digital rhetoric new materialism Uncategorized

A different direction for asking why you heard what you did


So the basic story of the recent “Laurel or Yanny” story, as near as I can figure, is this. You’re listening to a degraded digital recording of a voice that has distorted some of the low frequency sounds a human voice makes. So depending on a number of factors–some physiological, some psychological, some technological (e.g. the speakers or headphones you’re using), and some environmental–you might hear one or the other.

So what does this mean for us? Adam Rogers puts it this way in Wired

There is a world that exists—an uncountable number of differently-flavored quarks bouncing up against each other. There is a world that we perceive—a hallucination generated by about a pound and a half of electrified meat encased by our skulls. Connecting the two, or conveying accurately our own personal hallucination to someone else, is the central problem of being human. Everyone’s brain makes a little world out of sensory input, and everyone’s world is just a little bit different.

As he goes on to opine? lament? “It’s hard to imagine a more rube-goldbergian way of connecting with another person. Their thoughts to their mouth to pulsations of air molecules to a vibrating membrane inside a hole in your skull to bones going clickety-click to waves of electrical activity to thoughts.”

In many respects this is a familiar story. It’s the modern divide Latour describes in our efforts to patrol the border between nature and culture. It’s the divide between empiricism and idealism in which different stripes of academics argue over the possibility of knowing something about the “world that exists” besides a “hallucination” of it.

And it’s also the founding problem of rhetoric, the one Rogers terms “the central problem of being human.” In the contemporary secular world where there is no recourse to divinely secured presence (aka souls) to secure intentions, rhetoricians turn to solutions that sound similar to Rogers, like Thomas Kent’s practice of “hermeneutic guessing.” On the other hand, Rogers’ neuroscientific turn is also a matter of concern for rhetoricians who are skeptical of the tendency/hope that brain science can explain away these problems with an fMRI or something. (It’s worth noting that neuroscientists are also often skeptical of what the mainstream takes from their research.)

For me, this odd viral story is an opportune moment to consider the usefulness of Latour’s “second empirical” method, one which he builds upon William James. Here’s Latour from An Inquiry into Modes of Existence:


The first empiricism, the one that imposed a bifurcation between primary and secondary qualities, had the strange particularity of removing all relations from experience! What remained? A dust-cloud of “sensory data” that the “human mind” had to organize by “adding” to it the relations of which all concrete situations had been deprived in advance. We can understand that the Moderns, with such a definition of the “concrete,” had some difficulty “learning from experience”—not to mention the vast historical experimentation in which they engaged the rest of the globe.

What might be called the second empiricism (James calls it radical) can become faithful to experience again, because it sets out to follow the veins, the conduits, the expectations, of relations and of prepositions —these major providers of direction. And these relations are indeed in the world, provided that this world is finally sketched out for them—and for them all. Which presupposes that there are beings that bear these relations, but beings about which we no longer have to ask whether they exist or not in the manner of the philosophy of being-as-being. But this still does not mean that we have to “bracket” the reality of these beings, which would in any case “only” be representations produced “by the mental apparatus of human subjects.” The being-as-other has enough declensions so that we need not limit ourselves to the single alternative that so obsessed the Prince of Denmark. “To be or not to be” is no longer the question!

I realize that’s a long quote, so if you just skipped over it, here’s the summary. Classically empiricism divides observations into primary and secondary qualities, where primary qualities are objective (e.g., length, width) and secondary qualities (e.g. color, smell) are subjective. This is the worldview Rogers implies when he suggests that brains hallucinate about reality. That somewhere between things in the world and the electrochemical pulses of the brain, all the actual relations that hold things together (their relations) become lost and inaccessible to us and our brains just have to guess at what those things are based on a slush of sensory data.

So the weird thing about that is that our bodies and brains are just more things in the world. And our thoughts are just more events/actions in the world. If the lamp sits in relation to the table, then don’t my perceptions and thoughts about the lamp and the table also sit in relation to them as just more things? Why would one imagine that somewhere along the way, one passes into a parallel universe with a different ontology? I actually think the answer to that is fairly simple. One thinks that because one imagines oneself to be divine in some special way.

Rogers ends his essay this way. “Telling the person next to you what’s going on in your head, what your hallucination is like—I think that’s what we mean by ‘finding connection,’ by making meaning with each other. Maybe it’s impossible, in the end. Maybe we’re all alone in our heads. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work on being alone together.” And I don’t really mean to pick on this guy. I just think he neatly expresses a commonly held perception. The title of this article is “The Fundamental Nihilism of Yanny vs. Laurel,” which captures this feeling that this story reminds us that we don’t really share the world in common and that we are all alone in the end. However I think this is more a romantic fantasy than a moment of nihilistic, existential angst.

We aren’t alone in our heads. We aren’t even only in our heads in the sense that this meat is designed to operate in an environment. There’s stuff coming into our heads all the time–through our senses, through the blood brain barrier, through electromagnetic waves. And there’s stuff coming out of our heads too.

Sure. It can be hard to communicate. It’s also hard to hit a curve ball or play the guitar. But this is not a story that begins with us being fundamentally alone and romantically struggling to understand one another. That’s backwards. You’re not alone in the world and thus hear Yanny rather than Laurel. Instead, hearing one rather than the other contributes to your individuation. But that individuation, in my thinking, is just an iteration of a possibility space that one largely shares with the human population. Thinking about individuality as the output of a relational environmental process rather a starting point that never really quite gets going because it can manage to connect to the world strikes me as a much more productive approach to investigating these experiences.

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