What is the topic of your research for The Enhancing Life Project?
My research is a somewhat unlikely application of media studies, I would say. Rather than taking up media in the normal sense of the word—meaning television, radio, internet, and so forth—I’ve been trying to do something somewhat counter-intuitive. I think this is very much in the spirit of The Enhancing Life Project, to consider how to apply media analysis to something that might not immediately come across as a medium.
My project is concerned with echo, and trying to put forward a theory, a philosophy, or a discussion of echo as a medium. Across nature, culture, voice and language, self and other, and human and non-human, I am trying to come up with a theory of echo as enhancing. I call it echology, trying to look at echo as a phenomenon, as a concept. Of course, Echo is also a figure—a mythological figure. All those things together might supply a new understanding, a new perspective, into communication.
I've done other things that had to do, basically, with rethinking communication, specifically in terms of understanding interaction, involvement, harmony, and all those immediate associations that we might have along the lines of "more communication is better communication."
I try to think about it in a different way, and try to see the virtues in an imperfection of communication—sometimes in failure. I'm trying to propose an argument about how communication is enhancing life, not by making an argument about more communication or better communication, but rather in terms of embracing imperfection and limitations.
This is tied precisely to echo because echo is partial repetition, and it's a kind of medium of communication under constraints. So you would echo in a situation where there is a “crisis,” in a sense, of communication. We all begin our language acquisition process as echolaliacs, so constraint or inability, breeds, or is the context for, capability. I'm trying to unfold a re-evaluation of how constraints might actually be enabling of communication rather than being the termination or the problem of communication.
How does your work on echo kind of relate to the "echo chamber discourse" surrounding news media and our social media feeds?
Whenever you see or hear the term "echo chamber" in discourse, it's almost unanimously a pejorative term. You would almost never find any positive reference to echo chambers. It's mostly thought of as: You're hearing only yourself, or it's the meeting place of the like-minded, and so forth. But echo is much more than simple repetition; moreover, repetition is never simple. If you look into the complexity of echo, then you might have a different perspective on "echo chambers." But this does not disqualify the real problems that this phenomenon poses, to the extent that it exists.
My take on echo can shed a different light on this discussion, I would say, in a couple of ways.
One, I think, is that sometimes echoing is very important. Politically, democratically—think of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, those who find themselves on the margins, who are barred from public debate, who have to struggle to have a voice. In this situation, I think echoing is very important. People can meet online sometimes—congregating not necessarily to exchange information, but to echo each other, to make their own voices greater, to amplify each other. That, I think, has merits. At least, you cannot disregard that it might have merit in certain situations.
The other thing is that, as I said, echo is partial repetition. And wherever you have partial repetition, you invite distortion, and even subversion. In principle, repetition seems like a very simple phenomenon. But if you think about it, repetition is never simply the same. Even if it sounds repetitive, it can never be the same, otherwise we wouldn't notice that that was a repetition, so even if it's a minute difference, there is still a difference. Even in those supposed "chambers of sameness," the echo chambers, there can never be only sameness. First, because people wouldn't have anything to do with it—there would be nothing to keep them interested. There has to be some variance, and I would not disregard variance, even if it's minimal. Certainly there is much more homogeneity among certain quarters that we want to identify as echo chambers, but we have to take into account the fact that there's also variance within sameness.
If we can take echo as this partial repetition, it offers us a way to see that there is really no sameness, but it's all difference—big differences or minute differences, even within what seems to be homogeneous. That in itself is democratically significant, because you cannot start under the presupposition of sameness: that people have a fixed essence, that there are certain people that are one way, and others who are the other way. Echo helps us realize that difference is essential.
It seems like a lot of the presupposition surrounding why echo chambers are objectively bad has to do with the way that they make things somehow simpler—there’s a process of polarization that removes nuance and complexity. How does your theory of echo deal with these ideas?
The traditional echo chamber perspective presupposes that in democracy you want to have diversity, plurality—there’s no doubt that that’s true—so since an echo chamber is the reverse of that, it undermines meaningful public discourse. The traditional discussion works in the dichotomy that diversity and complexity only exist among the diverse—not in the echoing part, of the competing views, and so forth. On a different scale, and in different ways, there is also difference in echoing, and there's complexity in echoing, and I think that shifts the ground a bit—perhaps it unsettles certain dichotomies.
In your concept of the echo, what is the role for the "sound" that "precedes" the echo? A lot of the echo chamber discourse seems to assume a lack of authenticity, like you're being unoriginal by echoing some "original" sound.
