On technology’s noises and nature’s silence

At a pitstop en route to returning our rental car on Saturday, my love and I remarked that the automatic toilet flushers flushed before we were through. My manual flusher was also disconnected. I was thinking of these, perhaps, when I tried to get my weekend duffle–no large thing–into the plane’s overhead compartment and had to jam it in to make it fit; when the plane slammed onto the tarmac at La Guardia; when the TV in the taxi cab wouldn’t turn off despite my pressing the Off button firmly, imploringly. Years ago, a former girlfriend once remarked upon the way I closed the car door: with force, as if enraged.

The noises and disruptions, the sounds of machines and the movements machines require us to make: these were on my mind after a week spent in near silence in the country. In a paper sent to me by a friend via a friend of hers, I read a quote by Thomas Carlyle that states: “SILENCE, SILENCE: in a thousand senses I proclaim the indispensable worth of Silence, our only safe dwelling place often….” Carlyle’s lament over the loss of silence is confirmed, it would seem, by the postmodern church sign advertising how cool Jesus is.

In this connection I am also reminded of one of Adorno’s fragments, “Do not Knock,” which appears in his fiery little book Minima Moralia. It begins,

Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility. It subjects them to the implacable, as it were ahistorical demands of objects. Thus the ability of lost, for example, to close a door quietly and discreetly, yet firmly. Those of cars and refrigerators have to be slammed, others have the tendency to snap shut by themselves, imposing on those entering the bad manners of not looking behind them, not shielding the interior of the house which receives them. The new human type cannot be properly understood without awareness of what he is continuously exposed to from the world of things about him, even in his most secret innervations. What does it mean for the subject that there are no casement windows to open, but only sliding frames to shove, no gentle latches but turnable handles, no forecourt, no doorstep before the street, no wall around the garden?

Charges of cultural mandarinism, misplaced nostalgia, and too-flushed hyperbole aside, Adorno has a point: the spirit of modern technology is violent, moving us toward the liquidation of the very possibility of beauty of soul. Before the one who lives according to nature lies the path of radiance. For him, there is nothing more important than beauty of soul–the silent speech of nature’s course, the directness of sincere speech, the gracefulness of steady gesture, the mindful chewing of summer food.

On civility and peak oil

In his book on the American South, the writer Jeremiah Sullivan recalls sitting in a rental car that is in a long line of cars idly queueing up for gas. They are backed up onto the highway, near New Orleans; it is not long after Katrina. Most gas stations are not working properly and this one, if memory serves, is also low on fuel. People are stir crazy, angsty, short-fused, want to get out. And if there were no more oil? And if, after the supplies of oil soon to be available in the warming Arctic were to dry up, where would we be?

Stepping onto the subway as workers head home from work is an intimation of Hobbes’ war of all against all. Behind me, a woman, two women wedge and slide their way into the jammed subway before I do. Like others, they jockey for handrails, grabbing the best remaining spots on the standing pole. Some apologies, mainly sadnesses. Civility in the city is thin in these instances. How thin will it become?