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Earlids and Brainlids: On Thoughts and Sounds.

“’Can one think without speaking?’ – And what is thinking? Well,
don’t you ever think? Can’t you observe yourself and see what is
going on? It should be simple. You don’t have to wait for it as for an
astronomical event and then perhaps make your observations in a
hurry”, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
“Well these are the simple facts of the case – There were at least
two parasites one sexual the other cerebral working the way that
parasites will – And why has no one asked ‘What is the Word?’ –
Why do you talk to yourself all the time?”, William S. Burroughs, The
Naked Lunch
A pale light eases its way through the white curtains, a brittle mixture of
the nearby street lamp and the slowly brightening sky. I run my palm
across the friction of four days of stubble and the image of a match being
struck surfaces then disappears like an ornamental fish. I hook my arm
under the bed to retrieve the red bike lamp that is always there. Resting it
unlit on my chest I grope for the travel alarm clock I bought in Berlin. Its
luminous dial points to 4 o’clock.
Replacing the clock on the wooden floorboards, I switch on the lamp. The
alarm clock now seems to have taken on a more strident tone, as if it, too,
has been woken from a more dormant state. In the red glow of the bike
lamp, the ticking mechanism seems irregular, shifting from faster to
slower as I move my head on the pillow. Intrigued, I attempt to manipulate
this effect only to discover that with intensified concentration the clock
lapses into a stable tempo and then falls back into a more subdued
participation in my bedroom’s atmosphere.
In its place come other the sounds. My wife’s breathing struggles through
the cold that she’s not been able to shake; the inhalation the texture of
pipes and drains, the exhalation like air from a balloon neck. A softer echo
emerges from my young daughter’s sleeping body, less troubled and more
steadily rhythmic. From my son – sprawled nearest to me on top of the
duvet, arm flung across his sister – hardly a sound escapes. No more than
the rustles that accompany his shifts and turns and the occasional
glutinous thumb-sucking that no promise of toys or adventures is incentive
enough for him to relinquish.
Out in the street beyond the curtains, seagulls mark their temporary
territory. The flying gulls offer their characteristic cry, rising and receding
as they move between the terraced houses. Once settled on a rooftop
another call, this time an insistent “Ugg, ugg, ugg!” signals their presence.
Rubbing the beginnings of my beard again for comfort – without, this time,
eliciting the image of a match - I switch the bike lamp off and place it on
top of the small pile of autobiographies I keep on my side of the bed –
guilty primers for a lived life.
A gentle rain has begun to fall, rustling through the early Summer leaves
of the tree outside our window and tapping on the car roofs below.
Another, smaller, but unidentifiable bird can be heard, a brighter refrain.

Perhaps a starling? A blackbird? The bird song almost, but not quite,
repeated, melodic variation withheld and then unexpectedly given. The
window frames rattle percussively in response to the growing breeze.
Behind the sleeping family and the gulls and the birds and the gentle rain,
traffic noise is now discernible. Not yet in the focused form of a vehicle in
our street but still there as an ambient backdrop of tires on wet tarmac
and ill-defined engine murmur.
I am conscious now of my own breath, a sharp release through my nostrils.
Conscious too, suddenly, of the sounds of my body’s movement in the
bed, of legs drawn up then extended against the sheets, of my hair
brushing against the pillow and my nails scratching the skin of my upper
arms, of the cartilage in my finger joints as I snap them through a nervous
routine. Listening below those surface sounds, a persistent hum emerges
at the threshold of audibility; it seems to come from somewhere inside.
Maybe it is nothing more than the fridge downstairs or maybe it’s an
acoustic illusion born of excessive attentiveness combined with that
special fatigue that is the privilege of those who should be asleep.
Whatever its source, I try to grasp it and discern more of its shape and
Before I can capture the elusive drone, I become aware of another noise this time one that is unambiguously internal – the noise of my thoughts.
This is not just the sound of nouns and verbs shadowing in distinct then
indistinct ways what might have been spoken aloud; that is what happens
when we are thinking as Wittgenstein might have said.
My thoughts now, with the bike lamp back on and my wife’s snoring much
gentler. My thoughts, as I write then pause, write, then pause, my
thoughts also consist of fuzzy renditions of associated ideas. Forms of
what has once been heard but as might emerge from a turntable whose
stylus has accumulated a little coat of fluff. The start of the match scrape;
the wet ripple above the fish and a child’s voice to the left; the thump of a
snowball against my taxi in Berlin; the rush of water beneath a manhole
cover and reverberation through a guttering pipe.
My brain too active to let me lie any longer, I switch off the bike lamp and
return it to the floor. I swing my legs out from under the duvet and rise
unsteadily to my feet, one hand holds the pencil and paper, the other
probes the beginning of a spot at the corner of my mouth. I creep out of
the bedroom like the worst actor portraying the worst burglar.
As Marshall McLuhan once observed, there are no earlids. For the vast
majority of human beings, there is no escaping the external sound world,
even when asleep. Yet although complete escape is not an option, retreat
remains a possibility, a possibility that seems everywhere to be readily
grasped. The enduring derogation of sound in stubbornly visual cultures
can be traced across a number of indices, too many to be captured in this
short post. As one brief measure of sound’s marginalisation, it is worth
conducting a concentrated listening experiment like the one described
above, if only to compare your discoveries to the soundscapes

conventionally represented in film and to hear what was once rich,
dynamic and engaging rendered banal.
Another dimension that emerges from such experiments is the extent to
which a significant proportion of the soundworld we inhabit cannot be
located externally. Sound-proofed windows and walls, ear-plugs and active
noise reduction systems can muffle the sounds from ‘outside’; cranked-up
headphones or stereos speakers may replace certain exterior sounds with
others that have the values of having been chosen and being predictable.
None of these systems, however, can drown out the sounds from within.
The sounds of metaphor and association played through that dirty
turntable I mentioned – the match scrape, the fish plop, the Berlin
snowball, the gurgling pipes. That inner voice articulated by Wittgenstein
and Burroughs in the block quotes at the start of this post is also, I believe,
a consistent contributor to our personal soundtrack. And finally, in this
clamour, there are those mysterious hums and whines of obscure origin
that emerge, paradoxically, both in moments, of relaxation and of
Just as there are no earlids, nor are there brainlids.
Nada Brahma: all the world is sound.

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