That's a very thought-provoking question, because it goes to the horizon of what I see with this project. The more I was working on this project and looking into the ways certain philosophers and thinkers have used the metaphor or the concept of echo, I found some that used it in a very interesting and provocative way—as an “original.” So, not echo as derivative, but echo as the origin. Now, this sounds completely perplexing: How could that be?
In fact, I think that what triggered my initial thought about the project is that I've been doing some work on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas over the years, who talks about the relation with the Other—he was very much into ethics of responsibility towards the Other.
And he uses this phrase in several places—"like an echo that precedes the sound". And for a long time, I wasn't able to wrap my mind around it. This kind-of reversed metaphor, what does it mean?
I think that what it means is: if we take echo not just as repetition or partial repetition, but as that which responds to something that is outside, that is preexisting, that is there, then it’s a structure of responsibility and receptivity. There’s a fundamental, elemental relation at work there. If you think of echo in that way, then the physical, acoustical echo is the effect of a preexisting environment that allows it to happen. There needs to be a reflecting object to reflect the sound; there needs to be a surrounding.
That metaphor made me think about how you could reverse echo, and speculate about echo as a fundamental structure of relation: that which gives rise to responsivity, receptivity, and relationality. That's another way which it might be possible to take echo, ostensibly a simple concept/phenomenon, to see that if you go with it, it reveals itself to be something completely different and completely surprising, even subversive in a way.
Have you taught an Enhancing Life Studies course?
One course I have been teaching, and will be given again this year is titled "Non-Communication." In each class, we take a different concept or idea that would normally be considered a "non-communication" and try to rehabilitate it. So we consider noise, whispering, silence, echo, interruption, stuttering, even incommunicability. With each, we look at case studies, and also at theories that relate to the concept— trying to see again how constraints or limitation might actually be enabling, to see how a more complicated, layered understanding can unsettle simple dichotomies. But it's not simply unsettling dichotomies for the sake of unsettling them; by doing that, we can get a better critical understanding of what communication is about.
How do you communicate about the limits of communication?
Well, that's precisely a case study in its own right. The simple answer would be, you can just sit and do nothing during the course. But that’s not quite right—because again, that would fall into those dichotomies, into the so-called simplicity of function and dysfunction, ability and disability, good and bad.
What happens during the course is that, myself included, we become more attuned to how communication has technical aspects to it, but it's much more than simply technical. We see how marvelous it really is in all its complexity—and simplicity sometimes. It allows us not only to appreciate the ability to share meanings and ideas, but also to appreciate, perhaps even embrace the limits of communication—the fact that communication can never really be perfect, and should never be really perfect. It allows us to inhabit those thought-provoking “gray areas."
Who were your students for the course, and based on their educational backgrounds, what might've been some presuppositions about communication that they brought with them?
I teach in a communication department, so naturally, most of my students are students of communication. This specific course is graduate level, so those coming into the course have already taken courses in which they have acquired all kinds of formulations of communication, which means that they start the course thinking that they have a firm grasp of what communication is. But by the time the course ends, they realize, we all realize, that we don't. So it's a productive undermining of the certainties with which they enter.
Were there any moments that you had an opportunity to use a kind of "communication breakdown" during the course as a teaching moment of some kind? What other kinds of practical examples did you work with?
Every class, we review the conceptual background of the concept, but also we have items and objects and examples to work with—clips, poems, anything that are relevant.
There were marvelous things going on around that. People brought clips about Marina Abramović, who did an exhibit in which she sat down for days in and out, sitting and staring at people and inviting them to sit in front of her and stare back at her. That was, of course, in the class we had on silence. One class, we discussed the classic short story by Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener, with the titular character’s famous refrain of ”I would prefer not to”—this kind of mild negation, the option of opting out from communicating. What constitutes refusal? Is it a refusal? What does it create? The whole story revolves around this non-cooperative person, but in a certain way, he's the prime mover. By not resisting contact, he makes everybody revolve around him.
This course has been very special to me, because there are not too many situations in which you can really get into the core questions of a discipline, and the core questions of a discipline are precisely those things that are taken for granted. In psychology: What is the psyche? Or in biology: What is life? They're the most difficult questions. And I think this course and the experiences that come with it address those fundamental questions. What we achieve, in the process, though, is not definite answers. The goal is not to get at the answers, but rather to gain complexity, which works as a countermeasure to easy categorizations or generalizations.
Once you’ve contracted the "virus" of complexity, it never leaves you. It’s an important intellectual virtue to have, and something you continue to develop—to be able to go into the fundamentals, not necessarily to get to the bottom of things, but rather to be able to unsettle them.