When you look into a clear night sky, what do you see? Stars, of course, sometimes so thick that the light seems to blur into streaks. Some people of an imaginative bent can see constellations. Some claim to see the future – which is nonsense; everything we see is hundreds or millions or billions of years old.
But what we don’t see – or don’t notice – is the space between the stars. Empty space – though it isn’t empty. Even the purest vacuum has a few atoms in it and waves of energy pouring through it. Then, there is the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that makes up the bulk of the universe.
It is in fact the spaces between the stars that connect everything together. It is how we can talk about their being a galaxy or a single universe. It is because they are all connected by space and time that they are one thing, instead of a bunch of whirling bits doing their own thing with no impact on each other.
Sort of like society. Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing a society. It was glib but it was almost certainly what she thought. Mrs. Thatcher, though hardly a libertarian ideologue, tended to see people or families moving around, seemingly independently, acting for good or ill, without always seeing the space between them, filled with language and tradition and negotiating frameworks and cultural expression — things that don’t merely constrain individuals but construct them.
Much of what makes up human life is invisible or, on the surface, incomprehensible. Take language. When you hear someone speak you hear words and sentences. This is an illusion. Try listening to a foreign language and you will see what I mean. You hear sound and nothing more. On an oscilloscope it is impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. Even on the printed page – if you are illiterate or dyslexic it may look like nothing but random marks. The code that deciphers it is not strictly in our head – it is in our collective heads. Language fills the spaces between us and language lets us accomplish so much that we could never do without it.
The law is much the same on a different scale. Parliamentarians often think that they make the law. It consists of the Bills they debate and pass. But each of those Acts exist in relationship with all the laws that were passed before – not merely in one country but increasingly in all countries. The law is an amorphous and largely invisible thing, constructed by individual Acts of Parliament but also by constitutions, legal proceedings, even the very debates and arguments that oppose the individual bits of legislation that majorities pass. It permeates almost everything we do in a civil society. Some would argue it is what most people mean when they say society.
Society exists, Mrs. Thatcher, and continues to exist long after its residents, like you, are gone.
And that’s ten minutes.