After several days in New York the feature that rattles me most is the constant noise. It is loud in the city, everywhere you go. I have been here 6 or 7 times before, but this time it really stuns me that every room, every auditorium, every street and hall echoes. There appears to be a dearth of window coverings, wall decorations and interior plants that can absorb sound. Instead even the most intimate of restaurants seems designed to let the conversations interrupt each other. Bookstores are overflowing with musac. Museum exhibitions have a video playing in some part of the room, just so that the indistinguishable voices from the film penetrate the thoughts that emerge from watching the items on the wall, on the floor.
I reflect on this level of ever present sound as we are thinking about cultural memory in urban space.
It occurs to me that perhaps the spatial nature of memorization is a necessity exactly because there is no freedom of sound. There is no silence in which commemoration can be held with reverence. There are no pauses in the stream in which a story can be told and hold captive an audience long enough that its meaning might settle deeply. Monuments and memorials are spatial answers to this problem, the lack of quiet. The Swiss theologian Max Picard noted that the absence of silence may well be the most important development in human history. He may have a point.
I learned most history by listening to others, to stories of survivors, to teachers to descendants. I listened to parents. I listened to people who learned the stories from people who learned the stories from people who learned the stories for generations. How can such transmission take place when there is always an iPod plugged into a bluetooth speaker? Who can listen with a headset on? How can a story really be told when you have to shout each sentence?
In the course of the immersion we have not had a space to share our experiences, to reflect collectively on all that we have learned. Tomorrow morning we will step in the courtyard of Union Theological Seminary, hoping that it won’t rain, because we have no space for a devotional beginning of the day that won’t disturb anybody. Our prayer and reading appears to be too much noise in this city that is nothing if not cacophonous. I think that the courtyard will be quiet, but I cannot be sure.
The quest for space. Of course. The quest for an appropriate soundscape has already been lost. Memorials and monuments need to occupy space, because there is no space for silence. The stories are recording on video that play in a loop. Not really stories any longer they are audio-visual collages that we can take snippets from at any moment. And this can be presented to us in a museum, on our phones, on our computers, on tv. There is no escaping it, except that at the end of the day I will have listened to a professional voice-over voice, or the voice of an actor. I will not have had a connection with anybody and the history will not have touched me in that deep place where I even desire to hurt because I want to know what you went through. For that to happen I need the quiet.