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Terminal Life: On the Pure Space of Neoliberalism

Terminal life is the situational embodiment of a neoliberal subject suspended between spatial and temporal points of intersection leading to a great distancing from ourselves as humans.

(Photos: MIKI Yoshihito, alist, Michael Sauers, Mike Shoup; Edited: JR / TO)

Like many people, I often find myself living out the “dead time” of the modern airport terminal. How often do we find ourselves trying in vain to make some productive use of this temporal state of purgatory? And probably due to the limbo, I haven’t dwelled too much on these artificial spaces of perfumed confinement other than to accept the inconvenience as a means to a more promising end. Rather than seeing these increasingly homogenizing zones of international travel as peripheral to the modern human condition, could they not, in fact, be more paradigmatic? That is to say, as they reveal in the most visible and yet concentrated ways the more advanced political and socio-economic designs of our times, could it be that they actually represent the quintessential space of neoliberalism in its purest and most unadulterated forms?

The airport is an experimental site in the regulation of transient populations that requires the securitization of life in terms of its circulations and planetary flows.

We might begin by offering here a critical assessment of “Terminal Life” (with evident multiple connotations to the life and death of the subject) through what Michel Foucault termed bio-politics. The airport is an experimental site in the regulation of transient populations that requires the securitization of life in terms of its circulations and planetary flows. Indeed, in terms of the human-technological matrix so integral to modern regimes of security governance, the terminal validates the Deleuzian notion of a “Control Society” whose bio-political contours have effectively displaced age-old ideas concerning life’s grounded or fixed qualities (including foundational notions of identity) by regimes of digitalized power and human surveillance that, taking life as their principle object, prioritize and problematize all forms of movements – especially the capacity for flight.

Let’s step back for a moment and think about the subjective stakes to international travel? Even our passport is quite revealing. Hidden in plain sight on the pages of citizenship validation, the national signature is now but one element in a broader set of digitalized content whose markers augment a much more complex regime of signs about the travelling subject. This is not incidental to the contemporary moment. “Who are we?” is among the most difficult of questions to answer in the current period. We are certainly no longer simply categorized by the once familiar narratives of geopolitical affinity. Yes, our passport retains the national emblem. But we appear to the gatekeepers to be much more layered and profiled in our digital biographies. Little wonder that the previous identifits, which once defined the national imaginary and created a shared sense of belonging, no longer appear secure in their knowledge. The crises of identity are writ large on the screens of the customary check as the biographical reckoning features a complex array of datasets that demand more nuanced and thorough investigation. The reasoning at work here is clear. The more we know about life, the more problematic it becomes. What appears instead then is the embodiment of a more disrupted and redistributed self – one who is the product of a broader transformation in the social fabric of liberal societies which have eviscerated life-long attachments to home, family, loves, communities and political identities that served, for the briefest moments in historical time, to give qualitative and quantitative meaning to the human condition. As Gilles Deleuze foresaw:

What is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code: the code is a password, while on the other hand disciplinary societies are regulated by watchwords(as much from the point of view of integration as from that of resistance). The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become “dividuals,”and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks” . . . The disciplinary man was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network. Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports(1).

Neoliberals understood the break-up of the former disciplinary shackles of modernity better than most. They were its principle architects. Risk takers are, after all, (so the story goes) the real moneymakers, self-appointed visionaries who became morally endowed with an emancipatory logic that preached the gospel of capitalized freedom. And yet, as the limits that once defined modern times have been largely eviscerated, so we have encountered the emergence of more challenging problems of uncertainty as all conventional demarcations have entered into a period of lasting crises. This notably includes the graying into modes of indistinction the fundamental categories of friends/enemies, times of peace/times of war and the strategic realms of inside/outside(2). Airport security in particular governs accordingly as everybody who enters is always and already profiled before the act of passage. Welcome to the age of pre-emptive governance.

