“Civilization is a Conspiracy of Noise”
“Silence used to be, to varying degrees, a means of isolation. Now it is the absence of silence that works to render today’s world empty and isolating. Its reserves have been invaded and depleted. The Machine marches globally forward and silence is the dwindling place where noise has not yet penetrated.
Civilization is a conspiracy of noise, designed to cover up the uncomfortable silences. The silence-honoring Wittgenstein understood the loss of our relationship with it. The unsilent present is a time of evaporating attention spans, erosion of critical thinking, and a lessened capacity for deeply felt experiences. Silence, like darkness, is hard to come by; but mind and spirit need its sustenance…
Silence is “not the mere absence of something else.” In fact, our longings turn toward that dimension, its associations and implications. Behind the appeals for silence lies the wish for a perceptual and cultural new beginning.
In the industrially-based technosphere, the Machine has almost succeeded in banishing quietude. A natural history of silence is needed for this endangered species. Modernity deafens. The noise, like technology, must never retreat – and never does.
For Picard, nothing has changed human character so much as the loss of silence. Thoreau called silence “our inviolable asylum,” an indispensable refuge that must be defended. Silence is necessary against the mounting sound. It’s feared by manipulative mass culture, from which it remains apart, a means of resistance precisely because it does not belong to this world. Many things can still be heard against the background of silence; thus a way is opened, a way for autonomy and imagining.
“Sense opens up in silence,” wrote Jean-Luc Nancy. It is to be approached and experienced bodily, inseparably from the world, in the silent core of the self. It can highlight our embodiment, a qualitative step away from the hallmark machines that work so resolutely to disembody us. Silence can be a great aid in unblocking ourselves from the prevailing, addictive information sickness at loose in society. It offers us the place to be present to ourselves, to come to grips with who we are. Present to the real depth of the world in an increasingly thin, flattened technoscape….
Can silence be considered, approached, without reification, in the here and now? I think it can be an open, strengthening way of knowing, a generative condition. Silence can also be a dimension of fear, grief – even of madness and suicide. In fact, it is quite difficult to reify silence, to freeze it into any one non-living thing. At times the reality we interrogate is mute; an index of the depth of the still present silence? Wonder may be the question that best gives answers, silently and deeply.
“Silence is so accurate,” said Mark Rothko, a line that has intrigued me for years. Too often we disrupt silence, only to voice some detail that misses an overall sense of what we are part of, and how many ways there are to destroy it. In the Antarctica winter of 1933, Richard Byrd recorded: “Took my daily walk at 4PM… I paused to listen to the silence…the day was dying, the night being born – but with great peace. Here were imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless.” How much is revealed in silence through the depths and mysteries of living nature. Annie Dillard also provides a fine response to the din: “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, to the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.”
It is not only the natural world that is accessible via silence. Cioran indicated the secrets in the silence of things, deciding that “All objects have a language which we can decipher only in total silence.” David Michael Levin’s “The Body’s Recollection of Being” counsels us to “learn to think through the body…we should listen in silence to our bodily felt experience.” And in the interpersonal sphere, silence is a result of empathy and being understood, without words much more profoundly than otherwise…
Our most embodied, alive-to-this-earth selves realize best the limits of language and indeed, the failure of the project of representation. In this state it is easiest to understand the exhaustion of language, and the fact that we are always a word’s length from immediacy. Kafka commented on this in “In the Penal Colony,” where the printing press doubled as an instrument of torture. For Thoreau, “as the truest society approaches always nearer to solitude, so the most excellent speech finally falls into silence.” Conversely, mass society banishes the chance of autonomy, just as it forecloses on silence…
So here we are, with the Machine engulfing us in its various assaults on silence and so much else, intruding deeply. The note North Americans spontaneously hum or sing is B-natural, which is the corresponding tone of our 60 cycles per second alternating current electricity. (In Europe, G-sharp is “naturally” sung, matching that continent’s 50 cycles per second AC electricity.) In the globalizing, homogenizing Noise Zone we may soon be further harmonized. Pico Ayer refers to “my growing sense of a world that’s singing the same song in a hundred accents all at once.”
We need a refusal of the roar of standardization, its information-noise and harried, surface “communication” modes. A No to the unrelenting, colonizing penetrability of non-silence, pushing into every non-place. The rising racket measures, by decibel up-ticks and its polluting reach, the degrading mass world – Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
Silence is a rebuke to all this, and a zone for reconstituting ourselves. It gathers in nature, and can help us gather ourselves for the battles that will end debasement. Silence as a powerful tool of resistance, the unheard note that might precede insurrection. It was, for example, what slave masters feared most. In various Asian spiritual traditions, the muni, vowed to silence, is the person of greatest capacity and independence – the one who does not need a master for enlightenment.
The deepest passions are nurtured in silent ways and depths. How else is respect for the dead most signally expressed, intense love best transmitted, our profoundest thoughts and visions experienced, the unspoiled world most directly savored? In this grief-stricken world, according to Max Horkheimer, we “become more innocent” through grief. And perhaps more open to silence – as comfort, ally, and stronghold.”
An extract from “Silence” by John Zerzan: http://www.johnzerzan.net/articles/silence.html
John Zerzan (born 1943) is an American anarchist and primitivist philosopher and author. His works criticize agricultural civilization as inherently oppressive, and advocate drawing upon the ways of life of hunter gatherers as an inspiration for what a free society should look like. Some subjects of his criticism include domestication, language, symbolic thought (such as mathematics and art) and the concept of time.
His five major books are “Elements of Refusal” (1988), “Future Primitive and Other Essays” (1994), “Running on Emptiness” (2002), “Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections” (2005) and “Twilight of the Machines” (2008).
For more about John Zerzan: