A tape recorder, a microphone, and headphones were the three objects that, for Pauline Oliveros, began a lifelong listening practice. The everyday environment, filtered through the microphone, became a new field of sounds that had escaped Oliveros’ perception. For the first time, Oliveros became aware of the direction of her attention. She noticed how her listening sculpted the environment around her. And her experience of the world broadened, opening up to the possibility of objects beyond her everyday awareness. The familiar became unfamiliar and new through the medium of a tape machine. Beyond that specific medium, what was once noise became an ordered part of her intentional listening. She noted that even without the recorder, she could create a new world by listening carefully, opening up a generative and creative practice.
Pauline Oliveros practiced what she called “Deep Listening,” which is a conscious form of listening that tries to “[go] below the surface of what is heard,” and is “listening in as many possible ways to everything that can possibly be heard.” Here, to break beyond the surface is to, in a sense, play with (every) other possible surface. That deep practice of listening is tied to possibility, generating (potentially!) non-conventional approaches to objects we take for granted. Although you could literally just go out and buy audio equipment to reproduce Oliveros’ experience, Oliveros considers the practice of Deep Listening meditative, and others, focused on other fields, consider it a form of contemplative practice.
Willa Miller, however, does not run around silly with a tape recorder. Instead, she is a scholar of religion versed in Buddhism and Christianity, using the term “Deep Listening” to categorize something beyond Oliveros’ experience (though I’d still recommend running around with an audio recorder for fun). As a cultivated quality of a space, deep listening becomes a relational practice, or a conversational skill that can be improved over time. It both focuses on the narrative content of speech and the non-conceptual elements of the present moment.
This means that there are a few simultaneous approaches to listening: the first is to be in touch with a non-conceptual sort-of ground, noticing the space upon which the conversational narrative unfolds. This is where you chill out, or the “deepest” part of deep listening. I like to think of it as being in touch with the world oustide yourself, beyond your immediate control. The second is to encounter how the conversation lands in the body, utilizing sense perception to be aware of the present moment. The third is to be aware of the content of speech (you actually have to pay attention to the conversation!!), in order to formulate a compassionate response.
For others (AKA Duane Bidwell, who seems to be a Buddhist Christian engaged in psychotherapeutic practice), Deep Listening is a discipline of engaging mystery and doubt without reaching for facts or reasoning. It is pre-conceptual and a form of “peaceful abiding” that directs attention towards the unknown and unexpected. Necessarily, chilling out with the unknown and unexpected becomes pre-conceptual.
Unfortunately, Byung-Chul Han, trying to re-enchant our depressed and burned-out capitalistic world, hates that pre-conceptual aggregate because it, apparently, is noisy. Agh! He wants beauty! Yet, he also likes the idea of a negative aesthetic experience, which would sometimes be painful, sometimes be ugly, and, in some way, offer us a resistance that would require us to step outside of ourselves. A beautiful object brings an event of emptiness—disastrous and terrible—where we are no longer related to, but can still contemplate, the object in front of us. This experience of “resistance” might be something that noise, in spite of Han’s protests, actually enacts. For noise, often removed from immediate recognition, invites a “disinterested lingering” (Han likes that) that allows us to contemplate the object in front of us while also becoming “immersed in it” (Han also likes that). Han’s mostly just likes the idea of “stillness contemplating beauty.”
Yet, Han’s dismissal of the pre-conceptual experience forces him to place narrative and concept as a one of the foundations of reality (narrative, unlike stillness, moves). He lives in a world of concepts and narrative, which is an approach that strikes me as very bookish. Han stops short where others would go “deeper” beyond the narrative structure, or that non-conceptual realm of experience where others would watch the narrative unfold. In other words, some might risk an encounter with noise in order to find creative, generative, and contemplative ways of being, where Han defaults back to narrative and conceptuality, even while acknowledging the importance of aesthetics that are not immediately consumable (which may realistically be different forms of narrative and concept that aren’t instantly recognizable). Yet, where noise, beyond narrative and concept, might be bad in Han’s thinking, noise finds a positive place in others’ thinking.
