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Jungjin Lee, photography.

“…this situation is highly volatile, because those in the periphery are increasingly aware that the prosperity of the core is purchased at their expense. ”
Morris Berman (Twilight of American Culture)

“What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie? ”
Lewis H. Lapham. (Age of Folly).

“Hence the disappearance of the maxim and the proverb, which were the guise in which experience stood as authority. The slogan, which has replaced them, is the proverb of humankind to whom experience is lost.”
Giorgio Agamben (Infancy and History)

“It is the loss of control of the self over the self-object that leads to the fragmentation…and, in further development, to the ascendancy and entrenchment of chronic narcissistic rage.”
Heinz Kohut (The Restoration of the Self)

One could with some justification cite the mid 1970s as the sort of watershed for Imperial decline in the West. Certainly that is a justifiable guess if speaking of the U.S. It was what John Cassidy called the end of “picket fence America…”. The picket fence was replaced with something else, something closer to what Cassidy calls a “a small staircase”. Morris Berman cites several factors that indicate decline and civilizational collapse, and one of the factors is a spiritual collapse. And it is that which I think worth exploring.

The disappearance of jobs, the widening of income inequality, and the precipitous increase in anxiety and fear in the population is almost now a given. Nobody hides this information anymore, not even the Wall St. Journal.

Willy Spiller, photography (NYC 1970s).

“When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”
Alexis de Tocqueville

“The pursuit of silence, likewise, is dissimilar from most other pursuits in that it generally begins with a surrender of the chase, the abandonment of efforts to impose our will and vision on the world. ”
George Prochnik (In Pursuit of Silence).

The loss of the spiritual (a word in need of defining, and more on that below) is best exemplified today by the assaults of sound, or noise. Neuroscientists point less toward loud construction sounds or jet aircraft than they do about the relentless noise of electronic gadgetry. And it was not single jolts of noise but rather exposure to the duration of noises produced by nearly everything in daily use in advanced Western societies. In Prochnik’s book he quotes a Trappist monk…“Monks live in the desert,” Alberic told me, after we’d driven back to the monastery and had a chance to sit down together. “These giant, snow-covered fields are the desert. It’s where monks have always been drawn. We come for a radical confrontation with ourselves.” The Brother adds a bit later that he felt the troops of the first Gulf War had waited in the desert for what was, for them, an unusually long time …that they had faced the front edges of something that caused them deep unease. “Americans don’t sit in a quiet, solitary place and flourish. They were starting to have a monastic experience. And that doesn’t jibe well with the military’s goals.”

Harold Edgerton, photography (Rapatronic camera), 1952, 1st instant of Atomic bomb explosion.

The Desert Fathers, those early 4th century A.D. christian hermits who wandered or lived in small enclaves, in what is today Egypt, Palestine (sic), Saudi Arabia and Jordan, even to Iran, were the first monastics, really. And it is worth a short reexamination of these men, for they were practising something like what we think of today as a simple life of shared work, personal reflection, and a search for spiritual revelation. And two things strike one about the Desert Fathers; the first is the desert played an enormous foundational role in their sense of religious mystery, and second, the importance of silence. And additionally, that these were essentially anarcho-socialist groups. The Abbots (which at time meant only one who had reached purity of heart…and nobody voted on this or anything. It was more, oh, well, yeah, everyone knows Aleric is pure) helped the novices and brethren — those on the path but still young or lacking experience — and answered questions. The hermits did not shy away from visitors but neither did they encourage them. And all of them distrusted verbal communication. Their idea of the spiritual was bound up with the practical, with making life easy and not difficult. Part of purity was learning that.

Pieter Bruegel the elder. 1556.

I also have always felt a clear and deep connection between the Hermitage and the artwork. All great painting –on some level — takes place or expresses somehow , the desert. And the hermitage.. All great writing does, too, but that is more complicated (see below). So whether it is Rothko or Agnes Martin, or Jan Van Eyck or El Greco — work is inspired by and in some dialectical fashion is expressing our personal deserts, if not also, or instead of, the real desert. All monks, Buddhist or Jain or Zen — all have monastic traditions. Some are more corrupted, more and earlier (I think much Tibetan buddhism is such a case). There is no real difficulty in seeing the corrupted from the uncorrupted. The point is that revelation or awakening is revealed in expanse. Moby Dick is a book of the desert. It is a book of expansion, both personal and interior, as well as political and historical. Shakespeare is the same. The Tempest is about expansion and the costs of contraction.

“To seek a union with God that would imply complete separation, in spirit as well as in body from all the rest of mankind, would be to a Christian saint not only absurd but the very opposite of sanctity. Isolation in the self, inability to go out of oneself to others, would mean incapacity for any form of self-transcendence”
Thomas Merton. (The Wisdom of the Desert.)