Some real absurdities of technological fetishism are on full display in the terminal space. After one is initially encouraged to book online, only to find that the much touted three strikes and you’re out law enforcement rule is applied as you try to identify which of the multiple array of possible numbers is the actual booking reference, you then discover that human check-ins are now strategically relegated by the digital booth and its automated pleasantries, only to have teams of seconded humans in place showing even the most technically literate passengers how to use them. Any conceivable error in the profile will result in the need to stand in the much slower queue as if by punishment for having the temerity to make a mistake. Human encounters here are reduced to questions of deficient behavior, as the lack of proficiency to be digitally attuned becomes a marker for the all too unnecessary subsequent intervention by one’s fellow.

Some real absurdities of technological fetishism are on full display in the terminal space.

Simon Critchley rightly observed that upon entering the zone, you lose all political rights. The political act of choice is reduced to a question of consumption as all possible resistance is permanently excluded. To even consider exercising one’s political right to question would be tantamount to the likelihood of expulsion. The ideal is the fast-track passenger whose elite status already evidences complicity in advance. The complex security apparatus that governs the zone through a strategic nexus, which effectively blurs the private/public and military/policing, sees to it that the space is as frictionless as possible from the perspective of the regulatory system. The herding process is premised on the assumption that compliance is the surest guarantee of efficiency. All the while, the routine conflicts and ritualized acts of de-politicization are everywhere apparent – yet normalized to the point of becoming uncritically accepted by the travelling masses. From the digitalized gaze that quite literally looks through the souls of the living, thereby exposing the body in a way that fully eliminates any meaningful human content, onto the petty humiliations enacted by security personnel, performed in our names and for all our sakes, so we learn to desire that which ordinarily appears patently oppressive.

The hidden violence is all too evident. Every gesture, every word, every act is monitored such that the force of law appears through both the immanent possibility of a violent response by overtly militarized security personnel, along with the more subtle forms of violation that are underwritten by the deepest suspicions about the subjects who must not only prove their credentials before being “welcomed in,” but continue to evidence full compliance. The latter cannot be divorced from the advances in technologies of surveillance and human mapping, whose ability to violate the body in the most intimate of ways take us far beyond anything the likes of Orwell could have possibly envisaged. Such violence is what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has previously referred to as “bio-political tattooing.” Agamben notes, “There has been an attempt the last few years to convince us to accept as the humane and normal dimensions of our existence, practices of control that had always been properly considered inhumane and exceptional.” Drawing here on Michel Foucault’s notion of the “progressive animalization of man” that continually redefines the acceptable thresholds for the manipulation and control of lives, for Agamben the political stakes could not be more pronounced:

What is at stake here is nothing less than the new “normal” bio-political relationship between citizens and the state. This relation no longer has anything to do with free and active participation in the public sphere, but concerns the enrolment and the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity: I mean the body’s biological life. These technological devices that register and identify naked life correspond to the media devices that control and manipulate public speech: between these two extremes of a body without words and words without a body, the space we once upon a time called politics is ever more scaled-down and tiny.

Airport terminals are sites of normalized exceptionalism. They are witness to the most peculiar of behaviors that nevertheless appear quite ordinary. Where else is it perfectly acceptable to consume alcohol in the early morning hours? This is perhaps the outcome of the spatial and temporal collapse they effectively produce. Spatially conceived, the terminal is a non-place that transcends geographical approximation. Nobody belongs! While they retain the important geostrategic quality of the permanency of population, everybody is merely a guest. Terminals in fact are nodal points of intersection in the complex green zoning architecture of privilege that has long since abandoned any Westphalia pretense. But even within, the microphysical segmentaries of differential experience based on class and racial differences abound. How else can we explain the ritual performance of boarding if not through some affirmation of the values of elitism and the status afforded by a financially determined good life? While the time of the terminal is always permanently out-of-sync with the chronological order, every passenger is already mentally suspended between numerous time zones that literally place him or her somewhere that is neither here nor quite there. The hours gained and the hours lost through the impending travel are already present in the disrupted time of the zone in which the exact moment of forwarding or reversing can never actually be pinpointed.

Security technologies operate by getting us to subscribe to forms of political intrusion by presenting them to us as desirable and necessary for a liberated existence.

