On Friday night I was travelling home after a few days in Zurich. Waiting for my plane in Zurich airport, Bats by Uncluded came up on the random playlist I was listening to. I hadn’t realised Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson had collaborated. I was immediately gripped as what had been background listening suddenly grabbed my full attention, immersing me in the music in a way that was involuntary. I couldn’t help but listen to it a few times in quick succession, with the lines below gripping me in a way that is hard to get into words. As I often do, I looked up the lyrics and reading them alongside the music only added to the power of the song.

In times of death and disorder
You look for shooting stars
In the reflection of the water

And you open the gifts that you didn’t expect
On the birthdays of the dead friends that are stuck in your head
Like love, and hugs and songs and rage
And the keys that you needed to unlock your heart’s cage
The ability to put the pen back to the page
The heat beneath your feet to propel you on stage
The beat that completes your shit these days
Yeah the beat that completes your shit these days
(The beat that completes your shit these days)

I wasn’t able to download the track before getting on the plane so I was delighted to resume immersion once I arrived at Heathrow, listening to it multiple times on my journey home before my headphones ran out of battery. I couldn’t get the phrase “love, and hugs and songs and rage” out of my head and fleetingly wondered if this might be the second tattoo I’d been thinking about for a while. I continued listening the next day but the effect was subtly diminished, the song felt flatter and my attention was more deliberate and less voluntary.

Another 48 hours later and I realised when listening to it that these lines were no longer standing out to me, manifesting in little more than an awareness that I had missed something. But if I listened closely, I still missed it because ‘something’ was a response these lines provoked in me rather than the lines itself. It was what I’d call the resonance opened up within me by the music, the interplay of associations and responses that emerged from my immediate relationship with it. The music gripped me and moved me and changed me. But now it was gone. After 48 hours.

This isn’t an unusual experience. I’ve had many conversations with people about obsessively listening to the same track until it becomes flat. I suggest this is mining resonance to the point of exhaustion i.e. taking advantage of our immediate control over the resonant item to repeat the experience, with the cost of diminishing effect as the resonance evaporates in the fact of its instrumentalisation. It changes our relationship to what resonates and involves exercising subjective control over what is otherwise outside us, eviscerating resonance by turning an external relation to a piece of art into an internal relation to an experience we are choosing. If we have to wait until something is on the radio or on TV then we can’t exercise this control. If the resonance is generated through live music, it remains something with a transcendent dimension to which we have to open ourselves up. If it is something we can repeat on demand, we risk emptying out the experience and destroying precisely what brought us to it in the first place.

Reflecting on this has left me wondering about binge watching. It can be an experience in which we are gripped by what we are watching, immersed so completely in the narratives of an alternative universe that to leave it feels fleetingly impossible. It can also be something hollow and compulsive, repeated with a grim but unspoken awareness that we are being nudged into continued engagement by the architecture of Netflix. What makes the difference? I would suggest it is resonance and that what we call binge watching or immersion isn’t just about consuming a cultural production, it’s how we relate to that cultural consumption. The ontology of this relation is subtle and streaming platforms simultaneously treat us as sovereign decision makers and hollow selves to be moulded. The phenomenology of cultural bingeing is much more complex than either characterisation can grasp.

In four years of using Twitter regularly, I’ve often found others tweeting things that resonate with me and vice versa. In fact one could plausibly suggest that these experiences play an important role in making continued use of the service appealing. What do I mean by ‘resonate’? I mean knowing where someone is coming from, understanding the reaction they’re expressing and sharing it to some extent. I would argue that resonance is an important factor to consider in understanding subjectivity within a changing social world – to understand where someone is coming from necessitates some degree of converging experience and circumstances. If everyone’s experience and circumstances are entirely particularistic then resonance becomes impossible. If everyone’s experience and circumstances tend towards homogeneity then resonance in interaction fades into the background and ceases to become a distinguishable phenomenon.

In this sense, I’d see resonance as an important micro-social mechanism engendering social integration: it helps translate objective commonalities into subjective commonalities. Experiences of resonance leave us with a sense that others understand where we are coming from and vice versa. The new forms of interaction facilitated by social media enable new ways in which objective commonalities can be translated into subjective commonalities. Things that previously couldn’t be a basis for subjective commonalities – because they rarely, if ever, entered into interaction – now can be and this has important social consequences. It would be easy to overlook the way in which something like Twitter can contribute to social integration because it is so empirically different to what we’re used to but I’d argue the same underlying mechanism is at work. It tends to increase the degree to which people feel a sense of commonality with a range of others with whom they interact and it does so because there are real underlying commonalities which facilitate this.

I wrote a rather wordy and wooly post about resonance and poetry a few weeks ago that I wasn’t happy with. I thought back to it when I came across this earlier:

Blow as deep as you want – write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind.

Jack Kerouac, Essentials of Spontaneous Prose 

It kind of makes me want to go back and revise the original post. What I was trying to say is much clearer to me now, as a result of the above. But it also make me despair about the writing style graduate school has socialised into me, with my proclivity for “timid usually needless commas” (as Kerouac says in the same piece) and writing “arbitrarily riddled by false colons”.

In his recent book of essays Charles Taylor discusses poetry and resonance. This reflects his long standing interest in how “speech, linguistic expression, makes things exist for us in a new mode, one of awareness or reflection” (pg 56). What does this mean? It is a rejection of the view that words acquire meaning by designating things we already experience. It is an assertion that words make new experiences possible:

Well, wind would be there for us, even if we had remained pre-linguistic animals; we might seek shelter from it. And breathing would be there, as we gasp for breath running.

But spirit? Not that gift, that rushing, that onset of strength to reach for something higher, something fuller. This sense of the force of the incomparably higher only takes shape for us in the name. Spirit enters our world through language; its manifestation depends on speech. (pg 57)

On this view, poetry comes to be seen as performative, possessed of a capacity to create new meanings through establishing new symbols. What is at stake here is the “poet’s straining to find the right word” (pg 57) and what this ‘rightness’ constitutes. Is it a circumvention of linguistic constraints in a subjectively pleasing format? Is it an experience transcending language but nonetheless inner? Is it human nature or the human condition? Is it God?

Taylor sees modern poetics as existing between subjectivism and objectivism, understanding its goal as being “to manifest hitherto inaccessible reality and possibilities of being” (pg 58). This sees poetry as an event, in which words open up contact with something higher or deeper, making something manifest that was not previously present. Previous speech or experience prepares us for these possibilities, manifesting in actuality as resonance: “this new word resonates in/for us; that the word reveals what it does is also a fact about us, even though it is more than this” (pg 60). It speaks to us because of those aspects of our character which are not just part of us but present in others as well.

However modernity poetry does not (could not?) make reference to established public meanings in the manner of earlier poetic traditions. This creates the possibility of ‘opening new paths’ and ‘setting free new realities’ but also the risk that “language may go dead, flat, become routinized, a handy tool of reference, a commonplace, like a dead metaphor, just unthinkingly invoked” (pg 60). The possibility of resonance rests on the contrast between ordinary descriptive speech and poetic language. If this disjuncture is lost then so is resonance, with poetic expression becoming mere word play in the face of the everyday. In such a case, we lose something communal because “the resonances which matters are those which link speaker and hearer, writer and readers, and eventually (perhaps) whole communities” (pg 61).