Saturday Features

Being and nothingness

  • Twenty-four hours in an airport and an endless rumination on what it means to exist in a non-place

Oct 6, 2018-

I sleep fitfully, in between starts and stops, never deeply enough to dream. There are thousands around me, constantly moving, talking in languages that seem to meld into one incomprehensible stream of sound. The buzz of machinery, the hum of the air-conditioner, announcements over the PA all punctuate my sleep, waking me to a bright blue light that permeates the entire space and throws everything into stark relief, not one shadow in sight. I pull my hat down over my eyes and plug in my earphones, willing a sleep that can tolerate earthquakes.

I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.

In airports, the light is harsh, and the air is cold. These conditions are meant to keep you active, moving, so that you get to where you need to go. Airports are not spaces of rest, of immobility, of lingering; they are spaces of transience, an in-between space, where you are always coming from somewhere and going somewhere else. They are spaces of fluidity, of constant motion, where nothing is fixed and nothing is yours. In an airport, you are a passenger, a customer, never a person. Your identity is that of the passport you hold in your hand; your name or who you are hardly matters.

For the French anthropologist Marc Auge, the airport is an exemplary “non-place”, in that it is a space of transience, through which people move not as individuals but as anonymous masses. In a non-place, identity does not matter. Such spaces hold no significance, no personal attachment; they are simply passages. Hotel rooms, train and bus stations, shopping malls and highways are all non-places. When you spend long hours in such non-places, you end up contemplating yourself in relation to what makes you who you are. What is essential to who you are and without it, who, or what, are you?


I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

In the past two weeks, I have spent more than 24 hours inside airports, and in this time, I have had ample time to reflect on space, place and personal identity. While attempting to catch snatches of sleep, in the darkness of my own closed eyes, I attempted to drown out noise from the outside by listening to my own internal rambling. In a space like an airport, where I am simply one among the thousands who transit daily as anonymised entities, identified only by the pieces of paper they hold, who exactly am I? In that liminal space, I only exist because the country that has issued me my identifying piece of paper exists. Without it, I am no one, I do not exist.

But I do exist. In my mind, my own consciousness, there is a self that claims existence. Cogito ergo sum, it says and I must acknowledge that yes, I think, therefore I am. But I wonder if Descartes had it in reverse. Does consciousness precede being? Is being a consequence of consciousness? Or is it: I am, therefore I think? If we possess an immortal, immutable soul then being should come first,consciousness second. I do not believe in souls. For me, Descartes was right. We only exist because we think we exist. The moment we cease to think, we are no longer.


I learn by going where I have to go.

The chill of the airport is pervasive. It cannot be warded off by a sweater or a wool hat or even the thin blanket that airlines provide you with. The cold seeps into your body, your bones and attempts to even freeze thought. But I resist, I must. If the airport closes off thought, it has won. It has reduced me to just another passenger, like Ezra Pound’s petals on a wet black bough. I will not be another apparition, fleeting. I understand now the compulsion to carve out names on a desk, a tree, a park bench. It is a defiant act, an affirmation of one’s existence. I was here, I am here. Even if the world forgets you, there exists a scrawl somewhere, dirty, jagged, rough, that calls out your name. I feel a fervent foolish urge to get on my knees and embalm into the floor my name.

The airport corrals you into walking a certain way, a certain path. Everything has been meticulously planned. I cannot help but feel like a sheep being shepherded into a pen, or worse, a rat in a maze, rewarded at the end for being smart enough to find my way through. Along the way, I am sold a variety of objects, all inconsequential, for all you can purchase in an airport are things you do not need. But all too often, we are defined by the objects we carry, that Louis Vuitton bag, those Armani sunglasses, that iPhone. Even in a non-place like an airport those with identifiers of wealth and class receive preferential treatment. But this isn’t surprising. It is the way of the world. In non-places, the only identifier is money and the only language is commerce.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

On exiting a non-place, does identity come rushing back like a wave? Or does it return in slow increments, one rung of the ladder at a time? Is identity something you step in and out of, an affective relation between the self and consciousness?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

An announcement over the PA alerts me to my line of flight, an escape from nothingness and non-being towards a shifting identity, endlessly contested and complicated. Once on the flight, consciousness is elevated, like the plane above the clouds. In the distance, the horizon straightens like an arrow moving through time, stability in an increasingly unstable world. An edge to the non-place that is infinity itself, an endless metamorphosis.

Who are we but a constant tussle between who we were and who we could become. We exist in the in-between—the non-places of our lives are sometimes our own selves.

I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.

Published: 06-10-2018 08:15

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