Tales Rabbits Tell: Dominic Pettman’s New Book

Welsh naturalist Ronald M. Lockley spent a large chunk of his life on the rabbit-riddled island of Skokholm just southwest of Wales. When he found he could do better writing about rabbits than catching and breeding them, he wrote The Private Life of the Rabbit (Macmillan, 1964). The book, which is a detailed account of all rabbit activities and proclivities, has become the manual on rabbit life. It informed Richard Adams’ novel, Watership Down (Rex Collings, 1972), which is the rabbit adventure tale, about the ways and mores of leporid life. Fiver, the runt-rabbit guide embodies the spirit animal that bunnies have become in many mythologies, pop cultural contexts, and other great stories.
Rabbit
Rabbits extend far outside of the hillsides, downs, and Easter baskets in which we we typically envision them. Examples I can think of without too much effort include Bugs BunnyGreg the Bunny, the Playboy Bunny, the Ray Johnson documentary How to Draw a Bunny (2002), Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, 8 Mile‘s B. Rabbit (played by Eminem), the rabbit hole of Lewis Carroll, Bambi’s pal Thumper, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Watership-Down mythology of Fall of Efrafa’s Warren of Snares, and the out-moded rabbit ears of broadcast television. As Susan E. Davis and Margo Demello (2003) write in their definitive Stories Rabbits Tell (Lantern, 2003),

…besides inhabiting forests, fields, backyards, and homes, they inhabit the realm of representation–in folklore and photos, on television and film, in gift stores and in literature. These fabricated rabbits may not tell us much about the lives of real rabbits, but they do tell us a great deal about how we think about rabbits and their place in society (p. 129).

Look at the BunnyLook at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology by Dominic Pettman (Zer0 Books, 2013) uses the rabbit as totem as a trope through which to interrogate our relationship with technology. Pettman explores the Heideggerian being-toward-death of the pooka in Harvey (1950) and Donnie Darko (2001), the overwrought sexuality of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and the spectral haunting of the rabbits in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). Like Frank the bunny in Donnie Darko, Pettman reads the rabbits both Of Mice and Men and Watership Down as guides: Looking at the bunny is looking into the future.

Skipping ahead, however, is not always a promising prospect. The Cassandra conundrum of seeing imminent catastrophe and having no one in the present believe you follows the prophet–rabbit or otherwise. The vagabond rabbits of Watership Down led by the frequently hysterical Fiver, Lennie, George, and Candy in Of Mice and Men led by a rabbit-ridden future vision, Donnie Darko led by his daylight hallucinations of Frank, and Elwood led by his imaginary Harvey are all held suspect by their peers. “The list of lapine totems, no doubt, could go on and on–which is partly my point,” Pettman writes (p. 63). Moreover, two more rabbit holes he mentions early in the book include “the bunny plot” and “the Easter egg.” The former is a nagging idea that won’t leave you alone until you write it out of there, and the latter, of course, refers to the hidden treats of media: DVD menus, websites, etc. Pettman writes,

Indeed, the notion of the Easter egg can be employed to reflect on the nature or possibility of significant surprises in a claustrophically overcoded – thus predictable – world. A world seemingly bereft of alternatives. Perhaps we need to enact rituals designed to encourage the magic bunny to break the tedious cultural algorithms that restrict every day – in the West at least – to a smooth series of anticipated rhythms. (After all, a predictable consumer is a docile and productive citizen.) Perhaps we should be finding inspiration from the temporal tricks of this particular totem to get access not to the material Easter eggs of fetishized commodities, but the hidden, virtual gift of the “something else”: an unprecedented experience, a unimagined possibility, an unanticipated alliance, and so on (p. 63).

A future seen eliminates the element of surprise. For the living being, it’s an ontological issue, one that Pettman explores from virtual rabbits to software, citing everyone from Eugene Thacker, McKenzie WarkWilliam Gibson, Marshall McLuhan, and N. Katherine Hayles, to Slavoj Žižek, Deleuze and Guattari, Vilém Flusser, and Giorgio Agamben. Make no mistake, this rabbit hole is deep.

