The artifice of silence

Marte Roel Lesur
10 min readJun 7, 2020

While this text draws from formal research, it’s nothing more than a playful allegory and oversees technical and historical accuracy.

After years of searching, surrounded by complex artifacts of the highest precision found to date, they were finally close. Finding an almost imperceptible signal, they evidenced the promise of their experiment and found the motivation to continue. With the arrival of young Hooke, the development had moved forward over the last few months. To prove the absence of sound, to achieve the total removal of noise, was their goal. The existence of absolute silence would answer the biggest ontological question of their time. But first, sound had to be killed. Only silence would prove the existence of a vacuum and thus falsify divine omnipresence. Their opponents would find in the resistance of sound to surrender — as there were always audible remains — proof of divinity. They would laugh about the scientists’ efforts, however in pain and offense for the heretic premise of their research. After half a century of a scientific hunt for silence, the researchers were finally near. But they were not the only ones. This scientific method based on empirical evidence was becoming the norm for validating knowledge. For many, evidence would be the only epistemological grounding to an already divided reality. From this cognitive lens, a potential revolution of our natural understanding was determined by sound, or rather by the possibility of its absence.

Ironically, Hooke, guided by Boyle — a well-reputed naturalist of the time — could not cope with the everlasting noise. That constant and unbearable buzz would not stop even if he were to prove his hypothesis. He himself would not be able to experience the evidence of his enterprise for as long as tinnitus accompanied him. Hooke’s life was permeated by sound despite his search for silence. He lived under a permanent ringing, evident only to him. Profiting from his cleverness he spent a good amount of time constructing devices that allowed him to hear more clearly, directing and amplifying sounds to his ear. Such technical genius enabled him to foresee a potential triumph over noise. After many centuries of religious protectionism and imposition, mechanics and technique would bring a wider panorama, taking them to ‘new’ continents and appropriating them, bringing wealth and power. Capital and technique thus acquired their privileged role in society, naturally mediating our way of knowing. The strongest triumph of such technoscientific direction would be to capture silence. But how is it that silence would prove that God is not omnipresent? By then, sound was already questioned as the potential effect of perturbing matter. Air, for example. So, for some, by achieving absolute silence, the inexistence of matter, and therefore a space deprived from divinity, would be confirmed. If God was the creator of everything, and nothingness was discovered, it would follow that he is not omnipresent. While his tutor Boyle kept an important relation to religion, young Hooke’s endeavor, with his more relaxed religiosity, would be as much to falsify the divine, as a divine search for silence.

Robert Boyle’s third air-pump. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

And long before, in psyches incommensurable to ours, a whole intellectual revolution began with silence. In the early days of humanity, when even in large groups we were a minority in our perceptual environment. We were surrounded by sonic abundance, by life: wind, insects, water, plants; cacophony and music. In the diversity, universality and subtleties of sound, there is life, a complex orchestration in perpetual dance. It is easy to imagine a world without mechanical artifacts to be more silent, but that is an illusion. Forests and jungles are noisy. So is the ocean, in its immensity. If mountains and deserts appear to sound different, it is because of the poignant acoustic clarity. There, we can hear directly, soft sounds become bright. The idea that mechanical technology is more sonorous is such an artifice, that the arrival of automobiles to some cities was a promise of quietness for the ever noisy streets of large cities. In London for example, living within the transit of horses and cars was unbearable. The world of ancient humans was thus filled with life. The everlasting interrelation of sounds was part of a living universe. Hearing, in contrast to vision, does not sleep, does not stop, and is connected to all of our surroundings. Vision is partial. Even while sleeping we hear, dreams are an extension of life itself, dissolving in a shared soundscape. The ancient noise of homes, where some emotions must have been similar to ours, was rich and complex. At home we were: loving, talking, fighting, dreaming, crying. But the intellectual problem began with silence, not with lively noise. With a dialectic silence. Suddenly we found a loved one that did not speak anymore, that did not listen, and did not dance. Certainly, death as we understand it today is ubiquitous and the survival of these humans must have depended on the death of other species as part of the complex dance of life itself. But it’s in the absence of affective dialogue, in mourning, that this confrontation begins. The body, death, silent, is not understood in a universe grasped from a perspective of omnipresent life. And how to understand death if not from life? The original panvitalist universe found in silence it’s question. The later instrumental world of Hooke would find in silence it’s answer. In contrast to the former, the scientists’ universe had been already divided by demarcation of life and death, the sonorous and the silent.