Martin Laird, a contemplative writer, deals with noise too, and sees it as a way of deepening a contemplative practice. He tells us of a man named Gareth, who escaped into a weekend-long contemplative retreat in a mountain village. Unfortunately for him, his mountain neighbors decided to use an electric table saw during his prayer time. Like everyone who thinks noise is noisy, Gareth preferred birdsongs or rain sounds or something warm and inviting. Nobody goes to the mountains to hear a sporadic electric saw! And so annoyed Gareth grit his frustrated teeth at his neighbors, thinking of how stupid the buzzsaw was in his mountain-retreat prayer practice, and could not focus on the contemplation retreat, which he probably paid for too! The saw developed into a concept, which grew into a narrative in Gareth’s mind, which, in fact, is what contemplation tries to avoid. So much for Han’s stillness that contemplates beauty: the saw is not included in that.
Heroically, (this is why the story is in a contemplation book) Gareth learned to retreat into that non-conceptual space that simply listens to the saw. Here, I imagine that the saw is just as natural as a birdsong, which sounds literally insane. But if you were Gareth and tired of being annoyed, like most of us these days, wouldn’t you simply just accepted the existence of the buzzsaw? Most of us would grumble at that. So maybe he learned to enjoy noise music, in a way that turns your experience into an aesthetic one, as if he put headphones on. He probably encountered stillness after doing that. Sure. And maybe his thoughts no longer became “immersed” in the saw, in spite of Han’s theory, and he was able to linger “disinterestedly” and step outside his own pettiness. Peaceful abiding with the saw: that’s spirituality, apparently.
Which brings us back to “Deep Listening” as a contemplative practice. When Pauline Oliveros put on tape-recorder headphones to become re-immersed her environment, she hears the familiar as unfamiliar, with a distanced curiosity that transforms “noisy” sounds into an intentional part of experience. And underneath this, her “deep” listening points to an experience of depth into that non-conceptual swamp of stuff, where unfamiliar sounds can emerge without being attached to any particular object, opening up listening to potentiality. The same goes for our Buddhist-Christian theorists, who might see narrative and embodied senses as helpful to approach the non-conceptual stillness and a part of the space cultivated for listening, but continue to prioritize the mysterious. And Laird even relates Gareth’s story as a way of escaping from the conceptuality of the saw, reframing it without needing to comment or narrate its existence. Only Han is our outsider, expecting beauty but also expecting us to, somehow, contemplate things that make us uncomfortable without recourse to a space of non-conceptuality. Without that space, Han is incoherent compared to these contemplative writers, and if this was his intention, he may have effectively led us into this non-conceptuality that he seems to dislike.
Where this seems petty, I’d like to bring in an implicit ethical component that the contemplatives reference: that assocaited with Deep Listening is a “compassionate response.” Let me be a bit broad: being able to listen to others in unexpected ways allows us to irredubcibly encounter the humanity of an “other.” Practicing Deep Listening, even with Pauline Oliveros’ tape recorder, might be practice for encountering others in compassionate ways.
I’ve also started listening to a band called “Old Saw,” which, although it isn’t exactly noise, makes me think of Gareth. And that’s nice.
Thinking through Non-Things
Byun-Chul Han’s writing reminds me of religious writing. In Non-Things, he preaches against technology and digitization (aka the “non-things”), and writes a very bad chapter on photography.
Han calls for a new “temporal architecture” of lingering, against the fast-paced, unfocused, effervesence of an “information”-based society. Allegedly, this slow-form (“all form is slow” he says elsewhere)temporal architecture would allow people to construct the trust, responsibility, promises, faithfulness, bonding, and commitments that he sees lacking in our digitized society. Yet, he not only calls for that temporal architecture, but space organized for emptiness--which is a stillness that attracts and structures attention. Together, Han envisions a space and time of “negative resistance” to constitute experience of facticity, against a digitized world that, through the proliferation and freedom of digital content, turns people passive. Specifically, negative resistance in a factual world requires us to practice care.
Han’s writing often feels problematically uncritical, undercooked, and contradictory. Instead of untangling the shortcomings of his writing, however, I’d like to develop some of his strong points. First, a trivial story:
The other day, I drove to a bar in Los Angeles to meet some friends. Normally, I’d follow my GPS step-by-step, so that I would not need to think or plan the route. The GPS does the thinking for me. But the map glitched. I needed to look at the route, memorize the highways and exits, and pay attention to where I was at. I put my phone down to navigate highways that I knew, and felt free from the dictation of the GPS, which sounds incredibly dramatic (look, sarcastically, at my holy and pure experience of non-technology!). But now I do not need my GPS to go to that same location, because the sense of place that I cultivated on the highway became my own--an internalized map.
