Taking Up Space – The Real Basic Instinct

I vaguely remember Sartre writing that man’s most basic drive was “to fill holes – even the most obscene”. The rider has to be an insincerely contemptuous reference to sex, and don’t ask me what his Simone thought about this or about what woman’s basic drive might be. My takeaway is, however, that Sartre was trying to stand the conventional view on its head and suggest that it was by no means the case that all man’s penetrative and investigatory activities were a sublimation of the desire to fuck. Rather, sex itself was not actually primary but merely one example among many of an underlying hunger, perhaps we should call it a thirst for completion, that one might as well call metaphysical.

Whether or not you think this particular unifying principle works, trying to identify unifying human imperatives can still be a rewarding game or perhaps more than that. I should like to add another candidate to the usual collection of the will-to-life, the will-to-power, integration, transcendence, Eros/Thanatos, and so forth.

What is it, then, that may furnish us with an unified explanation of such diversely annoying human behaviours such as: barging and shoving, standing in everyone’s way, taking as much time as possible to use public facilities, littering, overconsumption, stomping on heels, ghetto-blasters, roaring, squealing and yelling and yappy dogs? Do these not seem different? No, underlying all these and many other behaviours is the desire to take up space in the world, in fact to take up too much space in it. You do not need to seize political power in order to have a disturbingly large footprint on the planet, the thing is available to everybody – at the micro level and generally with no resources. Never mind Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, a car with a powerful woofer – and/or without a muffler – can with far less effort give you 15 seconds of everybody noticing your existence.

Some of this list needs further explication. The “category of barging and shoving, standing in everyone’s way and hogging of public facilities” varies widely between cultures. Englishmen used to be brought up to be what our mothers called “considerate” about these things, while it seems that Japanese still are. Italians may shove in line in order to get something, but the worst offenders in Europe are probably the people of Bergen. These shove and barge not only when they want to be served first, but simply because, like Everest, you are there. They love, for example, to stand in shop doorways so as to prevent ingress or egress, and on a ten-foot-wide empty pavement they will walk right into you. It is surely impossible to explain this in any other way than the desire to occupy the space that ought rightly be shared with others, even indeed the space on which others are currently standing. That must make them feel good; if not, why do they not walk a separate line like everyone else? It is in the same spirit that they linger in front of ATMs, counters, and anything else after their business is done. “I am in your way, ergo sum!”

Freud wrote about untidiness in terms of “anal aggression”, but the psychodynamics of potty-training and the fascination of childish poo might well be subjected to Occam’s Razor; it is ingenious, all very ingenious, but it would be conceptually simpler to attribute the messing of both one’s own nest and the public space to the drive to take up more space in the world. “My sink is full, ergo sum” and “My rubbish is on your street, ergo sum”.

The whole concept of our “footprint” was invented by the environmental movement, and an excellent one it is too. As I am endeavouring to show, it is applicable beyond one’s emission of CO2 via fossil fuels. But suppose the fundamental assumption is wrong? Suppose that the greenies were unduly generous to consider our footprint, our consumption, our waste, to be merely an unintended side-effect of our enjoyment of material goods? Suppose that it is nothing of the kind, but a fulfilment of man’s basic instinct, namely to exist, which means taking up space, which in turn means making a mess?

Any person, whether light or heavy, can walk either on the balls of her feet or on her heels. The latter creates about double the thump for the benefit of anyone nearby, let alone living beneath. So difficult is it to see any other benefit that this behaviour may well serve as shorthand for the whole syndrome of taking up more space in the world. What easier redress can be imagined for the low-status individual who might otherwise feel overlooked? “I stomp, ergo sum”.

The same goes for the voice. Some people simply have no indoor voices, they yell at one another across the kitchen as if at opposite ends of a football pitch. This costs energy, of course, but seems a price they are willing to pay. In the old days one could keep people awake all night only with the expenditure of resources, whether one’s own biological energy or the money to hire musicians. The very fact that the charivari or “rough music” was meant as a social punishment shows that people have always been well aware how distressing is nocturnal din. And yet in modern times, when you can keep the neighbours awake with the minimal expenditure of a trickle of electricity – and perhaps for that very reason – a culture has developed that considers continuous listening, or rather, consumption of sound, as an absolute and inalienable right. “You are kept awake, ergo sum”.

