Friday, August 31, 2012

Books on Silence

"Manifesto for Silence"
Edinburgh University Press, 2007
Hardback edition $32

"In Pursuit of Silence"
Anchor Books, New York, 2010
Paperback edition, 2011, $15.95

The two books shown are a welcome addition to the available literature on silence and noise. The titles and subtitles give a hint of the priorities of the two authors, the priority is silence and its value, the backgrounds are the World of Noise, the Politics and Culture of Noise.
They overlap in their abhorrence of noise, the ubiquity of meaningless sound and its exploitation by commerce. While both admire the value placed on Quiet in religious traditions, especially by Quakers and Christian monks, their treatments of noise and silence diverge. Both explore the world of noise. For Sim this is an intellectual quest, pursued in religion, philosophy, aesthetics, the arts, literature, language and speech. His treatment is highly academic, whether in the writings of the philosophers, Kant, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Lyotard, or in esoteric examples of "silent" practice. An example of the former are his quote of John Cage's Lecture on Nothing:
I am here, and there is nothing to say. If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we require is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking....." .
As examples of constructed silence he refers several times to the musical composition of Cage's work for piano, 4' 33"
for which there are no notes on the page for the soloist to play. He associates with silence too, the paintings of Mondrian, or monochrome paintings such as Kasimir Malevich's White Square on a White Ground. In literature he admires the silences of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
For those who value quiet voyages of the mind, this is the book.

But to enter the push and pull world of quiet and noise, Prochnik is the better guide. While he too explores the Quaker world and the cell of the monk in search of silence, he tours the battlefields of noise, the shopping malls, and even "Explosive Sound and Video", 'principality of Tommy, the King of Bass'. He experiences the jungle of boom cars, inhabited by people named MP3 Pimp, Big Red accompanied by Big Red's Lady, where the sound systems of cars shatter windscreens and shop windows. In the confined space of a car crammed with amplifiers, the sound level can reach peaks of 161 decibels. There is mention of a peak of 181-plus in dB Drag, an experience of Bass Racing. ".. at 163 and higher the air has ceased to be air. Competitors today were already hitting in the low 18Os. But once you hit 194 decibels, sound ceases to be sound...creating a shock wave. This is the realm of sonic booms and earthquakes"
In Pursuit of Silence is written in anecdotal style like most US thematic best sellers. Nevertheless it makes easy reading. It is full of practical suggestions, and can serve as a battle manual in the war against noise, although the author insists that a search for Silence is the wiser strategy.

The books are complementary; each has value. Both writers have a passionate distaste for noise in the modern world, and a love of silence which in one case borders on the mystical, while for the other it is a humane value to be fought for and won.

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Blogger Christopher said...

Thanks for this review.

Silence is quickly becoming a thing of the past. I note that even libraries here in Bangkok are now longer silent. More of them are piping in muzak. This is the case in the SET library (Maruey) and most recently the TCDC library at Emporium. Of course, libraries have evolved from places of total silence to places where some noise is acceptable. But having muzak playing in the background would seem to be the ultimate capitulation to a culture that values stimulation and excitement over peacefulness and reflection.

9:03:00 am  
Blogger Christopher said...

Thanks for your review.

I note that silence is under attack from all sides these days. Ironically, the last bastion of silence, the library, has now thrown in the towel here in Bangkok. Both the SET's Maruey and TCDC at Emporium now pipe in muzak for the listening pleasure of their patrons. Silence is something to be avoided in Thailand. It suggests boredom and may induce people to reflect on the emptiness of their lives. Just a thought. I'm not quite sure why this should be seen as a bad thing in a Buddhist country where meditation is part of the official religion.

9:08:00 am  

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