Wednesday, 28 July 2010


I'm always bugged by noise pollution. People, pretty much everywhere, usually seem to me unduly and kind of desperately loud. I still think this is the main reason people seek out and enjoy large groups - the sound of laughter and shouting and whenever possible the deafeningly blaring anonymous and characterless music helps them block out who and what they are and how unpleased they are with their general lot in life. Not that I can look at my life in silence in smug self-satisfaction, but I generally prefer knowing what's missing to ignoring it - it seems like the logical first step towards changing things for the better.

So it confused me a little today when in a bit of internal dialogue I characterised my excessive preoccupation with myself and whether my stuff was going well as "noise" - isn't it exactly what "noise" is by (my) definition out to prevent?

So I started building this scheme that began getting complicated enough to need to be written down. To my mind, there are three layers of noise under which most of us are usually submerged:

1) Conformism: Peer pressure striving to control our whole identity and striking spectacular successes at least insofar as our actual behaviour is concerned - we do what others do because they do it, and don't try particularly hard to find our own way. On the rare cases that we do, the group will often go into direct-rather-than-implied pressure mode, creating the most clear-cut instance of repression - but most of us will never even go there (at least not beyond adolescence).

2) Busyness: The impulse to keep on the move, to keep active, to be perpetually stimulated by a hectic life - whether this is expressed in workaholism, partying, television, drugs (even soft ones) or mere extroversion - this is what I have traditionally referred to as "noise", and see as ultimately concerned with not letting you hear yourself think. When I was overwhelmed by my moods people kept telling me "you think too much" and "you just need to find something to do" and I'd be at a loss because to me these counsels conveyed a far deeper desperation than what even I was feeling, and suggested that the solution was to never listen to yourself ever again. This "busyness" impulse terrifies me because it's so pervasive and accepted, and yet so obviously nihilistic and suffocating - so much in denial of life and aliveness. It's a whole institution powered by a self-righteous intellectual timidity.

3) Intellectualism: Or perhaps "Analysisism" would better describe what I mean: In retrospect it may not apply to "most of us". Excessive analysis is a syndrome reserved for relatively few, but it's self-denial's last line of defence. Even once we've broken free from conformism and busyness - once we are ostensibly free do what we want and to know what we think - the intellectual independence that brought us this far threatens to betray its own purpose by so frenetically cultivating itself as to drown out what we feel, which is what all of this noise excavation was about in the first place. Sometimes we think about things not because they're worth thinking about, but to serve the same impulse of repression that ever made us consider for a second that conformism or busyness might be good ideas. They don't actually "make sense", but they have an inner momentum that comes from the deep-seated fear that there is actually nothing there, so we better not look too directly into ourselves.

Though probably quite few of my friends and acquaintances fit this criterion, I don't think I'm just talking about myself. It appears that Western intellectual tradition in general, and certainly most of its moral philosophy that I've encountered, is deeply infected with this fetishistic "scientific" attention to irrelevant detail and structural considerations. The pursuit of objectivity has us discussing "objects" and their relation to one another while ignoring as much as we can their relation to us and our feelings. Even our "appreciation" of art has more to do with what it makes us think than with what it makes us feel, which to me seems ridiculous but to the world in general appears to seem obvious - much like our differing stance on busyness.

The alternative to the last of these noisinesses can be found, I think, by examining what is at the heart of all these exercises in repression. Namely, pressure. We are under pressure to meet the group's approval as we are under pressure to find something to do as we are under pressure to conform to our own standards to the letter. The alternative to pressure, is Taoism.

If Buddhism asserts that we don't need desire to live a good life, Taoism (more sensibly, I think) asserts that we don't need pressure. The idea is that if something is good, it should be done, and if it's bad it should be avoided, and that it shouldn't really get complicated beyond that. There is no sensible reason to avoid the good and to pursue the bad - only pressure, from whatever source, to do so. Taoism would tell the pressure, in general, to go fuck itself, much like the "intellectual" told conformism and busyness to sod off. Instead of pitting a better pressure against a worse pressure, the idea is that pressure is fundamentally unnecessary, and that truly independent and truly sensible conduct can be achieved by simply doing what you want and avoiding what you don't. We are not children who need to meet parental pressure without which we will not get for ourselves what we need; we are adults who know what they want and usually how to get it. Forwards planning is fine - backwards examination does little beyond distracting us from ourselves, at least when it's done not from the position of relaxed contemplation but from a sense of duty.

