Tears, Fears and Flashes
Tears, Fears and Flashes considers the relationship between interpersonal understanding and propagandist rhetorics, and speculates on the ethical implications of this difficult but often present relationship. The essay examines the conditions under which different conscious sonic rhetoric may constitute particular interpersonal modes capable of yielding or destroying mutual understanding of one another, as well as exploring the role of sound, language and spatial voyeurism in this process. Related themes, such as power/control, chronotope, interruption, lingua franca, sovereignty, bicamerality, discontinuity and love are investigated and speculated on.
The following text is an integral part of a theory act that additionally incorporates, in this specific case, the artistic mediums of sound and printing. A theory act (Govrin, 2017) is a rhetorical, artistic method of discussing issues of theory in non-theoretical ways. Positioned against the conventional written paper, it does not talk about a certain subject matter, but rather ‘act it’. It is carried out through divergent and complementary modes of presentation and representation, and thus it is experimental in character. A theory act is based on the assumption that in art the acquisition of knowledge is subjected to a rhetorical form of ambiguity. This form can contribute to bridging diverse sensory and affective modes of knowledge generated within aesthetic experience and discourse. Theory is therefore felt, experienced and produced in temporal processes.
There is a charged scene from Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona (Persona, 1966) in which we see the patient Elisabet Vogler listen to Nurse Alma as she tells her the truth about herself, only to have, in an unexpected twist, the camera turn around, forcing us to hear the entire monologue again, this time with the focus on Alma. When Bergman was asked about his intention for the scene, which is known as the ‘repeated scene’, he replied that one man's speaking is not the same as another man's listening.
I hear you. I hear you. There it is, repeating, doubling – the sound of a double mirror silently retreats, withdraws ad infinitum, but not without a heroic struggle against inevitable recursion and subjectivity. The song doesn't remain the same. It tries to hold under the pressure of diminishing, keeping still, keeping steel. But suddenly, unwillingly my thoughts drift away and with the clarity of a strange dream I feel myself close to an imaginary place. Hear me. Hear me forever: this is an invitation, an imperative.
Bergman's protagonists exchange personalities. The scene becomes a mirror scene as the monologue comes, so to speak, from two different directions. Over the course of its eight-minute run, this dialectical, repeated scene turns into a chronotope (Holquist, 1981) – a cinematic chrono-event which is constituted profoundly by Alma's voice and by the dazzling understanding that in sound, a return in time is always a return to the present. This chronotope has chronotopic effects as in a drug that changes the rhythm of the heart by affecting the nerves controlling it. We repeatedly witness the primal intensity of sound that is able to transform us emotionally, to reconfigure our rhythm. Sound opens up within us an opportunity that is old as much as it is new, the same opportunity that was opened for Elisabet Vogler, to hear the other and thus to hear oneself.
We read about this intensity in Hegel (Hegel, 1977) and Lacan (Lacan 1966), to name two of the more well known examples. In Hegel, a subject achieves mastery (or self-consciousness) through the recognition of another subject. In Lacan, the infant recognises itself in an (alienated) mirror-image. In both, one goes out in order to come back to a sheltered place within.
What type of space holds sound and opens up for us in a similar way? It is the cave, the resonating, mossy cave, extravagant and dangerous cave, “where stalactites, fossils and rocks come together, and where the animals mad by their own malign nature seek refuge.” (Lispector, 2012, p. 9) I am not alone in this cave; “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) – this is God's answer to Moses in the book of Exodus when Moses asks him for his name. The name that spells out loud, in one's voice, in a sound, is at the same time the name one must not express. I hear you. I hear you forever: this is the reply to the other's invitation, a reply that, similar to the prohibition against expressing God's name, is also an imperative set by oneself for oneself.
A few years ago, I journeyed to Canada's west and arrived at Vancouver Island on a partly cloudy morning. The Pacific Ocean, stretching out and reaching the horizon, glittered in silence. Similarly, the coast breathed slowly and peacefully, attuned itself to the water. On the shoreline I initially heard nothing but faint sounds of propagated waves, which did not differ much in volume, density, timbre or related moments of silence. But given a subtler listen, various nuances unfolded and revealed continuous mini-dramas when different states of matter collided with one another in an unusual way, thus interrupting the shoreline's circular narrative. I thought about the prolonged mutual history those different materials share on the coastline and about the charged dialogue they develop throughout constant cycles of the tide.
