Archive | Philosophy RSS for this section

A Feast of Silence: Listening as Stoic Practice

Zeno of Citium, the  Hellenistic philosopher who founded the Stoic school at the turn of the third century BCE, once had this advice to give to a garrulous young man: “the reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so that we might listen more and talk less.” The more we speak, Zeno was saying, the more self-absorbed and foolish we become; in learning to listen, we temper our own egos and attune ourselves to the truths of the world around us.

This piece of wisdom from a 2,300-year-old philosophy was a part of the marketer and best-selling author Ryan Holiday’s reflection on stillness and silence on the October 4 edition of his Daily Stoic podcast, a daily affirmational that brings listeners “a meditation inspired by the ancient Stoics illustrated with stories from history, current events, and literature to help you be better at what you do.” In citing Zeno, Holiday’s point was that while our highly mediated culture often rewards loudness, extroversion, and “hot takes,” we might do better to listen, and learn from others, rather than simply talk over them. 

Over the past decade, Stoicism, which teaches that self-discipline, moderation, and emotional equanimity are key to overcoming hardship and living a good life, has had something of a revival as a self-help paradigm – and Holiday has been one of its most energetic evangelists. Articles in Vice, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the GuardianForbesWired, and Sports Illustrated have all taken note of his influence among Silicon Valley tech workers, corporate executives, professional athletes, military personnel, and celebrities to whom he markets the philosophy as a “life-hack”; his six best-selling books on the subject, meanwhile, have positioned him as perhaps the most commercially successful author in a mushrooming genre of Stoic literature; and The Daily Stoic’s A-level guest list, which has included Malcom Gladwell, Camilla Cabello, Matthew McConaughey, and Charlamagne Tha God, has established Stoicism’s cultural cachet as a practical guide for living, and positioned Holiday as its authoritative interpreter. 

Among the lessons Holiday draws from Stoicism, the practice of stillness (as his 2019 book puts it) is key: a way of quieting the mind, of “hear[ing] only what needs to be heard,” and really listening to the truth of the world in order to achieve the kind of tranquility (what the Greeks called apatheia) that will help us “think well, work well, and be well.” 

Stoicism was named for the Stoa, or painted porch of the Agora where members of the school met. Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

With this emphasis on stillness, silence, and listening, it would seem quite appropriate that Holiday would turn to the aural medium of podcasting to proclaim the ancient wisdoms of ZenoCleanthesSenecaEpictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Indeed, for the Stoics, listening was a foundational skill through which one cultivated the habits of discipline, self-control, and self-reflection that are the heart of the Stoic way of life (askesis); for it is in quieting ourselves and listening that we begin to open ourselves to the teachings of the masters and think about their application in our own lives.

And Holiday is hardly the only Stoic podcaster. As I write this, a simple search on Stitcher yields over 30 podcasts with “Stoicism” in their titles or descriptions, many of which have been updated in the past month (December, 2021), including the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s Stoic MeditationsStoicism DiscoveryStoicism on FireThe Sunday StoicThe Stoic HandbookThe Walled GardenStoic Coffee Break, and Stoic Solutions.

Elsewhere, Stoicism has been promoted by self-improvement podcasters like the tech investor and lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss,and retired Navy SEAL and leadership coach Jocko Willink; and – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the ancient Stoics were white men who emphasized values like rationality and self-mastery, which are typically coded as male – it has been advocated as a tactic for modern living by masculinity podcasters like Brett McKay and Ryan Michler.

Navigating this space can often feel like a small world (or, perhaps a promotional circuit): Holiday has been a guest on The Tim Ferriss ShowThe Art of Manliness, and Order of Man, and has hosted WillinkMcKay, and Ferriss on The Daily Stoic.