Foucault’s bio-political analytic is only of limited use, however, when we are seeking to understand more fully the operation of power in such controlled environments. Contemporary bio-politics is not the bio-politics of Foucault. Not only does our analysis need to further account for the changing understanding of human systems that are now accepted as being insecure by design, thereby authenticating ontologies of vulnerability that – preaching the gospel of resilience – effectively neutralize racial, class and gendered politics by reducing questions of power to individual pathologies, it needs to be nuanced by layering the analysis with the affective, aesthetic and atmospheric registries. No form of power would be effective if it didn’t affectively move us at the visceral level. If bio-power works, it is precisely because we desire it. We willingly sign up to retina scanning because it allows us to jump the queues and buy our products quicker. It is all about agency. Security technologies operate by getting us to subscribe to forms of political intrusion by presenting them to us as desirable and necessary for a liberated existence. And yet they point to a resplendent world where micro-management suffocates spontaneity by prioritizing the need for routine and second-guessing the intentions of life, all the while affirming with each passing encounter the underwriting narrative that modern life is forever endangered. Ask yourself, how many people actually feel more secure as they are subjected to the ritualistic practices of the terminal assay and its ongoing modes of subjectification? All the check points, all the warning signs, all the “in the advent of an emergency” proclamations make us feel the need to be fearful of the possibility.

In terms of aesthetics, it is patently absurd to try and reason out the power of images in our mediatized world. Having lived through and still witnessing some of the worst types of essentialism and human objectification, our societies are nevertheless unashamedly “image conscious.” Life is effected and manipulated by multiple regimes of signs. We cannot avoid the fact that images define, authenticate, mediate and shape our experience of the world. Terminals prove to be a monumental playground of experimentation in the production of aesthetic mood swings. From the ubiquitous authentication of beautification that is completely unavoidable as all passengers must walk through the respective consumer paradises, which sell their idealized lifestyles before arriving at any departure gate, to the smoke room which, in full public view, seems to be purposefully designed as if to appear as a site of self-toxification and self-harm no health conscious traveler would possibly enter, except of course for the need many have to calm the nerves. Then, there is the new phenomena of multi-faith prayer rooms that are often situated alongside “emergency exits,” as if to further signal some conscious schizophrenic design to the experience; what Jacques Rancière would understand to be an aesthetic regime of power(3) is most visibly apparent and serves to reinforce the desired sense of political agency that is profoundly neoliberal.

Airport smoking room, multi-faith prayer room, emergency exit(Photos: peace6x, Jyri Engestrom; Edited: JR / TO)

Terminals are controlled, atmospheric environments that actively construct a particular climate of disorientation. Perfumed anxiety fills the air. Even though one seemingly has an eternity to wait, you are denied the prospect of full relaxation and contemplative reflection. The last minute announcements of the precise departure gates results in a mass gathering of watchers on tenterhooks, waiting and waiting, before the frenetic rush to the other side of the arena. One is of course allowed to purchase, for a short and limited timeframe, a brief moment of comfort in one of the few cocooned massage pods that promise some seclusion. Relaxation, however, comes at a price and doesn’t last more than a few minutes. This is all part of the climatic conditioning. For the anxiety circulates, transmitted to one another, passing through bodies in a normalized celebration of the virtues of a general state of uncertainty and complete lack of control.

Airport massage(Photos: Kevin Hale, zherun, sung ming whang; Edited: JR / TO)

If the overt securitization merely adds to our sense of insecurity, as we are all too aware that the prospect for a survivable exit in the event of an emergency is a false promise – the most fragile of illusions – should the anticipated danger actually arrive, the different speeds and intensities of the environment all add to the feeling of continuous vertigo that has become so central to the manufactured condition of terminal anxiety. From the slow queuing in which passengers continue to frantically check, check and check again, whether they have brought all the necessary documentation before entering the promised land, to the sudden, frenetic burst of pace of the security dress down which makes you feel guilty for not stripping and laying yourself bare quickly enough, the orchestration of the affective experience is designed to disrupt any confidence and surety on behalf of the traveler. You have no autonomy or right to any sense of control and influence in this most controlling of environments. That’s the principle message.