Eiichi Shibata

The instrumentalization of culture is also the coercion to isolation. The noise of gadgets, the digital screen interface, the artificial urgency of truncated communication, all of this is toward a training in consumerism and a discouragement to actual solitude. But not just solitude, for it also, of course, a means to destroy community. Isolation not solitude. The monastic reflection is a mind set not given to purchasing anything. This was the problem that 20th century film producers and distributors saw, difficult challenging film killed off the desire to buy things as one left the mall.

“I am not afraid to state that to be a child of God is to be a child of silence. “
Cardinal Robert Sarah

David Quady

“Finally, the proximate end of all this striving was “purity of heart” – a clear unobstructed vision of the true state of affairs, an intuitive grasp of one’s own inner reality as anchored, or rather lost, in God through Christ. The fruit of this was quies: “rest”. Not rest of the body, nor even fixation of the exalted spirit upon some point or summit of light. The Desert Fathers were not, for the most part, ecstatics.”
Thomas Merton.

And the closest contemporary gloss on *quies* is proabably William Burroughs and his DE practice …

The sense of collapse I feel, and many feel, is expressed acutely by the general tenor of unhappiness, even misery, that cuts across all classes in the West today. And the consumerism of each class has started to blur. Well, it began blurring in the 70s I think. I mean by this that while to some degree each class has its own producers of goods, the ascension of irony has resulted in class overlap culturally. Also, the extraordinary erosion of ALL education means that not even those at elite Universities have much — if any — taste.

Brassai, photography. New Orleans 1957.

“The worker is not buying goods because he identifies with the American Way of Life, but because he has enormous anxiety about his self, which he feels possessions might assuage. Consumerism is paradoxically seen as a way out of a system that has damaged him and that he secretly despises; it is a way of trying to keep free from the emotional grip of this system.”
Morris Berman (The Reenchantment of the World)

The consumerism of the 21st century, then, has become blurred, too, but with the therapeutic. Increasingly the affluent classes (at least) are buying perception. And that perception is linked in a fascinating manner, I think, with ideas of self improvement. And self improvement became an imitation of work, and not just work, but alienated toil.

“Designers know that no one wants a car that looks cheap, that screams stripped-down functionality. So they attempt to make economy cars look as much like their expensive corporate relatives as is possible within the cost restraints given them and while maintaining the separate identities of the lines. The quantity of features and embellishments on the various makes in the automobile hierarchy are varied by designers to justify the price differences. But the quality of aesthetics is basically the same across the hierarchy, so the graded models cannot testify to distinct class tastes. More expensive cars offer those with more money to spend not qualitatively different aesthetics to testify to superior tastes but merely more of what everyone has a taste for.”
David Gartman

Sally Mann, photography.

The hostility to intellect is now acute, of course. There are endless examples. Endless. But one aspect of the anxiety that intellect arouses in the 21st century has to do with this sense of rudeness. I quote Morris Berman again below, but it is (and he does note this) more related, I think, to the dismantling of the psyche altogether. I see the fear of “too much verbiage” as a journalist from the left wrote the other day regarding the Frankfurt School thinkers. And this was a writer I rather liked, but who betrays too often this mock populist sensibility. These two things, a hostility to the intellectually difficult and social incivility are the twin character traits of daily life today.

“One further aspect of our current spiritual collapse is our increasing inability to relate to one another with a minimum of courtesy or even awareness. It has become common now not to respond to any sort of request if the answer is no. Increasingly, if someone applies for a job and fails to get it, they are not notified to that effect; they never hear anything at all. People are also fired indirectly, with companies refusing to let them know why. We have stopped holding doors for one another; don’t bother to answer messages; disappear from each other’s lives without explanation or regret; betray one another and then refuse to discuss it. Rudeness is now acceptable, because I am the only one who inhabits my solipsistic world. (The flip side of this phenomenon is the replacement of civility by corporate politeness: “Have a nice day,” “Thank you for choosing AT&T,” etc.) ”
Morris Berman (The Twilight of American Culture)

Francisca Sutil

Another very under appreciated aspect of what Berman describes is the cancelling of TV shows in mid season or in the middle of narratives. The producers simply have no concern for those who have watched and followed the narrative. It is simply interrupted. It is a tacit display of absolute contempt. Never mind the quality of the shows is often if not usually bad. The point is that audiences have been conditioned to accept their show being taken from them. Of being unable to complete the narrative. And I suspect this interruption (and I wrote of this before) is reproduced in the individuals own life.

