I haven’t driven a car for some years. It’s not that I have an aversion to the convenience and robust engineering of the modern automobile. In fact, I can state without hesitation that I have, on far too many occasions to recall, relished the privacy and luxury of a car as I drove a reckless ten, but only ever ten, kilometres over the legal speed limit. I’m not trying to save money and I don’t fear hook turns. I don’t drive because I like – I dare say enjoy – the challenge of public spaces.

Yet my enjoyment of public spaces isn’t really characterised by joy. I can’t pretend I’m elated every time I set foot inside a packed Italian restaurant or have my dignity impaired on a crammed peak hour tram. Nor do I delight in being slammed with majestic consistency in the back by a fellow reveller’s elbow when I enter a mosh pit. Rather, I have an affinity for public spaces because the frequently awkward, sometimes terrifying, and often exhilarating scenarios they embed us in are perhaps the best test of our capacity to be (or not to be) sincere.

I like to think of myself as an intimate person. I like the idea of really getting to know someone. I like the inexplicable challenge of intimacy. Yet intimacy and sincerity seem strange bedfellows, especially when they meet under the all-seeing gaze of the public eye.

When I gave up driving five years ago, I started to become this eye: a kind of walking, conscious sense organ with two legs and a notebook full of reflections. I somehow trained myself to not find other people irritating. This isn’t easy, you know. Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur must have possessed inordinate tolerance for those he encountered through his perambulating. Flânerie, an act of strolling that Balzac described as “the gastronomy of the eye”, requires a certain arcane appreciation for the everyday quirks of others. Most people aren’t really into this kind of eyeballing though. In the context of crowded spaces, most people aren’t even into eyes.

Crowds are an inexorable part of modern life. Lately, they seem to be everywhere. To be ‘mobbed’ is to have the crowd descend upon you. To ‘crowdsource’ is to have the mob work in your favour. To be in the crowd is to be part of a fluid and ephemeral thing. The idea of what a crowd actually looks like remains both contradictory and complex. Is a crowd simply more than a group? Is it a rally? Does it require disorganisation? If three’s a crowd then what is four?

Most of us don’t like being alone, yet there’s an irrefutable connotation of undesirability attached to crowding. ‘Don’t crowd her; she needs air,’ we declare when someone’s distressed. If the books are crowding the shelves then there must be too many books! On buses and trains, in art galleries and waiting rooms, our patience and personal space are tried and tested as we figure out ways to deal with groups of strangers.

Proxemics is what brings strangers together. Coined by researcher Edward Hall during the 1950s, the word refers to the study of how we use the space around us to convey messages. Deciding upon the distance that should exist between oneself and the person we’re interacting with is usually subconscious. It’s usually something that someone instinctively knows.

I often recall the startling moment a man positioned himself a mere couple of inches behind me as I stood in front of an early twentieth century dance mask inside New York’s Metropolitan Museum. I can still recollect the faint trace of coffee on his breath as he exhaled deeply and fumbled something papery inside his pocket. I could feel the heat radiating from his torso and sense his appreciation of the object that rested before us. It was as though I was part of a disturbing sociological study. One where subjects are asked to talk to each other before a test subject moves their face closer and closer to the other conversationalist to the point where their noses are almost touching. Meanwhile, a lab-coated assistant scratches down notes that include words such as ‘discomfort’ and ‘interpersonal’ and ‘distance’.

Space Invaders Photo.

The proxemics of the situation were all wrong, so to speak. I didn’t run away or harangue the man though. My fellow gallery goer didn’t obey the personal territory guidelines that I had written for myself, but is there necessarily anything wrong with that?

At times, our spatial predilections have to be relinquished. Sometimes we have to make concessions. The very notion of a public space is founded upon the growth of democracy and, above all else, the importance of individual liberty.

These were the benefits of the kind of public domain envisaged by Jürgen Habermas in his now eminent The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, in which the public space represents a positive force in keeping authorities accountable.

Spaces such as coffeehouses or public libraries used to be playgrounds for social justice. Once a brimming locus for public discussion, the café as we now treat it isn’t much more than a petrol station for caffeine. We’re in and out; we want our coffee and we want it now! The glowing MacBook ocean that fills cafés is a far cry from the Age of Enlightenment coffeehouse: a sphere that came to be known as the ‘penny university’, where people would engage in informal learning that was less intimidating than that at institutions.