The longer I sat there to listen – an insignificant time in geological terms – the better I also realised my part in this dialogue. The complex relationship I have with sound became all the more clear. A constant dialogue is created between our perception of sounds and sounds themselves (if we can assume such objectivity). The characteristics of sounds change as a result of our mutual dialogue and the degree of control we impose on a sound happening. Sound's tendency to acoustically disappear is challenged by our attention to it. Sometimes we are too impatient for attentive listening and thus feel attacked by sounds. We instinctively try to ‘fight back’ as if engaged in a negative, unproductive dialogue with sound. At some point, however, a certain attempt to control the sonic realm becomes helpless, since sounds fade away, and there is nothing we can do about it but retain them in memory for future purposes. To what degree does the attempt to control a sound scene interrupt its natural, historical unfolding? At the beach, sounds appeared to me when an expectation emerged, and resistance followed. When I expect something to happen, I can prepare to act and to apply force or resistance and thus to create a sound, a change that is both acoustic and emotional. When I resist, the situation is unstable; it rumbles. Calmness arrives through voluntary non-resistance, which perhaps results in silence.
I recall a text by Hannah Arendt which interestingly ties together the idea of interruption, the political sphere humans occupy and her notion of history: “What is difficult for us to realise is that the great deeds and works of which mortals are capable, and which become the topic of historical narrative, are not seen as parts of either an encompassing whole or a process; on the contrary, the stress is always on single instances and single gestures. These single instances, deeds or events, interrupt the circular movement of daily life in the same sense that the rectilinear ßios of the mortals interrupts the circular movement of biological life itself. The subject matter of history is these interruptions - the extraordinary, in other words.” (Arendt, 2006, p. 42-43)
If we juxtapose Arendt's analysis of macro-history with Vancouver Island's micro-history, it perhaps means that natural history is a dominant story told by its great uncontrolled interruptions, whereas human history can also be a dominant story told by only a single person who sought control but decided ‘not to’, which in a final account, is also a form of control. Eventually, everybody wants to rule the world.
We should notice that I'm writing to you today in English. This should not be taken for granted, as the supremacy of English these days in academic publishing is not an innocent issue. English today is supposedly what Latin used to be in early medieval Europe - somewhat of a lingua franca - but this is a misleading equation since Latin was not associated with a specific nation or country, whereas English is.
The fact that I'm writing to you today in English, which is not my mother tongue, means that something will be missing from our dialogue. True, perhaps any dialogue is somewhat based on its missing details, misunderstandings, latent assumptions, guesses, mimic interpretations and lapses more than it is based on what was actually said. But the minor, so to speak, detail which makes an important difference is that, to a large extent, our dialogue was forced upon us. We are forced to communicate, to be in contact, in a very specific manner, by using a very specific language. We are, if you will, prisoners of a language that is not our own, of a language we never owned but had involuntarily thrown onto us, and thus we are bound to a particular absence.
This could perhaps be tolerable if, for example, the economic dimension that characterises, among others, interpersonal dialogues was brought to the front and became the dominant mediator of interaction. In such case, the monetary value becomes the lingua franca as it indeed once was the main language of commerce. Then, what is missing was never really meant to be found.
But when we speak to one another we are also, first and foremost, in the domain of ethics. We tell a mutual story by listening, by singing, by loving each other unconditionally – why are we forced then to make love particularly in English? Like vagrants, against our will, we wander in exhaustion around the bends and curves of the English language, throughout its alleys and bridges. Like in Leos Carax's film The Lovers on the Bridge (The Lovers on the Bridge, 1991), in which we meet Alex and Michèle, two young Parisian vagrants bound to a love story that takes place on the Pont Neuf – Paris's oldest bridge that crosses over the river Seine. The film portrays the harsh existence of homelessness as the lovers try to get their lives back together and overcome their own difficulties – addiction in Alex's case, and in Michèle's, a deteriorating eye condition for which she becomes increasingly dependent on Alex. Fearing that Michèle will leave him if she receives a new medical treatment, Alex attempts to keep Michèle practically a prisoner. Tragically, he fortifies the bridge to keep her in, to keep her away from a redeemable home inside their own home which eventually becomes a lovers' gilded-cage. Why shouldn't we resist, escape and make love in a different language, a language with no alphabet? Won't we find that it is the language of music that makes love most openly? Music is the purest lingua franca. But what if, unexpectedly, like Alex and Michèle, we find on the bridge what we were looking for or whomever we were listening to? Then, we are no longer in the domain of ethics but that of magic.
One's voice can be loud, confident, strong, secure, unique, individual, stable, definite, lucid, powerful, special, extraordinary, impressive, leading, guiding and so on. It can as well be the opposite to all these, or most radically, one's voice can simply be silenced. We all become familiar, at some point in our lives, with the petrifying impact of a silencing force that issues from some foreign, violent body. When this supposedly undefeated force is speaking, one listens and obeys. Then we call it totalitarianism. But this possible totalitarian aspect of an external voice, as we have come to know it throughout history, perhaps was not always perceived as something negative or threatening, but rather religious or natural.
