsafety affects people differently. Some people find one place to sit and do not move for two hours, reading Newsweek, GQ, Seventeen, without looking up. Some wander the shops, immersing themselves in the security and certainty of pricetags. A few wander about, sit on the floor in undesignated spaces, are the cause of other’s discomfort with their bodies. These few are the young, the reckless, the foolhardy—the ones who maybe have not yet realized that sitting in undesignated space may soon become grounds for search, confiscation, damage, and removal.


Trickle Down

You have to pee. How far can a body be disciplined? Not this far. Eyeing the bathroom, you approach a fellow traveler who is reading a Stephen King novel. Fleeting thoughts about mental instability as indicated by enjoying Cujo cross your mind.

“Excuse me, sorry, I have to use the restroom. Would you mind watching my bags for just a second?”

Of course. She smiles. Fleeting thoughts cross her mind about suspicious bathroom-going and people who wear bandanas around their necks. Even here, past the security gate, nobody feels quite safe.

Authority is unidirectional: for once the trickle-down effect is working. Orders (system-makings, rationalizations, codifications, regimentings of the body) come down from ‘The Top,’ from ‘On High.’ They filter (dilute, winnow, separate) through the ranks, like bio-accumulating toxins in reverse. When the order(s) finally reach your body, it is in a half-hearted manner. A manner that assumes you are willing to police yourself for free.


Technologies of Privacy

Walking out of the jetway, you are confronted by the light—fluorescent, unrelenting—of the Los Angeles International terminal. Evading business-people in pantsuits trotting along ahead of rolling suitcases, your first stop is the bathroom. If nothing else, a stall will provide the illusion of privacy after 22 hours of close and unspeaking contact with other bodies.

Privacy means, among other things, time alone with one’s own body. There are things to do in private that are shunned from the attention of others—toenail clipping, nose picking. Moments when we can break the rules and be in our bodies.

You stand up. The toilet flushes immediately—the paper seat-cover swivels round. Your body has triggered these things, but not because you told it to. The soap, like the water, is excited by the motion of your hand and comes squirting out. Paper towels or blowdryers acknowledge your presence but shun your touch.

Perhaps the airport bathroom is the next step on a trajectory of technologies of privacy. Machines pay attention to your body, duty bound as they are. The relationship between the motion of your hand and the action of the world is hard to judge—and hard to control, based on the puddles of soap and paper towels below dispensers.

Your body is unrequired to know that other bodies have been present here—no-touch technologies also make it possible for those others to ignore the possibility that you have been here. Each body at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit will trigger the same machine reactions, but the smooth white surfaces and vertical, sterilizable partitions can convince even the most attentive of us that we are always already alone here.

Sometimes, it can convince us we have not even been here. Your body touches nothing that other bodies have touched. This is meant to be a comfort. You are left with only the scent of the soap, vaguely industrial.


Unknown Knowns[v]

At the baggage claim for a flight from Orlando, everyone has Mickey Mouse t-shirts or plastic ears. They look like they’ve had the time of their lives—something halfway between delight and I’ve-just-drunk-the-KoolAid. Claiming their bags is the last act they will perform on their brief out-of-normality venture, and not nearly as exciting as the Tilt-A-Whirl or the Icees. But perhaps something akin to that—bags coming down the chute are looked on as new discoveries, continents of things that could possibly be ours, each time.

The idea of possession obsesses us. We are pressed by it, between it. The possibility of things being ours makes something come alive. We forget that we own our bodies



People walk around the baggage claim areas with their phones attached to their heads. Or texting, or dialing. The process of rendering bodies more proximate must be instantaneous. What would happen if suddenly all our cell phones died? And ‘die’ is exactly the right word, prosthetic appendages that they have become. Would we know how to speak to one another, how to arrange a meeting, how to make a pizza? Possibly it would take a ‘calamity’ of this nature to turn what we don’t know we know into something that we do know we know.


Body to Body

When we say ‘it affects me’ we mean ‘it makes it obvious that there are things inside me, squidgy and slippery knowledges, that I didn’t know that I know. And it makes me uncomfortable to come face-to-face (or body-to-body) with things that are inside me that I didn’t know were there.’


You are leaving a sterile zone.

At the place where sterility is separated from profanity—the inner sanctum of legitimized traveling bodies delineated from the dirty and dangerous outside—the mode of attention is unidirectional and blindered. All stationary bodies face the stream of disembarking travelers. Moving bodies exit, searching faces for the familiar. Those passing through the border zone between the two states traverse an embarrassing liminality during which the validity, security and authenticity of their personhood is questioned. Once approved, they pass into the ‘sterile zone’ as sterilized objects.

Instructions for use follow us around. The trash can reads ‘Chicago: We’re glad you’re here!’ Next to it is a sign that says ‘Please meet your passengers at baggage claim (downstairs). No standing. No sitting.’ Inside the terminal, an informational display ‘provides context’ for the spectacle of the B-3 bomber on exhibit, suspended from the ceiling. The Chicago Municipal Airport, we learn, was renamed ‘Midway Airport’ on June 23, 1949, ‘in honor of these heroes of the Battle of Midway.’[vi]

Walking from one terminal to the other, you pass by photography of the battle of Midway, descriptions of duration and destruction, death and heroism, all of which have helped to Preserve Your Freedom. History meets spectacle as the specter of death and threat loom above the surface of the normal.




[i] p. 74: Augé, Marc. 2008 [1992]. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. London: Verso Press.

[ii]p. 210: Linke, Uli. 2006. “Contact Zones: Rethinking the sensual life of the state.” Anthropological Theory. Vol 6: pp. 205-225.

[iii] p. 212: ibid.

[iv]p. 84: Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

[v] Zizek, Slavoj. 2007 “The Reality of the Virtual.” Film by Ben Wright. Olive Films.

[vi] Chicago Midway Memorial Committee. 2008. “Midway Memorial Exhibit: Preserving Our Freedom” pamphlet.