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.

“sound as a way of sense-making”

Sound Artist Lawrence English on the Power of Radical Listening

From Observer.com

Interview here

 

How did you become interested in working with sound as a creative medium?

When I was a kid, I’d go bird watching with my dad at this waterfront area of Brisbane that’s now populated with condos. My dad would take us there and we’d look for Reed Warblers on binoculars, which is cruel for children because they can’t control their own eyes, let alone a second set of eyes that’s meant to help them see deeper.

I was constantly looking for this bird, and after several months of not seeing it, my dad told me to put the binoculars down, to close my eyes and listen. He said, “Now that you know where the bird is, put the binoculars back to your eyes and look where you sense the sound is.” I did that and I was able to see the bird straightaway. That was the first time I understood the role of sound as a way of sense-making, as a way of being into the world.

 

Later in the interview:

You intentionally collaborated more on Cruel Optimism. What can connection, real physical connection, do for us in these times? Are you hopeful that we can discern how to move beyond the issues that ensnare us in 2017?

I’m incredibly optimistic about the future. But, in saying that, I’m the past. My children are the future and their children are the future. My place is to support them and to love them and to encourage in them a way of being in the world that is reflective of the things we’re talking about. This is one of the most critical things I feel that I can do with whatever time remains for me.

There’s this great quote from Neil Postman, who was a wonderful academic who lived in New York. He wrote a book called The Disappearance of Childhood, and at the beginning he basically said, “Children are the living messages that we send to a time that we will never see.” That’s a profound way to think about the idea of time and our time on the planet.

 

George Steiner on music (from “Real Presences”)

George Steiner on music (from “Real Presences”)

The meanings of the meaning of music transcend. It has long been, and continues to be, the unwritten theology of those who lack or reject any formal creed. Or to put it reciprocally: for many human beings, religion has been the music which they believe in. In the ecstasies of Pop and Rock, the overlap is strident.

  • George Steiner, “Real Presences”, p. 218

 

real-presences

Tristan Gooley, observation and cognitive bias

Recently my brother gave me a present of Tristan Gooley‘s The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Tracks and Signs. I have read various Gooley books over the years, and to some I have given the signal honour of losing or getting ruined by rain. I have also found they are books which work much much better in physical form that as eBooks.

tristan
Tristan Gooley (source – his twitter page @NaturalNav)

Gooley’s books are deceptively digressive – there is a firm structure within which a vast array of knowledge from eclectic sources are displayed. This leads to learning an awful lot of what, in other hands, could be off-puttingly didactic material in an entertainingly brief time.

As well as this, just-one-more-bit quality, there is a generosity to Gooley’s prose which the following passage exemplifies:

Everybody will have seen treasure hunters on the beach at some point: solitary figures with headphones who march silently up and down the beach swinging their metal detectors. These hunters get an unfair press generally, because most people fail to appreciate that in every activity that seizes a person’s interest there must lie an artistry. The metal-detecting part of treasure hunting is far from the whole process.

Gooley seems very far from the kind of moral one-upmanship which is so prevalent these days, facilitated greatly by social media.

The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs considers, in turn, various outdoor settings interspersed with narrative pieces that describe a particular walk or experience of Gooley. For instance, the very first section is on “Ground” – getting a sense of how terrain and observable geology can give clues to direction. This is followed by sections on trees, general plants and mosses/algae/fungi/lichens. Then we have “A Walk with Rocks and Wildflowers” which unobtrusively helps synthesise this information.

Gooley is not just focused on what we usually think of when we think of “the outdoors”, but on urban environments too. Here he is astute in observing the ways in which towns and cities are shaped by the same forces of geology, wind, rain and light that apply in rural settings.

Gooley’s work has got me thinking again on bias. Writers such as Daniel Kahneman have greatly popularised the concept of cognitive bias, and the many ways we humans can Get Things Wrong – especially when we Know We Are Right. Time to re-embed this tweet:

 

As may be clear from the blog post I linked to above, I have some sense that the hunt for bias has rendered us all too suspicious of our amazing ability to observe the world, and make generalisations from those observations that may not be perfect, but are incredibly useful in navigating the world – literarlly so in Tristan Gooley’s work. Gooley’s books are, as well as everything else, something of a corrective to over-suspicion of human observation.

Chopping firewood – from “The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees” by Robert Penn

Chopping firewood can be done in short bursts – in fact, little and often is the best way to approach a large pile – yet, as the logs mount in a stack around your choppping block, there is an obvious and pleasing sense of progress after just half an hour. If I keep at it for longer, I can fall into a trance chopping wood: it is a form of meditation, albeit with a lethal weapon. Somehow my capacity to concentrate, and strike the log precisely where I want, is heightened in this state; meanwhile the general debris of daily life gently empties from my head, leaving a void. Paradoxically, in this void, I sense I am exercising my judgement and sharpening my cognitive attentiveness, a human virtue that degenerates in many otehr parts of my daily life.

