Archive for December, 2008

Silent Night

December 21, 2008


Silence Caged

In his book Silence, John Cage tells the story of a curious inspiration for one of his compositions. It seems he went to Harvard to sit in an anechoic chamber, which is a room designed to destroy sound—‘anechoic’ means not having or producing echoes—in the hope of finding genuine silence. Instead he heard two sounds, one pitched high, one low. A friendly engineer explained he was hearing his nervous system and the circulation of his blood through the veins and arteries, which was probably nonsense, but the experience resulted in an iconic piece of music, 4’33’’—you know the deal with 4’ 33’’, a musician sits down at the piano and we listen to the sounds in the air: your neighbor clearing his throat, a baby crying in the back row, a shout in the street. 4’ 33’’ may be a lot of things, aleatoric music or an expression of Zen Buddhism—it may be a lot of hooey— but it isn’t something you can’t hear. As a presentation of silence it bubbles with trouble; as a piece of music, only the truly philosophic will walk away whistling. We have a strange relationship with silence; we associate it with something you hear—a sound of silence—and we think it exists. The real problem with this notion of silence is that it may be the province of the dead.

There are a lot of other songs and music that make use of the concept of silence. The Sounds of Silence, Silence is Golden, and Silent Night are a few that come to mind, and of course philosophers are attracted to the idea. There is that Pensée by Pascal: The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. Wittgenstein also weighs in with his concluding sentence in the Tractatus: What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence. And speaking of conclusions, remember Hamlet’s curtain ringer: The rest is silence… But we are back to the dead.


If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it…?

It seems we need three things for sound, a source of vibration, a medium to conduct the sound waves—like the atmosphere, like the oceans—and someone to be listening, ‘auditing’ in the best sense. The problem comes when we flip over to not-sound—is this silence?

Thomas Nagel raises a parallel issue in his essay Death when he wonders if death can really be a bad thing for the deceased. It’s not that he thinks you’re kissing the angels’ feet in heaven or anything; he presumes it’s over for you as a person, and asks if you are no longer in existence, how can death be bad for you? ‘Dead’ is not a state you inhabit.

The point that death is not regarded as an unfortunate state enables us to refute a curious but very common suggestion about the origin of the fear of death. It is often said that those who object to death have made the mistake of trying to imagine what it is like to be dead. It is alleged that the failure to realize that this task is logically impossible (for the banal reason that there is nothing to imagine) leads to the conviction that death is mysterious and therefore a terrifying prospective state.

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The Metaphysicals

December 15, 2008

Shhh… I’m doing some auditioning for The Metaphysicals using One Look. It’s this new dictionary search engine. Should be interesting. Listen in, if you want…

Ladies and gentlemen, today’s first contestant is commute, a nice common word, easy to pronounce, a good solid two syllables, seems pretty stable—and One Look finds him in 29 different sources, which is 24 more than Google using the ‘define:’ special syntax pulled up. Pretty impressive, Commute. I just hope you’re not going to be too repetitive.

No, not at all.

Sure, we all know commute can mean more than a meaningless shuffle between two points in order to earn a living…

In addition to ‘travel back and forth between work and home’, I can also mean ‘transpose and remain equal in value; exchange a penalty for a less severe one; change or replace with another’.

So, if you’re on death row, you’re kind of hoping the governor does a lot of commuting, right?

(The audience laughs here.)

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