Concluding, Pettman sums it up, writing,

The rabbit, Orc, penguin, avatar, angel, pixelated lover – even Paradise itself – all make appearances in the idiosyncratic virtual montage fashioned by this book. They are neototems for an era in which the monolithic notion of Nature is finally giving way to an understanding of ecology that includes computers as much as whales, and in which humans are just as likely to be sheep as shepherds (p. 164).

Far from the private life of the rabbit, its many public representations can show you the way. Totems can help us see the world with fresh eyes. So, next time you’re lost in the media matrix, wake up and follow the rabbit.

References:

Adams, Richard. (1972). Watership Down. London: Rex Collings.

Davis, Susan E., & Demello, Margo. (2003). Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York: Lantern Books.

Lockley, R. M. (1964). The Private Life of the Rabbit. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

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Rabbit drawings by Roy Christopher.

How Soon is Now? The Perpetual Present

When I was growing up, the year 2000 was the temporal touchstone everyone used to mark the advances of modern life. Oh, by then we’d be doing so many technologically enabled things: Cars would fly and run on garbage, computers would run everything, school wouldn’t exist. We were all looking forward, and Y2K gave us a point on the horizon to measure it all by. When it came and went without incident, we were left with what we had in the present. In Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current, 2013), Douglas Rushkoff argues that the flipping of the calendar to the new millennium turned our focus from the future to the never-ending now. “We spent the latter part of the 20th Century leaning towards the year 2000, almost obsessed with the future, the dot-com boom, the long boom, and all that,” he tells David Pescovitz, “It was a century of movements with grand goals, wars to end wars, and relentless expansionism. Then we arrived at the 21st, and it was as if we had arrived.”

“We spent centuries thinking of hours and seconds as portions of the day,” he continues, “But a digital second is less a part of greater minute, and more an absolute duration, hanging there like the number flap on an old digital clock.” A digital clock is good at accurately displaying the time right now, but an analog clock is better at showing you how long it’s been since you last looked. Needing, wanting, or having only the former is what present shock is all about. It’s what Ruskoff calls elsewhere “a diminishment of everything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.” As the song goes, when you say it’s gonna happen “now,” well, when exactly do you mean?

Michael Leyton (1992) calls us all “prisoners of the present” ( p. 1), like runners on a temporal treadmill. He argues that “all cognitive activity proceeds via the recovery of the past through objects in the present” (p. 2), and those objects often linger longer than they once did thanks to recording technologies. In 1986 Iain Chambers described the persistence of the present through such media, writing,

With electronic reproduction offering the spectacle of gestures, images, styles, and cultures in a perpetual collage of disintegration and reintegration, the ‘new’ disappears into a permanent present. And with the end of the ‘new’ – a concept connected to linearity, to the serial prospects of ‘progress’, to ‘modernism’ – we move into a perpetual recycling of quotations, styles, and fashions: an uninterrupted montage of the ‘now’ (p. 190).

Present ShockNeedless to say that the situation has only been exacerbated by the onset of the digital. In one form or another, Rushkoff has been working on Present Shock his whole career. In it he continues the critical approach he’s sharpened over his last several books. Where Life, Inc. (Random House, 2009) tackled the corporate takeover of culture and Program or Be Programmed (OR Books, 2010) took on technology head-on, Present Shock deals with the digital demands of the now. A lot of the dilemma is due to the update culture of social media. No one reads two-week old Tweets or month-old blog posts. If it wasn’t posted today, in the last few hours, it disappears into irrelevance. And if it’s too long, it doesn’t get read at all. These are not rivers or streams, they’re puddles. All comments, references, and messages, and no story. The personal narrative is lost. It’s the age of “tl; dr.” The 24-hour news, a present made up of the past, and advertising interrupting everything are also all about right now, but our senses of self maybe the biggest victims.