In what still seems to be a controversial book, titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Jaynes, 1976), the late American psychologist Julian Jaynes asserts that consciousness did not arise in humans prior to language, but is a learned process that is based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues, humans operated under a mentality he called the bicameral mind. In place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations experienced by people who hear voices today. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers or gods. In other words, people in ancient civilisations were guided in decision-making situations by commanding voices that today we would call auditory hallucinations; schizophrenia is a vestige of this earlier mentality. Daily life in bicameral civilisations was probably largely habitual, with occasional voices directing behaviour in novel situations. Put simply, where today people deliberate over a decision, in the distance past the bicameral person would have experienced a guiding voice. This voice was based on the same unconscious problem-solving processes that modern introspective decision-making often relies on. In ancient civilisations, a person would likely have grown up with their (‘hallucinating’) guiding voice, or ‘personal god,’ referred to as one's Ka in ancient Egypt or one's Genius among the early Romans. Jaynes believes that people in ancient civilisations experienced auditory stimuli emanating from their right temporal lobe, and that these people misinterpreted (so to speak) these auditory hallucinations as the voices of their dead relatives, chiefs, kings, and eventually ‘the gods’.
To support and bring evidence to his theory that ancient humans did not have meta-consciousness or the self-awareness that characterises consciousness, Jaynes focuses on ancient Greek culture (although the transition from bicamerality to consciousness, he argues, took place at different times in different places around the world). Jaynes focuses on Greece because the oldest reliable writing, the Iliad (usually dated to around the 10th century BC), comes from there and depicts information on the lives of the early Greeks. The Iliad does not exhibit any kind of cognitive process such as introspection, even though it contains many myths, legends and historical accounts. Later works, even by Homer himself, such as the Odyssey (a sequel to the Iliad), already shows indications of a profoundly different kind of mentality or early form of consciousness.
Subsequent non-literary works that deal directly with the concept of voice or sound perhaps already show the completion of the process that Jaynes suggests. One of these works, for example, is Aristotle's treatise De Anima, written around 350 BCE. In the second part of the text, Aristotle writes that the voice, produced by the soul, is associated (from the materialistic aspect) with the heart and (from the formalistic aspect) with the imagination. Because the soul resides in an area of the heart, the voice is produced there as well as in the windpipe that leads directly to it. “Not every sound made by an animal is voice” (Aristotle, 1907, p. 27): when voice is produced, “that which does the striking must have a soul and there must be a certain imagination (for voice is a particular sound which has meaning).” (ibid.) Thus, at the time when Aristotle writes, one's voice is already completely understood as an internal, cognitive process of the mind. In order to fully realise the Aristotelian voice, we should also understand something of the early conception of the body. The body was seen as a semi-permeable, vulnerable object, receiving impressions from the outside (impressions are envisioned since Aristotle as a process analogous to how a seal imprints soft wax). Illness, for example, was perceived as the penetration of ambient miasma through the skin (this is why Early Moderns took few baths). So, even when the mind-body conception is of that kind – when the body is not understood as a completely independent, objective object – still the voice is conceived as being generated internally and un-forcefully. In this sense, the formation of the limits of the body followed that of the mind.
In our times, for a voice to be conceived as natural and subjectively our own (even though it may in fact be oppressive, totalitarian and enslaving), it had to reappear in a sophisticated way. While pretending to operate externally from oneself, within the real world that we aloofly experience, as constrained rhetoric, it cunningly succeeded to reconfigure itself internally in a way that made it more than simply rhetoric. Now, we call it capitalism, the free market and the free world.
That night we talked and talked, and I had a feeling of isolation and of being misunderstood. The language did not suffice to hold what emotionally discharged itself from my peelable self. Then the language started to crumble, always threatening to collapse into a porous matter not thick enough to crystallise a thought or a feeling, no longer capable of capturing me within itself. I could hear no connections any more. Sentences dismantled themselves into a series of separated words, the words into random, sonic fragments, the sonic fragments into disjointed syllables, and those emissions into a glowing trail, excreted and left behind by some crawling creature that was my tongue.
Then, silence... and a sense of discontinuity that could not be darned by soniferous exchange. The longer we paused, the heavier it grew, enigmatically bringing with it a waiting which measured the distance that could not be reduced. After we let go of the continuous force of our coherent conversation, there emerged a need to emancipate a certain stage of language: a stage in which we would not only be able to express ourselves in a disruptive manner, but would also be able to let the pause speak in an un-unified manner – a manner that would reconcile itself as being nothing but a bridge or a passage, an indecisive speech capable of crossing our discontinuity without trying to fill or unify it.
Then, suddenly, a connection was made, followed by a sense of surprise and gratitude. How did it happen? A word either touches another person or it doesn't – I could not understand it really. In Clarice Lispector's words: “The question of understanding is not about intelligence, it is about feeling, about entering into contact.” (TV Cultura, 1977).