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Fall 2004

Nuisance Value

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Adam Phillips

"Interesting philosophy," Richard Rorty writes in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, "is rarely an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis. Usually it is, implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things...it [the half-formed new vocabulary] says things like, 'try thinking of it this way'— or more specifically, 'try to ignore the apparently futile traditional philosophical questions by substituting the following new and possibly interesting questions.'"

For there to be a change (whether or not it is considered to be progress), Rorty suggests, something has had to begin to feel like a nuisance. But this entrenched vocabulary has to begin to seem like a nuisance—to seem like an irritant, or an obstacle, or a saboteur—for something new to happen. Clearly, at least in philosophy, people have to be able to have the nuisance experience. Either this vocabulary becoming a nuisance is itself an inspiration; or inspiration—or Rorty's version of inspiration that he calls redescription—is spurred by the nuisance experience. It is as though one is frustrated into experimentation—try thinking of it this way; or that the old entrenched vocabulary makes some new things sound baffling or implausible. The nuisance effect of the entrenched vocabulary is that it makes one want to ignore it—its apparently futile traditional philosophical questions—and start replacing it with new questions. Certain vocabularies make certain sorts of questions possible. It is not working through that Rorty recommends, it is ignoring and substitution; not mourning, but moving off and moving on.

Something about what Rorty calls, in his blandly tendentious phrase, "interesting philosophy" needs a nuisance. So it is worth wondering what it might be about an entrenched or familiar vocabulary that would make it into a nuisance. You might feel, for example, that there was something that mattered a great deal to you that you couldn't get, or get at, in the vocabulary available; but this old vocabulary would have to exist for you to have this feeling. You would be dependent on the way in which it frustrated you; because this very frustration would be a prompt. The old vocabulary would pester you with what it couldn't do for you, with the roads not taken by that set of words. Indeed the thing about nuisance is that, by definition, it won't leave you alone; you can't ignore it until you come up with a way of ignoring that works. If a substitute is a constant reminder of what it is substituting for—if a new lover becomes a compulsory and compulsive allusion to the one you have lost—it is a mixed blessing. When we are talking about something or someone becoming a nuisance, we are trying to describe a specific kind of conflict that is called up in us; we are describing being set a task, but a discomfiting one. We don't tend to make claims for our nuisances —people often describe children as nuisances, but ideally no one wants a nuisance, or to be one. What Rorty is drawing our attention to is how the interesting philosopher needs to be able to notice the nuisance value of an entrenched vocabulary. Whether a nuisance is an invitation or an opportunity or more obviously an annoyance, it is a demand. We may not want to be a nuisance—though why we don't is worth wondering about; but we do, Rorty implies, need to be able to have the nuisance experience. It is a nuisance when we are made to attend to something that we would rather not. Clearly nuisance and the notion of resistance, of preferring not to, go together. But whether the nuisance is, to use an entrenched vocabulary, the cause or the consequence of resistance —whether we resist something because it is a nuisance, or it is a nuisance because we resist it—is never so clear. How we make something or someone a nuisance, and what we use nuisances to do, and what, if anything, this might have to do with what was called (in an older entrenched vocabulary) appreciation of the arts, is the gist of this paper.

Rorty's blithe and impressively light-hearted solution to the nuisance of an entrenched philosophical vocabulary is to regard its traditional questions as apparently futile, ignore them, and replace them with new and possibly more interesting questions. And psychoanalysis is of a piece with this kind of jaunty pragmatism, insofar as one of the things Freud showed us was just how inventive we are at ignoring things we don't like and substituting things we prefer. The only difference is that for Freud this is often the problem rather than any kind of solution; from a psychoanalytic point of view, it has always been the best and worst thing about us that we are able to replace a negative hallucination with a positive hallucination, that we can turn pain into pleasure, at least for the time being. Nuisance, we could say, is the compliment we give to the unacceptable when we want it to be merely annoying; the nuisance never lets go, but it doesn't drive us mad (we don't describe stalkers as a nuisance; we don't say, unless we are characters in an Evelyn Waugh novel, that it is a nuisance to fall in love, or a nuisance when people die). Nuisance, in other words, makes us think of the inconvenient rather than the repressed; and therefore, perhaps, it is not suitable as a term of art. We may at least claim to like art that disturbs us, but we don't tend to describe a poem or a painting or a piece of music as a nuisance, even if their makers often are. We use the word nuisance when there is something that we don't want to be bothered by, but are. The relative blandness of the term is reassuring; it reminds us of our passion for convenience, the narcissism of small conflicts, the wish to be left alone. As a determined pragmatist, Rorty, in passing, also wants us to use nuisance. If something becomes a nuisance, you can do something about it. And doing something about it, for Rorty, is doing without it. If a nuisance is something you can't ignore, then at its best it will prompt you to find more productive ways of ignoring, better substitutes.