“Even though we may be able to be in only one place at a time,” Rushkoff writes, “our digital selves are distributed across every device, platform, and network onto which we have cloned our virtual identities” (p. 72). Our online profiles give us an atemporal agency whereon we are there but not actually present. On the other side, our technologies mediate our identities by anticipating or projecting a user. As Brian Rotman (2008) writes, “This projected virtual user is a ghost effect: and abstract agency distinct from any particular embodied user, a variable capable of accommodating any particular user within the medium” (p. xiii). Truncated and clipped, we shrink to fit the roles the media allow.

Mindfulness is an important idea cum buzzword in the midst of all this digital doom. Distraction may be just attention to something else, but what if we’re stuck in permanently distracted present with no sense of the past and no time for the future? If you’ve ever known anyone who truly lives in the moment, nothing matters except that moment. It’s the opposite of The Long Now, what Rushkoff calls the “Short Forever.” Things only have value over time. Citing the time binding of Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, Rushkoff illustrates how we bind the histories of past generations into words and symbols. The beauty is that we can leverage the knowledge of that history without going through it again. The problem is that without a clear picture of the labor involved, we risk mistaking the map for the territory.

James Gleick summed it up nicely when he told me in 1999,”We know we’re surrounding ourselves with time-saving technologies and strategies, and we don’t quite understand how it is that we feel so rushed. We worry that we gain speed and sacrifice depth and quality. We worry that our time horizons are foreshortened — our sense of the past, our sense of the future, our ability to plan, our ability to remember.” Well, here we are. What now?

The existence of this book proves we can still choose. In the last chapter of Present Shock, Rushkoff writes,

…taking the time to write or read a whole book on the phenomenon does draw a line in the sand. It means we can stop the onslaught of demands on our attention; we can create a safe space for uninterrupted contemplation; we can give each moment the value it deserves and no more; we can tolerate uncertainty and resist the temptation to draw connections and conclusions before we are ready; and we can slow or even ignore the seemingly inexorable pull from the strange attractor at the end of human history (p. 265-266).

We don’t have to stop or run, we can pause and slow down. Instant access to every little thing doesn’t mean we have to forsake attended access to a few big things. Take some time, read this book.

References:

Chambers, Iain. (1986). Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience. New York: Routledge.

Leyton, Michael. (1992). Symmetry, Causality, Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Morrissey, Steven & Marr, Johnny (1984). How Soon is Now? [Recorded by The Smiths]. On Hatful of Hollow [LP]. London: Rough Trade.

Rotman, Brian. (2008). Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rushkoff, Douglas. (2013). Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. New York: Current.

Building Stories: The Edifice Complex

The house I live in is warped. Its floors undulate as if built on unstable earth or designed by drunken architects. Pipes protrude at odd angles, capped at even odder points. Dutifully obeying gravity and the laws of physics, kitchen drawers and medicine-cabinet doors chronically hang open. I often wonder if the house slouched into this shape or if it was just built this way.

Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit, “In Your Eyes,” was originally a song about buildings. It was called “Sagrada Familia,” and the idea stemmed from two people who were driven to build for very different reasons. “One of them was Antoni Gaudi building his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone Magazine. The construction of the cathedral took ages and was left unfinished when Gaudi was tragically killed in front of it: “He stepped out into the road so he would have a better view of the massive spires on top of the giant building and was hit by a tram.”

Citizens of No Place
(the abstraction of the outside shape is an impression / the fluidity of the inside episodes are stories) — Jimenez Lai

Like the house of breath, the house of wind and voice is a value that hovers on the frontier between reality and unreality.
— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Citizens of No Place“Cartoon is an enticing way to convey complexity,” opens Jimenez Lai’s Citizens of No Place (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), an architectural graphic novel, which “offers narratives about character development, through which the reader can explore relationships, curiosities, and attitudes, as well as absurd stories about fake realities that invite new futures to become possibilities” (p. 7). Using manga to map future forms and dropping references to everyone from Chuck Palahniuk to Robert Venturi, the book is only one facet of Lai and his firm‘s critical design program (see his Briefcase House and White Elephant for two more examples, both of which guest star in the book as well).

