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My first post in over 18 months. It’s good to be back–here’s hoping this time I stay a while longer. Please comment!

I joined in the May Day demonstrations mainly to see what it was all about, but also pay homage to my various ineffable dissatisfactions with The Way Things Are. (My favorite sign of the day, the one that articulated my sentiments best, was in simple black Sharpie scrawled on white posterboard: “I’m so angry I decided to make this sign.”) I’m no activist, and I balk at most political conversation. I’d usually rather talk about language and its uses and means, be they literary or social. That evening I experienced first hand the Human Microphone in action on a vast scale, and it is quite unlike any use of language I have ever seen or heard.

The Human Microphone is a kind of social medium, a means by which an individual user can quickly send a message to a large network of other willing users. But unlike other social media, which are signal-based (text, image, audio, video, and combinations), the H.M. is highly theatrical, in that it is utterly of the body, or rather, of bodies. As a means of conveying speech it depends on a collaboration between the speaker and the listeners resulting in the action which constitutes that means. The conversation via H.M. begins when the participants have come together, and a speaker and an audience are identified. At an ideal General Assembly, a huge number of people have gathered outdoors (probably at least a thousand participated in the one at the New York Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial on Tuesday night). One of them wants to speak, and the others want to listen. City law forbids the use of amplified sound without a permit; the H.M. is the Assembly’s alternative. The first speaker says a few words of her speech, and the listeners nearest to her shout those words in unison, turning outward to spread the speech further. If the crowd is especially large, the group agrees on a number of “waves,” relaying each phrase two or three times for the benefit of listeners further and further out.

May 1 General Assembly, around 9pm, NYC. Photo: Robert Stolarik for the NYTimes

The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is a large semicircular amphitheatre, with a tiled wall serving as a backdrop across the stage, wedged between two skyscrapers that are home to a couple of financial giants. At the center of the amphitheatre is a small reflecting pool. Full dark had fallen when the crowd was settled there; the artful lighting on and around the plaza is soft yellow and cold blue, and the stone and glass all around boxed in the echoes of hundreds of people shouting in unison–all of which heightened the drama of an already innately theatrical experience. Each wave of H.M.-speech might be louder than the one before it as increasing numbers of people register and repeat the phrase. Individual voices are lost in crowd-voice.

If you contribute your voice to the execution of the H.M., are you still a pure and simple listener? The listener relaying the speech via H.M. is allowing the speech of another–a stranger–to occupy his voice (excuse the pun) rent-free and unassessed. He is embodying with his own voice fragmented statements whose full meaning, as intended by the speaker, is not yet revealed to him, though he may hope and expect it will be. Is he endorsing those statements by repeating them? (This needs clarification. For instance, Rachel Maddow’s Twitter profile states, “Re-tweets do not imply endorsement.”) A microphone is a relay, a vessel for sound; mechanical amplification itself does not comment on or change the meaning of the words; or does it? The Human Microphone raises the question since it is a medium, not simply an amplifier, but as an amplifier it is a human not a mechanical one, part of a body which also contains an impressionable mind. As I am repeating a phrase my body is internalizing the language as, or even before, I can assess the entire statement. We learn language by repetition, by producing the sounds with our bodies. Critical understanding comes later.

I was reminded of this:

People, we know, are all too happy to take up a chant without being critical of the words, with too often disastrous outcomes. But I am less inclined to put all the blame on humanity’s failure to think critically and independently. Another thing is partly responsible, simply that humans take enormous pleasure in the sound of language, and that pleasure is accessed through repetition.

For literate, conversational adults, under a constant bombardment of language, meaning is usually primary, sound secondary. But repetition reverses this effect. If I take any word–say, “people”–and say it out loud to myself five or six times, I start to doubt whether the word really means what I think it means, whether I’m saying it correctly. That is, in foregrounding sound, meaning falls away. In Human Microphone-amplified speech, if you’re sitting close enough to hear the initiating speaker, you will hear each phrase two or three times. Meaning gradually dissolves with each wave, and then the speaker releases the next phrase and meaning is provisionally restored.

The pleasure we take in the sound of language is the reason we write, read and listen to poetry and song lyrics, and repetition is a vital part of that pleasure. That is, in my understanding of it, poetry is the access of pleasure in sound through repetition of language. Repetition and recurrence take a variety of forms in poetry–rhyme, meter, assonance, refrain, line, stanza and so on. The tension between meaning and sound is not only inevitable, it adds to the pleasure. Theatre combines poetry with spectacle and human beings working together–another source of enormous pleasure, as we like being part of a team. A good audience wants the play to succeed and does everything in its power (it too has a more or less scripted role to perform) to make that happen.

In the hour or so that I listened to the May 1 General Assembly at the Vietnam Memorial Park, I heard five or six speeches; it takes a long time to say anything in old Entish via the Human Microphone. The first two or three speakers explained the rules governing the H.M. and the General Assembly as practiced by Occupy groups across the country. Once the “stack” (the queue of speakers) was established, a few people delivered news and requested support for various causes around the city. I don’t remember the particulars–I wish I had taken notes. But, to me, the content impressed me less than the fact that here were thousands of people sitting together who had worked out a way to share words en masse using only their voices and ears. I was enjoying a theatrical success in the moment of its execution. Whether the movement itself will be a social success remains to be seen.

I have tried to imagine putting on an explicitly theatrical performance by Human Microphone. I highly doubt it could be done on such a scale–imagine trying to attract a thousand people to a strictly theatrical performance where audience participation is required. This highlights the difference between theatre and a gathering of a populist movement; art will probably never have quite the same draw as the promise of social empowerment. Not that this is a bad thing–art and politics have never mixed well. (N.B. Yeats told Pound, roughly, “Do not become a senator of your country…” and then, of course, Pound had his own political mixups.)

For further reading, check out this Boston Globe article from last November about the Hand Signals used to facilitate General Assembly discussion.

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