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 that one might as well term metaphysical. Perhaps we might call it a thirst for completion.

Whether or not you think this particular unifying principle works, trying to identify basic 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
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

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