The only relief is the calming down entry into the realms of the shopping mall that put on display the latest designer seductions and lifestyle choices that the vast majority can little afford, let alone hope to resemble and attain with requisite glamour. Indeed, while the affordable “bargains” cater to the top end of the designer spectrum, unless of course one needs to replenish the same confiscated liquids that now become acceptable since they are purchased in the zone, one is also confronted with $20,000 bottles of cognac, $10,000 watches, $5,000 business suits and $1,000 handbags, as if such excess capital was truly available to travelling hordes who on a whim could exercise the frivolity of a passing-the-time purchase.

All modern terminals try to convey their consideration of the aesthetic experience by spending copious amounts on truly forgettable “artworks.”

Neatly settled within the palaces of exclusive purchase and the larger than life images of celebrity deification, most of the financially excluded tend to congregate in either the alcohol or caffeine fuelled places of consumption, as if to suggest that one must either numb the boredom (intoxification being the only mode of resistance left as one at least attempts to forget that one is in the space) or push the anxiety to the extreme. Not in any way incidental to this, alongside these, we further discover the medicalized, one-stop shops that provide various legalized chemical solutions for a society that has learned to internalize all manner of petty traumas and deficiencies in their biological makeup. If bio-politics talks directly to the need to make life live in a way that it becomes painfully aware of its own mortality, yet ironically incapable of ethically questioning what a dignified death might actually look like, its contemporary formations speak to a society that self medicates in ways that offer a privatized response to an ongoing demise, all the while reducing life to the pure question of survival, knowing full well that in the end something will take us. Terminal life thus brings into sharp relief the terminal illness of contemporary neoliberal subjectivity that is now so in crises it appears biologically haunted by the specter of its own ghosts.

While all modern terminals try to convey their consideration of the aesthetic experience by spending copious amounts on truly forgettable “artworks,” which don’t say anything to the historical moment except to reaffirm the corporate banality of a world wherein capitalism defines and determines what is the creative act, there could perhaps be no more fitting works to be commissioned for these spaces than have Damien Hirst produce a new series to follow up on his “Inescapable Truth.” Instead of just featuring the bird of flight that hovers above the already dead, as if to gesture that life can exist in spite of us, it would perhaps be more fitting to complement these installations with naked humans in formaldehyde. Permanently suspended without the possibility of bodily transformation or redemption, such figures would resemble the subject that is watched from all conceivable angles yet incapable of exercising any political agency except to gaze out in perplexed wonderment at its biological confinement and already present death in waiting. How fitting would it in fact be to allow the permanently excluded from these zones to stand outside the glass facades of the terminals, looking inward at the included staring at their own encased reflection so unaware of its political significance?

Early neoliberalism waged outright war on local artisan production with the creation of the mall. While these centers were notably defined by their homogenizing tendencies, they also produced their own novel forms of cultural resistance, not least the emergence of the zombie movie genre that tended to take the battle to the desolate space of the shopping mall environment to emphasize the way neoliberalism was complicit in the production of subjects that were politically akin to the living dead. Terminals have claimed the mall to be their own. As The Sunday Times recently wrote with a celebratory tone once befitting the launch of a naval flagship of discovery, the soon-to-be-opened Heathrow Terminal 2 is quite possibly the “smartest shopping center” and experience ever seen. Hence, as lead architect Luis Vidal imagines, “This will be a destination. People will want to come here.” The lure as such is inverted as the end becomes the means, leaving us in no doubt that the site is imagined to be permanently occupied by a population whose principle function is pure consumption.

That which we produce always has the capacity to become the source of our endangerment.

What has marked out liberal bio-politics historically has been the order of appearance. Everything was to be a site for exploration and knowledge creation. Liberal societies as such have worked by demanding the exposure of everything in order to precisely put forward the illusion of control. But as its complexity theorists and security strategists have increasingly understood, the liberal order is built to be vulnerable(4). It operates in a state of unending emergency. Accidents in fact have become defining to its global imaginary, which now places the capacity for something truly dreadful into the heart of all possible eventualities. That which we produce always has the capacity to become the source of our endangerment – especially in radically interconnected (in both technological and human terms) zones of human interaction such as the terminal that increasingly appears to be the epitome of a “concentrated global city.” The concentrationary, however, is not without its dangers. Indeed, its most notable manifestation has been the formation of “camps” or what can more aptly be called “terminals,” which although never uniform, remain precisely depoliticized zones of human concentration that operate by eradicating spontaneity. The terminal denotes a space where the political is terminated.

