Quotes of the Week: Silence & Deafness

I’m about half of the way through the book In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik. Due out in early April from Doubleday, it’s a series of essays that collect related anecdotes, trivia, historical references, interview segments, and personal reflections tied to particular themes, such as the purpose of hearing, the purpose of noise, the role of sound in the retail environment, and so on. It’s packed with fascinating information: about how there’s no way Pythagoras could actually have heard at a blacksmith’s shop what has become received wisdom about the history of Western tuning; about the relative “tunings” of various cities around the globe; about how aspects of Hitler’s commanding voice may have, as much as the substance of what he said, been the source of his charismatic force; about how the San Francisco Chronicle was the first newspaper to rate restaurants by a “noise-rating,” and that was only a decade ago; about the role of hearing in combat as described by a veteran of the U.S. military who happens to be credited as a guitarist on the debut album by Nirvana. (There’s a lot in the book about conflict, which makes it a good counterpart to Steve “Kode9” Goodman’s Sonic Warfare, recently out from MIT Press.)

Prochnik is, by all appearances, a curious and creative reporter — he accompanies a patrolman in Washington, D.C., who responds to noise complaints, and visits various religious sites, including a Quaker meeting in Brooklyn and a monastery in Dubuque, Iowa. He tells a funny anecdote about seeking out an accomplished astronaut, only to learn that the experience of the silence of deep space mostly involves being inundated by instructions from mission control.

Early on in the book, Prochnik talks about a friend of his, a painter, who as a child was deaf for a period of months. The friend is named Adam (no last name is given, which is an unfortunately common occurrence in the more personal anecdotes in the book, should you want to learn more about the individuals), and Adam believes that the experience is a key reason he pursued visual art; he says of his deafness stint:

“Sound imposes a narrative on you … and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.”

Prochnik gets deeper into Adam’s experience in this paraphrase:

“His memories of that time are vivid and not, he insists, at all negative. Indeed, they opened a world in which the images he saw could be woven together with much greater freedom and originality than he’d ever known.”

This portion of the book appears midway through the introduction, and it’s wisely placed. Much writing on silence after John Cage has focused on the word’s inherent contradiction: there isn’t any true silence — the absence of formal evidence of sound (conversation, music) is in fact an illusion, a thin scrim that amounts to little more than a consensual societal hallucination. Through that scrim of perceived silence the full world of sound (nature, industry) can be heard, at least by those who make the effort to pay attention to it. The reference to deafness, and it’s the first of many in In Pursuit of Silence, provides a tabula rasa for the subject that many books on sound neglect. (There’s video of Prochnik speaking on deafness and related things at MIT at techtv.mit.edu.)

My primary critique of the book at this juncture is that the title seems misleading — the book is, at least at the halfway point, less about pursuing silence than about escaping noise. This isn’t merely a matter of how the book has been packaged. Prochnik’s sensitivity to sound as an irritant (“I’m scared of becoming a noise crank,” he writes on its first page) leads to situations in which zealousness may have yielded mistaken, or at least less-than-nuanced, interpretations. For example, the omnipresent iPod is seen here as a symbol of society’s embrace of 24/7 sonic immersion. However, I believe it can just as easily be read as evidence of a pursuit along the lines of the one that Prochnik himself has embarked on: an entirely personal attempt to block out the noise that the world imposes on us.

His book-related blog, inpursuitofsilence.com, features tidbits about the energy produced by noise and the apparent genetic predilection among humans for beats. If the stats in Google Reader are to be believed, I am as of this evening the sole RSS subscriber (via Google Reader) to his blog, and I highly recommend signing up.

Note: I usually post my “Quote of the Week” on Disquiet.com on Saturdays, but I took yesterday as a computer-free day and, entirely coincidental with the activist tone of Prochnik’s book (I didn’t start reading it until after lunch), a recorded-music-free day, as well (except at the gym, where I played Fescal’s forthcoming album, Lethal Industry, for at least the 20th time, a familiarity that to my mind qualifies it as background listening). It was a TV-free day, too, until about 10pm, when I succumbed to the wiles of a documentary about Sun Studio.

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