In La société de la consommation (1970; The Consumer Society) the sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote of how the urbanization and industrialization of human life had created new rarities: “space and time, clean air, greenery, water, silence . . . Some goods, previously free and readily available, are becoming luxury goods that only a privileged few can enjoy, while manufactured goods or services are widely available.”
This fits with my sense that luxuries can now be defined negatively: not owning a car, house, or cellphone, not being online, not hearing the noise of a highway or an airport, not having to work. (A recent addition to my list: a hobby that produces nothing, not even music, and at which it is impossible to get better. Freedom from making, freedom from self-improvement.) I recall, too, a line from an interview Bob Dylan gave in 1991: “There’s enough of everything. There was too much of it with electricity, maybe, some people said that. Some people said the light bulb was going too far.”
In the wonderful, inspiring chapter on music and silence that closes his La musique et l’ineffable (1961, Music and the Ineffable), the Russian-French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch writes about how, until recently, human beings tried to make sounds (music, conversation) to escape from their anxieties and the seeming silence of the universe and of eternity. (Now many go online and use their cellphones, earbuds, movies, and television programs for the same purpose.) Jankélévitch draws an analogy with a traveler lost at night who speaks out loud and laughs loudly in order to persuade himself that he is not afraid. Thanks to the protective screen of the sounds he is making, the traveler imagines that he is even scaring away the specter of death. But now, Jankélévitch proposes, this situation is being inverted (for the truly well to do or for some avant-garde, I am here proposing).
Quoting from the chapter “Musique et silence,” followed by an English gloss:
[L]’homme recru de vacarme, se bouchait les oreilles, veut protéger son jardinet de silence, mettre à l’abri son îlot de silence : car c’est le silence qui est insulaire, et non pas le bruit. (And now it’s the other way round: exhausted by the racket, we cover our ears, try to preserve our little gardens or islands of silence. Because now silence, rather than sound, seems the safe haven.)
A few pages earlier in this chapter, Jankélévitch wrote of how, from an eschatological point of view—thinking of the end of time—noise, or sounds, may seem to be an island in the ocean or an oasis or enclosed garden in the midst of the desert (of silence). But from the perspective of what we like to call “real life,” silence is a break, a moment of discontinuity amid the incessant noisiness.
Pascal famously wrote, « Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie. » The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me. This was the perspective of the seventeenth century. Now, “thanks” to our industry and technology, and to our physics and astronomy, it is not only that outer space no longer seems silent—and perhaps not even as infinite as it used to. For a rare—and perhaps extraordinarily courageous—few, silence is no longer so frightening. It could come to seem, we might say, like the light at the end of the tunnel.
— William Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor
It would be interesting to read Baudrillard’s La société de consommation (The Consumer Society) in parallel with Thomas Picketty’s current bestseller, Le capital au XXIe siècle (Capital in the Twenty-First Century), and the economist John Kenneith Galbraith’s 1958 The Affluent Society, a book that Baudrillard was, in a sense, writing against, in opposition to. In an affluent society, Galbraith proposed (among many other things), wealth no longer conferred the fundamental advantages—power, pleasure, prestige, distinction—that previously went with it. The power of the owning, investing classes was a thing of the past. Western societies were now run by experts and technicians, intellectuals and/or academics included. This is hardly the current view!
Carolyn Abbate’s English translation of Jankélévitch’s La musique et l’ineffable was published by Princeton University Press in 2003: Music and the Ineffable.
In Science B I follow Pascal’s « Le silence éternel . . . » toward quite different conclusions.
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