However, despite its obvious advantages, the public space isn’t without its complications. In his venerated study Making Public Transport Work, P. M. Bunting summarises the daily plight of the dedicated public transport consumer.

“We want to be with others,” he says, “but on our own terms, with due respect to our personal space. We often prefer the privacy of even the cramped subcompact car to the forced intimacy of crowded buses and trains.”

The idea of forced intimacy is a kind of oxymoron. It conjures a scene of depravity where our most valued autonomies are exploited and even mocked; the fluid of affection wrung from a towel.

When a person was hit and killed by a train between Jolimont and Flinders Street stations just before five o’clock on a Wednesday evening earlier this year, I remember feeling acutely wrung out. My flânerie turned to frustration; my frustration to fear. Disrupting the central train arterial in Melbourne’s inner east, the accident forced train cancellations in both directions for almost three hours. There was sudden chaos.

In an underground station in the city, from where I experienced the reverberations of the incident, people began to panic. As train and after train failed to arrive at the already overcrowded subway, the density of bodies increased. Distressed commuters tried to coordinate their exits and worried parents picked their children above their shoulders for fear of them being trampled. A platform I stood on most days of the week was suddenly a stew of crushed tomatoes, except each tomato was a sweaty, thinking, breathing individual with self-interest and a small switch at the back of the brain that, in situations like a potentially catastrophic overcrowding, flicked only to flight or fight.

In the zoo setting, Swiss biologist Heini Hediger found that, from a certain distance, a zookeeper’s presence would cause an animal to give its full attention to the keeper; but at a slightly closer distance, the animal would either flee or charge. Were the commuters around me capable of charging? We were engaged in a physical intimacy more intense than hugging, yet we were still trying to pretend we were detached.

I like to think of myself as an intimate person. I like the idea of really getting to know someone. I like the inexplicable challenge of intimacy. Yet intimacy and sincerity seem strange bedfellows, especially when they meet under the all-seeing gaze of the public eye.

A voiceover on the station speaker boomed incessantly: “PLEASE KEEP CLEAR OF THE PLATFORM”. People wedged themselves closer and closer to the concrete precipice in an attempt to get past one another and towards the escalators. Someone’s half-read novel, a new paperback with a promotional bookmark sticking out of it, fell to the ground and was lost among a pandemonium of business shoes and high heels.

I remember thinking of the 2010 Love Parade disaster in Duisburg, where twenty-one people died of suffocation when an electronic dance festival went terribly wrong. Was this as bad as an electronic dance festival disaster? I imagined being swept away in the crowd, leaving my satchel abandoned on a station seat; my highlighted readings for class hanging out miserably. Would people really trample over one another if it got to that?

But this was Melbourne, after all. And we hadn’t reached crisis point yet. People didn’t exactly shove or yell, but their natures categorically changed.

“Your hair is in my face,” a man coolly but frankly announced to the tall brunette struggling beside him.

“Does anyone know where the Bourke Street exit is?” bellowed a woman holding several bags of shopping.

The politeness we had all previously reserved for the not-so-distressing commute dissolved and a necessary kind of egocentricity started to play out. A self-interested sincerity, unnecessary before, suddenly became essential.

But how can we ever really know when someone is or isn’t being sincere? Sincerity isn’t exactly easy to define, after all. Are you truly yourself when someone cuts in front of you as you wait to order your morning coffee? What about the cinema? There are few places more intimate than a cinema.

Yet even in a movie theatre, where we sit silently in the dark with a group of strangers watching near-hysterical emotional scenes play out in front of us, there’s still a palpable anxiety about the rules of intimacy.

Earlier this year, Curtis Reeves, a former Tampa police officer, shot and killed a man for sending a text message during a matinee showing of Lone Survivor in a Florida movie theatre. The paroxysm of rage was likely a product, at least in part, of the strangely indefinite nature of cinema politics. And by cinema politics I mean: how much should we do what other people want us to do? For those who maintain an ongoing and psychologically nuanced discourse with the characters onscreen, it may come as a surprise that the rest of the theatre doesn’t appreciate their reflections. I for one, on the rare occasion, cannot help but pronounce my admiration for an especially valiant character. And though I may anticipate an austere glare from a patron nearby, I certainly don’t expect to be shot.

