Living without echo can make you crazy. This is at least the sentiment conveyed by the media coverage of the “anechoic chamber” at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis. Allegedly, no one can stay more than 45 minutes inside the chamber, which holds the world record for sound absorption. When all is quiet, the ears begin to perceive bodily sounds such as air flowing when breathing and blood streaming through the veins. After a while, perception of time and space collapses. Some say that hallucinations ensue. Whether one can take it for a minute or an hour (personally, I don’t think I could survive that long), this piece of scientific curiosity illustrates a key point in my research for The Enhancing Life Project: without response and reaction from the outside—from our surroundings, from other people —life becomes unbearable. Without echo we are lost.
As a communication and media scholar, I take special interest in the ways we interact with each other and with the environment, and the means by which we do so. What we take for granted in our communications is often what is most important about it. Echoes surround us, which is precisely why they go mostly unnoticed. The ways in which we acquire language, relate to another, or express ideas can all be associated, directly or figuratively, with echo and echoing. I find it fascinating that a principle describing the reflection of sound from solid surfaces can also suggest complex associations such when one thought is said to echo another. This seemingly obvious metaphor hides tremendous complexity.
My basic intuition coming to this project is that there is a story waiting to be told about echo as a concept and a phenomenon that cuts across nature and culture and imbues our relations with others and with the world. Echo provides a uniquely rich repository for considering time-honored as well as recent questions in communication and media. But it also has a singular contribution to the question of enhancing life.
Echo is enhancive, involving repetition and affirmation. But it also implies delay, partiality, even distortion. The mythological story of Echo as related by Ovid is exemplary. Cursed by Juno (Jupiter’s wife) for being loquacious, Echo is doomed to repeat the last words uttered by others. In her wisdom, she turns disability into creative possibility, as when returning the words of her beloved Narcissus back to him, only wrapped with her own inflection. Nevertheless, Echo remains heartbroken, her body disintegrates and her bones become stones and rocks from which sound reflects back. The myth provides timeless insight into the relationships between body, voice, gender, and power, among other things—but also, and crucially, into the enabling potential of constraints and limitations. Her feat is both derivative and creative—but more importantly, it shows there’s no necessary contradiction between the two.
Partial and limited communication is often seen as detrimental. We live in a culture of communication (especially in the Western world) where common-sense wisdom embraces more and better communication as cure for problems both personal and collective. Clearly communication is enhancing our lives in multiple ways, but what if such enhancing could also proceed dialectally rather than linearly? What if we entertain the possibility that enhancement might come from deficiency rather than increase? What if, moreover, constraints and limitations of communication could be revealed as productive, or even, at least sometimes, redemptive? The nymph Echo can certainly teach us such a lesson. Take away her communicative handicap and the story becomes pointless.
I believe this lesson could be extended more generally to considering echo as a medium of communication, and in so doing, to exploring the virtues of communication under constraints. In this, I follow one of the main themes of the Enhancing Life Project: the extent to which enhancing life might be connected to counterintuitive or even paradoxical laws. To take one example: psychologists sometimes use the term “mirroring” to describe attentive and supportive communication. The “mirror” metaphor suggests the possibility of exact replication. Echoing would provide a humbler model, embracing partiality and difference as positive components in relation. My aim in this project, then, is to explore the various ways in which the mediation of echo is enacted—be it acoustically, metaphorically, or linguistically—and exploring the ways it might lead to the enhancement of our lives and life-worlds.
Sitting inside the anechoic chamber might bring some quiet in a world of growing cacophony, but in essence such a reprieve is an aberration. Echo reminds us that the outside always precedes the inside, and that relation is never about listening to oneself but to the other. The fact that echoing is also partial invites us to a renewed thinking of communication as enhancive.