A full exploration of this network is outside my scope here. For now, I will consider the ways in which podcasting is particularly well-suited to Stoic askesis; and specifically, how the very act of listening – on our commutes, on long drives, at the gym, on hikes, and in moments of quiet meditation – constitutes what Michel Foucault (who himself drew upon Stoic texts in his later work on ethics) called a technology of the self: those techniques, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”

Part of a larger project investigating the historical emergence of discourses of sex and sexuality in Western culture, Foucault in his later writings and lectures turned his attention away from the normative and disciplinary systems of subjectivation that had previously concerned him, and toward the study of ethical modalities by which individuals actively fashioned their own subjectivity. Focusing particularly on the ethical practices of the ancient world, he discovered a more autonomous framework for individual conduct, one that centered on self-imposed standards and daily habits rather than a prescribed moral code. 

This precept of the “care of the self” (epimeleia heatou), Foucault maintained, could be traced from Alcibiades to the Imperial period, and had impelled individual Greeks and Romans (the free white men, at least) to embark upon their own stylized projects of self-transformation.

Among the practices that interested Foucault – and indeed, the one he understood to be essential to the “subjectivation of true discourse” – was the act of listening. In the first hour of his March 3, 1982 lecture at the Collège de France (published in English in The Hermeneutics of the Subject), for example, Foucault explained that listening is

the first move in as[k]esis … since listening, in a culture which you know was fundamentally oral, is what enables us to take in the logos, to take in what is said that is true. However, if conducted properly, listening also makes it possible for the individual to be convinced of the truth spoken to him, of the truth he encounters in the logos. And, finally, listening is the first moment of the process by which the truth which has been heard, listened to, and properly taken in, sinks into the subject so to speak, becomes embedded in him and begins to become suus (to become his own) and thus forms the matrix for ethos (p. 332).

This emphasis on listening, Foucault noted, is evident as far back as the Pythagoreans, who required initiates to spend five years in silence so as to be able to learn the community’s exercises, practices, and philosophical precepts. The themes of silence and listening were further developed in the culture dominated by Stoicism, Foucault noted, and emerged as a “new pedagogical game” that contrasted with the earlier dialogic model. Now, the master spoke, and the student listened.  

But the nature of audition could be somewhat ambiguous for the ancients, Foucault explained, in that it was a passive (pathetikos) activity, yet it is the primary sense through which we receive the logos, the rational substance that the Stoics believed to govern the universe. In his treatise On Listening, for instance, Plutarch (46 CE – c. 116CE) wrote that it was imperative for young men cultivate the art of listening because they must learn to listen to the logos throughout adulthood, and so must learn to distinguish truth from the artifices of flattery or rhetoric. One must listen to the words of the master attentively, so that the logos might penetrate the soul. “The man who has the habit of listening with restraint and respect,” Plutarch wrote, “takes in and masters a useful discourse, and more readily sees through and detects a useless or false one, showing himself thus to be a lover of truth and not a lover of disputation” (On Listening, IV). 

Stock image of a person listening stoically. Photocredit: Audio-Technica @Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Perhaps the most striking of the texts Foucault discussed, however (see The Hermeneutics of the Subject, pp. 343-344), is Philo of Alexandria’s (20 BCE – c. 50 CE) description of the practices of the Therapeutae, a closed community of ascetics who renounced their earthly possessions in order to pursue “perfect happiness,” and the salvation of their soul (De Vita Contemplativa, §12). In his text, Philo takes specific note of the group’s elaborate banquet rituals, during which an elder comes to the fore and gives a discourse on philosophical doctrine or on sacred scripture (“teaching very slowly, lingering and emphasizing with repetitions, engraving the thoughts on the souls” [§76]). During these talks, the audience remained silent and motionless, adopting a precisely prescribed posture intended to fix their attention on the speaker, so that the discourse “does not stay on the tips of the ears, but comes through the hearing to the soul and there remains securely (§31).” In these feasts of silence, mastery of the body is the foundation of the care of the soul.

Though modern Stoic podcasting does not demand nearly this level of physical discipline of its listeners, we are nevertheless encouraged to incorporate podcasting into a daily ritual of silence and reflection – a new, digital feast of silence. As we listen through our headphones, in our cars, or in some other quiet personal space, we are joined in intimate connection with our hosts, who guide us in our contemplation of timeless Stoic wisdoms, engraving these thoughts in our minds so that we might have them ready at hand in order, as Holiday often says, to make them the principle of our actions.

