Perfect silence

I realized this morning that my last two posts share a common theme, so I thought I might as well go ahead and make a trilogy of it. To the voices of Kraus and Teleb I’ll add that of the Pope:

Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible. It is often in silence, for example, that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other. Joy, anxiety, and suffering can all be communicated in silence – indeed it provides them with a particularly powerful mode of expression. Silence, then, gives rise to even more active communication, requiring sensitivity and a capacity to listen that often makes manifest the true measure and nature of the relationships involved. When messages and information are plentiful, silence becomes essential if we are to distinguish what is important from what is insignificant or secondary. Deeper reflection helps us to discover the links between events that at first sight seem unconnected, to make evaluations, to analyze messages; this makes it possible to share thoughtful and relevant opinions, giving rise to an authentic body of shared knowledge. For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.

(Aside to Vatican: Change the background on your site. It’s very noisy.)

Making the case for silent communication has always been a tricky business, since language itself wants to make an oxymoron of the idea, but it’s trickier than ever today. We’ve come to confuse communication, and indeed thought itself, with the exchange of explicit information. What can’t be codified and transmitted, turned into data, loses its perceived value. (What code does a programmer use to render silence?) We seek ever higher bandwidth and ever lower latency, not just in our networks but in our relations with others and even in ourselves. The richness of implicit communication, of thought and emotion unmanifested in expression, comes to be seen as mere absence, as wasted bandwidth.

Whitman in a way is the most internet-friendly of the great poets. He would have made a killer blogger (though Twitter would have unmanned him). But even Whitman, I’m pretty sure, would have tired of the narrowness of so much bandwidth, would in the end have become a refugee from the Kingdom of the Explicit:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

“Unaccountable” indeed. I’m speechless.

6 thoughts on “Perfect silence

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    Bah. Whitman is writing above yet another iteration of the poet type derogating science as unfeeling and to be disdained by the pure of heart (like him, of course).

    Mathematics understands the value of zero, and the programmer understands NULL. But these shouldn’t be fetishized as the counterpart to noise.

  2. Eric Lacosse

    Very philosophically minded, it’s a dualistic notion between noise and silence that underlies the concept of communication.

    On that note, music itself isn’t defined by sounds, but the silence that lies between sounds.

    Kraus, Taleb, and the Pope seem in some sense to allude to this wider idea through cautionary remarks we shouldn’t be so hasty to fill those perceived “voids”; we essentially end up destorying what we sought to absorb.

    Taleb’s more technical explanation beautifully compliments the spiritual tone of the Pope’s message. Thanks for

    these posts!

  3. Nick Carr

    Get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, Seth? Whitman celebrated science (“I like the scientific spirit — it always keeps the way beyond open”) even as he saw its limitations. Is that so terrible?

  4. Seth Finkelstein

    It comes down to my frustration with the lack of much support for what I call tech-positive social criticism. The subtext in the poem grates on me, as it’s a familiar pattern – “the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure” – all which he seems to regard negatively in context.

    To add, divide, and measure is a fundamental basis for knowledge. Then there’s different layer on top of that, with people confusing form with substance, something close to what you drive at with “We’ve come to confuse communication, and indeed thought itself, with the exchange of explicit information.” But there’s reasons for this confusion, some of it deliberate, all which have nothing to do with perceived limitations of the “learned”.

  5. A Facebook User

    Ineterestingly, Jonathan Franzen in Freedom speaks by voice of one of his characters about information noise in a similar way: “‘This was what was keeping me awake at night,’ Walter said. ‘This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV – there’s never any centre, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion bits of distracting noise … All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.’

    Franzen is also an e-book sceptic:

  6. Eclectics

    Seems you’ve done a nice job of communicating the value of silence. So what’s the problem?

    It’s not the cacophany of information thats driving out silence, it’s the addiction to consuming it– a matter for mindful attention to our practices.

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