And yet what is odd about the contest Rorty describes between the new more interesting philosophy and the older entrenched vocabulary is that it is a contest in which one party is encouraged to ignore the words of the other. And, of course, a nuisance is something by definition that you can't ignore; if you could ignore it, it wouldn't become a nuisance. Indeed, that peculiar act of trying to ignore someone or something—the act of seeing and then having to persuade yourself that you haven't really seen, or don't really need to look—is what you start doing with a nuisance. A nuisance is nothing if not good at engaging you; and then at having to deal with all the ways in which one resists being engaged. A nuisance is someone who does and doesn't take no for an answer. But there is, as Rorty intimates, a contest of sorts—an albeit ignoble or mock-heroic one—whenever there is a nuisance around. Though what is striking about nuisance, and so of some interest, is that unlike the artworks we would prefer to make and admire, the nuisance, the nag, and the pest don't tend to bring out the best in us, or in themselves. On the whole, no one wants to be a nuisance; and yet there are clearly situations, predicaments, in which it may be necessary to be able to be one; or, as we say, put up with one.

We don't think of the users or promoters of an entrenched vocabulary as trying or wanting to make a nuisance of themselves, though, given how unacceptable it is to be a nuisance, perhaps we should begin to notice just how much nuisance artfulness is there to conceal or make more pleasing (the word obsession, one could say, pathologizes nuisance just as the word preoccupation aestheticizes it). Every child has to learn how to be a nuisance and how not to be, because nuisance is one of the forms demand takes, even if we think of it as a peculiarly unimaginative, monotonous, and insistent form. All children have to make whatever is insistent about them more winning. It is clearly very difficult, for example, to grow up in an environment in which appetite is considered to be a nuisance, an interruption, rather than something taken for granted. The child's appetite, one would think, will only be a nuisance if treated as such by the adults upon whom he is dependent; but if it is treated as a nuisance by the adults, then the child will have to take on being a nuisance in order to survive. In the face of exasperation and impatience and avoidance, he will have to persist; so wherever we make a nuisance of ourselves—or notice that we are trying not to make a nuisance of ourselves—there is some kind of unmet or unrecognized need (as the psychoanalyst Andre Green says, in a different context: wherever a grievance is, there was a trauma). In this picture, to be unable to complain would be to have abolished one's history. Nuisance and wanting go together even if we prefer them separate. If nuisance is need insufficiently transformed—the bad art of wanting—if nuisance, like many repetitions, is the sign of something thwarted or blocked or stalled, then it would be worth wondering what would have to happen for someone to never need to be a nuisance, or, perhaps more interestingly, for them never to experience someone or something else as a nuisance. Or to put it the other way round, which are the predicaments in which nuisance is a necessity? Whenever there is impoverishment and a kind of hopeless hope that it can ever be met—or turned into something else—we will find nuisance abounding. The nuisance, in other words—and the nuisance in oneself—is an interesting figure because of the assumptions he makes. He is living as if he knows exactly what he wants but for all sorts of reasons the other person doesn't want to give it to him. So it is easy for us to think of children, often benignly, as making a nuisance of themselves, and more difficult for us to think this of, say, people begging, who, broadly speaking, we experience as a nuisance but try extremely hard to make them and ourselves feel that they are not. If we don't give money to people begging in the street, are we withholding something that belongs to them? People divide significantly around their answers to this question, which is also about what it means to find someone else a nuisance, or to manage one's response to them by experiencing them as a nuisance. If someone begging on the street weren't a nuisance, what would he be?

In George Orwell's chronicle Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, Orwell asks the question, "Why are beggars despised?"


I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except 'Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it'? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised...A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand.


In Orwell's view, we despise beggars because they don't earn through work, and because they are poor. If money has become the grand test of virtue, we will be unduly suspicious of those who don't have it. Of course, as Orwell knows, we are duly suspicious of those who have a lot of it. But the point Orwell is keen to make—which seems slightly odd—is that we despise beggars because what they do is not profitable, because they are not good at what they do. Orwell stresses that there is no "essential difference between beggars and ordinary working men"; it's just that beggars, like children, don't work and don't make money. And this is so despicable that the state makes begging illegal; to get money the beggar has to seem to be actually doing something. "As the law now stands," Orwell writes,


if you approach a stranger and ask him for twopence, he can call a policeman and get you seven days for begging. But if you make the air hideous by droning "Nearer, my God, to Thee" or scrawl some chalk daubs on the pavement, or stand about with a tray of matches—in short, if you make a nuisance of yourself—you are held to be following a legitimate trade and not begging. Match-selling and street-singing are simply legalized crimes.