Finally, in a scientific (and ontological) revolutionary milestone, vacuum is evinced. Adding to the initial efforts of Sagredo decades before, and the innovations of Von Guericke, Boyle, with the support of young Hooke, constructed their vacuum machine. But silence was not their evidence, instead they found in chemical processes irrefutable proof for the possibility of void. This perpetuated Boyle’s name in a chemical ‘law’. Today, such an axiom may seem distant from the spiritual problems that it would have then caused, far from the triumph of the inanimate. But, silence was not evidenced. Even upon such a mechanistic triumph, silence as a possibility, escaped. Silence is still unattainable, and Hooke continues to hear a permanent buzz.

In those times there was a parallel search for silence, devotees that would dedicate their lives to a different type of silence. Monks that would find in the story of our scientist a beautiful allegory. They would find in the ingenuity of Hooke a fountain of divine richness. They would feel compassion and communion. The question of the naturalist, even if attempting to prove the inextensibility of the divine, was a beautiful act of curiosity. Dazzling, innocent, alive: another allegory of God’s miracle. That young man, with his love for music and mechanical instruments, with his sublime imperfections, under a perpetual ringing yet in search of silence, was a symbol of universal tenderness. Confinement was for them to surrender to divinity, to introspection. The urgency of large cities was alienating, but in confinement communion would be found. But how did the search for the divine and it’s negation simultaneously coexist?

Meteora Monasteries, Thessaly, Greece (2019).

Well, after the original confrontation with silence, with death, the universality of life was losing ground. Through a transgenerational intellectual process, life was excluded from the environment, and cloistered in the body. ‘Soma sema’, the body became the tomb of the soul. However rare, life would continue to exist, providing humans with a strange spirit whose exploration was the drive of monks. The two roads of this ontological division were correspondingly explored by Hooke and the monk. But before the effort to kill noise completely, in line with the cloistering of the soul, there was another raid against sonorous vitality. In previous days, the phenomenon of echo was thought of as articulated by a free, playful nymph. We would find her in mountains, in caves perhaps, far away and unchaseable — we might even keep a shared memory of finding her as children, away, outside, playing with us — . Just like our reflection in a water mirror, she would fill us with questions about our existence: an audible reflection. We then brought her to our ritual spaces, from caves to sacred temples, in a first subtle act of domination. But in the colonial world that would give birth to Hooke, as houses were becoming fragmented in powerful families, requiring larger and more separate spaces to cohabit, we ended up cloistering echo (and mirrors too). In an effort to liberate ourselves from others’ noise, in the innovation of privacy, in such large houses products of a commercial empire, the nymph was trapped. The old allegory of femenine freedom and acoustic richness, was now found in the houses of the rich. We secluded her as we cloistered the soul. This caging is reminiscent of life as a privileged exception. From cohabiting a universe integrally animated with sonic relations, to a merely material universe inhabited by a humanity living exceptionally, that exercised technical dominance over its world. In this persecution of extense sonority, having left the body as a mere container, we split and broke our capacity for integral knowledge. But even in this dualism, there was a faint dialogue, life would sometimes peep out. Our monk would be inclined to highlight the animated side; while Hooke, in his effort to invent silence, would attempt to fill the universe with inanimate mechanics. We would thus walk our ontological transition from panvitalism to panmechanicism.

