The Power of sound – Blogging the #Octonauts: Kwazii Meets the Mixed Up Whale

Following a recent post on possibly excessive self-sacrifice in an episode of the Octonauts, here’s a more unambiguously positive post on an episode which neatly illustrates an environmental issue that could be somewhat recondite in other hands:

This put me in mind of previous posts on whales and silence, and passages in Gordon Hempton on the many impacts of noise on marine and other species What is impressive is that all this handled in a manner that relates well to a 4 year old (or younger) audience.

Happy World Listening Day!

It is World Listening Day.

I am a bit leery of too many confected “Days”

However, anything that encourages listening is itself to be encouraged.

From the World Listening Project Site:

This year’s theme is “Listening to the Ground”

“Sometimes we walk on the ground, sometimes on sidewalks or asphalt, or other surfaces. Can we find ground to walk on and can we listen for the sound or sounds of ground? Are we losing ground? Can we find new ground by listening for it?”—Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)

Some of my own posts on sound and silence:

Thoughts on Silence From Augustinian Abbey, Fethard, Tipperary

Josef Pieper on silence and leisure

A Question of Silence: review of “Berberian Sound Studio” and “The Numbers Station”, Nthposition, early 2014

An eerie silence in the garden.

From “Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed: An Introduction to Birdsong” Simon Barnes“sound as a way of sense-making”

Gordon Hempton, One Square Inch of Silence, and the Philosophy of Silence

A note on whales and silence from The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin

Another note on whales and silence from Tim Severin

Marie Thompson on noise, “the conservative politics of silence”, and soundscapes

Silence – A Fragment. Nthposition, March 2013

Soviet Timelessness – from “Le Testament Francais”, Andrei Makhine.

From the novel also known as Dreams of My Russian Summers:

I almost leaped up from  my stool beside the television. For I understood so perfectly Charlotte’s reasons for being fond of her little provincial town. It would have been easy to explain her choice to the adults gathered in our kitchen. I should have talked of the dry air of the steppe, whose silent transparency distilled the past.  I should have spoken of the dusty streets that led nowhere, as they emerged, all of them, into the same endless plain. Of the town where history, by decapitating churches and tearing down ‘architectural excesses’ had banished all notions of time. A town where living meant endlessly reliving one’s past, while at the same time mechanically performing routine tasks

First Known When Lost on Spring and mortality, with Herrick, Wallace Stevens, and Epictetus

Original here

Spring beautifully — and gently — counsels us to be mindful of our mortality. This is sound advice. In fact, we are well-advised to consider our mortality on a daily basis, through all the seasons. I am not suggesting that we should brood over “the strumble/Of the hungry river of death” from morn to eventide. But an awareness of the shortness of our stay here provides a sense of perspective, and reminds us that we ought to be continually grateful for what the World bestows upon us, without our asking, each day.

Spring (like all the other seasons) teaches us gratitude, though the gratitude may at times have a wistful and bittersweet cast.

To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
To blush and gently smile;
And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
An hour or half’s delight;
And so to bid goodnight?
‘Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
Merely to show your worth,
And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne’r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
Like you a while: They glide
Into the grave.

Robert Herrick, Poem 467, Hesperides (1648).

“Death is the mother of beauty.” (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning.”) What do blossoms do? They “stay yet here a while,/To blush and gently smile;/And go at last.” What do “lovely leaves” do? “They glide/Into the grave.” This is how the World works, and there is no reason to brood or to grieve. Our response should be gratitude. Gratitude and acceptance.

“Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

Marie Thompson on noise, “the conservative politics of silence”, and soundscapes

Recently I posted a link to an interview with sound artist Lawrence English. Via Lawrence English’s twitter I came across this fascinating interview with Dr Marie Thompson, a Lecturer at the Lincoln School of Film and Media, University of Lincoln. She has recently published Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism.

Dr Thompson touches on a wide range of topics relating to noise and silence, as the interviewer writes, she references” a wide variety of ideas from Spinoza to Michel Serres’s cybernetic theory, acoustic ecology and the politics of silence to the transgressiveness of noise music, and many other concepts to show how we are affected by noise.”

