On the Noise of Argument, where John Cage meets Seneca; or, There is No Silence – Bound to Sound

There is no silence, Seneca argues in his “On Noise.” Our ears are held hostage to the confusion of random noises, the shout in the street, or the whispers of demons when we are trying to fall asleep. Our head is a house of bondage to sounds. We can not turn off the noise.

We are also bound to the noise of argument, the clashing of claims, the slashing evidences, and the war of warrants rumbling unseen like underground swells whose sounds reach the surface in shocks of recognition. Our proposals ring with self-interest. Our argument reveals what we value, where what we value is simply what we want, and where, paradoxically, what we want is not necessarily what is good for us. We ask for proof, but what is accepted as proof varies by community and shifts over time. We are like Doubting Thomas, led by our cultured incredulity to insist on touching the wounds, because we are afraid of metaphor, but that’s all we have – language is metaphor, no matter how cleverly we disguise it in objective, disciplined prose. We fear it because metaphor is magic: “This [bread] is my body.”

To argue or not to argue, that is always the question, for walking away in hope for peace in silence and solitude we run into Hamlet’s wall, for we can enjoy the infinite space of a nutshell only if that space is not full of our own personal nightmares.

All of life appears to be a single, linked argument, and argument is noise. We can’t turn it off, or even down, but even if we could, we ignore argument at our own peril, to our own detriment. But to listen to it 7×24 is deafening, where deafness isn’t the absence of sound, but sound’s surfeit, a flood of noise that crests the wall of reason.

We turn to the experts for advice. Passionless, but full of fraternal ethos, the academics put forth their peer-reviewed journals, works cited, but the syllabus is the argument in the marketplace, the rubric their evidence, and the classroom their warrant. We pick our topic as if choosing a weapon, and begin our argument with an either or fallacy. The either or fallacy is the sergeant-at-arms in our contemporary house of sound-bondage: you are conservative, proceed to room 108, where you will find your beliefs folded nicely in the bureau drawers; you are liberal, your stuff is stacked neatly in room 209. Safely in our academic room for the night, we are lulled by a false sense of security, but we can’t get to sleep, for we can’t avoid the first person.

We were told not to use the first person, and in that way we could escape our impressionistic impulses, but “This is incorrect,” Seneca says. “There is no such thing as ‘peaceful stillness’ except where reason has been lulled to rest. Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface. All it gives us is a change of anxieties. For even when people are asleep they have dreams as troubled as their days. The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.”

A sudden pause as I’m reading Seneca’s “On Noise.” Was that a pun, that “sound mind”? For it expresses the point I am trying to make exactly. “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” John Cage said in his “The Future of Music: Credo” (1937). But Cage was never bothered by the noise: “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”

So to, our reading and listening of arguments: when we ignore the argument, we find it annoying, but listening to it carefully, we find that silence is denotative, noise connotative. One can easily imagine Cage living over Seneca’s bathhouse. In “Experimental Music” (1957), Cage suggests we should pay more attention to those arguments we did not intend: “…those who have accepted the sounds they do not intend – now realize that the score, the requiring that many parts be played in a particular togetherness, is not an accurate representation of how things are.” Ah, yes, for if we can’t accurately describe how things are, we can’t move on to how things should be.


  1. I love this post. I would like to send you my thesis sometime. Here’s the abstract for my presentation.

    The Mercy of the Soil: The Relevance of Phenomenological Hermeneutics to Oral History ©, Lori Shea Kuechler, Abstract for Thesis Presentation, Marylhurst University, June 2008.

    The Mercy of the Soil synthesizes the practice of oral history with relevant theories of philosophical and literary hermeneutics. It draws upon the writings and philosophies of Paul Ricoeur and Hans Georg Gadamer for the purpose of presenting hermeneutic ideas pervasive to the oral historical experience and the writings of Richard Palmer to assist with the summarization of hermeneutic theories and approaches to interpretation. Oral Historian Valerie Yow is referenced to strengthen the definition of recorded oral history as it is a new discipline within the historical research community, and Walter Ong is referenced to offer orality as a historical consideration.

    The eventual purpose of this synthesis is to demonstrate that hermeneutic interpretive philosophies could be the avenue by which oral historical accounts can be interpreted and considered. Oral historical accounts will be brought forth as an ontological enhancement of secondary historical narrative rather than as a detriment to the credibility of the factual historical record. It is asserted that the interpretation of the past as done by the person of historical interest and experience is one of an ontological rather than natural rendering of the experienced past. The individual perspective of the past will be considered as true in so far as it is a representation of the interpretation of one individual within the greater historical schematic.

    1. Thanks, Lori. “…rather than as a detriment to the credibility of the factual historical record.” I get this, and understand it’s right on topic to yesterday’s discussion. I would like to read the thesis. I love the title: “The Mercy of the Soil….” I don’t know if this is related on not, but I’m reminded of efforts of Alan Lomax and others – Pete Seeger – to record and retain folk music, which also provides a kind of historical record? Please send me a copy!

  2. Bob: Moving this from Posts at a Glance to below the post in question:

    Robert Bacon said 3 hours ago:
    Please tell me more about the achievement of this “sound mind” about which Seneca speaks.

    You said 2 hours ago:
    Hey, Bob. You’ll recall the city that was destroyed by the noise from jets taking off from the LA airport. Yet the school remains. Noise abatement? It all starts, apparently, with Seneca. He talks about the white noise without, and the white noise within (today’s terms). As for the “sound mind,” the problem is with the pun, for there’s no such thing as a quiet mind. “The temperament that starts at the sound of a voice or chance noises in general is an unstable one and one that has not yet to attain inward detachment.” It’s a very funny piece. He lives above a bathhouse in Rome, and describes what he hears. But there is still some aspiration to the quiet life, the good life, in Zen, for example, which brings us to Cage. That inward detachment, Cage would argue, comes with the acceptance of noise in its unrefined form. It’s only when we try to give it some kind of order (i.e. argument) that we become dissatisfied.

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