Right of Passage

Coining the neologism "non-lieu" or "non-place," Marc Augé perfectly defines spaces and places of passage; places where we stay because we know we are going elsewhere. We are there for no other purpose. These spaces serve as transient points along journeys: bus stops, metro lines, airports. It's rare to sit at home and dream of one day visiting C terminal of LaGuardia just for the fun of it. We'd rather spend our money on getting out of there than getting in.

These crossroads are often unimportant for many, but I count myself as one who finds them to be fascinating spaces. They are designed to be unobtrusive, straightforward, dull. Each area a charted latitude and longitude, each space designated for a paying consumer, yet never tangibly so. Some of these non-lieux are designed to be menacingly dull. Tense steel walls and bright fluorescent lights as transportation security scrutinizes the shape of a hairdryer on an x-ray screen, a cattle flow of passengers walking through plastic-coated metal detectors, cold and shoeless feet on stark linoleum flooring.

The non-lieu collides ideologies and identities, yet no one voices their differences. They move towards common points of departure without the slightest acknowledgement of the other, aside from common courtesies and trite platitudes exchanged to pass the time. When time doesn't pass the way the transient passenger expects, their frustration is a sight to behold.

Never has twenty minutes ever gone by as quickly as when I didn't want time to go quickly, but place me in one of these non-lieux and a mere three minutes transforms into hours. I think it's one of the many reasons I've taken a liking to sitting idly by and seeing what sorts of things people neglect when they are counting down the minutes to departure. Theory of Relativity revisited.

The non-lieu provides a sense of anonymity and recognition. Airports are particularly good examples of this. Inside the restricted zones, there is a sense of isolation. Guests are defined by gate numbers and boarding zones.

Businesspeople tap on their laptops drinking burnt Starbucks lattes, suffering through their layovers. Neon-clad families with raucous children deconstruct their luggage by recycling bins. The elderly take a well-needed nap near overpriced family-style restaurants. We don't know these people, we never will, yet the communal presence of everyone in the non-lieu creates a collective travel memory of blurred sights, sounds, and people.

Celebrities never pass into the non-lieu. They break its form; their lack of anonymity is shocking and worrisome for them as well as for other guests. Their identity is a consumer mark as noticeable as the swirling green and white curls of a certain sea maiden who markets Seattle coffee. When they enter the non-lieu, they themselves become a place to be visited; a chance for the transient passerby to interact with a larger-than-life persona. We blatantly see hierarchies and classes in this space.

Outside the non-lieu, we are faced with our identity again. Friends gather round with a hand-painted "welcome home" sign on flimsy poster board. International travelers identify themselves to the authorities of the host country. Families reconvene or send off their loved ones. Tagged luggage swirls round and round until identified by the once anonymous guest. One could see this as a modern right of passage at a smaller scale.

Having been in two airports yesterday, I noticed a certain ritual as passengers line up to board. They look around, they grab their items, they confirm that everything they care about is with them, and then they leave without looking back. These moments are the margins of history; the moments unrecorded for their banality.


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