Terminal anxiety must also be situated within the broader framework of endangerment. Indeed, in terms of the changing global security landscape which I have elsewhere defined as the age of catastrophe(5), we cannot avoid the significance and symbolism of flight. Paul Virilio rightly noted that speed has conquered space(6). Distance is technologically speaking no longer an object. 9/11 brought this into sharp relief. And while it is of course tempting to focus our symbolic attention here on the collapsing towers that now appear so integral to the normalization of catastrophe politics today, the violence of that fateful day was by definition the order of flight. If the remarkably mimetic symbolism of the fall of the Berlin Wall was witnessed in the use of hammers to destroy the structure so integral to Soviet emblems, the symbolism of the hijacked plane shattered our illusion of security that was always premised on the ability to soar with ever increasing speed to greater and greater heights. In this regard, as Zygmunt Bauman observed, we have long since entered into post-terrestrial order that is more akin to a “planetary frontierland” that has lost all sense of surety(7).

When the final anthropologist looks to excavate the ruins of neoliberalism, the cathedrals they will find are precisely these spaces of terminal exclusion.

With the terrestrial world already fully mapped out insomuch as there are no spaces left to be discovered, the remaining site for new forms of colonization are the atmospheric geographies of which the terminal provides the only publically accessible gateway for experience. We are left in no doubt however that we have no access rights to this three dimensional topography other than to appear as guests of the corporate tours. There is no public ownership of the atmosphere, merely an emerging corporate hinterland that imagines the world above the clouds as a site of privilege and private ownership and control. If terminal life is therefore the situational and concentrated embodiment of a neoliberal subject that is fully suspended between spatial and temporal points of intersection, its depoliticized connection to the atmosphere reveals most fully how the ability to take flight from the world has led to the great distancing from ourselves as humans. The metaphysical capacity to think the world anew with confidence and outward vision has been replaced by an atmospheric gaze that can only look back upon life in some terminal state. Indeed, we all know that ultimately this state of affairs is not sustainable.

When the final anthropologist looks to excavate the ruins of neoliberalism, the cathedrals they will find are precisely these spaces of terminal exclusion. Terminal life concentrates our attentions on much wider social formations, which are anxiously massed and acutely aware of the illusions of its promises, along with its impending demise. And yet it continues to carry on regardless, relying more and more on the voluntary servitude of a depoliticized community. The fact that we have no option other than to accept this is truly revealing of the narcissistic nature of contemporary neoliberalism. What matters is to push the animalization of the human beyond all conceivable thresholds so that it completes its destiny by willfully bringing about its own extinction. This is not simply a reference to the physical assault environmental damage promises to a community that is learning to partake in a world that already seems fated. Terminal life is the last place of refuge for the resiliently minded who has lost all metaphysical belief that the world can be transformed for the better, merely wishing to live out an artificial existence that fully eviscerates the human’s poetic qualities.

I would like to express my sincerest gratitude here to Simon Critchley, Julian Reid, Ian Buchanan, John Steppling and James Fennel for their comments and engagements with this paper. Their observations have improved it considerably.


1. Gilles Deleuze, ‘Post-Script on the Societies of Control’ in Gilles Deleuze (1990) Negotiations: 1972-1990 (New York, Columbia University Press) p.

2. Brad Evans (2013) Liberal Terror (Cambridge, Polity Press)

3. See in particular Jacques Rancière (2006) The Politics of Aesthetics: The Redistribution of the Sensible (New York, Continuum)

4. Brad Evans & Julian Reid (2014) Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously (Cambridge, Polity Press)

5. Brad Evans & Julian Reid (2014) “The Promise of Violence in an Age of Catastrophe” (Truthout) Online at:

6. Paul Virilio (2007) Speed & Politics (New York, Semiotext[e])

7. Zygmunt Bauman (2002) Society Under Siege (Cambridge, Polity Press) pp. 87-120

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