The stories of Citizens of No Place are poignant, funny, and based on Lai’s own architectural ideas and life experiences. Lai is a professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago, my current home institution, and I hope to take my copy of his book to him and have him fix the cover in person.

All buildings are predictions.
All predictions are wrong.
— Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn

The other subject of Peter Gabriel’s song about buildings was the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, Sarah Winchester. Gabriel continues. “After the death of her daughter, she became incredibly depressed and, after seeing a medium, became convinced she was being haunted by all the people who had been killed by Winchester rifles. She started adding rooms to her mansion to house these ghosts, a task which went on nonstop for 38 years until her death.” She held her own house of leaves inside her head.

Chris Ware‘s latest comic seems haunted in the same manner. It’s not actually a single comic book, but a box of them–broadsheets, single strips that unfold four times, a Little Golden book, a hardback, several almost standard comic books–a nonlinear yet interconnected collection of strange stories about the inhabitants of an apartment building. Ware, who has already proven he can design in and draw on any style he pleases, told Comic Book Resources,

There’s no mystery to be unravelled or any hidden secret that will explain everything; the book is simply an attempt to recreate, however awkwardly, the three-dimensionality of our memories and to try to make a story than has no apparent beginning or end, much like our memories, which we can enter from any direction and at any point, which is also the way we get to know people, i.e., a little bit at a time. And yes, the title points both towards the way we put together and take apart memories to make stories about ourselves and others, as well as to the structure of a building itself.

Like a velvet glove cast in concrete, its pieces blown apart and strewn about, Building Stories leaves us to (re)construct the story like so many memories past. It’s not exactly a choose-your-own-adventure book, but, like our own patterned pasts, some assembly is required. Fortunately the parts were designed by one of the best artists working today.

“Every building is potentially immortal,” writes Brand (1994), “but few last half the life of a human” (p. 111). The same can be said of our stories. Whether forced or built this way, the house I live in struggles to tell its tale. Straining against Euclidian geometry, its odd rooms and angles are haunted only by the expectations of its inhabitants. Bachelard (1964) writes, “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space” (p. 47). This jumbled house is certainly not inert, the current, humble site of my own building stories.

References:

Bachelard, Gaston. (1964). The Poetics of Space. Boston, MA: Beacon, p. 60.

Brand, Stewart. (1994). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. London: Viking, p. 178.

Danielewski, Mark Z. (2000). House of Leaves: A Novel. New York: Pantheon.

Lai, Jimenez. (2012). Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Ware, Chris. (2012). Building Stories. New York: Pantheon.

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Special thanks to Jeisler Salunga and Belem Medina for the tip on Lai’s book and to all of my other architecture students for reminding me how cool this stuff is.

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color

After years of trying to play the Hollywood game, Shane Carruth is finally back with a new film. That news on its own is enough to send cinema nerds scrambling for seats. Upstream Color, which Brian Rafferty at WIRED aptly calls, “beautifully baffling,” and about which Steven Shaviro tweeted, “wrenching, nearly impalpable. Left me dazzled, tongue-tied. Sort of the Martian riposte to Terence Malick? I don’t even..,” is definitely worth the wait. Carruth, who previously dazzled us with the self-produced, garage sci-fi thriller, Primer (2004), spent the years since trying to get a script called A Topiary made, which, even with the support of no less than Steven Soderbergh, never received the funding it needed. He was on hand at the Music Box Theater in Chicago last night and answered questions between screenings of his two films. Reluctant to offer up spoilers and background on the underlying elements of the story, he was additionally thwarted by the audience from doing so. Carruth did say that after all the time he wasted on A Topiary, he’s sold on the independent route he’s been following.