If people no longer understand, even theoretically, the desire of others for quiet, as surely even past roisterers did, this need be no great mystery. All we need to do is consider unbroken noise as their existential necessity, without which they do not feel that they take up any space in the world. That is to say, they fear that they do not exist. Thanks to the invention of the earbud, the existentially uncertain can now supply themselves with external validation every minute of the day without even coming into conflict with such dinosaurs as do not wish to be their auditory vassals. But external peace is no real objection, as, within their own subjectivity, their noise fills the world utterly, and accordingly so do they.

When considering roisterers and the extra space they take up in the world, we should ask ourselves whether the noise they make is the effect or the cause of what they call “having fun”. We assume that fun would be fun even if no one could hear them. It might be better to assimilate this thing called fun to the sound of the tree falling in a deserted forest. “Fun” is apparently something that cannot be had quietly, because then one would be missing out on the taking up of space in the world. And that would be no fun. Failing to identify this motivation leads us to miscategorise great swathes of human behaviour under the rubric of “humour”, whereas it is nothing of the kind. True amusement does not need to deafen the house, so something else must be going on here, meeting no definition of humour, wit, irony or anything similar.

People “having fun” do not roar, boom, squeal and giggle because anything really funny is being said. The phenomenon is akin to the way alcohol gives permission for the childish or unpleasant behaviour in which people want to indulge. The quite fictional presence of something claimed to be humour functions as a permission for roaring, booming, squealing and giggling, which is what people want to do, because it means that they take up more space in the world than someone contemplating nature or reading a book. And there is a Stadium Effect in operation: each actually quite humourless person needs to roar, boom, squeal and giggle louder than the previous player in order to be considered to have this thing called “humour” that authorises the noise. “I make a racket as if amused, ergo sum – and ergo, too, I am a better person than you sobersides.”

Finally, my universal theory might explain why some people keep horrendously yappy little dogs as opposed to a calmer kind. Instead of treating the noise as an accidental side-effect of a breed chosen for some other reason, let us assume that the hysterical aggression whenever they see another dog on a lead, or sometimes whenever they see anything at all, is the whole object of the exercise. “My dog yaps to wake the neighbourhood, ergo sum”.

Posted on February 24, 2018 at 14:07 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

On Rereading The Heike Monogatari

The people of this medieval Japanese epic are all Buddhists of a sort, just as the protagonists of the conemporary Western European epics are all Christians of a sort. Their Buddhism is, it is true, syncretised with the Shintō deities, but State Shintō is still seven centuries in the future. The two dominant Buddhist schools are Tendai, with the players performing pious exercises or more likely commissioning them from others, in precisely the same way as monastic observance in Christendom; and Pure Land, a characteristic Japanese approach that seems to resemble Luther’s salvation by faith alone.

What I did not find in the Heike Monogatari was what we have associated with the Japanese from the first Jesuit missionaries to James Clavell: a complete lack of the fear of death. There is, to be sure, a lot of suicide. Samurai men kill themselves by the sword, though the ritual of seppuku lies in the future; noble women drown themselves. But willing death is not at all the same thing as willing cessation of being. On the contrary, everybody in the epic reckons on coming back, quite possibly to be reunited with their loved ones in future existences. Some warriors even make death sound like a canny career move, such as the one who says, “If, as seems likely, I am named as a ringleader and imprisoned, banished or beheaded, I will consider it an honour in this life and something to remember in the next.” He makes his execution sound like a stop on the tourist trail.