Back in 2013 I wrote this…“There was a nice scene is a small New Zealand film (Tracker) about the British, a Boer veteran (a cynical anti nationalist) and a wrongly accused Maori laborer. Its a perfectly enjoyable small piece of history, a film about colonialism, about the distortions of “home” and about white narrative making. At any rate, there is a scene between the Boer (Ray Winstone) and the Maori (Temuera Morrison), who has been captured and is being returned to the British. Winstone starts to answer a question the Maori asks him, but he stops. He won’t finish it. The Maori says, it is a bad thing to leave a story unfinished. It is a wound on the soul (or to that effect). It is actually a small but memorable brief scene. Because it is true. There is some connection between being put on hold by an automated answering system, and the repeated interruptions to our private narratives. The society presents entertainment narratives on TV all the time, as part of “series”, and more often than not the show is cancelled before the first season even ends. There is no recourse. It is like being disconnected after waiting twenty minutes to speak to customer service. Nothing to be done. No person, no human, no way to tell your story. So our own stories are interrupted, or disconnected, and the stories of others are interrupted or stopped.”

William Eggleston, photography (Huntsville, Alabama 1971)

So, here I continue to see the hysterical Western bourgeoisie react in ways that make clear they will always turn toward the fascist and authoritarian. The end of the U.S.S.R. signaled another of those psychic wounds. The current anti-Russia propaganda has been astonishingly well received and embraced by liberal America. For this new hatred of Russia is really just the old anti-communist zealotry being refashioned. America cannot afford a monastic moment. It is psychologically too fragile. And yet, just beneath the surface I suspect many of those we can lump under the label bourgeois are aware of their own addictions and obsessive compulsive tendencies, and their deep well spring of depression. It is the most depressive narcissism one could imagine.

“It was in 1989 that the clear outlines of a very different sort of world from the one that began in 1914 finally emerged. That year saw the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, and of the (convenient) organization of the world into two opposing camps. This is the centerpiece of what we call globalization. No more a clearly defined world of binary opposition, but a decentralized, fragmented world, in which bitter regional rivalries reemerged and the “enemy” could no longer be unambiguously identified. America thus lost its moral, anti-Communistic, mission, and the vacuum got filled with distractions: a brief, phony “war on drugs,” the Gulf War, and a decade of trivial political scandals masquerading as news. Such developments, however, were only temporary. The really new moral mission was global corporate hegemony, the old doctrine of manifest destiny now imported into the economic realm and mapped onto the entire world.”
Morris Berman (The Twilight of American Culture)

Edith Dekyndt

There is a sense one feels, at least that I feel, which describes culture today in terms of execution or murder. Or killing. Culture is being killed and this project is now nearly complete. But it needs to be noted that this has not much to do with the fact that much very remarkable work is being created. It has more to do with the relationship that culture occupies in the societies of the West. Theatre, for example, has been made all but impossible to practice. At least in the U.S. I was told recently of new trends in theatre and one of them was something called *immersive-interactive*. What this means is that there is no text and the actor and a single audience member sit together and chat. It seems the perfect expression of a society that can no longer sit and listen to a complex text. There is the exclusion of the monastic, if you will — keeping with the themes of this post. The audience member gets to feel exclusive and special. The actor doesn’t have to remember any lines.

“The imagination and daydreaming are stimulated by dim light and shadow. In order to think clearly, the sharpness of vision has to be suppressed, for thoughts travel with an absent-minded and unfocused gaze. Homogeneous bright light paralyses the imagination in the same way that homogenisation of space weakens the experience of being, and wipes away the sense of place.”
Juhani Pallasmaa

Odd Nerdrum

The expanse of the desert, the silence of deep snow near the arctic circle, or the vast sea — these are all related mythically to shadow. Silence and shadow are linked in their monastic codes. Walter Ong wrote:
“the shift from oral to written speech was essentially a shift from sound to visual space.”

And the ocular hegemony of modern society has meant a loss of silence, for the oral world allowed for silence. A silence *in* space. The tyranny of *picture* or *image* meant that the world was scanned, was read. Adorno said images were now being scanned. The image world was a new written speech in a sense. Silence was only a glyph indicating silence. The Desert Fathers sought, instinctively, a space of expanse, and one that minimized the privileged eye. The hermitage was where one listened. There are no big picture windows in the hermitage (or monastary) for the idea is to look inward not outward.

“The correlation of consciousness with masculinity culminates in the development of science, as an attempt by the masculine spirit to emancipate itself from the power of the unconscious. Wherever science appears it breaks up the original character of the world, which was filled with unconscious projections. Thus, stripped of projection, the world becomes objective, a scientific construction of the mind. In contrast to the original unconscious and the illusory world corresponding to it, this objective world is now viewed as the only reality. In this way, under the continual tutelage of the discriminative, masculine spirit, ever searching for laws and principles, the ‘reality principle’ comes to be represented by men.”
Erich Neumann (The Origins and History of Consciousness)

Bill Owens, photography.

Science came out of visual space. The optical discovers of the late 19th century coincided with Industrialization. And with colonialism and organized exploitation. Breaking up the world of unconscious projections — the dissolving of Dionysian energy. And of the fatalism of the tragic. There is no tragedy in a world in which one cannot listen without interruption. Tragedy requires quiet.

