On Darkness, Silence and the Loss of Negative Space

As an artist, the idea of negative space is one of the most important concepts I’ve learned. For those unfamiliar with the term, negative space refers to blank areas in a composition. Although it’s counterintuitive, negative space is one of the most important elements of any work. Think of the white space behind words that allows them to be read, or the musical rests in a concerto draw attention to the specificity of the notes.

One doesn’t have to look far to see that the world around us is losing negative spaces. I mean this not only in terms of the disappearance of sparsely-populated landscapes or CNN-style visual cramming of our television and computer screens. We have lost, or are losing, many blanknesses that once gave our lives meaning and shape. Of these, consider two: darkness and silence.

It has now become a truism that our planet is suffering from light pollution. People once used the space of night to contemplate the heavens, to trace the shapes of constellations, make up myths, and share stories. Writing in The New Yorker, David Owen describes how light pollution not only impacts people but can decimate bird, insect, and sea turtle populations. These environmental effects demonstrate that light pollution is as “real,” and as potentially devastating, as other forms of pollution.

But it is not only excess of light that we need to consider: it is lack of darkness. Watching it get dark outside was, Owen writes, a common evening activity, a moment of calm contemplation. Today, ask someone what phase the moon is in and you’re liable to get a confused stare. One might ask how this loss of connection to spaces beyond ourselves has impacted our contemporary psyches. Divorced from larger cycles, how are we to understand ourselves, our place in a larger order, our impact (or lack of impact) on the world?

It is not only larger celestial cycles we are failing to connect with; it’s also the cycles inside our own bodies. According to historian Roger Ekirch, in the preindustrial night it was normal to go to sleep at dusk and waken, mid-night, for a few hours of quiet. During this time one might pray or meditate, talk or be intimate with one’s bedmate, study or interpret dreams. Such nighttime quiet wakefulness, called segmented sleep, is, Ekrich and others have argued, actually part of our natural human sleep cycle. In the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, night was a negative space giving shape and meaning to those quiet hours it surrounded. I can’t help but wonder how our experience of the world might be changed if such nighttime quiet were still part of our lives—if it were part of mine.

The collective loss of darkness affects not only our psyches but, like the species we are impacting, our biological processes. Recent research has linked ambient light at night to melatonin disruption that contributes to breast cancer and obesity. That’s right, sleeping with too much ambient light can make you fat. And nearly every urban environment contains an excess of ambient light. By way of example, my friend Toby Altman and I recently hosted a poetry reading meant to take place in complete darkness. We soon discovered that even in our quiet neighborhood, there was no escape from the light of the street outside. Although we eventually made do by pulling closed his curtains, there was still plenty of light in the room. Beyond shutting everyone in his bathroom or another windowless space, we realized that true darkness was going to be nearly impossible.

Beyond these very real health effects, we have little negative space inside our own nighttime minds. We all know that Americans don’t sleep enough; I personally could be a poster child for this cause. But try asking people about their dreams. Most will tell you they don’t remember any. This is, I submit, integrally related to the loss of nighttime experience. In contrast, I think of my time in the jungle of Ecuador. There, the Quicha people I stayed with went to bed early, rose at 4:00 a.m. and gathered around the fire to share and interpret their dreams. With the loss of darkness, it seems we may also be losing the free associative spaces inside our own minds.

All of this points to loss of another kind of negative space: quiet. I won’t even say silence. Just as the planet is filled with light, sound now pervades every corner. Like light pollution, noise pollution is as real as chemical pollution and has been linked to severe environmental impacts.  For example, a recent story on NPR described how sonar seriously impacts whales and other species that use echolocation to communicate and to orient themselves in space. To be more specific, according to Scientific American, “evidence shows that whales will swim hundreds of miles, rapidly change their depth (sometimes leading to bleeding from the eyes and ears), and even beach themselves to get away from the sounds of sonar.” Whales and other animals, it turns out, need the negative spaces of the ocean’s quiet to communicate, to navigate, and to be heard.