Coexisting with reincarnation in the Heike Monogatari is a belief in Hell, the realm of the dead under Enma its royal employer of torturers. No character in the epic ever explains how these two concepts fit together and who gets which afterlife. In the same way, nobody is explicit about how return in another life goes with the paradise to which you will be conducted by the Amida Buddha if you sincerely recite the nembutsu. Perhaps the audience understood all this perfectly well, or perhaps the audience was itself muddled on the subject. At any rate, those in the epic who talk about the Pure Land are clearly yearning for it in precisely the same manner and degree as medieval Christians yearn for Heaven. However else we might describe the mentality of the death-defying samurai and their womenfolk in the Heike Monogatari, it is by no means a readiness for extinction. A conquest of the animal will-to-live it is not.

Posted on February 17, 2018 at 16:35 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Design Fault

Hens Do Not Eat Foxes

I have seen a book of cartoons called Lies To Tell Small Kids. If I remember correctly, this was actually a collection of wry observations for adults rather than what it said on the tin. There would definitely be a case, however, for a systematic and deadly serious charting of the terrible lies parents tell their children. Sometimes because they actually believe the nonsense themselves, sometimes because they believe it in a particular special sense of the word believe (that is, doublethinking it), and sometimes just because they can. The true motto of much parenting appears to be, “If you cannot achieve virtue then preach it to your captive audience, and give yourself credit for your empty rhetoric rather than your actions.”

Somewhere in this territory is the worldly wisdom about conflicts that parents serve up to their children, or at any rate used to in my time and place. The Big Lie here is that “it always takes two”. Parents consumed with unacknowledged aggression towards their own children may use this as an excuse to withhold sympathy; in effect they are saying, “but you must have done something to deserve what so-and-so did to you, we just don’t know what it was.”

Well, no. Unless you define “fight” in gladiatorial terms, making the proposition tautologous and so uninteresting, that it takes two to start a fight it is simply not true. If the party of the first part has set out to take something away from the party of the second part, in what way is this a fight that has taken two to start? The obvious answer is “if the victim has resisted”. The conqueror is a man of peace, said Napoleon, he wishes to enter the enemy capital unopposed! And so too for all aggressors, from dictators through domestic tyrants down to the playground bully: they all prefer not to be resisted. The victim has therefore to be prepared to resist the abuse and will accordingly be accused by his middle-class, appearances-obsessed parent and his servant the headmaster, of this thing called “fighting”.

One might ask what lesson he will learn for adult life. The aggressor certainly stands to learn how, if he plays his cards right, Authority will condemn his victim. Already we have accounted for the great bulk of the elite’s social narrative and how it whips up the neutrals against people who do not want to be despoiled. Presumably, therefore, the victim will learn fatalism. Out in adult society, some victims do fight back, sometimes even romanticising their own violence and inventing “systems” for it to overthrow. But if some employ these methods too soon and too widely, others employ them too late and take enormous pains to avoid the stigma of “fighting” that so upset their mothers. The best way to lose a civil war is not to notice that the other side has started one.

I take my title from a truth that is, as Chesterton liked to put it, too enormous to be seen. Not everything is symmetrical: foxes eat hens but hens do not eat foxes. Or are we really going to contemplate the feather-strewn coop and unthinkingly intone, “It always takes two”?

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 18, 2010)

What Is It With Those Fusion Furnaces?

We are not, of course, meant to stop and think about our involuntary consumption of elevator music and café background playlists, much less imagine a world in which one might drink and study and talk without them. A variation by which I have been horribly earwormed at Christmas is heavily reliant on the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, resulting in an awful lot of cheap rhymes about stars; swinging on them and so forth.

Now, I would nominate the phrase about swinging on a star as perhaps the most meaningless in the language, not only literally but also metaphorically. Does anyone have any notion of what they might mean, even as the laziest emotional shorthand, by “swinging on a star”? Could I actually be the first person to have thought to ask the question?

Insofar as any metaphorical content in this crooners’ language of stars is detectible, it is not, as in Shakespeare and elsewhere, about fate and destiny. Rather, it appears to have something to do with human desire. In this genre wanting something is often expressed, and apparently in some mysterious manner elevated, by the equally jejune metaphor of “dreams”. Some other day I should like to unpack the way we make our nocturnal processing of experience into such a weighty metaphor, amounting to spiritual authority, for the things we imagine we want.