You need silence in order to hear yourself. Noise as expressed in any and all forms of pressure is designed to prevent precisely that, for reasons that are sometimes extremely bad and sometimes only a little. Possibly you need to read through the Tao Te Ching before this statement becomes convincing, but there is nothing appeasing others can get you that you can't get from listening properly to yourself instead.


  1. Okay. Obviously you know that I'm very familiar with all three kinds of pressure. We're not so different in our experiences and our attitudes. But somehow you come to a conclusion which I completely disagree with.

    A few years back, I never did much. So let's imagine that I had read this post back then and taken its advice wholeheartedly. Where would I be today? Physically, I'd be in the same place. I'd be at this computer. But let's say I spent 12 hours a day, every day, on entertainment downloaded off BitTorrent. Let's say I kept this up for years on end. And why not? That's what you're saying I should have done, no? I'd keep hearing my parents telling me to go do something with my life, but that's the noise of Conformism so I'd need to just ignore them. I would get bored every now and then and want to create and do things, but that's the noise of Busyness so I'd need to just ignore those inclinations. And I'd keep thinking "I am wasting my life by always going for instant gratification.", but that's the noise of Analysism so I'd need to ignore my thoughts. And you know what, I think I could pull it off. I think if I tried really hard, I could tune out all those things and just sit here and be happy with the constant entertainment, because that's what I really like doing. Explain to me how this is a good state of affairs. Explain to me how it's better than how I am now, having given in to the pressure which I exert on myself, having made three games and on the way to making more, now understanding myself far better than I ever used to. Please, explain it. Enlighten me.

    Society is not noise. Wanting to be busy is not noise. Self-reflection is not noise. If you want to go with sound metaphors, the more appropriate one is music. Pressure is like a classical cadence, creating tension so that you have to move forward and get to a more satisfying place. And then you linger there for a second and keep going with the music. Which is how it should be.

    Silence is not good or bad, silence is just empty. It's something to be filled. The people who make the most noise are the young ones, who have yet to be inhibited and repressed. Then we grow up and think that sitting in one place and being happy there is something we ought to settle for, but it's not. You should never settle down, because at that point there's no reason to keep existing. You keep moving, that's the point. You keep moving up, you keep creating, you keep having an influence on other people, you keep trying to matter. Because in the silence, you don't matter. Mattering is something we create, in all those loud moments you'd call noise. An inanimate object does not matter. An animal does not matter. Humans only matter as long as they try to matter.

    Now, I'll believe that if you spent a lifetime of effort on it, you could eventually be happy in the silence. But why on Earth would you want to?

  2. You're taking my metaphors a little too seriously. I have nothing against activity, thought or people's advice in and of themselves, just like I have nothing against sound in and of itself. It's only when these things receive a religious level of devotion that they obviously become a cover and a distraction from something you are scared to confront.

    If I was serious I'd go more deeply into the difference between Buddhism and Taoism (at least as I so far understand them). The former's ultimate aspiration is silence - the blowing out of desires that is "nirvana". Not so with Taoism. With Taoism, silence is the first step towards hearing yourself and living life to the full - the cultivation of your most important desires, if you will.

    The distinction between desires, or "wants", is what this is probably about. You say you'd be happier watching TV and reading comics 24/7. In the first place I doubt it, just in terms of the way human psychology is built. But in any case, what prevents you from doing so is a desire to do something else. If you truly receive no gratification, or negligible gratification, from all these efforts, then yes, according to this scheme all your game-making is an extended exercise in busyness and intellectualism, though I should probably point out that watching TV and playing games (constant "stimulation") also falls under busyness in my definition.