Michael David Levin quotes Ronald Blythe in his book Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village where Blythe quotes an older villager;

“The old look inward at things we cannot see. The young have a common image.”

That is a very insightful comment. The *common image* is that by which the culture is being suffocated. The misery and discomfort of daily life today is because this common image is not even an image, it is a sort of hieroglyphic or logogram. The scanned image is world texting in a sense. Emoticons standing in for observation, for a trained expertise the kind which old farmers or sailors learn by themselves. Walter Ong observed that a shared reality was something that existed even the time of Heraclitus. The difference is the forced multiplication of these shared or common images. And the technology that came out of a visual science to further our blindness.

William Carter, photography. (Iran, 1990)

“The observer becomes detached from an incarnate relation with the environment through the suppression of the other senses, in particular by means of technological extensions of the eye, and the proliferation of images.”
Juhani Pallasmaa

Old sailors or craftsmen or farmers, they will tend toward a patience with people that many contemporary westerners lack. Patience is tied in with compassion, too, I think. This is obviously not always the case. For today the spread of digital instrumentalized consciousness has infected the entire planet on some level. The photo above of Iran, by William Carter — one is drawn to it because there are no ads. The walls are free of advertising or any info of any kind. And suddenly one feels something akin to the monastic.

“Narcissism is a false subjectivity. It is an illness of subjectivity, an illness whose pathology is related to the dominance of the image. As such, it is an illness whose character cannot be understood apart from its epidemiology, its historical situation: its appearance in our time as a pathology of our time. It is not accidental that narcissistic character disorders began to make their appearance as a psychiatric epidemic only in the conditions of our contemporary world. Such disorders bespeak the suffering which accompanies the ‘triumph’ of subjectivity as will to power; they bear witness to the emptiness we all experience in an age which requires the reduction of Being to representedness and representation; they portend the spreading of nihilism.”
Michael David Levin (The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation)

Martin Barre

The current ascension of Capitalism, at least since the fall of the Soviet Union, has crystalized aspects of capital that were at least partly dormant. It is financialized and global. It has made rigid the reified character of human encounter. And it is logical that — certainly in the U.S. — there has been a huge upswell of Christian extremism. Dominionists occupy nearly every cabinet position in the Trump administration.

“A religion may be discerned in capitalism – that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers. “
Walter Benjamin

The Christian right in America, the televangelists, and the Christian nationalists, these are the narcissistic personality disorder of religions. The rise of the Christian right has been startling, beginning again in the mid 1970s. This is a religion of nihilistic tendency. And it is one that could only grow in the way that it has because of electronic media.

Kurt Kauper

“The incredible acceleration of speed during the last century has collapsed time into the flat screen of the present, upon which the simultaneity of the world is projected. As time loses its duration, and its echo in the primordial past, man loses his sense of self as a historical being, and is threatened by the ‘terror of time’.”
Juhani Pallasmaa

Bryan Whitney, photography.

The loss of historical time results in a kind of consumer vision of redemption. Without history, and more specifically, without a subject linked to history, the spiritual is sought in fashion and innovation. This televangelism was also congruent with the American belief that liberation was, actually, a liberation FROM the past. Morris Berman quotes Richard Sennet (in Dark Ages America ) ..“What is now absent from our lives, he writes, is a sense of narrative coherence.” And this is astoundingly obvious when watching Hollywood film and TV today. Narrative coherence isn’t even desired anymore. Nobody seems to remember what it was, in fact. Films set in some historical period seem particularly incoherent. The past is not only strangely contemporary but it is fetishized presentation of the contemporaneous — it is another form of erasing the past. Make the past the present, and problem solved. Everything, in fact, must be made to be like *I* am right this moment. Children are “little adults”. The “other” is really just me. Except the “other” is also something that cannot be trusted. The narcissist must make it all like *me* but can never believe it really is like me.

“For the individual person, the trouble with basing one’s life on the quest for an essential self [is that] the self, instead of enlarging and deepening its capacities, becomes more and more like itself. . . . If the “real self” I am uncovering progressively becomes the determinant of my behavior, rigidity and sclerosis set in early. My actions become predictable and my perception of alternative modes of life narrows.”
Harvey Cox

Rev. Calvert Richard Jones, photography (Pompeii, 1850)

It is the withering of the imagination. Peter Fonagy in a study of borderline personalties …

“Our Menninger study of maltreated 5- to 8- year-olds found specific deficits in tasks requiring mentalization, particularly among those referred for sexual or physical abuse. These results suggest that maltreatment may cause children to withdraw from the mental world. Continuing defensively to disrupt their capacity to depict mental states in themselves and in others leaves them operating on inaccurate, schematic impressions of thoughts and feelings.”
(Affect Regulation, Mentalization and the Development of the Self)

The economic strangulation of hope and desire has resulted in not only narrative that does not cohere, but that a in general failure is anticipated. The very idea of success becomes ever more vague. A populace is now adept at a variety of complex psychological coping mechanisms for disappointment. The depressive end of narcissism is fraught with contradiction. The noise of daily life is part of the sheen and surface appeal of gadgets and distractions. People rush to buy the latest version of whatever Apple or Google is selling, even if they cannot begin to afford it. Newness is another form of amnesia. The historical subject is fading and the individual has no story to explain his or her life to themselves.

