On my commute to and from work, I’m prey to the schedules of BBC Radio 4’s afternoon programming. This is very mixed fare, but the other day I heard a program in the Word of Mouth strand on language and autism. At the centre of the programme was Phoebe Caldwell, who has worked with many autism-spectrum children, and in her idea of ‘intensive interaction’ stressed the idea of ‘listening with all the senses’ or ‘total attention’, an interaction that isn’t based on linguistic communication but on a range of practices. The difficulty for autistic children, she suggested, was that the processing equipment that human beings generally acquire as part of ‘normal’ development – the ability to filter out the barrage of auditory, visual, semiotic and emotional information which comprises the sensorium of modernity – is not acquired. The implication is that ‘normally’ developed human adults construct a kind of membrane or shell, a distancing or processing system, which enables us to operate within the (Benjaminian) shocks of modernity without being overcome.
That hearing, listening and attentiveness are not a transparent processing/ recording system is simple to demonstrate from everyday life. It’s a common experience, for instance, to enter a psychological ‘zone’, where concentration or heightened attention causes the blocking out of extraneous noise, or visual stimulus, or voices. Or, if you record a conversation in a busy room, the separation of background/ ambient sound from foreground conversation (noise and signal) that the brain operates for us is flattened by recording equipment that lacks the psychological processing/ filtering that inheres in the physical act of hearing. Your experience and memory of that conversation will be directed towards what was said; the device will pick up everything in its field. (Joe Banks’s Rorschach Audio project places this post-physical sound processing at the centre of its investigation of EVP and other sound phenomena.) Attention is crucial not only to listening, but to the (f)act of hearing itself.
It seems clear to me that the disciplinary regime of attention in the visual field that Jonathan Crary analysed in his fine book Suspensions of Perception is replicated in the auditory field. Crary suggests that visual attention is subject to discipline in order to fit the human subject more efficiently into the tasks required of the worker in industrial modernity – which, at the same time, because of the repetitiveness of these tasks, produces a correlative inattentiveness (boredom) in irreducible tension. The disciplining of the auditory perceptual apparatus, the construction of the auditory membrane, is an index of just how fragile the human consciousness is; it cannot bear the full sensorial stimulation of the modernity that humans have themselves created, and to operate with a measure of facility, has to filter out most of the stimuli. The difficult experiences of the autistic subject, without the disciplinary or protective apparatus in place, demonstrates not their ‘diminished’ capacity to operate in the world, a deficiency; rather, what we consider to be a ‘normal’ apperceptual regime is in fact constructed to shield us from the overwhelming experience of modernity.
I’m reminded of Ballard’s ‘Low Flying Aircraft’, where the cessation of ‘normal’ births and the delivery instead of ‘mutated’ children – perceived by an increasingly gerontocratic population to be ‘deformed’, other – leads to a horrendous slaughter of the innocents. In a neat reversal, Ballard’s protagonist realises that the ‘deformed’ children are in fact the product of biological and evolutionary necessity, and will be more fitted to the coming changes in the Earth’s ecology than their ‘normal’ parents, who will themselves die off and be supplanted. Ballard's typical motif of the necessity of embracing biological or evolutionary change is used to displace the human from the centre of the narrative, or rather, what is commonly held to be the 'human'.
Ballard's reversal of field, the exposure of assumptions of normalcy and otherness, reveals how constructed the human subject is, how fragile, how temporary, how limited; and, by extension, how necessary for the regimes of capital and modernity are the psychic, cultural and apperceptual defences that surround and protect us, that are constructed by and protect us from the very world constructed by human agency. Is there possible a bypassing of the apperceptual membrane, a way of circumventing the filters, without inflicting psychological damage? Is this, then, the project of the hermit, the divine, the self-excluded seeker: to open up, in silence, in nature, by meditation or isolation or other practice, a fuller perceptual experience? To become more or differently human through excluding the noise of the social?
It's little wonder, perhaps, that I've read Huxley's The Doors of Perception recently, or that I find the utopian and psychedelic yearnings of the late 60s and early 70s (documented in Rob Young's Electric Eden) so fascinating. Sometimes I too would like to switch everything off, enjoy the silence, and see what happens.