    When I talk about you want I don't mean just what you feel like; what is fun - I mean what gives you satisfaction. What meshes best with who and what you are and helps you fulfill yourself. I think we've had this conversation once before - if game-making is something you do just to assuage some kind of guilt then you have my full permission and recommendation to stop with it immediately.

    You want me to explain why constant entertainment is a "good state of affairs", better than now that you "understand yourself far better than you used to". I think I've explained why I think entertainment is mainly a cover most of the time for most people, but "understanding yourself" is the kind of typical intellectualist exercise that people attribute undue significance to. If you enjoy understanding yourself, fine - but don't assume it "means" anything bombastic, because then it becomes a self-powered expertise serving nobody anywhere besides the expertise itself.

    You distinguish "mattering" from happiness and finish with a kind of bizarre question (or at least one that demonstrates the disparity in our use of these terms) - why would you want to be happy not mattering? I guess the best answer is to distinguish between contentment and happiness. Contentment is the "silence" as you (and Buddhism) seem to understand it - not being bugged by anxiety and pain. I have my doubts about whether this kind of situation is even possible but it doesn't matter; the happiness I'm talking about is a kind of exaltation - excitement with the world and fulfillment of yourself and a kick out of getting to get up in the morning and be alive. The opposite of this happiness is not sadness or pain, but depression or anhedonia.

    If something is good for us - if it will give us satisfaction - then that is a good enough reason for us to do it. Pressure is not necessary. At least not if you give full attention to what you actually want instead of waiting (hoping?) for it to be forced upon you from some other direction.

  3. *taking the metaphors too literally, not seriously. Why isn't there an edit button?

  4. Pressure is absolutely necessary, because satisfaction only comes at the end of a long process which is not so satisfying. I like making games, but it's not what I'd choose to do with my time if there weren't any pressure involved to get the next game out and move on to the next one. Pressure pushes me forward toward a place of greater satisfaction, a lack of pressure leaves me wanting to just fill my time with whatever is easiest.

  5. And for the record, I never said watching TV 12 hours a day for a year would make me happier in the long-term. If I did that for a year straight, I most certainly would get sick of not doing anything. But if the inclination to be busy is a kind of noise, then the right thing to do when you get sick of passivity is to push that thought down and get comfortable. Long-term happiness does not come from short-term silence, it comes from short-term pressure.

  6. Have you read anything by Parker J. Palmer? Two of his books (shortish, but packed with stuff) in particular come to mind: "Let Your Life Speak" and "A Hidden Wholeness". And what he deals with mostly is the art of listening. Which seems to me to be important in the noise/silence issue. My 2 cents, Judy

  7. Mory, I'm not sure if there's a point in repeating this - I have nothing against and certainly nothing against the desire to do something with your life, but the pressure to do SOMETHING, ANYTHING, ALL THE TIME is repressive, mainly because it doesn't distinguish between good and bad activities. I'm not advocating "passivity" instead, but allowing - yes - the SILENCE that will let you hear what you want, including what activities you want to take part in.

    We're referring to different things by "satisfaction" too. You talk about looking at a finished product at the end of your work and saying "I made this and it's good". Taoism (or at least my interpretation and corruption of it) speaks about general satisfaction with being alive, with being yourself, with doing things that you want to do. A very major part of Taoism (and this is definitely not just my projection) is joy in the process - transcending the tedium, especially of work. Seeing carpentry, for instance, as an extended spiritual experience.

    Lack of "pressure", by the way, as I define it, would be expressed in the ability to just sit down and think, without any stimulation, so TV and comics aren't really a good example of this. This should probably have been the first thing I said in reply to you, but in the post I defined "busyness" both as workaholism and as television or partying - it's not about ambition as much as about trying to find a way to occupy yourself every single waking second.

    Judy, I haven't, but from his wikipedia page he seems intriguing. I'll add his books to the list. Thanks. I agree, of course. Listening is everything this noise/silence issue is about.