From “The Man Who  Made Things Out Of Trees”, Robert Penn http://www.thisiswhyimbroke.com/the-man-who-made-things-out-of-wood

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

 

It is good to see Gordon Hempton and the One Square Inch of Silence project  getting some coverage. Hempton’s book is much the best of the series of search-for-silence books which have appeared in recent years, and which tend to find that silence is impossible to find, and more specifically that a respite from human generated industrial noise is impossible to find.

Many of these take refuge in a certain clever nihilism – a how-I-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-noise approach. Hempton’s book articulated an approach to silence rooted in what can best be called love. The author of the Crosscut article linked to above makes a point of registering her slight discomfort at the religious language Hempton uses at times to discuss his work.

 

This slight touchiness about anything smacking of the spiritual could be unfortunate (although in fairness the author is won over by Hempton’s enthusiasm) if it blinds to the power of Hempton’s vision. Perhaps the contrast with the other, relatively bland, search-for-silence books indicates that something akin to an evangelical approach is needed to jolt readers out of a certain complacency.

One Square Inch of Silence (the book rather than the square inch) is a discursive read. Normally I am somewhat resistant to over inclusive narrations including the kind of accomodation the author stayed in and their various personal issues. However in Hempton’s book, the apparent digressions actually serve to ground the book in a hyper-particularity which is consonant with his sonic mission. He also brings, initially, his teenage daughter Abbie for what is intended to be a reconnecting experience; this does not quite pan out and Abbie leaves her portion of the trip early. In a polished narrative, there would be some kind of overly pat resolution to this, with Abbie re-appearing towards the end for a shared father-daughter moment of silence. This doesn’t happen; Hempton does not overuse the incident either to illustrate something about intergenerational attitudes to silence or to engineer some kind of fake twist.

It is important to note that Hempton is not a foe of sound and noise per se. Some of the most lyrical passages are on the various sounds of railroads, and he recalls his own attendance at loud rock concerts with affection. There are also some unexpected revelations such as his love of bird song but lack of interest in knowing precisely which birds are singing (although he evidently has a deep ornithological knowledge) His book does function, however, as a startling insight into how much -and how loud – noises intrudes in our lives, and on the lives of nature. Hempton cites numerous studies on the impact of noise on animal breeding and on a natural world that did not evolve in concert with mechanical (or reproduced) noise

one-square-inch-of-silence-9781416559108_hr

Flight noise is one of Hempton’s bete noires – in fact his main bete noire – and an appendix to the book contains an email exchange with the writer James Fallows who had written an article on seeing America from the air. Hempton is persistent in trying to engage with governmental agencies – state, local and federal – to try and have the importance of sound and silence recognised.

The One Square Inch of Silence concept itself (which is an independent initiative of Hempton, unsupported by Olympic National Park where the One Square Inch is located) is a resonant one with a hidden expansion of meaning. To maintain a square inch of silence in fact requires many many square miles of silence, free of mechanical noise but most especially flight noise. Therefore a single square inch of silence presupposes a much greater range of relative silence.

Hempton’s own reflections on silence – on various forms of silence, and on the contexts of silence – are more satisfying to me than the various academic philosophy approaches I have come across. I read One Square Inch of Silence via Scribd and cannot at this moment find the quotes I particularly would highlight, although some are online:

Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything . . . It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest. Silence nurtures our nature, our human nature, and lets us know who we are. Left with a more receptive mind and a more attuned ear, we become better listeners not only to nature but to each other. Silence can be carried like embers from a fire. Silence can be found, and silence can find you. Silence can be lost and also recovered. But silence cannot be imagined, although most people think so. To experience the soul-swelling wonder of silence, you must hear it.

Of course, some will object to the value-laden language here – “human nature”, “more receptive mind”, “more attuned ear” – and the unapologetic embodied nature of the argument – “felt within the chest” etc. This is perhaps the point, and perhaps why Hempton has more impact than more academic approaches with a certain timidity about anything that might smack of the value-laden (maybe this is analogous to the fear of seeming anthropromorphic) We experience sound and silence as embodied beings, and any consideration of them must face that fact.

Some of my own posts on the general theme of silence:

Silence – A Fragment. Nthposition, March 2013

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

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

Another note on whales and silence from Tim Severin

An eerie silence in the garden.

Hesuchia – “we strive in order to be at rest”