Dr Thompson exhibits a sensitivity to the grandiosity and emotional reactions the topics of noise and silence evoke:

I felt compelled to write the book partly due to what I perceived as a gap between some of my ‘everyday’ experiences of noise and how noise was represented in discourse – particularly noise’s representation as an essentially negative phenomenon; or as a shocking, sublime, radical, overwhelming, transgressive force. Noise seems to be one of those topics that makes ordinarily quite progressive thinkers revert to quite uncritical and reactionary tropes – there’s something about it that ‘touches a nerve’. Consequently, much of the discourse around noise is underlined by an often-unacknowledged conservatism. I’ve always found the grandiose rhetoric of noise comparatively quite seductive but at the same time, more often than not, noise is quotidian and banal rather than overwhelming or sublime (which isn’t to say it can’t also be those things). Likewise, I felt like this grandiose rhetoric resulted in an amplification of certain sonic arts practices, while silencing others. I guess I was compelled by a desire to expand the (material and discursive) universe of noise while also trying to maintain some consistency in definition.

I found particularly interesting the sections on “the conservative politics of silence” and acoustic ecologist such as Murray Schafer:

To my mind, the conservative politics of silence informs a number of assumptions that are frequently made about what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sonic environments; it relates to a preference for the simple over the complex, sameness over difference, past over present, predictability over unpredictability, the ‘synthetic’ over the ‘natural’ (whatever that might mean) and, ultimately, quietude over noise. This ideological framework underlines much ‘common sense’ about auditory experience, however it frequently remains unacknowledged.

We might consider a liberal politics in opposition to this conservative politics of silence, which recognises responses to sonic environments as ‘personal’ and therefore refuses overarching moral judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sound. However, I’m also wary of endorsing a politics that treats the individual, autonomous subject as the primary site of the political. Indeed, the conservative politics of silence that we see in the work of figures such as R. Murray Schafer is often indebted to a liberalism that prioritises control and the freedoms and rights of the individual – I’m thinking here of Schafer’s complaint that you can rid your private property of a physical intruder but not an aural one: “A property-owner is permitted by law to restrict entry to his private garden or bedroom. What rights does he have against a sonic intruder?” (1993, 214)

I do wonder if there has been an accidental transposition of “natural” and “synthetic” in the first of the above two paragraphs (this was an email interview so clearly it is not a transcription error) – I have tried to post a comment on the blog to clarify this but I am not sure is it getting posted. I would have thought that Schafer and writers such as Gordon Hempton “privilege” (to use the quotation marks in Thompson’s fashion) the natural over the synthetic. Much of their writing is about loss, and about the loss of natural soundscapes in the relentless advance of industrial development.

Thompson points out that this loss is a symptom, not a disease:

It strikes me that when Schafer and other acoustic ecologists talk about fighting noise, they’re fighting a symptom rather than a cause. In these discourses, there is much talk of noise and environmental destruction but very little on how these processes relate to capitalism and settler-colonialism. In that regard, while I don’t think fighting against noise in absolute terms is futile, I do maintain that there are still fights to be had against high levels of noise. While I am critical of liberal notions of privacy and control and the ‘right’ to silence, I do also recognise that noise can feel oppressive in some contexts. That said, more often than not high levels of noise is a symptom of bigger social and political problems – for example, of poor quality housing, and a lack of economic choice over where one lives.

Again, I wonder is the line “I don’t think fighting against noise in absolute terms is futile” meant to be “I do think fighting about noise in absolute terms is futile” (contextually it would make more sense.

I have read other academic critiques of Schafer, which focus on his conceptualisation of noise as problematic and preference for the “natural” (or natural) over the recorded, amplified and industrial.

I find these arguments convincing in that Schafer can seem an absolutist, and absolutists are always going to be wrong in subtle ways. I can understand why Thompson, and others, will put quotes around “natural” and “synthetic.” And yet, and yet…

Like many environmental writers of his time, Schafer was preaching a message that, while not exactly new (complaints about the noise of urbanity had a history of centuries), was contextually within the wider countercultural thought of the Sixties and Seventies. In this case, the culture it was counter to was the industrial world of the mid-Century. Thompson is right to point out that noise was a symptom, rather than a cause, but Schafer was making the point forcefully.

