The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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DEC 21-JAN 22 Issue
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Muse-ecology: on birds and other tuning forks

Perhaps we can locate in the ancient Stoic conception of listening as an experience or competence and something other than a technique, a distinction like the one drawn by Nietzsche when, for the purpose of sounding out idols, he recommended using a hammer as if it were a tuning fork. Although this analogy does not align with the essential passivity central to Stoic listening, nonetheless, it does seem that correspondences can be drawn between the Stoic foregrounding of silence, immobility, and attention, and the tuning of idols.

We intuitively understand that the idols ring because they are hollow, and in the resonance of their hollowness, the idols are like bells. Along with their statuesque immobility, we might say that any meaning has been hollowed out of these idol-bells, and that it is these qualities that allow them to be sounded and made to ring, toward a sonorous sense separate and apart from any word or language. It is for this reason that they come to capture our attention.

However, unlike Nietzsche, I want to argue that the idols we sound today need be contemporary and not eternal if there is ever going to be a chance to hear the silences of species extinction. Not the gods of the sky, but the birds in their invisible and inaudible flight and disappearance. Yet here again we might turn to the ancients, in this case to Plutarch, who, in his treatises, On Listening, and Concerning Talkativeness, “makes apprenticeship in silence an essential component of good education,”1 and hence the basis of a virtuous and ethical life. This is an education in silence that Plutarch believed was taught by the gods, and that we might understand to be predicated upon the hollowed-out emptiness of their idol forms, a spacing of sonic ringing that is no less resonant when in the absence of sound.

Following John Cage, we realize that sound’s absolute absence is a fallacy and a myth, and that as with his famous “silent piece,” it is the absence of technically executed music that affords an experience of listening to the world outside, and being open to the surprise, the chance encounter, the opportune moment, and what of these occurrences remains in-appropriable. In this listening we might also begin to hear ourselves—what Jean-Luc Nancy has referred to, in his own treatise on listening, as our “mute music.”2 Meaning, the ways in which we resonate with the world when we allow the chatter and banter to cease, and when the world is allowed to be something other than an echo chamber. For as Nancy makes clear, existence is resonant and of this resonant existence there is an acoustic sphere that remains in-appropriable. In-appropriable not because it is silent or ineffable, but rather because it is pervaded by a persistence of sound, an audition without finality. It is such “existential refrains”2 that the act of listening is attuned to, a stretching and extending of soul, body, and self in response to a vocative call, an exigency that is ecological and ethical at once. Something like birdsong in the time of silence, but also bird song in its absence. Opposite the clang, din, and cacophony of capital, acceleration, and growth, it is the sound of no place without a not. The sound that might be heard if one taps these hollow contemporary idols with the inaudible flight of the birds as one of today’s most striking tuning forks.

Rewriting the logic of commodification, Giorgio Agamben states that “Restoring being to its as [suchness] means restoring it to its com-moditas, to its just measure, to its rhythm and its ease (commodus).”4 Which is to define justice as allowing the world and all things that populate it to exist in and as the singular modality of their qualities, modes, use—their music—beyond any general measure of equivalence.

Existential ethos lies in an aesthetics and auditory attunement to the sonorous sound of the invisible flight of the birds—their mute music. Which, as provocation and inspiration for thought (muse), is less a technique or a trace than it is a (siren) call before speech, voice, and language. This is what Agamben has named “museic.” To listen to this museic is to ethically respond to the call of ecological exigency. A listening that would discern that “the voice that broke the silence of the forest was the voice of Anon.”6 Such a listening would return us to dwelling in, by way of resonating with the world, finally alert to the real extinctions taking place via their anonymous songs. When that happens—when the ecological is responded to by listening to its mute music—ecology becomes muse-ecology. In making the idols of capitalism ring hollow, muse-ecology at the same time makes resonant the intimacy of the outside, and of the inhuman voice that, in its withdrawal, is one register of the sonorous sense of existence.


  1. Foucault, Michel. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981-1982. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005.
  2. Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. Translated by Charlotte. Mandell. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007.
  3. Guattari, Felix. Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  4. Agamben, Giorgio. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Lorenzo Chiesa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018.
  5. Agamben, Giorgio. The Use of Bodies. Translated by Adam Kotsko. Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2015.
  6. Woolf, Virginia. “Anon.” Twentieth Century Literature 24, no. 4 (1979): 382–98.

Related Texts

  1. Lovatt, Steven. Birdsong in a Time of Silence. London: Penguin Books, 2021.
  2. Ricco, John Paul. “The Invisible Flight of the Birds: Extinction and Muse-Ecology.” Alienocene 7 (2020).


John Paul Ricco

John Paul Ricco is Professor of Art History, Comparative Literature, and Queer Theory at the University of Toronto, and author of The Logic of the Lure, and The Decision Between Us: art and ethics in the time of scenes. He is currently completing two collections of essays: The Intimacy of the Outside, and Extinction Aesthetics. He can be reached at: [email protected]


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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