Ibrahim El-Salahi

The fear of envy is also acute. It is both sought after but hidden. There is a calculation that is carried out internally with every purchase. The purchase itself is never in question, only the public perception of it.

“The person terrified of envy – and as we shall see the narcissistic character has generally been subject to massive envy attack – acts very much like this, only a bit worse: he also hides his prize from himself.”
Nathan Swartz Slant

Increasingly childhood is being assaulted with noise, too. I have noticed a sharp uptick in toys that make sounds. Often entire soundtracks accompany something as simple as a toy tractor. The child is deprived of inventing his own soundtrack. This is an obvious example but it also serves as a model for the wider reality of 21st century life in the West. Not only must one endure noise, but now there is an actual soundtrack to things. Not only does everything make a sound, but that computer generated voice is ubiquitous. One is *reminded* to fasten one’s seatbelt, to close the refrigerator door, that your call is important to us — and that a human will talk to you in…..four minutes.

Yuichi Hibi, photography.

Architecture, too, is, at its best, a vision that seems tied to some sort of expansive vision — and the relationship of building to the hermitage is clear. The idea of sanctuary or retreat is tied to that tradition of the Desert Fathers. Today’s prestige building projects invariably use shiny enamelled metals or glass, and there is a need for reflection often. And the predominance of white. And I wrote before of the implications of white, and others have even more exhaustively — so for here the point is that, as Pallasmaa points out, natural materials such as wood or stone, both have a history connected to origins but also they ‘age’. Patina is not something sought after in contemporary architecture.

“Buildings of this technological era usually deliberately aim at ageless perfection, and they do not incorporate the dimension of time, or the unavoidable and mentally significant processes of aging. This fear of the traces of wear and age is related to our fear of death.”
Juhani Pallasmaa

This is an architecture both of narcissism and morbidity. I mentioned last post the sense I have of people running FROM the future and not toward it. The future is also where we die.

“Just as, if you leave open the door of the public baths the steam escapes and their virtue is lost, so the virtue of the person who talks a lot escapes the open doors of the voice.”
Abbas Diadochus, 5th century AD. Bishop of Photiki (quoted by George Prochnik)

Visual silence is as significant as aural. And there is an aspect to certain texts that suggest both the desert, but many also express a form of silence. For silence is also clarity, a lack of chaos. I will add that I’m losing my hearing. Not completely, certainly, but enough to be a constant irritant to my wife. And I have found it a relief. Of course if it goes totally, I may have another opinion. It is just enough now that I feel it is easy to close off the unwanted sound clutter of everyday life. But I digress.

Ivan Albright

“One of the most startling paradoxes inherent in writing is its close association with death. This association is suggested in Plato’s charge that writing is inhuman, thing-like, and that it destroys memory. It is also abundantly evident in countless references to writing (and/or print) traceable in printed dictionaries of quotations, from 2 Corinthians 3:6, ‘The letter kills but the spirit gives life’ and Horace’s reference to his three books of Odes as a ‘monument’ (Odes iii.30.1)…( )The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers.”
Walter J. Ong (Orality and Literacy)

Ong (whose book I highly recommend) notes also that the utterances of the Oracle at Delphi were not experienced as the opinions of a stranger or a acquaintance but rather directives from a god. And text itself carries some of this same vatic quality. For it is not only religious books that become *The Book*, but all printed material, published especially, carry an authority. And this authority has to do with the fact that one cannot interrogate the author directly (in the vast majority of cases), but only through yourself writing a text. There is a deadness in this.

The spiraling collapse of capitalist society is in the final stages of propping up a master narrative. But nobody is really fooled. And the loss of narrative faculties has done nothing except hasten the endgame. The populace of the West, especially, certainly, the U.S., has no narrative for itself. Therapy provides no narrative and apparently didn’t think it somehow needed one. The ruling elite and the stenographers of mainstream news outlets are not able to come up with stories for what is going on. There is a crushing overwhelming denial about climate change. And yet, in a sense, that is perhaps the most understandable. I say that because the information provided, as it has been for twenty some years, comes from specialists in fields remote from the daily life of people. Nobody trusts it. And nobody has an actual narrative for it. And in the personal encounters between friends and family there seems (to me anyway) an absence of story. When I was a boy I remember old people telling me stories. My grandmother told me stories. She sang me songs, narrative songs. I don’t sense much storytelling going on today.