For humans, too, the negative spaces offered by quiet moments are hard to come by. We are not only surrounded by cacophony, but have been conditioned to prefer it. Many of my friends comment on my propensity to spend time at home with no radio, no music, just simple quiet. They freely admit to the need to fill the space with sound, of having no “tolerance” for quiet. Tolerance for quiet seems to me an odd concept, since biological evidence points to the taxing effects of constant loud noise. One roommate I had went so far as to imitate sounds in the environment–the ringing of the phone, for instance, or a single word from someone’s sentence–when she wasn’t talking, whistling, or passive playing (rather than watching) the television.

Yet it seems we are not really listening to the sounds we hear. Writing in The Journal Acoustic Ecology, Kendall Wrightson uses the term “soundscape” to describe the acoustic environment in which a listener finds herself. According to Wrightson, a soundscape may be “hi-fi” or crowded, or “lo-fi.” Lo-fi soundscapes include not only moments of silence, but, like the broadcast airwaves, also have available frequency bands in which different communications, human or animal, can take place. In contrast, “hi-fi” soundscapes are so crowded that communications overlap and sounds crowd each other out. In today’s hi-fi environment, Wrightson describes how many people are so bombarded by ambient noise that they cannot list as few as five specific sounds (not music) that they’ve heard throughout the day. As an exercise, he routinely asks his students to write a list of sounds they have heard, as well as those they like and do not. “Many,” writes Wrightson, “do not recall ‘consciously’ having heard any sounds during the day, and many do not complete the sound list even after fifteen minutes” (10). Rather than being an exploration, my roommate’s need to react mimetically seemed largely unconscious, a way of preventing silence rather than a way of exploring her environment.

Wrightson seems to confirm this view, pointing out that one strategy for coping with a high-noise environment is to block out the sound with music, what he calls “acoustic perfume.” I’m often struck by how many people on my daily commute use headphones to block out the train noise. Headphones are complicated. They give us the private space we so desperately need, but at the expense of connection with others and with our environments. Wrightson goes even further in his analysis: “The psychogical significance of sound used as a controlling force—as an offensive (weapon) or as a (defensive) barrier against the soundscape—” he writes, “is that the environment and the community become the enemy.”

Like the loss of darkness, loss of quiet not only alienates us, but affects us biologically. Research shows that chronic exposure to traffic and airport noise can lead to acute and chronic changes in the body’s stress hormones. While too much light can contribute to cancer and weight gain, too much noise can damage your heart. Chronic exposure to loud noise, like that from airports, may also disrupt our hormones and damage the quality of sleep, leading to an increased chance of heart disease, hypertension and myocardial infection. Although there is less research to support the hypothesis, there has also been scientific speculation that in pregnant women, noise exposure may lead to birth defects; in children, it may contribute to problems with learning and reading comprehension.

I wonder about this loss of negative spaces, and our apparent fear of darkness, of quiet. There is no space in our environments or, it seems, inside our heads. With no time for introspection or connection, we, like the marine animals we are affecting, are losing the ability to orient, to understand our own subject position relative to our environment. Wrightson writes that in preindustrial times, communities had distinct acoustic profiles “heard at a considerable distance, reinforcing a sense of space and position and maintaining a relationship with home.” I can’t help relate our loss of negative spaces not only to our loss of connection, but to the loss of attention, a topic I’ve written on previously. Indeed, what is attention but the capacity to hold, if only briefly, a mind filled with blank, receptive space? And what is orientation but a pause to take stock of the environment and assess one’s place within it?

Darkness and quiet bring us closer to our environment at every level. Without them, we lose connection to the stars, to diurnal cycles, to other species, to other humans. Instead, our experience becomes a jittery canvas of moment-to-moment stimuli. Graphic artists speak of “activating negative space,” by which they mean making sure that the curves and shapes around the blankness charge it with its own form of energy. Negative space does not “do nothing.” It allows rest for the eye, peace for the ear, renewal for the mind. Negative space renders what is around it comprehensible, and can allow us to understand more fully our complex and often overwhelming lives.

Silence and darkness can be viewed as two natural resources we are depleting. In doing so, we impact the planet, compromise our health, and destroy the internal spaces that allow us to imagine and create. Without the capacity to rest, dream, attend, connect, and reflect, how are we to understand or imagine our place in the world? So here’s a challenge: spend some time in darkness, if you can, or in silence. Or as near to them as you can get.

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