The Sounding-Board Theory of Human Existence

I am always glad to learn that I can be a sounding board for another person seeking perspective on their thoughts.
My piano tuner says that the sounding board is the most important part of the piano. He says that what makes a piano go out of tune is not the strings but the sounding board changing shape when the temperature and humidity change.

Here's a photo of a piano undergoing repair of its sounding board:

Here's Vermeer's painting of a guitar player:

Notice that the guitar resembles the piano as a percussive stringed intrument by having its sounding board below the strings. Whereas the piano's sounding board sits inside a "well", the guitar's reverberation chamber uses the front and the back of the guitar as a dual sounding board (or sounding chamber).

Paradoxically, it's not the guitar strings but the lack of the strings       the "space"      
that allows the reverberation to amplify the sound. We can hear the instrument because the instrument itself is, if you will, listening too.

Vermeer's painting itself reverberates with reflections of reflections. We see light reflecting off the back wall and its support post. We see the painting within the painting, a vision of nature in a frame as golden as the guitar and the player's cloak. We see the books in the background, visible packages of reflection and thought.

Most important to the dynamic of the painting is the lady's attentive glance. We can easily imagine that she wants to know if her audience remains attentive.

The audience is the sounding board for the artist.

The artist is a human being like any other. All human being experience the flux of sensations. All human uses their cognition to fabricate recognition, to discover patterns, to make sense of the world.

Regarding the project of gaining perspective on one's thoughts, an instructor at UC Berkeley Extension said, "Writing is Nature's way of letting you know how unorganized your thoughts are." If you write your spontaneous stream of consciousness, the result sounds as chaotic as free jazz. 

However, when a person acts as your sounding board, even if the medium is conversation, in a way, it's a form of writing, of composition, of molding the flow of consciousness into a coherent picture. Whereas thoughts race through our heads like a storm of falling stars, when we address a friend who listens, we slow down a bit, we strive to make the discourse understandable. And, by making the flow of words understandable for the other, we often make it understandable to ourselves as well.

This is why often we feel it is enough to have a friend listen. The friend does not have to try to solve the problem we voice. It's better if the friend remains as patient as the sounding board of a musical instrument. We only need to hear ourselves being heard out, ex-pressing whatever the issue is.

Hegel claimed that what motivates people is the need to be recognized. For example, politicians who seek power want more than the power itself: they want to be recognized as having the power. Indeed, the power might be an utterly useless token in itself. I might have the power to end the soccer game by saying, "the soccer ball is mine and I'm taking it home". It may well be that having the soccer ball all to myself at home is utterly useless to me. The ownership of the soccer ball, then, has no intrinsic value. The ownership has an exchange value. I can exchange the publicity of my ownership for social recognition of the team's debt to me.

This is why some consider it a greater gift of humility to give to the needy anonymously.

Sociologist Thorsten Veblen, who became a Stanford professor of Economics, observed the rich people in Chicago in 1899 and concluded they are driven by the need for "conspicuous consumption", that is, a need not just for wealth but to display their wealth so that they know that others have no choice but to recognize them as wealthy. (See his Conspicuous Consumption chapter.) The Declaration of Independence declares the project of the "Pursuit of Happiness", which Jefferson first composed as the "Pursuit of Property". The whole nation unites if all the workers identify vicariously with the rich man basking in his wealth.

Status only stabilizes itself with status symbols, and status symbols are only status symbols if other people deem them to be status symbols. [John Searle's The Construction of Social Reality]. It wouldn't do a rich person any good to have piles of Turkish dinar bills if that currency were no longer current.

A capitalist structure of motivation taps into the fundamental human drive to experience the rewards of being recognized. People wash their cars not for a utilitarian purpose--a dusty car runs as well as a one under layers of shiny wax--but rather to project themselves as people who are clean and decent and perhaps even glowing, illustrious.

The mirror and the echo are visual/acoustic analogues.

Dracula the Vampire does not reflect in the mirror because he is a creature of darkness, a non-self, and cannot live in the light of day (or tolerate the Bible, the book that equates God, being, and light). Moreover, the Vampire is a non-self because he is entirely a parasitical upon the blood of others; he does not reflect the value of others but feeds and preys upon them.

Often, you see mentally ill people in public who are busy talking to themselves. They are not recognized as valid by society and do not get the echoing/mirror/acknowledgement from society, so they manufacture their own sounding board by talking to themselves, sometimes incessantly, never satisfied by the solipsistic simulation.

Sometimes people get the sounding board/mirroring from being in love, from seeing themselves literally reflected in the eyes of the other.

Sometimes people project their guilt onto a group they hate. We see this in how the Israelis and the Palestinians each claim the other group commits a kind of terror, victimizes the "us" group, and thereby forces the "us" group to retaliate. Neither group wants to admit the ethical weakness of its methods, so both groups focus on the need for defense from the mirror image. 

When you look at a chess board, can you say the white pieces or the black pieces are substantively different, that one army is good and the other evil? The game of chess is the classic example of the sounding board gone wrong: the board is not neutral. The board divides the field into arbitrary fields of opposing colors. The board territorializes every move. The board is itself a state of war, like the fascist, totalitarian politician who forces individuals of the public to reflect either total agreement or be labeled unpatriotic. 