Mainly, I understood what Han means by care. He says, “If we have a predictable future in the form of an optimized present, we need not care.” Contingency, according to Han, opens us up to care. In this instance, if I do not have a phone to tell me exactly where to go, or, in Han’s words, to “take care of” me, I am open to making a wrong turn. I must pay attention, learn the route, and drive with intention. Additionally, because I care, the knowledge of the route becomes, in some sense, my own. If I am constituted in part by the knowledge that I grasp and internalize, and that knowledge is local, then I can belong to the locality that I know. Really, it’s knowledge that I can now trust in my gut.
The GPS is a small and silly example. Han’s critique goes further: where we develop care, we can also develop those things like trust, responsibility, promises, faithfulness, bonding, and commitment. Yet, digitization (Han’s focus) is not the only thing that removes us from care (think of knowledge--especially ideology--that closes us off from contingency, from needing to trust another person), and it would be important to reflect on those thing that remove us from the experience of things, or distract us from cultivating character and community.
Digital photography, according to Han, is one of those things that removes us from the facticity of the world; for it is automatically fake, and is no longer “magic.” He favors mediums that are not so transparent and smooth, like a vinyl or a film photo, for these preserve a poetic form. And I used to argue something similar, especially when I switched from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera, but I cannot entertain his critique anymore. For although a digital photo can proliferate infinitely without intention or care, severed from a particular instance of expression (which is something Han is nervous about: infinite, valueless content), there is no automatic glory in film. A bad photo on film is just as much trash as a bad photo on a digital camera; it is not the medium alone through which a photo communicates, but through its form. It may just be easier to fill a hard drive with trashy pictures on a digital camera. In the digital world, it may just be easier to be careless.
Where Han leaves us is towards a temporal and spatial architecture of “care.” His care requires the attention and stillness of what he calls “knowledge” rather than pure “information,” taking place in everyday rituals that build narratives out of our lives. Which might mean, for him, it is better to abandon the GPS when we do not need it; for me, it means to be attentive to the mechanism and limitations of the digital camera while I am taking a picture.
Humanity lives and dies in networks. Networks of ideas, networks of language, networks of relationships and connection, networks of economy. This is so apparent that it is a given. You pull your phone out to check the facts; you buy all your food relying on a supply chain; you talk to your friends sharing a common discourse. The internet, the market, the language are some of the networks here. You can think of more. But importantly, we relate and live through a black box of networking and relating. It is a black box that is useful to us, but mysterious.
Love simplicity. Some, afraid of the black box, try to figure it out. Dissect it. They inquire, reshaping the box, but their knowledge can never eliminate it. Instead, live simply and learn to love it.
The natural world rejuvinates the spirit, teaching humanity to love simplicity. For although the natural world might contain complex ecosystems, intricate environments, and life so contingent on a delicate balance of actors in a biological network--although the natural world runs into the same unavoidable, anxiety-ridden problem of existing in our own proliferating networks--we can enter it with a small, partial sense of irreducible individuality. Of being alone in the world. No worries. Nothing to pull you away.
But step into that natural world; retreat into a cabin and breathe the fresh air that vitalizes the soul. Breath that air in order to escape the tyranny of our networked, fragmented, overburdened lives. Step into a natural world that refreshes your soul.
Here is the secret. We do not escape language. We do not escape the internet. We do not escape the market. Although, we can minimize all of these things. But we cannot escape. We can only abandon their tyrrany, no longer assenting to a life entirely out of our own hands.
When our souls become weary, exhausted from the shallow magnetism of empty language, capitalistic desire, and inauthentic community, remind us of that natural world, with rivers running free, ignorant of the effects of our industrial, capitalistic society. Rivers where the soul wanders free. We only need to allow ourselves to experience it.
I’ve heard of glass floors. Looking down from the top of a tower, you look through the floor to see the ground from where you’ve come. Some say it’s vertigonous. If my memory were better, I would have told you that I’ve walked on one. I’ve heard that some, like a museum display (on the nose: like language, like culture), allow you to see artifacts from the past. You stand and float above. Cross your arms. The floor will hold.
I’ve seen hikers stumble on an invisible bridge strapped to a mountainside. They crawl on hands and knees as if the bottom gave way, like toddlers before speech. Their bodies go limp, shaking and unrseponsive to the will, as if tumbling thousands of feet to the rocks below. But no. They do not tumble. They are firm on the transparent ledge and their friends laugh. They do not know the bit, but their friends do. They only see beyond the glass.