For our scientist however, the buzzing would continue. Poor him, with an inner noise confined to his own body, splitting him from the environment, almost as a punishment for his attempt to kill sound. And the monks, in contrast, would find life in quietness. Not in the absence of sound, but in something similar to the auditory clarity of the mountains and desert that would allow them to inhabit vibrant interrelations. Such religious confinement as an alternative to everyday urban life still exists in our time, as a remote possibility, monasteries that inexplicably survive. But more common today is another type of confined silence whose origins go back to the days of our scientist. After a devastating fire in London that collapsed the vast majority of buildings and dwellings, Hooke, who was accustomed to financial scarcity, would find a comfortable position to survey the ruined city. Facing the potential reconstruction of urban life, a place to cluster all those who live with a perpetual psychological noise was ideated. It would be a place to hide sounds other than tinnitus, psychotic rather than psychological. This huge psychiatric project was a disaster in terms of confinement, resulting instead in an unstoppable exchange of cacophonies between the patients that would resist silence (perhaps sounding similar to the babbling of the mythical Babel). But the project did give birth to isolation (vacuum or silence), as a norm for those whose psyches are dissonant from the norm. After psychiatric patients, came convicts, who would be subject to the worst of punishments: silence. In confinement, humanity has reached unforeseen psychological limits, turning to mutilations and suicides. Today, the most frequent cause of suicide in jail results from solitary confinment, from silence. This deprivation of life through isolation leaves a perpetual trauma in those who survive. The deprivation of life from our ontology, which had been subject to the ultimate demonstration of absolute silence, must have affected us collectively. Even after centuries have passed, we carry and embody the trauma of alienation. If death was understood as an extension of life, and now the purely mechanistic and inert has become our way of knowing, how do we understand ourselves now if not through the inanimate? How can we not be hurt by this breakup of the most fundamental principle of life?

Today, we survive a different type of confinement and for other reasons. This new space has broken our scheme, perhaps with a similar dissonance in regard to silence as between our monk and our scholar: silence as deprivation of life, or as deep vitality and opportunity for listening. The fortune of dissonance, however, is that it sounds, creaks, squeals, growls, whistles. It’s deeply sonorous. It is not silent, but instead remits us to the history of a rupture that leaves us with no clear way for our becoming. How will we transcend the trauma from our historical rupture? And more so when it’s not only historical, but has become ontogenetic. We were all born animists, living in affective relations with our surroundings, but through a sustained exchange with a panmechanistic world, we oppressed our affect. But when did we live this first mourning, this initial separation? When did we understand the artifice of the inanimate? How do we offer ourselves compassion for our common pain? Let’s talk, let’s listen. Let’s fill our world with dialogue. Our voice is body in it’s maximum vitality. The voice necessarily resonates with our environment. While talking, every substance absorbs auditory vibrance: we dissolve into each other.

Before the invention (even if it may seem a discovery) of vacuum, Hooke continued to listen. His alienated life remained tormented by a constant buzzing. Noise accompanied him through his search for silence and his fascination for acoustic phenomena, until his death. Tinnitus survived, and continues to confront us with that original rupture, with the duality between hearing and the heard. Even from our technoscientific lens, we do not understand the nature and complexity of tinnitus. Allegorically, when performing chirurgical interventions, in an effort to quiet the perpetual ring, by stimulating specific regions of the cerebral cortex, we stimulate autoscopic experiences. When attacking tinnitus, we find ourselves in an extracorporeal moment seeing our own inert body, split from our soul, remitting us to our shared trauma: the artifice of death.

Recommended readings:

Cockayne, E. (2003). Experiences of the deaf in early modern England. The Historical Journal, 46(3), 493–510.

De Ridder et al. (2007). Visualizing Out-of-Body Experience in the Brain. (2008). New England Journal of Medicine, 358(8), 855–856.

Jonas, H. (2001). The phenomenon of life: Toward a philosophical biology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Shapin, S., & Schaffer, S. (2018). Leviathan and the air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schwartz, H. (2016). Making noise: From Babel to the big bang & beyond. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.



Marte Roel Lesur

Sometimes I write and I like to share. A veces escribo y me gusta compartir. Some in English y a veces en español.