Upstream Color

Where Blade Runner (1982) uses memory as the basis for identity, gifting its android Replicants with an implanted past thereby giving them a sense of self, Upstream Color manipulates its characters’ lack thereof. Not knowing exactly what happened to you means not knowing exactly who you are. Both Kris (Amy Seimetz, who, among other things, was previously in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture; 2010) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, who also co-starred in Primer) have experienced a trauma they don’t recall, and their spotless minds do not yield eternal sunshine. Their missing memory strips them of their subjectivity, which is then built back up again in incomplete layers, juxtaposed with suspicion, worry, and paranoia. It’s an allegory and a love story, but don’t go in trying to figure it out.

The hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of Primer was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voiceover, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music. As a composer, Carruth gave props to my favorite score of all time, Cliff Martinez’s Solaris (2002). Though both are beautifully sparse yet eerily unnerving, his own soundtrack for Upstream Color owes little to Martinez (Clint Mansell’s 2009 Moon score has cornered that debt).

Carruth promised not to keep us waiting another nine years for his next film, saying he’s hoping to start production on his next project, called The Modern Ocean, this summer.

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Here’s the official trailer for Upstream Color [runtime: 2:10]:

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Remix Redux: Transformative Appropriation

Scholars, researchers, and journalists have had a tumultuous relationship with Hip-hop in general and the cultural practice of remixing specifically (McLeod, 2002). Some, seemingly refusing to contend with Hip-hop at all, trace the practice back to the collages of the Dadaists, the détournements of the Situationists, or the cut-ups of Burroughs and Gysin. Regardless, there’s no denying that Hip-hop brought sampling, scratching, and manipulating previously recorded sounds to a global audience. Along with allusion, quotation, and interpolation, sampling is now standard among the tools of the modern media maker (McLeod & DiCola, 2011). It’s one more option in what Joanna Demers (2006) calls “transformative appropriation, the act of referring to or quoting old works in order to create a new work” (p. 4).

Even so, some use such appropriation as an opportunity to either critique or dismiss the idea of originality altogether. In 1985, Eleanor Heartney complained that “we have finally reached the stage where the very notion of artistic originality is suspect” (p. 26). Others want to spread the practice out, to see it everywhere. As Simon Reynolds puts it, appropriately citing the worst misuses of the concept yet,

“We use the old to make the new and the new is always old.” Much the same idea crops up in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a sort of self-help manual for modern creatives. Kleon moves quickly from “every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas” to insisting that “you are the sum of your influences” and that “you’re a remix of your mom and dad.”

Remix TheoryEverything is not a remix, and putting two things together does not a remix make. To say that all such combinations, appropriations, and amalgams are remixes is to lose sight of what makes remix a unique concept of its own. Eduardo Navas remedies this line of thinking with a nuanced, discursive approach to remix culture. In his Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling (Springer, 2012), Navas lays out a systematic way to think about the cultural history and controversial layers of remix, grounded in the “concrete form of sampling,” and focusing on “conceptual strategies used in different forms of art, media, and culture” (p. 6). These include photography, art, and, of course, music. The latter form of remix being rooted in Jamaican dub and defined by three actions: extending, selecting, and reflecting.

Extending the break is the original form of Hip-hop remix, but those roots reach back not only to Jamaica but also to Jazz. When the written melody ended, Jazz players would improvise over the chord changes to keep the dancers moving (Byrne, 2012), just as the original Hip-hop DJs did in the park. Selective remix is just what it sounds like: a new composition created by adding and subtracting elements from the original piece, heightening or downplaying its salient aspects. Reflexive remix extends, adds, and subtracts but also allegorizes the original composition. That is, it is its own thing, but also maintains the original’s “spectacular aura” (Navas, 2012, p.66) and displays “distorted reflections” (Hebdige, 1979, p. 26) of its source material. It is allusive, revealing its sources through a warped, funhouse mirror. In more general terms, Navas contends that remix is the cultural adhesive that holds our current culture together. Remix Theory is as erudite as is is readable and deftly demonstrates how remix applies far outside its origins.

