Tuesday, April 29, 2008
The Phantom of Language
A story caught my eye a few weeks ago about the discovery & analysis of a old type of medium called a "Phonautograph" from 1860.
It is basically a piece of paper with markings that were recorded from sound. The remarkable thing is that the researchers were able to translate the recordings back into sound. The resulting audio is on the New York Times website and it is fascinating & also creepy as hell.
Playing the song feels like you are opening a portal that closes the gap in space & time between the long-gone person whose voice now magically reaches our ears. Of course, sensory-recording media is omnipresent today, but the pre-audio age of this particular find is what gives it a mysterious quality.
The other amazing thing about the recording was that the inventor had not even conceived of a way to play the audio back!!! The imprint of the waveform created by the singer's vocal cords was 'frozen' in an abstract state for over a century with no one ever hearing it played! This use of current technology to unlock the data is a testament to the ingenious foresight of the inventor- Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.
This is all fascinating to me, & it made me think about the ephemeral nature of human communication, in all its forms. Mankind is just a quick flash in one of the Universe's brain cells, but as a species we strive so hard to achieve the absurd notion of immortality. We are continually trying to create a lasting presence through art, architecture, sciences, stories, and all types of cosmically futile efforts.
*Why even bother with such "trivial" pursuits, then???
*The answer is as simple as it is all-encompassing and unerringly correct:
"We are humans and that's what we do."
Language defines our experience in all its forms. The craving for connections that people are perpetually seeking can span moments, lifetimes, and generations through language. Animals communicate, too, but we can just guess what aspects of consciousness they are perpetuating.
One of our "cosmically futile" (but sociologically noble) pursuits is the preservation of dying languages threatened with vanishing due to the disappearance of the cultures that used them.
It must be incredibly lonely to be the last person to speak an extinct tongue, knowing that untold legacies will also go with you. This compulsion for preservation of knowledge is especially evident right now, as the internet and other media are used non-stop to cache more and more of the human experience each passing minute.
Hopefully these efforts will prove to be cosmically futile much, much later than sooner.