There are in fact several pages in the book about a street-artist, pages in which Orwell is clearly wondering what so-called artists, including himself as a writer, are actually doing now in this pre- and post-war society in which money has become a grand test of virtue, and in which virtue has a quite different kind of purchase on the imagination. But in Orwell's calculated list of match-sellers, street-singers, and pavement artists—who are, in his view, on a continuum with all the other businessmen in the culture—it is only by these people making a nuisance of themselves that they can "be held to be following a legitimate trade and not begging." You have to make a nuisance of yourself to remain within the law; but also, Orwell implies, this is what all businessmen are doing, which is why this has become a test of the legitimacy that is legality. Everyone in this society has to force himself on other people's attention and sell them something they don't really want, let alone need. You have to make a nuisance of yourself to get on. Business is like bad art—hideous droning, scrawling daubs on the pavement; someone makes a nuisance of himself and gets away with it. The picture Orwell conjures—which, as always with Orwell, is far subtler than he is telling us that it is—is of people paying off these people in order to be able to forget about them. To use Rorty's word, the police can ignore the beggar if he is droning or scrawling or selling matches; and the passersby give them money so they can pass them by. Beggars make a nuisance of themselves so people will give them money to stop them being a nuisance. Making a nuisance of yourself is an invitation to other people to do something that will stop you being a nuisance. We have to find legitimate ways of begging, of asking for what we need. Orwell is saying that in the society he lives in, everyone is a beggar, but in order to distract us from this hideous fact, we have to be seen to be selling something; and to do that—to, as they say, make money—you have to find a way of making a nuisance of yourself. What the real beggars in the culture make patent is how, in this culture, making a nuisance of yourself has to be redescribed—as being an artist, or being a businessman, or indeed being a policeman—to make it sufficiently acceptable. The beggar who makes a profitable nuisance of himself is Orwell's representative modern person. In this exchange, the beggar gives the nuisance he has made, of himself, for money. It is as though a nuisance is the most minimal thing one can make of oneself. The starkest gift. At the raw end of the spectrum there is being a nuisance; at the cooked end there is being a nuisance without seeming to be one. Criminals, Orwell seems to imply in the book, are the people we punish for being a nuisance; artists are the people we reward for being a nuisance; successful businessmen are criminals disguised as artists.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell uses art and artists, including himself, to talk about poverty; both its provenance and its effects. For the people Orwell describes and lived with, poverty was not a meta-phor; it was not a useful analogy, as it could have been for Orwell himself, who was not without means. It is, in a sense, the project of the book to stop poverty being used as an analogy, to undo his and our horrified voyeur-ism of the poor. And the poor, Orwell suggests, are forced to make a nuisance of themselves, and to be seen only as a nuisance. Successful artists and businessmen—Orwell's other two categories that he wants to lump together—have to make a nuisance of themselves, but in a way that makes them seem to be something other than a nuisance. The artist is the person for whom making a nuisance of himself works. Indeed, works so well that nuisance would be the last word we would use about the work (if not about the artist). So we might ask: what kind of nuisance is this particular work of art, and why don't we want it to be one? How have we and the artist conspired to stop it being a nuisance so that it could be something else more satisfying? And this would not be to assume that any artwork could be reduced to its nuisance value, so much as to draw attention to the nuisance value of the art. Because once we can find the nuisance—like Rorty's interesting new philosopher stuck with the old entrenched vocabulary—we can ourselves begin to get to work. A nuisance, if we can do something with it, gives us something to be going on with.

In a talk given in 1945 called "Home Again," about children returning home after being evacuated during the war, the psychoanalyst and pediatrician D. W. Winnicott wrote of how these children needed to test the home environment in order to rediscover its reliability. After all, if one has been sent away once, one could be sent away again. The child, Winnicott writes,


begins to be cheeky, to lose his temper, to waste your food, to try to worry you and to interfere with your other interests. He may very likely try out a little thieving, testing how true it is that you are really his mother, and so in a sense what is yours is his. These can all be signs of a step forward in development—the first stage of a sense of security, although maddening from your point of view. The child has had to be his own strict father and mother while he has been away, and you may be sure that he has had to be over-strict with himself to be on the safe side...Now, however, at home with you, he will be able to take holidays from self-control, for the simple reason that he will leave the business of control to you. Some children have been living in artificial and overdone self-control for years, and it can be assumed that when they begin to let mother take over control once more they are going to be a bit of a nuisance from time to time.