Groove MusicTaking a more specific tack, Mark Katz’s Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Oxford University Press, 2012) explores all of the practices of the Hip-hop DJ including remix. With his stethoscope firmly pressed against its chest, Katz listens closely to what Rob Swift calls “the heartbeat of Hip-hop culture.” Groove Music is as definitive a cultural history of sampling, scratching, and remixing you’re likely to find. The art of the DJ proves that it ain’t all final on black vinyl, but Katz has it all down in black and white. From the early 1970s to the early 21st century, it’s all in here. Groove Music along with Joseph Schloss’s Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop (Wesleyan, 2004) and Katz’s previous book, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (University of California Press, 2004), will get you a long way to understanding the cultural production of music in the 21st century.

For the most part, Hip-hop DJs and producers don’t think about remix the way that scholars, researchers, or journalists do. Heartney (1985) continues, “Appropriation is culture with an omnivorous appetite, gobbling up every image that wanders across its path” (p. 28). While any DJ might agree with that, their reasons will vary. Are they always making a statement with their sampling choices? Nah, sometimes certain sounds just sound dope together (for one example, see Schloss, 2004, pp. 147-149). As Steinberg (1978) puts it, “there is as much unpredictable originality in quoting, imitating, transposing, and echoing, as there is in inventing” (p. 25). Indeed, cutting and pasting pieces of the past together can yield work as original as any other act of creation.

But you don’t need me to tell you that.

References:

Byrne, David. (2012). How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, p. 21.

Demers, Joanna. (2006). Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Heartney, Eleanor. (1985, March). Appropriation and the Loss of Authenticity. New Art Examiner, 26-30.

Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.

Katz, Mark. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLeod, Kembrew. (2002). The Politics and History of Hip-hop Journalism. In Steve Jones (ed,), Pop Music and the Press. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, pp. 156-167.

McLeod, Kembrew & DiCola, Peter. (2011). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 55.

Navas, Eduardo. (2012). Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling. New York: Springer.

Reynolds, Simon. (2012, October 5). You Are Not a Switch: Recreativity and the Modern Dismissal of Genius. Slate.

Schloss, Joseph G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Steinberg, L. (1978). The Glorious Company (of Horse Thieves). In J. Lipman & R. Marshall (Eds.), Art About Art, (pp. 21-32). New York: Dutton.

Enjoy the Silence: Jonathan Sterne’s Sound Studies

Though considered the absence of sound, an entity defined by lack, silence is its own swollen signifier. We often find it awkward in social situations, public forums, on the radio. Anywhere we expect the sound of a voice, silence is suspect. “Uncomfortable silences,” Mia Wallace complains in Pulp Fiction (1994), “Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?” We fill every space with sound. But, as the sultan of silence, John Cage (1991), taught us, “[S]ilence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around” (p. 59)

The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need of words, and ask no more than complicitous silence.
— Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice

Orfield Lab's Anechoic Chamber

Silence indicates unheard voices, both figuratively and literally. In The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012) edited by Jonathan Sterne, Mladen Dolar writes, “The absence of voices and sounds is hard to endure; complete silence is immediately uncanny, it is like death, while the voice is the first sign of life” (p. 540). Orfied Laboratories’ Anechoic Chamber, built by Eckel Industries and pictured above, is a foam room within a room, built on i-beams and springs, surrounded by steel. The outer room is encased in foot-thick, concrete walls. There’s a running bet at the lab offering a case of beer to anyone who can stay in it with the lights off for over 45 minutes. In a rather psychological example of what Douglas Kahn (1999) calls the “impossible inaudible” (p. 189), no one’s been able to stay inside for more than half an hour. Its death-like silence makes its Guinness Book of World Records award as “The Quietest Place on Earth” seem sinister.

