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The Echo that Precedes the Sound: A Q&A with Dr. Amit Pinchevski

September 27, 2016 • By Amit Pinchevski The Echo that Precedes the Sound: A Q&A with Dr. Amit Pinchevski

Most people strive for better communication—whether it’s in personal relationships, the workplace, or even interactions online. And we often equate better with more.  But what if limited communication can be productive, too? Amit Pinchevski, Senior Lecturer of Communication and Journalism at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, is using the concept of the echo as the paradigmatic basis of communication under constraint. His study proposes that these communicational constraints—limitations of time, space, energy, and competency—are conducive to communication, and invites rethinking basic assumptions in communication and media theory at the junction of self and other. 

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project?

I’ve been interested for a while in approaching the relationship between ethics and communication from a somewhat paradoxical perspective. There is this common-sense idea that successful communication is what is desirable. But I thought that failure or even refusal of communication might also have ethical significance. I took my inspiration from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in exploring what I call “interruption.” It’s about trying to see the ethical significance in those moments where communication seems to break down.

One idea of Levinas’s that stuck with me was a metaphor of “an echo that precedes the sound.” He was using the metaphor to describe the originary nature of the relation with the other, with alterity. At first, this didn’t make much sense to me. But it stuck with me and now I am closer to understanding this reversed logic. You can follow it acoustically: for there to be a sound, there must be some sort of environment for it to reverberate against, for it to be heard. And in the context of ethical relation, which is Levinas’s preoccupation,  this metaphor makes evident what’s outside the self—what is already there.

What does “enhancing life” mean in the context of your project?

This approach that I’m proposing considers the idea of enhancing or enhancement dialectically or paradoxically. Enhancement might not come from increase—not more is better—but actually sometimes less. Deficiency might be redeeming. One-sidedness is not necessarily failure. I’m not offering a general theory in which there is an imperative toward failed communication, far from it. But what I am saying is that we might want to consider these moments not necessarily as collapses, but actually as opportunities.

How does the concept of echo fit in? What is the ethical context of echo?

Echo is connected to two seemingly opposing sets of ideas. On the one hand, there is repetition and reproduction and reverberation: all of those things that signify response and affirmation. On the other hand, there is partiality and incompletion. Echo is not a complete repetition, there is always something lacking. So when I say metaphorically that I echo your sentiments, there’s a complex message here of  correspondence, but not similarity. Echo implies difference.

When I talk about ethics here I don’t mean a system of rules or norms, but rather, following Levinas, a fundamental relation of responsibility (which is also response-ability) to the other. I think that’s what echo and echoing suggest. After all, you think about how babies begin to learn words—there is a debate about how language acquisition works—but when they start to pick up speech, they echo other people’s sounds and words. We need other people to become speakers. Our speaking begins in echolalia.

What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?

Organizing all those things together has been challenging. My research assistant, Noam, and I have been collecting material from almost anything you could think of that has to do with echo, from physics and acoustics and language acquisition to etymology and art and poetry and mythology. It’s really an evolving archive of echo. The challenge is putting all of this together into some kind of a story, to organize it. In the etymologies, we’ve already found some unexpected similarities. In Japanese folklore, there’s this dwarf creature called Yamabiko that lives somewhere in the mountains and returns sound. In Icelandic, the word “echo” literally means “dwarf-talk,” because in Nordic lore there was the belief that there were creatures at the mountaintops that returned sound too. So there is a lot of material that’s strange and very interesting, but the challenge is making it coherent.

How do public debates shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?

I do wish to influence the widespread idea that more communication is better and that if we only had better communication, all our problems would disappear. Of course, I’m oversimplifying to make a point, but I do think you hear ideas like this on TV shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil. I want to propose an alternative to that kind of thinking—to show the virtue of limitations and failure.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go? 

My wife and I just came back from Japan, which was a disorienting experience, not being able to understand what’s going on around you. It was a strange feeling but also very alive and concrete and present.