It is this possibility of principled living that is perhaps at the heart of Stoicism’s twenty-first century appeal. As Elizabeth J. Peterson has written, in our age of seemingly perpetual crisis, Stoicism’s resurgence is undoubtedly due to its reputation as a practical guide for surviving difficult times. “Between President Trump, Brexit, the Middle East and the domestic issues in virtually every country,” she writes, “it’s not difficult to see why many people, across the world, need a source of clarity, calm, and fortitude.” (And that was before the pandemic, which occasioned a spate of articles explaining how Stoicism might help us endure a moment of profound uncertainty).

But the headlines aren’t the only source of our anxieties; we have plenty of it in our own lives. At a time of deepening economic precarity, in which we are routinely urged to become self-reliant, self-enterprising subjects in order to maximize our value in the marketplace, Stoicism offers a ready-made coping mechanism with a pedigree of centuries: at once a framework for cultivating emotional resilience, and a self-help paradigm for transforming ourselves into more disciplined, effective, and successful individuals. 

Some examples of self-help books. Photocredit: Angie @Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

When co-opted by late capitalist culture, when marketed as a “life-hack” and configured as an ethics of personal success, then, Stoic principles quite easily align with neoliberal imperatives that we endlessly labor on ourselves in order to better compete in an agonistic struggle for personal fulfillment and economic security. From this perspective, even the advice that we embrace stillness becomes a way of momentarily refreshing ourselves, only to return to work to “persevere” and “succeed.”

One of the most trenchant critiques of Stoicism is that by advising us not to concern ourselves with that which we cannot control (see Epictetus, The Discourses, 2.5.4-5), it is fundamentally a philosophy for living in the world as it exists, and not for challenging it (indeed, Stoicism’s popularity among the Roman elite indicates something of its congeniality with the established order). And while, as Sara Ahmed has written, “neoliberalism sweeps up too much when all forms of self-care become symptoms of neoliberalism,” it is nevertheless worth considering how an ostensibly self-directed ascetic practice is complicit in more hegemonic (neoliberal, patriarchal, and misogynistic) templates of subjectivity.

Featured Image: “Marcus Aurelius Headphone Stand!” by JM3is3D @Etsy. Image used for purposes of critique.

Andrew J. Salvati is an adjunct professor in the Media and Communications program at Drew University, where he teaches courses on podcasting and television studies. His research interests include media and cultural memory, television history, and mediated masculinity. He is the co-founder and occasional co-host of Inside the Box: The TV History Podcast, and Drew Archives in 10.

tape-reel

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

‘No Place Like Home’: Dissonance and Displacement in Gimlet Media’s Fiction Podcast “Homecoming”-Miranda Wilson

SO! Podcast #78: Ethical Storytelling in Podcasting–Laura Garbes, Alex Hanesworth, Babette Thomas, Jennifer Lynn Stoever

SO! Podcast #79: Behind the Podcast: deconstructing scenes from AFRI0550, African American Health Activism – Nic John Ramos and Laura Garbes

Deep Listening as Philogynoir: Playlists, Black Girl Idiom, and Love–Shakira Holt

Charles Mingus, Rotary Perception, and the “Fables of Faubus”

In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series–featuring myself (Earl Brooks), Brittnay Proctor, Jessica Teague, and Nichole Rustin-Paschal— re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. In the first piece of this series, I offer a meditation on the audible imagery of The Little Rock Nine and the potency of Mingus’s ideas for sound studies and beyond. — Guest Editor Earl Brooks


Jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus’s infamous protest song “Fables of Faubus,” (1959) channeled the anger and frustration of the Black community in response to the staunch racism of Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas, who refused to acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to support school integration in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. Faubus infamously used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent Black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. The visual imagery of “The Little Rock Nine” walking to school, bombarded by riotous mobs and surrounded by cameras and military escorts, remains permanently seared into the American collective memory of the Civil Rights Movement.