The Sound Studies ReaderIn her investigation of silence in fiction, Alix Ohlin (2012) notes, “Silence, created through ellipsis, white space, and repetition, is another form of erasure; it tells the reader of a pain that is too great to bear, yet must be borne” (p. 58). As Susan Sontag (1969) writes, “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech” (p. 11). The complaint is often hidden until heard. Breaking the silence is the first step to its resolution. Tara Rodgers’ essay in Sterne’s collection, “Toward a Feminist Historiography of Electronic Music,” also equates silence to a unspoken grievance, quoting poet Adrienne Rich: “The impulse to create begins–often terribly and fearfully–in a tunnel of silence… [T]he first question we might ask a poem is, What kind of voice is breaking the silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?” (p. 478). Similarly, in “The Audio-Visual iPod,” Michael Bull equates it with isolation. Silence makes an uneasy companion.

 Air has so much to say for itself. Sound is just bugged air.
— McKenzie WarkDispositions

Bugging the air and bugging the airwaves, sound surrounds us. In his essay, “The Auditory Dimension,” Don Ihde phenomenologically relates hearing to seeing, the silent to the invisible. Rephrasing the age-old, tree-falling-in-the-forest question, he writes, “Does each event of the visible world offer the occasion, even ultimately from a sounding presence of mute objects, for silence to have a voice? Do all things, when fully experienced, also sound forth?” (p. 27).

MP3: -The Meaning of a FormatTackling the presence of no object, Sterne’s other new book, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012), investigates the evolution and epistemology of our prevailing sound format. Originally intended as a way to transfer sound over phone lines, the MP3 has become a case study in the digital reorganization of an industry. “Chances are,” Sterne writes, “if a recording takes a ride on the internet, it will travel in the form of an MP3 file” (p. 1). Identifying the internet as its native environment, the “dot-mp3” file extension was born on July 14, 1995. “At some point in the late 90s,” says Karlheinz Brandenburg, whose Ph.D. work in 1982 landed him in the middle of the development of the format, “MP3 was technically the best system out there, and at the same time, it was accessible to everybody.” These two aspects gave the MP3 an early foothold, it was patented in 1989, and now every device that plays digital audio files can play one (Wikström, 2009). With the introduction of the first portable MP3-player in 1998, the record industry’s early-eighties nightmares were coming true (Coleman, 2004), and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) started its ongoing legal battle against the digital revolution. Once online file-sharing and the iPod came online around the turn of the millennium, the floodgates were open, and music was liberated not only from the dams of physical formats but also physical spaces. What once took rooms of equipment and stacks of physical media to enjoy is now in everyone’s pocket.

Where the printing press gave us “an eye for an ear” (McLuhan, 1962, p. 27), the MP3 gave us all an endless, solitary soundtrack. The visual is still culturally privileged over the audible (Kahn, 1999), but studying sound has never been more imperative. The Sound Studies Reader and MP3: The Meaning of a Format, along with Sterne’s earlier book, The Audible Past (Duke University Press, 2003), provide a solid foundation.

Without sound, celebration and grief look nearly the same.
— Sam in Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet

Sharing silence can be the ultimate sign of intimacy. The unspoken solace of a loved one close by manifests a complicit quiet. Mia Wallace continues, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.” Amen.

References:

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 188.

Cage, John. (1991, Winter). An Autobiographical Statement. Southwest Review, 76(1), 59.

Coleman, Mark. (2004). Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money. New York: Da Capo.

Kahn, Douglas. (1999). Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Marcus, Ben. (2012). The Flame Alphabet: A Novel. New York: Knopf, p. 181.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ohlin, Alix. (2012, December). “I Am In Here”: On Silence in Fiction. The Writer’s Chronicle, 45(3), 56-63.

Sontag, Susan. (1969). Styles of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Bender, Lawrence (Producer) & Tarantino, Quentin (Director/Writer). (1994). Pulp Fiction [Motion picture]. United States: A Band Apart.

Wark, McKenzie. (2002). Dispositions. Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing.

Wikström, Patrik. (2009). The Music Industry. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.