I would also argue that there is a qualitative difference between the sounds of the non-human natural world, and the sounds which a human or a collection of humans can create via the efforts of their own bodies (which includes very very loud sounds like drumming and bell ringing) and recorded, amplified sound. Schafer identifies recorded and mechanically reproduced sound as a threshold in human experience. I can understand that from the point of view of many critical theorists suspicious of rhetoric around “nature” and suspicious of what can seem and at times can be an elitist rhetoric of silence, there are many many holes to pick in Schafer’s writing. But there is also something lost. I was going to write “the heart of Schafer’s message” but noticed that my use of the word “heart” may also be a metaphorical usage ripe for academic unpicking. B

I also wonder about “the conservative politics of sound.” Thompson is laudably wary of setting this up in opposition to a “liberal politics of noise.” I would observe that this is very much small-c conservatism. Indeed, the interviewer discusses the psychic noise (and “general bullshit”) generated by Donald Trump, to which Thompson responds:

As a concept, noise seems evocative of much about our current political climate: be it the ‘noise’ of ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’ (how does one determine ‘signal’ from ‘noise’, and who gets to determine that distinction); be it the ‘white noise’ of the Trump campaign administration (I recently saw a performance lecture with Barby Asante which effectively performed the ‘tuning out’ the noise of recently-bolstered white supremacy); or be it the collective noise of protest against the brutality of borders, white supremacy and police-state violence.

I am unsure if “conservative” in the sense of conserving or preserving has much meaning in the political sphere anymore. The signal-to-noise issue Thompson identifies is increasingly dominating political discourse – indeed is  political discourse.

Hannah LeGrand (and Dante) on sloth, thoughtlessness, intellect and reason 

At Comment Magazine, an essay by Hannah LeGrand on “thoughtlessness, sloth, and the call to think.”

It is well worth reading and reflecting on. LeGrand begins with Hannah Arendt’s famous account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. This is best remembered for Arendt’s observation on the “banality of evil”, and LeGrand takes this for a starting point:

The story that the world anticipated hearing from the trial, and indeed, the story Arendt herself expected to find, was the story of a villain, the final act in a grand and horrifying life of evil. However, presented with Eichmann in the flesh, Arendt found no trace of such a narrative. Eichmann was not Iago. His testimony had none of the drama or torment of Macbeth. He had no grand evil motives. Indeed, he seemed to have no real motives at all. He insisted that he had just followed orders. He was striking exactly because of his thoughtlessness.

Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is the most famous text to emerge from this trial, but LeGrand’s essay then follows another of her works: 1971’s The Life of the Mind:

There is something in the act of thinking itself, she argues, regardless of content and conclusions, that constrains evildoing and plays a key role in our ability to make moral judgments. And she ponders a worrisome possibility: What if, in an age of so much stunning advancement, we have somehow forgotten what thinking really means? In seeking to recover the meaning of thinking, Arendt sounds less like a German philosopher and more like a desert father. Her insight into the habit of thinking and why it must be incorporated into a society so prone to thoughtlessness is as contemporary as ever.

This leads to the core of the essay:

For Kant, reason and intellect are two distinct aspects of our mental life. The intellect, on the one hand, is driven by our need to know and, accordingly, is properly concerned with those things that can be known—sturdy and graspable truth. It is our intellect that drives our science and makes our technology possible.

Arendt worries that in the modern age, while we have been wildly successful in the use of our intellects and our knowledge about the world has grown more rapidly than ever before, the work of reason has been dangerously neglected. For reason, on the other hand, is never fully satisfied in the realm of what can be grasped. While our intellect drives our need to know, reason equips us with an “urgent desire to think,” an inclination to cast our minds far beyond the capacity of our intellect, to push farther and deeper.