Insofar anything in particular is being said in these popular songs about human desire and intention, I suspect it may be actually rather sinister. Because if there is something I have learned from far too much involuntary exposure to the era of the Rat Pack, it is that this business of dreams does not need to be formulated in anything resembling words; female trilling is quite sufficient to suggest dreaming on a star and so forth. This may not be some random aesthetic choice but may represent a subliminal instruction. The backing singers, therefore, are a sign of religious validation, and the message is that desires backed by the Eternal Feminine are not to be questioned.

Cultural Odds and Ends
(Fiddle date-stamp to December 31, 2011)

Oppression Means Having To Tidy Your Room

There is a lot to be said for the notion of social structures. Without it, for example, the rich would have a much easier time telling us how they have all that money only because they have earned it through their unique virtue.

On the other hand, practically every day we hear social structures adduced as an unbreakable self-defence against the taking of personal responsibility. An algorithm that would enable us infallibly to distinguish legitimate analysis from sophomoric excuses would be a nice thing to have, but I doubt it exists. Adults may recognise the refusal to grow up when they see it, but the infantile take no notice of anything they say. Perhaps we should have a sub-discipline of psychology studying the conditions (contingent and by no means inevitable) under which an individual finally abandons a lifetime of claiming that “X Made Them Do It”.

Karl Popper taught us to find meaningfulness, not in any positive quality of a proposition but in the thought experiment of asking how we would attack its veracity. If, he said, a proposition could never be disproved, then it was not so much false as meaningless. My own everyday version of this is to ask of any claim, “Well, and how could it be otherwise?” If the claimant has no idea of how things could be otherwise, we must wonder about his assertion. For example, the proposition that all banknotes are false falls by its inherent absurdity, since there must be genuine banknotes to be faked; the very word false has no meaning except as a contrast to genuine.

The application of this touchstone to female chauvinism is obvious: when such a person claims that she has been oppressed in some dealings with a man, we should ask her what possible interaction would go free of her concept of oppression. If she cannot reply, if every possible transaction oppresses her, then this is not a real argument but merely a “Heads I win, tails you lose” game. In such circumstances, her stating that she is oppressed is simply stating that she exists – it has no other content. One begins to imagine what form her adolescent surliness must have taken.

(Fiddle date-stamp to November 20, 2010)

Barred From Eliot’s Heaven

According to Little Gidding, our exasperated spirits may be “restored by that refining fire, Where you must move in measure, like a dancer”.

In that case I myself am doomed, because I have never had the slightest understanding of why human beings perform this thing called dancing. From the outside, I might be able to see how some kind of subjection of our fallen wills to given rules could be what the poet means by “moving in measure”. Not being a psychopath, I can assent to that in theory. I can obey rules, certainly, but nevertheless cannot begin to dance, neither formally nor even in the modern throwing-your-arms-about sense.

Being unable to do the latter might have something to do with my fear of making a public idiot of myself, which is unfortunately stronger than anything else I might want to “express”. Perhaps that is the sin of pride.

Not being able to follow a dance of formal steps, whether as waltz or barn-dance, may be something different. It is probably related to a lack of understanding of one’s place in the world, and that in turn is almost certainly something that adults can create in their offspring. All they need to do is to define the child not primarily in relation to the larger world, but in relation to their own selves, in intimate isolation. Clearly all infants begin that way, but they ought not to be kept there. Then again, to riff on Schiller’s famous quote: against the narcissistic parent’s need for a pet, the gods themselves struggle in vain.

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 18, 2010)

Posted on January 20, 2018 at 16:01 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · One Comment

The Mythology Of Will

I have mentioned elsewhere that the concept Schopenhauer termed “the Will” was not at all the same as that celebrated in the film Triumph of the Will. As the underlying reality of the universe, the Kantian ding-am-sich, he meant something like the Bergsonian élan vital or the Shavian life-force, and not the mere imposition of what some people want upon what other people want. Which latter may be considered our first popular meaning.

Another very common meaning of “will” is the ability to persist with one’s desiderata. This may be considered misleading on the grounds that persistence is not a matter of how “hard” you will a thing, whatever “hard” may mean here, but only on what obstacles will make you give it up.

