Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

Christmas, perception, and the lights of Co-op City

Using media tools to edit what we see has drawbacks--and benefits

Looking at the lights of Co-op City as I recently passed through the Bronx on Bolt bus; seeing the windows lit and limned by Christmas displays; reminded me of my father and a radio report he did for Europe 1 radio in France. It was a reportage that contrasted the drab environment of this post-WWII housing with the stubborn hope symbolized by those lights.

Only one window in fifteen or twenty was decorated, which in a complex that size is still a lot, and to heighten the effect for myself I took to switching my gaze rapidly from display to display--a frame of multicolored lights on the ninth floor, a Santa and his reindeer on the sixteenth, a Christmas tree on five--mentally zooming, cutting and pasting.

I felt like a film cameraman or editor, or even more like a viewer in the darkened theater of the bus speeding westward. And I wondered, How much of our consciousness has shifted to emulate the tricks and techniques of image-making?

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I suppose the process is as old as any image. Pharaoh's artists depicted people in profile only, and perhaps the first Egyptian painter who laid eyes on a three-dimensional Greek woman painted on terra-cotta might have wondered in the years that followed: "Here I am framing people in three-quarter view, or even full-on. Verily hath my way of seeing been warped by this technique of the Greeks!"

Art, with a capital A, is supposed to change our way of seeing, although we spend little time examining how that happens. This is a pity, given the myriad new technologies made available to us over the last century in order that we might perceive differently. During my short career as a news photographer I grew so habituated to framing shots that I began to see everything and everybody through a mental viewfinder, whether I was working or not.

And a theory exists--it's called the Extended Mind Hypothesis, or EMH--that posits the following: Twenty-first century man now conceives of his world through the mental medium of all the data and sensors he routinely uses to navigate it. In other words, even while he uses his eyes to find bread and butter to make toast he is also, internally, perceiving the world through the satellite weather photo of North America, the news camera trained on riots in Damascus, the oil pressure indicator on his car. This is true when he has just absorbed those data, but just as importantly, it's also true when he has not; simply because the extended perception afforded by satellite links, news bites and electronic feedback have become part of his mental toolkit, his expectation of how he himself will see things.

And this is not bad, or not necessarily. Why not expand our sensory capacity if it lies within our power to do so? Why not cut and edit perception with techniques borrowed from film it if allows us to feel more deeply or make stronger connections with the outside world?

It's not as if we don't do this anyway. The perception centers in our brain spend more time filtering data and choosing what information to notice and amplify than they do scanning for random input. Our memory, to the extent that it's understood, seems to work in similar fashion, madly cutting and editing the gigabytes of information fed to it by sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. So if habits of technique speed that process why not encourage them?

I suppose one drawback might occur if techniques borrowed from any given medium, instead of enhancing one's view and experience of the world, ended up limiting or distorting it in ways that were untrue to an environment that mattered. The goal of perception is to open up our consciousness to information--accurate information--that will be useful to us, and it follows that if a given style detracts from that goal, we should resist whatever ancillary pleasures it might bring.

I think that effect might happen less on the level of brute perception, than on one of rhythm and excitement. The events of a normal life typically happen slowly and subtly. Sometimes their ultimate shape and meaning take months, even years to absorb. But we have grown used to the instant action, the rapidly recurring climaxes of video games, soap operas, fantasy films. As a result, when we observe our real lives we find them wanting: short on drama and resolution, long on boredom. Anomie, frustration and dissatisfaction must be the result, when what is needed instead is greater attention to the slow and subtle texture of our time on Earth.

This does not mean that style or technique used to enhance pleasure in perception necessarily detracts from a useful truth. When I blinked or shifted focus rapidly, like a film editor, to enhance the effect of Co-op City's Christmas lights, I was of course altering the true state of affairs, which was that relatively few of the project's inhabitants had put up bright holiday decorations.

Still, I was conscious of what I was doing--conscious of both the underlying facts, and the affect I was selling to myself. Simultaneously I was underlining another reality, which was that even in hard economic times a small but significant percentage of the denizens of a lower- to middle-middle class housing development were willing to put in effort and expense to cheer themselves and the outside world with the bright colors, the happy if fatuous platitudes of Christmas.

And finally, I was putting more current through a wire of memory and emotion that linked me to my father, whose presence in my life, even twelve years after his death, continues to move and direct me. Enhancing the lights of Co-op City gave me pleasure, pulled in a set of related perceptions, yet did not mask either the objective facts of the matter, or a connection whose strength took me a long time to understand.

 

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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