Smári McCarthy

Building social, political and technical infrastucture

The Insanity of Purity

Q: How much of the sterility of modern airport terminals and air travel in general can be attributed to the hypochondriac aviator Howard Hughes?

A: None.

Howard Hughes may have had a less than healthy approach to the issue of hygiene, but the sterility of airports is not a germ-theoretical one. Any time spent sitting on the floor is sure to convince the intrepid traveler of this.

Rather it is a cultural sterility born in part from an urge to project a 1950′s feel of jetsetter’s class and distinction, and partly as a failed attempt to normalize the experience of airports across the world, cussioning travelers from culture shock while not discriminating. Indeed, they have succeeded in creating a type of space which is equally alien to everybody. Almost.

Comparing airports around the world you see that the little things are always the ones that get you in the end. The tiny nuances, like the languages of the signs and the distance between the check-in desk and the gate. Some seem to needlessly lengthen this distance in order to
put more shops, less thinly hiding the fact that the modern airport is just a shopping mall with very good public transport.

But this cultural sterility has origins that can be found by staring at the multilingual signs at the airports, the multitude of languages subtly hinting that there is more to the sterility that meets the eye. ”Uitgang”, “Ausgang”. “Útgangur”, “Utgang”.

Rasmus Christian Rask was a Danish linguist who spent a large portion of his life going around the world trying to convince people to reform
their languages. His failure in Denmark is testified by the language itself today; but Danish at least is somewhat unified. In the Netherlands, where his failure was more abject, you can still see and hear massive differences in the language depending on which town you’re in. I have joked that the Dutch language comprises of English grammar, German vocabulary, Danish pronunciation and bad spelling, but that humorous observation hardly scratches the surface. Dutch is so poxy with dialects that the people of Groningen and the people of Limburg are almost mutually unintelligable. Almost.

The oddest part of Dutch came to me recently when listening to a song by the Frisian band Twarres. The song was on YouTube, sung in Frisian
but subtitled in Hollandish. Both languages are Dutch. Almost. As I listened to the Frisian melody that had until then been impenetrable to me, following along with the subtitles, I realized suddenly: Frisian is more similar to Danish than it is to other variants of Dutch I’ve encountered.

Rask never made it to Slovenia, a country where this reaches such extremes that the people in the foothills of Triglav or on the Adriatic shoreline at Trieste are incapable of communicating with their brethren around the Hungarian border without an intermediary dialect, a linguistic form rapidly developing in the larger cities such as Ljubljana, no doubt helped by the availability of rapid transit and broadcasting technologies.

Some languages and some cultures appear to be more readily normalizable. English is a bastard. The lingua franca is often the lowest common denominator, the simplest common form of communication that has the amount of expressiveness needed for the exchange.

Like airports. Almost.

What is the grammar of an airport? Can it be formulated simply, written out in Backus-Naur form, or described in terms of the Chomsky model? If we were to use the pumping lemma on an Airport, what would the result be?

Cleanliness of language and sterility of airports, LaPorte might have argued, stems from the same desire. “Non olet”, he wrote. We reject stinkiness, impurity, imperfection. We reject a lack of sanitation - insanity, perhaps.

Perhaps not.

The trend towards sanitation of all things may have started in France in 1549, but even in the time of Christopher Columbus, when there was no formal distinction between the romance languages of the time, there were a few people pondering on the technical implications of using standardization as a form of crowd control. In particular, Antonio de Nebrija, a Spanyard, approached the queen of Spain with a very similar proposition as Rask had. Only where Rask wanted to unify the people through grammar, Nebrija proposed to divide them. When asked by Isabelle I of Castile why she would be interested in a book about the grammar of the language, he is said to have replied “Majesty, the language is the instrument of the empire”.

Could it be that the same tool could be used to unite and divide us? Much like airports provide us with the ability to come together, it
also allows us to be more apart? Does language do this? It does.

Sitting last night at a dinner party in Barcelona where half the people present where Italian, I tried to follow the conversation as
best I could, but the fluid traversal from Spanish to Italian with perhaps the occasional stopover in Catalan left me swimming for
context. English was used for my benefit some of the time.

But all the while during this I did not feel segregated from the other people by way of a language barrier. The thinking and feeling and acting united us in the way that I was not united with anybody at the airport, except one.

Before boarding, handing over my ticket and ID card for inspection, the guy checking it said, “hm. Transnational republic?” This is after I used the same ID to check in, not just here, but more or less everywhere for the last couple of months. “Is this real?” he asked.

“It’s an art project,” I replied. “You’re welcome to reject it as a form of identification, but almost nobody ever does. I’ve been around Europe using this, no questions asked.” I handed him my drivers license, and I think he got the joke. “I’m going to have to research this,” he said as he ushered me onto the gangway.

Humans are incredibly good at building walls, barriers, using them to set people apart, divide and conquer. Whether it’s borders or language barriers, information management and instruments of empire, whether it’s sterility of environment or sterility of thought, some people are hellbent on disuniting us by using our own insanity – our lack of sanitation – against us. We are unclean, thus we are unworthy of self-determination.

I don’t agree with this design for human existence. I reject sanity insofar as it divides us. I shall speak in pidgins and defy borders. I shall tear down walls and dance on their rubble, like they did in Berlin at the beginning of this era. Come, join me! We shall not ask whether the walls are physical or metaphorical, we shall only ask if they are warranted, and unless they serve to hold up a roof, the answer will undoubtedly be no.

[Inspired in part by conversations over the last week with Dougald Hine.]