Now the ground. Take off your shoes. Walk on this ground--it is sand--until it becomes damp, sloping to the ocean. Clenched fist, run into the water, forget your feet, legs iced and numb. This time you swim, floating, tumbling under the whitewash smashed. Weightless like falling, pummeled rough on the ocean, wind-knocked-out sommersaulting, reaching for the surface until you feel your hand breach the wrong way. Hand scooping sea-floor stones, the surface swept away.
I’ve heard the glass floor shatter. You fall. You fall. No one has spoken of it. Fall the thousand feet, out of the museum, down the mountain. Let the sun set red in the east and the stars streak backwards, until you, gazing lockjaw with your head tilted back, meet the spinning world un-built and finally stand. No one has spoken of it. If you could die without dying, maybe you could stand and begin to build one more glass floor.
At bottom there is the ground once walked upon. At bottom the sea shores you up onto rocks, bruised. After the struggle you wake, twisted: knee to shoulder, open mouth to hollow sky, choking in one breath. Hallelujah in this baptism. Hallelujah in this rebirth. There is glory pummeling in the sea, resounding in that muffled silence. Forget the sea and stand, fallen from Babel with a bruise in your rib, make an image of glory from its ruin.
The dead built scaffolding for the living with no way down. There is no salvation but in falling underwater, a broken glass floor unbuilt with no memory of its ruin.
“Abide in me,” says Jesus (SUPPOSEDLY). “The dude abides,” says Jefferey Lebowski (CERTAINLY).
I used to dismiss the “problem of good.” My professor brought it up, using a hand-drawn chart: if God is all good, why does evil happen? If God is not all good, why does good happen? I heard the problem of good as a hasty rebuttal to the problem of evil, as a quick and flimsy “proof for God.”
The easiest solution, I think, is to shake God loose from good and evil. Here: “people are basically good. People also have a capacity for evil. God doesn’t really determine these things. (Although I’m not sure I believe any of this.) God plays with absence.”
God’s model of love is something like absence, or God’s love is bloody, or maybe God just did not love Jesus that much. Maybe Jesus should have told God, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy not sacrifice.” I don’t know if God plays in good and evil.
But the question, following these problems, is “where do ethics come from?” A problem of good or evil points at their origin and wonders whether good is really so simple, or why evil happens at all, or whether the origin of ethics is worth any respect at all—should we even behave ourselves? In God’s absence, ethics are just made up, and if they’re just made up they’re probably not worth following, according to preachers and some philosophers and the theologians shoring up reasons to believe in Jesus Christ. But this is all so much and I think we are moving too quickly.
I’ve been, for a long time, mildly disturbed by a sense that we cannot actually know what’s good and bad. “Ethics has become epistemology,” one of my professors said, and in the long run I do not know that much, or really anything at all. Otherwise, some people call our ethical problems “analysis paralysis” so that it sounds cute. I am sitting in my car so uncertain, that maybe theoretically I can read an ethics book or two but it’s still all up for grabs. And I think of some quotes I’ve read, about leaving philosophical discussions behind to build a better world for our children. Give up, they say. At some point you’ve got to believe something with your heart and run with it. I don’t believe them. If I can figure out what good is, then I can believe with my heart and run with it.
My Buddhism professor spoke about how knowledge works for the Buddha. If knowledge does not land in the body, and if you do not feel it in your heart, then it’s not true knowledge. In Christian terms, I think of the word “conviction,” and immediately this idea turns sour for me, for people can be convicted for bad causes; that someone can have a heart for evil as if it is truth. Religious truth finds a home in the heart, I guess. Think of the people, believing in their own goodness, full of heart, standing on street corners passionately listing every person that will burn in hell, like fans of Metallica, for example. Yikes. How do you know that you aren’t convicted for a different cause just as ridiculous? I’m not sure you can know without giving up your conviction, and examining it like a specimen in a lab, outside of your heart. But, back to the disturbance: give me a few ethics books about your conviction, the truth in your heart, and the uncertainty still will not resolve. I am not so sure that this stagnation of belief and heart has to do with knowing anymore.
How bold we might be, thinking that our convictions of good and evil correspond to the way the world is. How bold we might be to think that we share the same goodness as God, or that our goodness is truly even goodness. My goodness! How bold we might be to be convicted of anything at all. But I think the world requires that sort of boldness, cultivated thoughtfully, so you don’t, in good faith, condemn Metallica fans. Maybe you cannot know whether what you do is good (maybe you shouldn’t, suggests Jesus), but you can know whether it was full of heart; performing actions that, in a gesture of goodness, matter. All we have is heart and gesture.