Nicolai Crestianinov

“…the detachment of theoretical-instrumental vision from its body of felt experience is finally making itself visible to us as a decisive factor in the historical advent of nihilism. For this detachment of vision from the body of feeling encourages the rise to power of an ego-logical subjectivity whose will to power has lost touch with that primordial ontological attunement we once enjoyed as visionary beings.”
Michael David Levin

The success and effectiveness of scientific medicine, for example (but pick any field you like) also had the effect, overall, of strengthening a particular distancing of vision from the world. And narration became more rational, more detached even as it became more subjective.

“…the absolute eye that cadaverizes life and rediscovers in the corpse the frail nerve of life.”
Michael Foucault

Knowledge is meant to be timeless, to be true before and after, and to correspond to an experience that is the object of that scientific knowledge. This is a paraphrase of an early Walter Benjamin sentence. But we lack the correspondence today. Maybe it was always lacking. Subjectively lacking. And society runs from a future in which the cadaver is the reigning symbol of narrationless world. A world without story and with a shrunken atrophied experience. Running from a future death that is the only inevitable thing. And noise cannot help with this.

Belvedere Torso (Vatican Museums. Apollonios, son of Nestor, Athenia signed. Ist century AD)

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  1. Two postings ago, you wrote about darkness, peripheral vision, and the experience of being in the forest—opposed to being in a building—as being “inclusive”. In connection to this posting, I had a recent experience of all of those things, including what you talk about here: silence, expansion, and spirit.

    I recently spent 10 days living communally with a group of actors and instructors at a Grotowski-based training intensive. We stayed on a 40-acre plot of land in the forest, on an island on the Pacific. We were an hour-long walk from the village. There were no streetlights there, no traffic sounds, or industrial noises, and I was not exposed to seeing much screen-device use (I, myself, don’t have a phone).
    One night, I could not sleep. I left the grounds on my own and entered into the night. I walked to the ocean (about 1.5 miles). Most of the way there is on a winding, hilly, gravel road through the forest of massive redwood trees—the kind of trees that are so thick, and so furred in moss that, apart from the fact that there is not much sound to begin with, all the sounds that do occur are quickly absorbed. It was dead quiet.
    When I got to the ocean, I turned off my torch and stood next to the shore. The sea was calm. I felt a sense of trepidation–maybe even fear–but also, a sense of determination. I took off my clothes and went into the water. I swam out so that I couldn’t touch the bottom and i felt the ocean surround me. The moon was out, and So Many Stars. I did not have many thoughts, just sensations. It was very dark and very silent but there was a noise around the shore that was unfamiliar to me and this troubled me. Suddenly, a very cold current began to creep up just below where I was treading water; I returned to shore.
    I put on all my clothes in the dark. But as i reached down to pick up my flashlight from the stones, i decided to do something that I had not done on the walk to the ocean. I decided not to turn on my flashlight, but to make my way back in the dark. That is what I did. In the dark and in the heavy, heavy, thick silence. The silence almost had a kind of texture.
    It was so dark and quiet. My senses were incredibly heightened–that extra sense that is hard to describe, something like peripheral vision, and something like sensors all over the skin that can feel things without physical contact. My senses began to expand outward very far in all directions. i was not really thinking, just enveloping the island with my consciousness. I felt that the trees were watching me. That everything was watching me. I felt that I had been called there by the Night, and that I was meeting her truly, and that she was mercilessly as “night” as Night can be. I felt so small and yet so sure somehow. “Sure” feels like a paltry sort of word, but it is the best I can do. It was almost as though I was in an altered mind-state, but not really a trance because I was so aware.
    I walked very slowly because it was too dark to see. I felt every rock and crevice and incline in the road through the soles of my shoes. There were no crickets or frogs there; just thick silence like a presence itself. There were no streetlights and the moon could hardly filter through the trees; just shadow upon shadow upon shadow.
    I remember coming upon a dead tree—its trunk stripped of bark and limbs and bleached white. Only this stark bone was barely visible in the gloom, and it, too, was watching. The dark and the silence and the expanse are enough to humble you. I have experienced many kinds of silence before—sometimes, alone, for very long periods of time—but this experience was the Silence of all Silence.
    I am sharing this story because that is what I thought of when I read your paragraphs in your previous posting, about darkness, peripheral vision in forests versus buildings, and the experience of these things not having a narrative in that moment. And of course, the SILENCE. It was almost like a very deep meditation….a deep witnessing of myself walking through the woods and swimming in the ocean. I was so present to everything and it WAS, and I WAS, but it wasn’t “about” me or “about” the forest or anything, really. It almost felt like an altered mind-state; but, I don’t think this experience is inexplicable; what happened to my perception makes a lot of evolutionary sense. To walk alone in the complete dark of the forest, of course you are going to turn off your narrative mind and of course your perceptual awareness is going to ‘expand far out into the night.’ The wanderer alone in the woods walking with his iphone is far more likely to be eaten by the bear approaching from a mile away than the wanderer whose senses have penetrated the void from miles around. It had something to do with vulnerability and something to do with death (the opposite of “Frankenstein syndrome”).
    When I woke up the next morning, this expanded peripheral vision, continued to stay with me. It is something akin to what we might call “intuition” or “sensitivity”, but another way of describing it is Presence. I was in the Presence Of [the void] and I was Of The Presence. You say that: “the point is that revelation is revealed in the expanse.” It did feel like an “awakening” or “revelation” somehow…or an initiation, even–something ritualistic anyway–and the experience of that, for me, was a sense of expansion.
    When I returned to the city where i live, from that 10 day course with so many beautiful, vulnerable, creative, generous people and so much silence and wilderness, I did my first shift at work. I work as a cleaner at a university. I noticed something very sad–something you mention in this post and your earlier post–I noticed how unhappy people are. I mean, i knew this before i went to the course, but it was really profound when i returned. I feel like a joyful person and it is hard to see how unhappy and jaded so many people are.