While it is tempting to think that such a grand gesture should produce even grander results, we shouldn’t mistake this activity of thinking for an elevated science. Nothing can be built on what cannot be grasped, and when I have finished thinking I have nothing tangible to show for all my mind’s wanderings. For Arendt, the activity of thinking is more like a conversation with a friend than mapping the human genome. If our intellect is building a house, then thinking is cleaning the kitchen. It is daily work. As Arendt writes, “The need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of ‘wise men’; it can be satisfied only through thinking and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew.”

Once we begin to understand this distinction between the intellect’s knowing and reason’s thinking, then we can also begin to see that the thoughtlessness which concerns Arendt is not mere ignorance. For Arendt, it was not that Eichmann did not know what he was doing. It was that he did not think about what he was doing. The thoughtlessness that allows evil to flourish cannot be dispelled with new facts or better information, and the society that has forgotten how to think needs to do more than inform its citizens. Instead, like stretching unused muscles, it must relearn the daily habits of thinking. Like rekindling old friendships, it must nurture thoughtfulness as a disposition toward the world.

This distinction between the knowing that is acquiring new facts and new information,  and the use of reason, is worth reflecting on. One can sometimes marvel that any first year physics undergraduate “knows more” than Newton (and is unlikely to be into alchemy) or indeed a Psychology 101 student “knows more” than Freud (and is unlikely to be into the dodgier bits of Freudianism). Of course, they have more information, and this information is verified more extensively.

This discussion of Arendt leads into one of Aquinas, via a consideration of sloth, which is far more than mere laziness:

 

 

However, as Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung points out in her book Glittering Vices, the vice of sloth is really more than mere resistance to work or exertion. First articulated in the monastic tradition, sloth originally refers to the weariness solitary desert monks would feel with their commitment to the spiritual life. Sloth, as fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus writes, the spiritual life. Sloth, as fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus writes, is the “noonday demon,” which seizes the monks, making them despair in their calling and long for their old lives in the city. One aspect of this despair was often an apathy toward monastic duties, and so it is not hard to see the fruits of this vice reflected in our modern understanding of sloth as rather harmless opposition to a strong work ethic. However, the roots of this noonday demon were much more serious.

Aquinas opposes sloth not to work but to charity, which, as Aquinas writes in his Summa theologiae, is “a kind of friendship of man for God,” which aims for “the fellowship of everlasting happiness.” Sloth, for Aquinas, is not primarily a sorrowing in our work, but a sorrowing over our friendship with God.

The vice of sloth when understood in this way is at once something serious and baffling, for it picks out a human aversion to the spiritual good in us. It names, as DeYoung writes in her essay “Acedia’s Resistance to the Demands of Love,” “the overwhelming urge to stay with the comfortable and the known rather than risk change, even if it promises improvement.” Sloth is not simply becoming weary of doing good works. Rather, sloth is remaining complacent in the present and the status quo. It is preferring to accept a lackluster life rather than responding to the demands of a relationship with God.

It is interesting, as a sort of accompaniment to this essay, to consider Dante’s treatment of Sloth in Canto 18 of the Purgatorio. The Columbia University “Digital Dante” commentary linked to above focuses on the poetics of this canto which discussion of Love, and particularly distinctions between Dante’s previous stance that Love is a force that cannot be opposed – and can become attached to unworthy or actively harmful objects of affection – to a more mature one with a subtle role for Free Will. 


The slothful purge their sin by the opposite of what they indulged in in life – unrelenting speed. The commentary suggests that the compressed treatment of Sloth – the whole terrace within Purgatory being disposed of in half a canto – is a structural reflection of the purgation of sloth. In the commentary, one gets the sense that the depiction of slothful is very much secondary to the opening discussion of Love. However, reading LeGrand, especially her sections on Aquinas, I wonder if the slothful are more central to the discussion of Love than the commentary might suggest.

Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism

Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism

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From a lengthy review of Rod Dreher’s new book “The Benedict Option.” I used to occasionally read Dreher’s blog, and tried his “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”, but drifted away for reasons I probably could not articulate nearly as well as deVille. In particular the sweeping, dogmatic, pseudo-eagles-eye-of-the-history-of-Christianity is offputting. I found “The Little Way” a strange book, a exercise in trying too hard at transcendence. More positive takes on “The Benedict Option” are out there. For me, it is one of those books that if I had world enough and time I would read but to be honest an awful lot of books (by Alasdair McIntyre, for one, and other authors Adam de Ville cites) stand ahead of it.