Winnicott is describing the developmental necessity of the returning child's freedom to be a nuisance. If the child enacts his personal repertoire of anti-social behavior and the parents still love him and keep him—if he gives the environment what Winnicott calls "the full blast of his hatred," and it and he remain in touch and remain intact—then he has discovered a home he can trust in, and entrust himself to. If the parents can't allow the child to be a bit of a nuisance, the child cannot find his way back to the parents. Being a nuisance is the way the child makes a home to return to. But this involves not the parents' so-called unconditional love and acceptance, but the parents' being able to experience the child as a nuisance—hate him for it, if need be—and giving the child time to become lovable again. In Winnicott's view, the object becomes real by being hated; we can only love real people, or discover people to be real, when they have withstood our hatred. Nuisance is the nice word for the hateful exchange that a relationship can survive, and by surviving can become resilient rather than merely wishful.

So what Winnicott calls "the nuisance value of the symptoms" is always a sign of hope in the child. If the child is prepared to be difficult, he is at least hoping that there is a world he can live in as himself, with all his love and hate. "The nuisance value of the anti-social child," Winnicott writes, "is an essential feature, and is also, at its best, a favorable feature indicating again a potentiality for recovery..." All the child's so-called anti-social behavior, one could say—all his stealing, lying, incontinence, and so on—are simply the form his entitlement to have parents takes. The child is living as if, living in hope that, people can recognize, meet and where necessary withstand his need. It is the child who can't be difficult, the child who is too fearful to make a nuisance of himself, that we should be really worried about. The child who is a bit of a nuisance wants more life, wants the better life that can include whatever his development is going to be. The child who is no trouble may have given up hope. For Winnicott, the mother's "willingness to meet the claims arising out of frustration, claims that begin to have a nuisance value," gives the deprived child somewhere to start from again.

But it is clear from this picture that what Winnicott calls the nuisance value of the symptom only exists if the environment both experiences the nuisance and comprehends it as a message, a message about a deprivation. Being a nuisance, in other words, is a precarious process; it demands a great deal of the environment it makes around it. And it is a considerable act of faith. The nuisance value of the symptom resides in the symptom being given value in the way it is responded to. When a nuisance is experienced merely as a nuisance, when a nuisance is taken too literally, when a nuisance goes on being a nuisance, it is a missed opportunity. In an older entrenched language, one could say, it takes courage to make a nuisance of oneself—the kind of courage that is involved in being prepared to try and make the kind of world that one can actually live in. For Winnicott, given that deprivation is endemic to human development, the capacity to be a nuisance and the capacity to bear with a nuisance are tantamount to the capacity one has to live one's own life. And this involves a willingness to interrupt and be interrupted. So taken is Winnicott by the notion of nuisance that he wants to posit it as a need of what he was keen to call human nature. "It has often been said," he says in a paper of 1957 entitled "Integrative and Disruptive Factors in Family Life," "as a joke and with truth that children are a nuisance; but coming at the right time in a relationship they are the right kind of nuisance. There seems to be something in human nature that expects a nuisance, and it is better that this nuisance should be a child than an illness or an environmental disaster." Expecting a nuisance, of course, is different from needing one. It is as if Winnicott is referring to a kind of magic; we expect a nuisance and if we are lucky it will be just that, not a catastrophe. It's a bit like saying we expect to be interrupted, to have our lives disrupted, but preferably by good things. Expecting a nuisance, ideally, is like expecting a child. And expecting nuisance as part of human nature is presumably expecting things not to be as we want them to be, expecting our lives not to be as we expect them to be. For Winnicott nuisance, unlike trauma, is potentially just the right amount of unsettlement.

But to call something or someone a nuisance—and I think Winnicott may be alluding to this—is to be uncertain of its significance. Do we use the word nuisance to reassure ourselves that we have domesticated a trauma, that we have transformed something shocking into something irritating, that nuisances don't link us to our losses and our lapses? Or is a nuisance what we say it is, a low-key disturbance, not a derivative or an echo or a clue to something graver? It is possible that we call things or people nuisances precisely when they baffle that distinction, or when they provoke us into ignoring it. A nuisance puts us in this difficult position, the position of wanting something to go away, the position of being forced to take something seriously that one doesn't want to be serious about. When Strachey's Freud in "The Question of Lay Analysis" refers to "the fact that neurotics are a nuisance and an embarrassment for all concerned-including the analysts," he is also referring to the fact that even psychoanalysts who had found a new way of valuing neurotics didn't necessarily like them. Nuisance may be inspired—by memory, by the meaning that is desire. Being able to be a nuisance may be necessary to survival; so-called nuisance value may be another way of describing the individual's stubborn ambivalence about recognition, the baffled nature of his insistent appeal. And yet nuisance, by definition, creates a resistant if not actually hostile environment; it invites the avoidance it fears. Perhaps being a nuisance is wanting to start again; or nuisance is the sign of something that wants to get started. After all, an old entrenched vocabulary can be a nuisance, but nuisance always speaks in an entrenched vocabulary.


Adam Phillips is the editor of the new Penguin Freud. His book Going Sane is due out in the spring of 2005.
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