As I cycle or walk through the woods before and after class, I often find quiet spaces to rest and reflect on the questions that I or my students have raised. Tom Bruneau wrote that “an important and powerful manner of achieving silence” is “to go into naturalistic settings, into absolute privacy,” and then “to listen to and, then, become the natural music of water flowing.” ((Tom Bruneau, “An Ecology of Natural Mindlessness: Solitude, Silence, and Transcendental Consciousness,” Explorations in Media Ecology 10, no. 1-2 (2011): 69.)) The practice is uniquely effective in winter months, when the murmurs of a flowing stream are punctuated by heavy drops of melting snow falling from surrounding trees.
While such stillness is usually anathema in a classroom, it serves a special pedagogical purpose in the context of digital culture. Once per semester, I introduce my students to the work of composer John Cage, who is perhaps best known for his controversial piece 4’33”, in which the performer plays nothing and the audience, therefore, is burdened with the uncomfortable task of listening mindfully for the duration. It is a reflection on silence or, perhaps more accurately, the impossibility of it – a revelation that Cage experienced upon on entering an anechoic chamber. Expecting the absence of sound, he instead was overwhelmed by the high buzz of his own nervous system and the low hum of his blood circulation. Likewise my students hear voices from outside, footsteps in the hall, and the soft shifting-in-one’s-seat of bodies uncomfortable with silence itself. As evidenced by the video posted here, I often experience the same, as the sounds of a stream are displaced by a flying airplane.
A Buddhist, Cage came to understand that while there is no silence in the world, the possibility of silence nevertheless exists in our own capacity for equanimity in the face of what troubles the world has to offer. Not an idle observation, this instead is an insight into the nature of social transformation. Homosexual at a time when such identity was illegal or unspeakable, Cage’s provocative silence threw into sharp relief the limits of conventionality, both in the world of music and the world at large. Ironically, his conspicuous use of silence made him more – not less – an object of scrutiny for the powers that be. Yet as Jonathan Katz notes, it also provided a space within dominant culture for “other voices to be heard,” and, therefore, encouraged “a wholeness, a process of healing.” ((Jonathan Katz, “John Cage’s Queer Silence; Or, How to Avoid Making Matters Worse,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 5, no. 2 (1999): 239-240.)) In this way, his work anticipates the distinction, drawn a few years later by Martin Luther King, Jr., between the negative peace of complacency and the positive peace of non-violent action.
Just as 4’33’’ marks the limits of commercial music (on what radio playlist could it possibly appear?), so too does it mark the limits of mass media at large. As Jacob Needleman suggests, the drive of commercialism has displaced the ideal of free speech with attention-seeking and idle chatter. ((Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders (New York: J.P. Tarcher, 2002), 24-25.)) Whether on radio or online, silence is lost revenue: “dead air” in the radio era is echoed today in marketers’ disdain for social media or content sites that prize thoughtful readers over incessant clicks.
Today, Cage’s implicit commentary on sexual politics is arguably all the more relevant as click-driven content panders to masculine privilege and the basest sexual stereotypes. In 2012, for example, a popular but controversial Twitter feed at UNH boasted of knowing which campus women were looking for sex, based on their chosen articles of clothing on a given day. I argued in a brief interview with CBS Boston that the feed’s owner could not simply hide behind free speech claims, since this right is inseparable from the responsibility to listen mindfully. Indeed, when asked, students on campus expressed disgust and disappointment with the tenor of the feed. Hearteningly, in subsequent semesters several students have taken the charge of amplifying the unheard voices of young women and gay men who suffer the ill effects of revenge porn or cyberbullying.
Cage understood that the loudest, most incessant voices often perpetuate suffering through willful indifference to those who remain unheard. In this sense, learning to embrace silence and listen earnestly is a social and even political act, and one for which the solitude of the forest is a formidable – if not ironic – mentor.