A third thing people call by “will” is best seen in popular novels of magic, an excellent example being Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The eponymous magical practitioner is forever “gathering up his will” to achieve things in the external universe. We meet the same thing in the common device of “metapsychic” powers, especially telekinesis or “mind over matter” as it used to be known: the idea seems to be that a telekinetic’s mere will is causative.

The magician’s will seems to involve some kind of effort, but it is never clear exactly what this might mean, because moving our own limbs involves no great grunting and straining. Moving the limb against outer resistance, by all means, but that is not the same thing. If we raise a healthy arm in empty air, it does not feel like striving to overcome constipation; the willing and the accomplishing appear to be precisely the same thing. As in the Nike slogan, we “just do it”. And if there is no grunting and groaning “exercise of will” to raise our arm, why should we believe in some strenuous putting-forth of our “wills” in order to move things at a distance, that is, to do magic? If we really could call up demons by our “wills”, it would surely be no harder than wanting to hum and so humming.

If wanting something “badly” does not feel like straining to lift a weight, it must then be a way of saying that we are prepared to sacrifice more to get what we want, either our own interests or preferably someone else’s. That being so, it should go without saying that the notion of one man being more potent at magic by virtue of having a stronger will is nonsense, other than in the sense of being more content to wade through more blood. Which brings us back again to Triumph of the Will.

The whole concept of some inner homunculus strenuously pulling at ropes and pulleys in order to move the body should be recognised as just that, a model, and all models may be mistaken. This model of effortful willing may in fact be a projection from the ownership of slave labour.

(Fiddle date-stamp to July 16, 2011)

Posted on January 11, 2018 at 14:52 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · One Comment
In: THE LONGEST CON, From Rationalism to New Age

The Consequence Of Secret Stalinism

Millions of netizens seem to regard their right of “free speech” as meaning a duty incumbent on all hearers to agree with them, or at least not to express disagreement. Every day you can witness somebody explicitly claiming that your having a different opinion is a criminal denial of their rights. Moreover, any reluctance to stroke their egos seems to constitute “oppression”. I would not be the first to point out how freedom of speech has been misconceived as a guarantee, not of personal safety in public speech, but of popularity.

I would suggest that, against the background of such breathtaking ignorance and intolerance, nay online Stalinism, the whole conceptualisation of “hate speech” is a thoroughly bad idea.

In a reasonable world, getting up on your hind legs and yelling “Kill the Outgroup!” would be deemed to fall under the traditional exception to freedom of speech, namely that you are not free to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. We could then usefully discuss where precisely the boundaries should go between saying, “The Outgroup is Naughty” and “Kill the Outgroup!”

Again, in a reasonable world, saying that the outgroup is naughty should not lead to people descending on it with torches and pitchforks, but we do not live in a reasonable world. In Tsarist Russia, the acronym “HEP” was not an expression of an intellectual position but a call to murder all the Jews of the town. In Rwanda, the radio instructed people to kill the cockroaches, that is, the Tutsis, and behold, people went out and killed them. So under certain circumstances, saying certain words must fall outside free expression.

On the other hand, we do not live in a reasonable enough world for a person’s feelings of this and that to be allowed to abrogate freedom of speech. This is because people do not have strong feelings solely as an unavoidable consequence of being oppressed. Having your feelings hurt is by no means dependent on the real and objective actions of other parties. For people manufacture their feelings, cultivate them like hothouse blooms, exaggerate them and lie about them. Especially when they can get something out of it, such as attention, power and pecuniary compensation.

This means that none of us are safe from your claiming that we have hurt your feelings. It is like the old Metropolitan Police offence of “causing suspicion” in the mind of a police officer, against which no defence was even theoretically possible. The sole criterion was the existence of a subjective phenomenon in the mind of the police officer, for which we only had his word. This phenomenon was disproportionately invoked at the sight of a black citizen. Do we really want this to be our modern epistemological model?

