The touchline, or its prehistoric equivalent, is what makes us human.
I have thought about this a great deal, but am still worried that it’s the kind of anthropological speculation that has no force. Anyway, here it comes.
There have been many suggestions as to what, if anything, makes humans different to animals.
One is that humans use tools and animals don’t. Here, you have to be very accurate about what you define as a tool. And this seems a weaker and weaker argument – but the defining moment at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey shows, simultaneously, weaponization and humanization. Our ancestor learns to use dead bone to crush live bone. Ape becomes man, and a jump-cut suggests that everything that follows was causally inevitable: the technology of death is always already high-tech.
Other proposed differences are that humans can anticipate their own deaths and animals can’t. That humans have written language (ignoring the scent-signs of dogs). That humans are possessed of immortal souls, granted us by a divine being. That humans tell stories.
It is also suggested not that humans play games (kittens do), but that humans have sports.
I would counter this, and I am sure I am not alone, by saying that our humanity depends upon our ability to draw a line in the sand. (Latterly, to paint touchlines.)
On a more essential level, the drawing of the line in the sand creates a meaning. That’s our terrible gift – to create from space, place.
(Sun Ra chanted ‘Space is the Place’ – philosophically, that’s just wrong. (I think Sun Ra meant more like ‘the place to be’.) Space isn’t the place or even a place. Until we make a place of it, space is just space. And as soon as it becomes place, it ceases forever to be space. Even if the earth is vaporized and the vapor infinitely dispersed, it will still remain as a place – the place in space where place once was. This is existentially different to space that has never been anything other than space. In which case, maybe what Sun Ra meant was ‘Space will be the place’.
Animals can create territory, but they cannot create spaces. They do not have a there and a here. (This is the origin of Heidegger’s word for what we are, and what other beings may be, da-sein. There-being, place-holding.) The interior of a beehive is just that, the interior of a beehive. Conditions inside it (light, humidity) are objectively different to those outside. But climactic conditions within the circle of Stonehenge are exactly the same as conditions outside. What has been created there, on a very sophisticated level, is a sacred space. (I am using the word sacred here in a minimal way; because it’s less cumbersome than existentially different.)
I, as a human, can stand with you, as a human, on a flat beach, and with my finger I can draw a circle in the sand, and point to it and say something about it. For example, ‘If you step inside this circle, the person you love most will soon die horribly.’
Now, whatever you may think of me, or of sacred spaces, the space within that drawn circle has – whether you like it or not – become existentially different. It has become a meaningful space, a place. If you step inside the circle with bravado, you have acted in relation to that created meaning. You do not need to believe I am a shaman or a magician in order for this to work.
Just as equally, because we are both human, you could draw a circle in the sand and existentially define it for me. ‘If you step inside this circle, you will gain your heart’s desire.’
Yet what you say about the space of the circle, and what its threshold means, is secondary. The important moment comes as I watch you draw the circle, silently. I realise, because I am human, that meaningful space is being created. Space is being turned into place. And meaningful space, which may have begun with the circle surrounding the fire in the cave, has continued through stone circles, the cathedral, the international border, the core of the nuclear reactor, the social network.
Humans, like sports coaches, can create a space with relation to which you can only either be in or out. Animals can’t do that; they don’t have in and out.
I think this ability, making place from space, precedes language – although equivalents to in and out would have been among the first truly necessary words.
In and out are, I’m not denying, related to territory, as in animal territory. ‘Don’t to in there, a lion lives in there’ or ‘Don’t go past that tree, a monster will kill you if you go past that tree’ – these are very useful warnings, meanings, to be able to convey. But warning is different to the drawing of a circle.
From the drawing of a circle follows all drama – within this space, I am re-enacting, acting, telling. I am not myself.
Archaeologists say they are unsure exactly what was the purpose of Stonehenge. With certainty, I would say, the purpose of Stonehenge was to make the space within it mean something different to the space outside it. Stonehenge makes a place. What archaeologists are trying to discover is the meaning of that purpose, the meaning of that meaning. (The meaning of a meaning is something very hard to excavate.)
Similarly, the purpose of the touchline is to make the space within it mean something different to the space outside it. Here, it says, is a place where…
And while my son is on the playing field, he is within a differently meaningful and a meaningfully different place. He is, whether I like it or not, within a sacred space.
The pitch is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
The law of the land recognizes this difference: if you slide-tackled another man on the street, you could be done for assault and battery. Although the law has changed recently, with regard to acts of violence that take place on the football pitch being prosecutable, it’s still true that the game could not take place without the players agreeing to tolerate (whilst on the pitch) physical treatment they would find intolerable once off it. There was outrage recently during a match between two Premier League teams, when a player slid into another player who was off the pitch and was not (because he could not be) given a yellow or red card.
A fox can stroll through Stonehenge without noticing anything other than that its progress is obstructed, here and there, by stones; I cannot stroll through Stonehenge – I, because I am human, enter it.
Similarly with Notre Dame cathedral. Whether you are atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh – you still enter Notre Dame cathedral, and you still step onto the pitch at Wembley.
I take the touchline seriously. If I cross it during a match, and go onto the pitch, it means something.
(It is interesting to think about why we say ‘on’ the football or cricket pitch, on the field rather than ‘in’ the pitch. I think it is because the meaningful difference of the space has gone so culturally deep that it has penetrated the actual playing surface – the very grass itself has become one with this meaning. When people speak of the ‘sacred turf’ of Anfield or Lords, they mean exactly this. The touchline itself is almost no longer perceived – that space would remain sacred even were the painted boundary removed. Similarly, if you cut a divot out from beside the penalty spot of Anfield or the wicket at Lords, it retains its aura even if you transport it to the moon. (However, you can’t play on it.) Wrestling and boxing remain closer to the origin of the line drawing. The playing surface isn’t sacralised: you are in the ring, and if we move the ring ten metres to the left, and you walk ten metres to the left, you’ll still be in the ring. If you are on centre court at Wimbledon, you can’t be that if you are ten metres to the left.)
Humankind may exist within a bubble of meaning, and outside that bubble meaning may not exist, but even if that bubble pops it will still once have existed, and that means something different (even outside the bubble) than if it had never existed.
By our meaningful existence, we change the meaning of everything else that exists. Unless, of course, we have no meaning – unless there is no bubble. But that doesn’t work either. Even if this non-bubble pops, or doesn’t pop, what is left behind still exists in relation to the delusory belief in meaning. (Even if our belief in our meaningfulness is a delusion, that delusion is qualitatively different to meaninglessness.) It could truthfully be said of us, even if it never will be said, Once there were beings who believed themselves to be meaningful. The fact that, in the future perfect, it could possibly be said, even if there is no saying because no entity capable of saying anything – the fact is significant, is meaningful. Perhaps it is even consolatory. When Mitsuko Uchida playing Schubert is gone, Mitsuko Uchida playing Schubert will still meaningfully have existed. (By which I mean, within the bubble.) When you are gone – and all that relates to you is gone – you, and it, will still have meaningfully existed. When the meaning of the meaning of your existence is gone, it will still – whatever effaces the totality of things – it will still once have been.
I imagine a civilization on earth that rose and fell biodegradably; they existed, they were meaningful, where we have been, and we know nothing of them. They left no fossil record. Yet we still ourselves exist in the context of our ignorance of them. Just as the fact of gravity obtained before Newton, so the fact of Civilization X obtains even in our ignorance of it.
Similarly, the meaning humanity is altered, essentially, by the existence or non-existence of other forms of being out in space (or, you’ll say if you’ve followed me, in their fardistant places) far beyond our touchlines.