  2. Anthony Revollat says:

    I appreciate this analogy between the military in the desert and the monastic experience. But then this incongruity and profound cultural incompatibility and the ensuing threatening tense context it begets, filling the air with potential terror.
    “The monastic reflection is a mind set not given to purchasing anything” : spot-on. I think you can’t fool a person any longer who has this in themselves. An experience akin to reading literature, in all its ambiguities, digressions and opacities : it makes you immune and impervious to the babble spurting forth from a certain fringe of politicians, journalists, experts.

    “This was the problem that 20th century film producers and distributors saw, difficult challenging film killed off the desire to buy things as one left the mall”. What about it ? I see what you mean but do you have some specific instance(s) and sources to mention ?

    “America cannot afford a monastic moment. It is psychologically too fragile” : I often suspect wars emerge out of plain and simple boredom slowly creeping its way into minds and nations, notwithstanding the obvious elements of the market and economic “rationality” out there. Daily life as more often than not a boring vacuity, filled with mere expedients. This was the genius of J.G. Ballard, to have noticed this, perhaps the greatest pathology of our times, and the most highly volatile.
    “Boredom is a fearsome prospect. There’s a limit to the number of cars and microwaves you can buy. What do you do then?”
    “A small minority will soon be bored, and realize that in a totally sane society madness is the only freedom. So random acts of violence will break out in supermarkets and shopping malls where we pass our most contented hours. Surprisingly, we will deplore these meaningless crimes but feel energized by them.”
    “I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again. . . the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.”

    You write of the ‘dissolving of tragedy’ (as to the surge of rationality and science) : I always saw tragedy and democracy inextricably linked. The liberal motto would have us believe that democracy (as they see it) is a haven. The greatest of all possible worlds. That is certainly not so. Ancient Athenians understood this. Democracy as a project of radical political autonomy (even has a goal to tend toward) and tragedy are simultaneous inventions. And let us add philosophy as the process of unending interrogation. Tragedy was not a mere literary genre or ritual but rather an instance of the political institution in that it showed the danger of hubris and the necessity of wisdom (phronèsis). Tragedy is now the blind spot of democracy : it allows us, lest we forget, to be reminded of our fallibility and mortality (almost a memento mori as it were). As there can be no transcendent source of meaning regarding political matters : hence no political ‘science’. Hence no ‘experts’. No professionals of the field. This is all a pack of lies. These affairs are ours, and matters of debate, and we are liable to fail. Danger always lurks behind the corners.

    I also like the distinction you make with civility compared to corporate politeness. I’m in the process of looking for work right now : I’m tempted to say I’d rather get plain insults and spit in the face than these… silences.

    As Norbert Elias has argued, an ever-receding threshold of disgust, shame, embarrassment, aggression, and perception is a subjective condition of European modernity : “Social life ceased to be a danger zone in which feasting, dancing, and noisy pleasure frequently and suddenly give way to rage, blows, and murder, and becomes a different kind of danger zone if individuals cannot sufficiently restrain themselves, if they touch sensitive spots, their own shame-frontier or the embarrassment threshold of others. In a sense, the danger-zone now passes through the self of every individual. Thus people become, in this respect too, sensitive to distinctions which previously scarcely entered consciousness.”

    As social life becomes ‘safer’ and more rationalized, people put some distance between their everyday life and their perceptible mortality, the messiness of the natural world becomes more difficult to bear. Hence, people are more easily disgusted or frightened ; hence people perceive more and more subtle action as aggressive or improper, and hence they become sensitive to ever-smaller details of the data provided by their senses.

