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  • The Transparent Traveler: The Performance and Culture of Airport Security by Rachel Hall
  • Justine Shih Pearson (bio)
The Transparent Traveler: The Performance and Culture of Airport Security. By Rachel Hall. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015; 240 pp.; illustrations; $84.95 cloth, $23.95 paper, e-book available.

Twenty years after Marc Augé (1995) defined the airport as a "non-place," we have seen the airport become a very different place—while the transient, lulling, consumerist paradise might still be apparent, other kinds of corporeal and ethical pressures are at work on traveler bodies in the airport today. However, such pressures are increasingly unevenly distributed—according to the color of your skin as well as the color of your passport—and by different security cultures around the world. The affective and embodied performance of self as available for inspection is at the forefront of Rachel Hall's The Transparent Traveler. The first to explicitly examine security practices in the airport from the perspective of performance, Hall focuses on the culture and aesthetics of "transparency" that have underwritten such practices in post-9/11 US airports. In the new era of terrorist risk management, it is citizen travelers who assume the labor of the threat of terrorism, Hall argues (citing Diana Taylor's 2009 "Afterword: War Play"); further, "securitized airports treat all passengers as suspects (threateningly opaque) until they perform voluntary transparency, or demonstrate readiness-for-inspection" (8).

Chapter 1 traces the transparent aesthetic logic of the airport through luxury travel products and advertising as well as trends in airport architecture—the airport is, as Gillian Fuller has argued, fundamentally a space for looking (Fuller and Harley 2004). The traveler is made visually transparent (via x-ray, for example), as well as affectively transparent, as bodies learn to perform docility and availability as they negotiate the increasingly invasive apparatus of surveillance. Conversely, chapter 2 examines how media representations of terrorists' bodies, particularly through news coverage of the so-called war on terror, document terrorist embodiment "as a problem of opacity" (59). Importantly, Hall argues that photographic images such as those of the captured Saddam Hussein, open-mouthed for inspection, pose such bodies as "inscrutably grotto-esque" (75); as such, they are media spectacles of the US military and government that are used to justify docile submission to the new procedures and technologies of airport security in the post-9/11 era (72). [End Page 184]

The widespread implementation of newer imaging technologies since 9/11, namely full-body and biometric scanners, has been at the center of much debate and disquiet from an otherwise compliant traveling public. The first of these renders the body as literally transparent and the second serves as a technology of identification; yet both, Hall argues in chapter 3, "attempt to control mysterious bodily folds and interiors by rendering them as ephemeral and networked as surfaces, respectively" (78). However, the public's response, particularly evident in regards to full-body scanners, has centered on an invasion-of-privacy discourse and thus misses a bigger target for Hall: inevitably these technologies are not applied evenly and not all bodies can perform the type of transparency required (the cyborg body, the disabled body, the generalized nonnormate):

As long as transparency and opacity effects are asymmetrically ascribed across populations sorted on the basis of their presumed capacity or incapacity to participate in risk management, then the citizens of paranoid empires are content to do battle with Big Brother within the territories of nation-states and to ignore how the turn to preemptive law at home is networked to heinous extralegal practices abroad.


The discussion of "asymmetrical transparency," a term widely used within critical surveillance studies, is one of the key contributions of this book. Hall pushes back against those arguing for more versus less transparency and instead looks to the symbolic implications of asymmetrical transparency. There is a class, race, gender, and dis/ability critique here: the implementation and internal logics of these practices implicitly promote a certain kind of subject, "a mobile and infinitely malleable passenger who is adept at self-exposure for the sake of security" (119). Chapter 4 could be read as a guide...


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pp. 184-186
Launched on MUSE
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