What makes the imagery of “The Little Rock Nine” so sonically distinctive is the contrast between the silent procession of the students and the loud and intimidating screams from the white racist protestors. When images contain explicit visual references to particular sounds, there is an inescapable cognitive referent that allows one to experience that sound through the vehicle of one’s “sonic imagination”–or the mechanism that allows us to “hear” a song in our heads even when there is only silence. Listening involves an active–not passive–engagement with sounds real and imagined. In the same vein as comic books, which rely on visual sound-cues to enhance the experience of the text, the optical power of “The Little Rock Nine” invites viewers to process both the visual and aural data presented by the image. In other words, the image is empowered by its multimodality. When combined with related source material, such as “Fables,” we stand to gain a greater sense of its meanings and an awareness of why sound, especially music, is critical to the recording, or archiving of the kinds of lived experiences that exceed easy translation.

“Fables,” as well as the album on which it appears, Mingus Ah Um, invites questions about the sonics of racism in public and private spheres. Racism oscillates between modes of silence and silencing (unjust systemic processes, othering, isolation), subtle vibrations (micro-aggressions), as well as piercing, cacophonous noise that is as disorienting as it is terrifying. In many ways, this moment made audible (and public) the noise of racism so often confined to the personal encounters of African Americans with white institutions and Jim Crow segregation.

“Fables” ridicules the defense of segregation through its caustic, satiric edge. Listeners hear an early articulation of Terrence T. Tucker’s notion of comic rage, a mixture of pain, frustration, and fear encapsulated by humor and a burgeoning militancy and articulated by comedians such as Richard Pryor. Black musicians, such as Mingus, were not only in tune with the magnitude of the historical moment they were witnessing but also attuned to its sonic dimensions.

Positioning Mingus within the evolving discussion of sonic studies opens productive inquiry into what it means to center musicians of color in relation to critical historical moments in the American soundscape. Mingus’s concept of “rotary perception,” mentioned in his autobiography Beneath the Underdog (1971), suggests one way this positioning can occur. Here’s how Mingus defines “rotary perception” and uses it to describe his musical evolution:

There once was a word used–swing. Swing went in one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that’s very restrictive. If you get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle, you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome, with three or four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat–each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the circle but the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed. (350)

The value of this “rotary”– or “circular”–orientation exceeds the technical, musical application discussed in the book. Mingus offered this explanation in response to claims that the music created by younger musicians was more innovative or distinctive than his generational counterparts. What the media and industry insiders were seeking to characterize as the “new” wave in jazz wasn’t all that new. In fact, as Mingus argued, one could hear the “avant garde” major sevenths over minor sevenths from Charlie Parker and free forms in Duke Ellington if they were paying attention.

However, “rotary perception” also correlates with the central ethos of Black cultural production Amiri Baraka referred to as “the changing same,” a phrase describing the cyclical return to the roots of Black music and culture as a source of futurity, innovation, and regeneration. Rotary perception, as a way of engaging experiential source material, is a useful tool for sound studies as it relates to centering the work of musicians, theorists, and scholars of color whose work contains untapped, or, in this case, unheard critical vistas from which to expand the enterprise of defeating the scourge of racism. The poetic disconsolance and biting jocularity of Mingus’s oeuvre challenges us all to do some soul searching.

Image by Flickr User Connor Lawless (CC BY 2.0)

As thematic motif, rotary perception renders Mingus Ah Um as a presentation of the sonics of Black life. The “head” or main melody of “Fables” is buttressed by bluesy, bebop, instrumental solos that–quite literally–translate the racism of those such as Governor Faubus into a canvas of rebellious, free expression. The gospel inflections of “Better Get It in Your Soul” emerge from Mingus’s exposure to the reservoir of traditional Black worship and performance styles preserved by the “Holiness” or “Sanctified” denominations within the Black church. What questions would emerge if current discussions of racism and political power in white evangelical communities began with such songs as hermeneutic tools to explore the relationship between theology and race?