    And it’s there that I would gladly appeal to more face value in such relations. This fear of hurting one another is damaging and hurting beyond belief.

  3. Anthony Revollat says:

    Interesting, Calla. I’m a mountain walker myself, by night, and it brought back to mind moments of complete rapture.

    A small amendment to the previous comment which didn’t appear : I often suspect wars emerge out of plain and simple boredom slowly creeping its way into minds and nations, notwithstanding the obvious elements of the market and economic “rationality” out there which entails a need to dispose of the surplus of merchandise, hence : drop bombs.

    John, all this harks back to the most complex issue in music : that of silence. How and when to place a silence ? Which duration is required ? Which ‘density’ since it has such a thing as density. Silence is a primitive experience, into which signs can be made out and our survival was gambled with. Silence is necessary to music, yet not part of it, and yet again music leans on it. It’s the most important musical element of all. And the most complex to handle. One could say, as Bresson put it, that ‘the soundtrack invented silence’. The master at handling such a dense element within irrational structures is no doubt Morton Feldman, whose music, according to him, should be played at a barely audible level, at just the threshold of hearing. Though I’m not specifically referring, at all, to ‘quiet’ music here. Even in noise and extreme music, this is the basis. And the use of silence is what distinguishes great composers/musicians from mediocre ones. I myself am struggling with it. Just to learn when and where to pause, is an abyss. Learning to invite a ‘void’ within music. To structure it. This is also why an awful lot of pop music is so bad : those who crank out hits don’t know a thing about silence. They keep hammering and banging and compressing the sound frequencies ever more. So that in the end even a mere sentimental pop song ends up being more disruptive than a piece of noise music recorded and mixed within the parameters of classical recordings where you have the full range of spectrum and dynamics, with utmost quietness, followed by oppressive moments when needed. Think the monstrosity of an orchestra.

    The ear is the organ of both hearing and sense of balance, really. It has evolved for its ability to ‘see’ beyond the confines of our visual perception. We can ‘see’ from a distance and from all around, 360°. It is a primitive organ of survival in a threatening environment, within which a sense organ permitting us to detect slight differences in air pressure was required. The eye can shuts itself off, not the ear. It tells us about space in an altogether different way from the eye. The eye has to be focused (notwithstanding the incessant scanning and recompositions performed via the brain), while the ear is non-directive. The ear is what allowed us to survive really, I think. It harks back to these dangerous nights of the paleolithic and beyond. Interesting to note that the amplitude range likely evolved in response to the loudest sounds in the environment. This would include the cracks and booms of a thunderstorm at close range, as well as the loud roar of predatory animals. These sounds tend to rise slowly rather than abruptly. This may explain why the ear has no defense against extremely loud sounds which occur suddenly, without warning. And why you can – apparently – become deaf when a gun is fired without your eyes noticing it, and previous to your knowing it and apprehension thereof by your brain, while the inverse is not the case.

    I remember the sayings of teachers a few years ago, when I was studying sound engineering : silence is akin to a sin. In film. In TV. It might (“might”) be taken as an affront by the potential spectator : is my TV broken ? Is the reel unfolding all right ? It’s a no-go zone according to the professionals of the field. An uncanny experience, indeed. It might allow for a time to pause, a time for reflection. These inner thoughts gnawing at you. These – possibly – revolutionary musings which are time and again prevented to surface might come back to the surface as repressed material. This is wrong, you can’t allow screen time for reflection. Too dangerous. Hence I know why these teachers were insisting : we were meant to become push-buttons and obey the standards of contemporary TV. There are even screen inserts meant to reassure the viewer than everything is normal, in the seldom instances where a mute film or documentary is broadcast as it should. I personally always watch these pre-sound films mute, with no extra music. I think people might experience some of the classics for the first time, if they were to do so.

    Kubrick’s 2001 is an interesting example of the uncanny and the problem of verisimilitude versus artificiality : these sequences where the sound is totally cut-off due to space conditions. It feels oppressive, sure, but also anomalous and unnatural. And yet, it is true according to physics. Now when one hear sounds in space as in Star Wars, it seems perfectly natural. Nothing uncanny whatsoever there. Yet it’s an artifice. And it often happens that when you follow the laws of physics or perception when making an artwork it will all appear/sound alien. If you want the natural feel, go for the artifice from the start.

    John, I also see a connection between madness and the desert, really. All monotheisms were born out of this great expanse. While polytheism has more to do with mountains and forests. I don’t know what it could mean yet, whilst seeing some interesting basis for further investigations.

  4. Anthony Revollat says:

    John, regarding this issue of noise, I find it a bit puzzling you are on both Twitter and Facebook. But perhaps you have another take on this ? For me this is the epitome of noise in its most mind-altering and time-consuming. I mean, for the purpose of sharing thoughts you have this great space. And I did first find out this website thanks to a browser search, related to Ernst Bloch, I think it was.

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