Is Curtis Reeves, then, an embodiment of the ultimate cinema sincerity? Do theatre staff revere him as the one guy who truly understood how cinema intimacy works? As he stands trial, perhaps he’s smiling to himself at the sad irony of the fact that he shot someone else for being apparently inconsiderate during the screening of a film called Lone Survivor.

Were the commuters around me capable of charging? We were engaged in a physical intimacy more intense than hugging, yet we were still trying to pretend we were detached.

Talking or texting aren’t the only cinema faux pas, however. Perhaps the most vital decision any moviegoer has to make is how to negotiate the shared armrest. A plush territorial boundary, it sits like an awkward blimp between you and the person beside you, desperately waiting to be contested. It waits for you to reveal your true self. More terrifyingly, it waits for you to question your interpersonal boundaries.

“Now and then,” wrote American critic Lionel Trilling, “it is possible to observe the moral life in the process of revising itself.”

Whether we want to admit it or not, the way we react to other people is something we’re constantly revising. Trilling, a member of the New York Intellectuals, wrote Sincerity and Authenticity in his attempt to figure out the process by which the strenuous enterprise of sincerity came to be so firmly associated with the moral life. For Trilling, the modern ideal of authenticity is characterised by “staying true to oneself”, in contrast to the older ideal of being a morally sincere person. He says that sincerity has been replaced by authenticity, but never really commits to a concise definition of either.

To be honest, I don’t blame him. I cannot imagine a public space where our innermost thoughts are broadcast to those around us. There are some people who you can tell are not as comfortable as they pretend to be. Whenever I sit beside someone on a bench, try as I might, I cannot figure out whether to interact with them or to remain completely silent. Sometimes the gamble pays off. Sometimes I’m assumed to be insane. Often, the placement of a bag or sideways glance of recognition signifies a fellow bench-sitter’s approval. Sometimes it denotes sheer irritation.

We haven’t developed the use of scent or, god forbid, urination to mark our territories, but we do place objects to lay temporary claim on areas. And yet none of this knowledge seems to be of any use to us when someone really, and I mean really, ventures inside our bubble.

I have been this bubble popper and I have dealt with the inexorable and thoroughly awkward consequences of contravening even the most sacred personal space laws. I never saw my trespass coming on the day it occurred. It was flânerie as usual for me as I crossed a busy intersection in the city on my way to lunch with a friend. Striding energetically, I had made my way almost completely across the junction when a yank around the neck hauled me backwards unexpectedly. In a flurry of smoke and corporate daywear, I turned to perceive that my scarf had become inextricably affixed to the head, shoulders, bag and zipper of a passer-by. It was intimacy gone wild.

The poor fellow, who in retrospect was probably at the tail end of a long and relaxing business lunch, was almost entirely ensnared in my garment. People leapt out of the way as we snapped theatrically towards each other. Even at this early stage in the entanglement, I had abandoned all hope of swiftly tossing the loosened scarf over my shoulder and heading on my direct and immediate way. My victim and I had to talk our way through the process of disentanglement. We had no other option than to literally teamwork our way to scarf freedom. It was astoundingly awkward, but it was also, in a sense that I can’t describe without the luxury of physical re-enactment, sincere.

As we stood in the middle of the street hastily attempting a kind of surgery on the scarf, I noticed that the dispositions of the people watching us weren’t of amusement or ridicule, but a type of vexed jealousy. Or, to be more to the point, what I saw in their faces was the sorrow of envy, the kind only felt with the realisation of something truly desired.

Tyne Daile Sumner is a PhD candidate and tutor in the English and theatre studies program at the University of Melbourne. Her research explores confessional poetics, Cold War containment and publicity. She is currently working on her first book about confessional poetry, along with a project that assists secondary school students in public speaking and presentation contexts.

Stories from the Ivory Tower is an online series of creative non-fiction essays that draw their inspiration from academia. These commissions are made possible through the University of Melbourne’s Cultural and Community Relations Advisory Group (CCRAG).

Photo used under Creative Commons by Diego Torres Silvestre (Flickr)