No, sanctions should be attracted only by our actual behaviour, our demonstrable acts, and not by the creation of alleged emotional states in other people with their own axes to grind. This gives far too much power to people whose core skill is throwing tantrums.

(Fiddle date-stamp to October 19, 2009)

On The Truly Hidden

When mystics go on (and on, and on) about the Oneness of things, or about how everything is a unity, Hugo tends to go switch-off. It seems as much a meaningless babble as the invocations of Red Indian spirit guides by Victorian con-women wearing turbans and lots of bling.

One fine day, however, the Arabic expression Ahadiyyat al-‘ayn, or “Uniqueness of Essence”, suddenly seemed to make sense. This was because most of our knowledge is gained from comparing things and noting their similarities. Essence or Being as such, if we dare use such a simple noun for “the totality of what exists”, by definition cannot be compared with things that are like it. As Popper said of History, something there is only one of cannot support inductive generalisations. Is it really too much of a stretch to say the same of the Everything-That-Is? If we may be said to know Being, therefore, it cannot be the same sort of knowledge as when we know individual things within Being. Perhaps Hegel or Heidegger said it better, I do not know, but that was at any rate how Hugo saw it that one fine day.

Schopenhauer said something in the same general area when he cautioned that all the original forces of Nature are a qualitas occulta. As Hume had already realised, we cannot observe causation, only the repetitiousness of something happening after another thing and in close proximity. From which Kant decided that causation was a product of our own minds. All this talk of “forces” is therefore as much bullshit as that spouted by the table-tapper; we know that stuff happens, but the “forces” are as fictitious as her Big Chief who has nothing better to do all eternity than tell the paying public that their dear departeds send their regards.

In the same way, we cannot easily expound why some things are so, even when they seem intuitively obvious.This is because, says Schopenhauer, the principle of sufficient reason, in its four forms (cause, logical consequence, existence and motivation) is absolutely inexplicable. For it is the principle of explanation itself. If we call on a person to explain something, we ought to have a concept of what “explanation” actually means, and not demand that he tell us while explaining the first thing.

And yet, “Everyone knows without further help what the world is, for he himself is the subject of knowing of which the world is representation.” What philosophy does, says Schopenhauer, is merely to reproduce our concrete knowledge of the world in the abstract. Well, then, so the Everything-That-Is is after all knowable, we know it in the direct and undeniable manner that a fox knows what the hen is. But when the mystics make a meal of this knowledge, claiming to have something exclusive, they never say that theirs is the fox’s knowledge of the hens, nor yet its rephrasing in terms of philosophical abstracts. Rather, they seem to be claiming it as a third thing entirely, about which they can naturally tell us nothing more without a paid subscription.

Posted on December 28, 2017 at 15:34 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: THE LONGEST CON, From Rationalism to New Age

The Chivalry Paradox

In some jurisdictions far more fuss is made about “violence against women” than about violence against harmless old men, say, or against male children. Were there to be a serial murderer who conscientiously killed equal numbers of male and female innocents, the progressive dailies could still be relied on to banner-headline with “Violence against women”. At least ten men would have to be done to death for every woman before the editors condescended to take notice.

Now, upon what could this possibly be based other than the old-school value of “chivalry” – a value that is at the same time derided as hand-wavingly sharing a nature (neither dividing the substance nor confounding the persons) with phallocratic violence? Were a progressive to be asked to explain just precisely why violence against women was so uniquely heinous, it may be doubted whether she could in fact do so, without either citing the alleged innocence of women in men’s power-games, (although most men who suffer violence are merely seeking to pass and repass the thoroughfare just as innocently), or else invoking some inherent sacredness or at least superiority of the female sex (of the same kind as she has spent her life opposing whenever claimed by men).

I read in Antony Beevor that the German ambassador was shocked at Franco’s insouciant signature of death sentences for captured female soldiers. Under the laws of war, prisoners of war are anyway not to be executed, but that is not what shocked the German. It was the killing of specifically female opponents. Well, then, perhaps one should go the whole hog and decree that if a female soldier shoots at you, you do not get to shoot back?

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 23, 2011)