So, whether we identify ourselves too closely with the other and become fanatical followers, or blindly hate a group whom we secretly resemble, we force the other to act as a reflector of ourselves without allowing the other to be a true sounding board or mirror. 

A true sounding board or mirror allows up to open up a dialogue of self-discovery. Martin Buber called this the I-Thou relation. Emmanuel Levinas wrote about how the anchor of respect is the recognition that we can only recognize the unreachable otherness of the other. It's would be hubris to claim that we can capture the other, own the other. Instead, we must admire the beautiful distance of the other person or another people as a witness, the way we admire a sunset without fooling ourselves into thinking we can freeze the moment. The beauty of the movement of the butterfly fluttering freely and fleetingly by exceeds immeasurably the flatness of a dead moth pinned to a museum case. This ability for beholding and quality of "being beholden to" is what distinguishes the respectful bird watcher from the violent, rifle-toting hunter.

Even in the most respectful of inter-personal relations, there is a paradox in establishing the self upon the foundation of recognition by the other. The other always alters its other, always influences the person being reflected. You can see something analogous to this subtle distortion by standing in front of a mirror. Raise you right hand. Does the image in the mirror raise its right hand too? No, the image in the mirror raises its left hand. Even if you do not distort my proportions, when I am reflected in you I am always 180 degrees out of phase, I am not me, I am only your image of me.

Adolescents are a bit primitive in their social mirroring. They tend to only "like" those who are "like" them in terms of status symbols: clothes, cars, levels of acne, and so on. 

There is a phase, perhaps around 6-7 years old, when children are more primitive still in their social mirroring. In this phase, boys are likely to claim that girls have "cooties", and girls are likely to claim that boys have "cooties". Each child, perhaps, is struggling to identify with the parent of same gender, to assume the role of the socially assigned gender, and at age 7, this is a daunting task. Perhaps this is why children of this age often don't want to mix and be "mixed up" with children of the opposite gender: they have not yet learned how to distinguish social mirroring from physical mirroring.

Shakespeare's Richard III remains frozen in this phase. Considering himself deformed, he cannot like those who are unlike him. This leads to deadly villainy as he becomes a kind of vampire who consumes the bodies of his victims.

But if lack of resemblance can lead to villainy, intentionally generating this lack is a deliberate ploy of the penal system to punish without healing, to inflict emptiness without rehabilitation. Prisoners lose their right to a normal wage, and often the right to work at all. Left idle in solitary confinement, the prisoner cannot recognize himself (or herself) as a productive member of society. Society de-values the inmate, and recasts the inmate as an infant, someone utterly dependent on the State for food and shelter to the extent that there is no communication of mirroring or sounding board: merely a de-humanized object in storage. 

Let us consider the world of work as a sounding board. We speak of one's career, vocation (from "voice"), or calling (Beruf in German, "call"). A career provides rewards of recognition when others call upon one for help, aid, or service. Such careers are "professions" (teacher, priest, healer, lawyer) because the practitioner voices or professes a solution or creed or dogma.  

Calvinism holds that the call is pre-destined, and the individual can do nothing to determine it. Max Weber thought that this ignorance caused so much insecurity that it led to a Calvinistic "work ethic" of nascent capitalism in which the mere accumulations of riches was considered evidence of a favorable predestination. 

Marx, however, viewed nascent capitalism as the trend toward losing the creativity of the artisan's work because industrial production means the division of labor into fragmented pieces, fragments too small to mirror back the worker's worth. Marx called this "alienated labor", but the Declaration of Independence, in guaranteeing inalienable freedoms, fails to guarantee a freedom from inalienable labor, or unrewarding careers. 

And so it is that clearing the way for the advancement of some can often mean the decline of others. The palliative, however, is something that Marx did not forsee: that the common worker would identify with those more privileged, and enjoy a sense of participating in a larger project of advancing things. This works best on the frontier, where is there something backward to advance. The Western frontier of the 19th century is already consumed; it became California, now the most populous state and the world fifth largest economy. There is a mock frontier on the football field, where totemic animals (Lions, Bears, Wildcats) battle emblems of the nation-state-in-formation (Patriots, 49ers). But the geographical frontier is elsewhere. In the 1960's President Kennedy and NASA looked toward the moon. Perhaps the frontier is now in Afghanistan, were there are "tribal" peoples to "civilize". By making the Islamic world resemble the Western world, the United States might gain a reassuring mirroring effect.  

Turning away from the warrior and toward Buddha in meditation, let us consider the most private of worlds: my dialogue with myself, my sounding out my thoughts in personal reflection. There remains a paradox of the self in the very term "identity". Does my identity mean that I am identical to those like me (my IDENTITY WITH them)? Or, does my identify mean that I am unique, unlike any other (MY identity to only myself)? Is my identity the collections of attributes that make me identical to a certain segment of society (my gender, my race, my social class, my occupation, my religion, my values, my hobbies), or is my identity that which distinguishes me even from those closest to me?

Can I even know myself if I think using words and a grammar that existed before my birth? Could the very English language in which I think harbor a set of biases and categories that prevent me from attaining peace of mind. For example, maybe the word "I" is destructive. Maybe the word "I" will always prevent me from feeling at one with the world.

Perhaps there is no need to resolve this tension. Like other paradoxes, it might just be something to "sound out" to a friendly listener for feedback.

[11-13 December 2001]