As Mingus traces his roots, the musical themes on the album look back as much as their execution points toward a new era of soul-infused jazz through a series of homages paid to Lester Young (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”), Charlie Parker (“Bird Calls“), Jelly Roll Morton (“Jelly Roll“), and Duke Ellington (“Open Letter To Duke“). Mingus delineates the kind of fictive kinship Eric Pritchard theorizes as a mode of constructing community and resisting social isolation and historical erasure as a byproduct of the Black experience. While Mingus’s allegiance to continuity is clear, rotary perception encourages us to consider the expansive scope of heretofore unexplored frontiers of African diasporic subjectivities.

Sound is a unique and worthwhile vehicle to recover the lived experiences of black communities often marginalized or completely ignored by the archives. The value of such experiences lies with their potential transgression of ontological and phenomenological investments in conceptions of time, space, and identity that ultimately undergird the sterilized normativity of white supremacist thought. The idea that people of color contributed nothing to history and the march of progress, or that the lands of indigenous peoples hold no value outside of capitalist ends, form the foundations of white supremacy. Questions such as: Who owns time? How much is time worth? and Who has the power to grant or retain space? form the structures beneath structural racism. Yet, through black music, black musicians reclaim that time, (Maxine Waters reference intended) as responsive to the needs of the community and the occasion and also something powerful enough to be distributed equally. Such music creates space–ideologically, spiritually, mentally–for a broader humanity that accompanies differences, like a swinging rhythm section, instead of fearing them.

“Raided the new vinyl inventory” by Flickr User Magic Trax (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although large portions are fictional, the authenticity of Mingus’s experience of racism as described in Beneath the Underdog illuminates the sonic qualities of the album including its innovative fusions of musical traditions. For example, Mingus characterized his father as a parent who preached racial prejudice and forbade him and his siblings from engaging children from his neighborhood with darker skin complexions. Additionally, Mingus’s youth was fraught with discriminatory incidents heightened by the irony of his light skin color: too dark to pass as white and too light to take any solidarity with his darker companions for granted. Mingus Ah Um represents an important waypoint on Mingus’s journey to political consciousness and Black identity. This was a journey constantly freighted by what would become a lifelong quest to reconcile the self he saw as fractured, or the “two-ness” that W.E.B. Du Bois famously described as the psychic consequences of life behind the “veil” within racially oppressive social order. Responding to this veil (or mask according to Paul Laurence Dunbar) became particularly complicated for Mingus. For musicians such as Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, the deference to white audiences belied a defensive posture and a recognition that the interiority of their lives would always remain—like Ralph Ellison’s proverbial protagonist–invisible.

However, the subversive “creative mockery,” that Mingus conjures in “Fables” coincided with the operationalization of Black Nationalist sentiment and discourse brewing within the Black community. What Mingus wanted more than money or fame from his music was to be taken seriously as an artist and for jazz to be seen as equal to classical music in terms of cultural stature. In many ways, Mingus’s music gave a sonority and texture to this tension.  This search for artistic authenticity dovetails with the racial solidarity showcased on the album, expanding the scope of its introspection.

One of the great misconceptions of post-Civil-Rights-Era America is the assumption that the decline of such public and audible displays of racism includes a decline of such phenomena in private spheres. However, the recent barrage of viral videos depicting the weaponization of police toward Black bodies quickly dispels any such assumption. Rotary perception, beyond its use in sound studies, offers a critical tool useful for grounding current analyses of liberatory struggle against racial and social oppression. It reminds us of the value of returning to, and listening again, to songs like “Fables.” It also urges us to continue fingering what Ellison called “the jagged grain” of the “painful details and episodes of a brutal experience …” in order to squeeze from it a “near-tragic, near-comic” transcendence.

Featured Image: By Flicker user Matthew Venn, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Earl H. Brooks is a saxophonist and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His research interests include jazz, rhetoric and composition, black popular culture, and media studies.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

SO! Reads: Nicole Brittingham Furlonge’s Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature

SO! Amplifies: The Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club–Chelsea Adams

SO! Reads: Tsitsi Jaji’s Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity–Celeste Day Moore

Living with Noise–Osvaldo Oyola

“Music More Ancient than Words”: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Theories on Africana Aurality — Aaron Carter-Ényì

 

%d bloggers like this: