June 2008



By Robyn Davidson

Mayday V, by Andreas Gursky, 2006. © Monika Spruth Galerie. Licensed by Viscopy.

In the age of noise

Why, if we can have the white painting, can we not have the white page, the white screen, the white sound?

If we all shut up for just a day, what a glorious quiet would descend upon the world. Nothing but the silent contemplation of our individual and collective insignificance in the face of time and nature, and therefore the plain good sense of being decent to each other.

A day to think about how small the Earth is. Butterflies can circumnavigate it in a couple of months. Our exalted species has barely arrived on it before it is in danger of exterminating itself, along with as many other species as it can take down.

One day in which there would be no politicians cynically twisting the language. No celebrities confessing the banality of their sins. No junk mail, no email! No prolix prose wrapping hollow literary conceits. No racket of enterprise nor static of marketplace. No opinions, disseminated or received.

Opinions are antagonistic to wisdom, even when they're right, which they seldom are. People cling to their opinions until history proves those opinions catastrophically wrong, but isn't it amusing that even when their opinions have been proved wrong, time and time and time again, they still believe that this time their opinions are right?

Socrates, confronted by the commandment "Know Thyself," was judged by the Oracle to be the wisest of men because he knew one thing only: that he knew nothing at all. Imagine how refreshing it would be if, when pundits were asked for their opinion, they replied, after due thought, "... Dunno."

Drown people's minds in noise, and they lose the power to discriminate. When I went to live in New York, it struck me that so many Americans were so ignorant because they simply had too much low-level information to plough through. It was censorship by other means. But that was years ago. Now everywhere has too much low-level information to plough through. The more each voice struggles to be heard above the clamour, the more silence we destroy, and the less capable we become of deep, clear thought, of hearing ourselves think.

Lashed by cyclones and anticyclones of info-junk, how can we be sure of anything? And not being sure of anything is uncomfortable. It makes us want to go shopping. It might also be one reason why people continue to cling to ideologies of one kind or another. Each has its system of belief to which members subscribe, thus simplifying the bewildering complexity, and contrary claims, of our world. Each defines who Us and Them are, where Good and Bad are located. Each has a claim to Truth, and gives the illusion of control through access to that Truth. Ideologies are a version of reductionist propaganda. In the storms of info-babble, they provide co-ordinates, marker-buoys.

Montaigne believed that words and language were a "merchandise so vulgar and vile that the more a man has, the less he is probably worth". I think he was right, but where does that leave a writer in the Age of Noise?

Believing that society would benefit more from silence than from yet more speech does put someone like me at a disadvantage. Walking into a bookshop, for example, my heart sinks at the insane proliferation of published words. And I know that most of it is junk - word junk and thought junk, literary fast food - and I do not want to risk contributing one more syllable to that vast pile.

So many words, yet we are living in a time of such degraded language that a word like ‘freedom' can bring on an unpleasant little shudder because of its recent association with the word ‘torture'.

Freedom: once upon a time, for a lot of people around my age, nothing was as important as freedom. What a funny, old-fashioned idea it seems in retrospect. So twentieth-century. It used to be associated with equally passé words like ‘risk', ‘courage', ‘adventure', ‘curiosity', scepticism in the face of received opinion, the responsibility to try to understand, to get to the bottom of things. Yes, to be adventurous was to conceive of life as freedom, and to be excited by its riskiness. Freedom to make yourself up, to make up your own mind. An adventurous decision would unleash an unpredictable chain of events, providing opportunities for learning, discovering and becoming. There really was more to life than having, spending and obeying the rules.

These days taking risks is thought selfish and irresponsible. It might cost money: other people's money. If you are fat, you are a burden to the state (to taxpayers). If you smoke, ditto. Why should I have to pay when your filthy habits land you in hospital? reasons Mrs Outraged of City East. But that argument could be used in just about any circumstance. It could be used against Mrs Outraged, for example, when she drives her children to school in the SUV because she believes the SUV is safer for her darlings, and safety has become the value outclassing all other values - being generally taken to mean the protection of your assets against all comers, including chance.

We have come to believe that we can and should make everything safe. Everyone safe. We are helmeted, belted up in the backs of cars, fined when we jaywalk. We can no longer chuck our children in the back of the ute, where they might actually have a good time independently of their parents, where they might actually have to learn common sense and responsibility for themselves. And they can't ride in the back of utes any more because someone or ones died by being in the back of a ute when it rolled, though they might also have died in spite of being miserably cramped and strapped up in the front.

People die in accidents. That is, accidentally. Life is like that. Death will catch you by the leg, no matter how cautious you are. Recently there was a boat collision on Sydney Harbour. People died. Immediately there were calls for yet more laws. Laws against chance. Because somehow we have come to believe that actually nothing is an accident. Someone is always responsible, always to blame, and laws must be put in place in order to punish them or sue them. We seem to have lost the idea that ultimately, we humans have to deal with the cards we get.

When, as a young woman, I decided I wanted to wander around the Australian deserts, using camels as transport, it was still just possible to go through that country as a free agent, to stay beneath any kind of radar, to take full responsibility for one's own life. Could such a journey be done in the same way now? No, I think not. There would be many more people out there, in vehicles, in tourist buses, in small aircraft. And they would have many more ways of keeping tabs on each other. Mobile phones. GPS gizmos. Computers. There would be all sorts of red tape I'd be entangled in before I could even get going. New laws about where I could or could not go, could or could not camp. Whether I could use wood for my campfire, or carry a rifle. Satellites could keep an eye on me. I would have to work very, very hard to get lost.

It was the mid '70s, just at the beginning of group tourism, and of the fashion for buying four-wheel-drive vehicles to go bush in. I noticed that the people in those vehicles, for the most part, were sealed against their environment, which they sped through without really seeing, without connecting. Their cars bristled with two-way radios; they had suncreams, specially designed bush clothes, onboard refrigerators - they seemed burdened with stuff, and the stuff cut them off from the place they were in. The truth is that when you understand that country, it is the easiest thing imaginable to wander through it with minimal equipment.

I wanted to shed burdens. To pare away what was unnecessary. A process that was literal, in the sense of constantly leaving behind anything extraneous to my needs, and metaphorical, or perhaps metaphysical, in the sense of ridding myself of mental baggage.

And with that shedding came confidence and a marvellous sense of freedom. I was alone but not lonely, because I understood the paradox that when you are most free, you are also most open to and therefore connected to everything. The journey was also a self-proving. Part of an ongoing attempt to forge an individual, to eradicate the stupidity and narcissism that is every human being's legacy, genius and moron alike.

But what can ‘freedom' mean in our increasingly bureaucratised world, where the possibilities to act are constricted further every day? Bureaucracy has become so omnipresent that we're inured to it. We seem not to notice that our behaviour is controlled more by anonymous rules choreographing us from the outside than by our own volition. We are ovine.

The logic of bureaucracy is to grow, mycelia-like, through life's fabric, stifling free impulse, bringing everything and everyone under its control. It often appears to act in the interest of ‘the public good'. Or ‘for the community'. But at the root of the bureaucratic mindset is a hatred of the individual. And it is now inescapable. Our actions leave traces in the great fungal mat - in computers, on film - so that, should it be necessary, the bureaucracy can send out a tentacle and haul us in.

We pride ourselves on being ‘free' - free democracies in which all are allowed to choose. But really, we can only choose between a few kinds of sameness. We cannot choose to reject, to live outside of, the gargantuan administration that is modern life.

Which is perhaps one reason why I concern myself with and have written about the subject of nomadism. I have lived with Aborigines in Australia, camel herders in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and high-altitude pastoralists in Tibet. Modern states feel uneasy about peripatetic peoples because they don't respect borders, they're difficult to control and tax, and they do not participate fully in the conspicuous consumption of unnecessary stuff. Above all, they are natural enemies of the bureaucrat.

The hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, itinerant trader: these classical nomadic forms are all under threat. If nomadism disappears, we lose not just alternative ways of describing the world and our place in it, but an important symbol. It represents the possibility of independence, of thinking for oneself, of preserving individuality in the face of the levelling machinery of the state. The unruly of any society - outsiders, marginals, lone wolves, vagrants, recusants, refuseniks - can be trouble for that society. They are also essential to it.

As someone once said, and it might even have been me, I don't remember: There's no such thing as too much freedom, only too little courage.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

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