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Dreher is not content to stand still and see the salvation of God. His busybody guruism seeking to safeguard “orthodox Christianity” is, as MacIntyre suggested decades ago, a typical reaction of the leisure class that often has the greatest tendency to fixate (as Kate Daloz has recently shown in fascinating detail) on simplicity, intentional community, and various forms of voluntary self-denial–whether in monasteries or pseudo-monastic communities. It is the leisure class especially among converts to Orthodoxy (in what Amy Slagle has aptly called the The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) who most often seem to fetishize monasteries, who have the time and money to obsess over “monasticism” and “tradition” in psychologically suspect ways, running after their “spiritual fathers” for permission to pee or clip their toenails on Fridays in Lent.

Dreher, of course, is not made of such stern fanaticism, and, curiously but revealingly, his gaze falls primarily upon Catholic and Protestant communities in preference to, e.g., Mt. Athos (which is to his credit given some of the hysterical nonsense that sometimes issues from the so-called holy mountain). Nevertheless, one must challenge this desire to play at being a monk or a quasi-monastic, and one must regard any and all calls for “new forms of community” with a great deal of skepticism until and unless they engage in–as MacIntyre says–“rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.”

Absent such serious rational thought, and attendant safeguards, one can only be cautious and reluctant to pursue such a life, much as would-be monks rightly were before their tonsure. I am told by a liturgist of impeccable scholarship that some recensions of the Byzantine rite of monastic tonsure saw the hegumen or abbot toss the scissors away three times when presented with them by the would-be monk, who would then have to scramble across the floor to retrieve them repeatedly, each time being reminded of the seriousness of the state of life he was about to enter and the real risks he would run thereby.

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Because of those risks, it is imperative, then, that one must repeatedly and ruthlessly interrogate any romanticism about monastic or community life in any form, for they are fraught with conflicts and problems, not the least of which is a tendency toward escapism and subtle forms of self-promotion–and not-so-subtle forms of control and manipulation or outright sexual abuse. Returning once again to Dreher’s fellow Orthodox Alexander Schmemann (the relative neglect of serious engagement with Orthodox sources in this book must be read as a marketing strategy to appeal to the vastly more numerous Catholics and Protestants in this country), we see that Schmemann has already offered us severe warnings about these temptations in a bracing and acid passage from January 1981:

More and more often it seems to me that revising the monasticism that everybody so ecstatically talks about–or at least trying to revive it–can be done only by liquidating first of all the monastic institution itself, i.e. the whole vaudeville of klobuks, cowls, stylization, etc. If I were a staretz–an elder–I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:

–get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);

–while working, pray and seek inner peace; do not get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;

–after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;

–always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov)….

–do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;

–read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly…;

–be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. 

wp-image-1166588415jpg.jpgReal monastics, whether Benedictine or otherwise, know that the course of wisdom is to be found not in talking “church talk” or promoting “options” but in listening and serving everyone without drawing attention to oneself. Real monastics who have done that include another of Dreher’s fellow Orthodox nowhere in evidence in his book: Mother Maria Skobtsova, who made wartime Paris her “monastery” without walls, serving the suffering she encountered there, including the Jews service to whom and protection of whom cost Maria her life in the gas chamber of Ravensbrück. She would later be canonized by the Orthodox church not just for this sacrifice of her life but also for her monastic service in and for the city of Paris–not atop some mountain somewhere or in an inaccessible cloister.
The description of Dreher’s approach reminds me of Aedh, the Culdee in “Sun Dancing: A Medieval Vision – Seven Centuries on Skellig Michael” by Geoffrey Moorhouse whose need to spiritually outdo the other monks (on what was already surely the most extreme monastic site going) led to a literal and metaphorical downfall.
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It is easy, too, to romanticise monasticism, and indeed I have posted fragments here that, in isolation, could be accused of such romanticisation. The risk of a form of spiritual pride and arrogance is apparent, and Adam deVille’s piece is a corrective to this risk.