Soft Doors

Folded folded folded

Is a bone something that happens? Some 200 million years ago, the jaws of our ancestors slowly tapered and crimped, like yellowed-winter fans of Ginkgo biloba, into what we now call the bones of the mammalian middle ear––the ossicles: malleus–incus–stapes.

Listening with the jaw is an interstitial echo of speculative listening, a matter of sensing pressure not solely without, as we are wont and have ‘evolved’ to do, but within and between (we might say on) bone, collagen, mineral and crystal. It is to walk with ears on backwards, to remove them completely. Attending to the minutiae of fundamental particles metabolising in radial scree, to consider what is happening inside a wave.

It is to write in a language of waves and electromagnetism, an ontology of sine tones and solitons. Remaking, rounding, coming to, becoming, disturbing, transforming, interfering and absorbing those fickle vibrating tricksters (sound and meaning) in which lattices are made of ringing holes, the pulmonary spaces so vital in turning one thing around another thing.

Mutton Ovid

In the middle ear, the columella, a single tuber-like bone, was invented, for want of a better term (although the notion that we have literally had a hand in the making of our own bones before we were born is a strangely evocative one) by amphibians, and then held among reptiles and birds.

The columella took the place of the hyomandibular bone of certain fishes just as it was itself replaced by the ossicles in their becoming a vermicular line of audible silence. The columella was a homolog of the stapes whilst the malleus and incus metamorphosed from two jaw bones in a galvanisation of the apperceptive present.

Over a period of about 160 million years, the long jaw bones, dentary- angular–articular, fractured the squamosal via the quadrate (which in snakes is still connected to the columella in order to localise ground vibrations) to form an internal zodiac of igniting roundelays.

The lower mammalian jaw currently consists of a single bone, the mandible, the gestural loam of the skull above which resides the maxilla. As dust and bone crystals accumulated, in order to migrate along this osseous prairie, the squamosal stretched and began to ossify into an edge of temporal centres, the angular, articular and quadrate bones assuming subordinate positions until they no longer supported the jaw.

Such bones would have branched into phantoms if they hadn’t been co- opted into the oscillating subtrahends of auditory function. The angular pressed into parts of the bony ring which surround the tympanic membrane. The articular attached to the membrane and transformed into the malleus. The quadrate flung itself into the incus, leaving the stapes to form the third link in this lingering line of ossicular convocation.

Having a head

Still breathing through a capability of bone, light radiates as it falls apart. A Land, a book by the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, published in 1953, unfurls evanescent waves in cortices of glue and humus, strewing meander patterns overlapping an undulation of semi-supine dendrites:

“Although the Caledonian and Amorican foldings have left us some wild country and the possibility of solitude, Britain, without volcanoes or Alps, is in general a gentle and domesticated land that seems to be wholly under our control. Yet it is not really controlled. Lie awake at night even in our composed Britain and think how the land about you is changing every hour, as surely as your own body and as irresistibly. Here small avalanches are spilling down cliffs, there miniature land spits are drawing clear of the sea, everywhere the hills are being attacked and worn away. If ears were keen enough, we should be able to hear the rustle of perpetual movement, a stirring of the silence not much greater than that made by the petal of a flower as it opens or closes.”

Where are the relationships between composition and control? As Hawkes casts her selves into a gravity of audition fields, photosynthetic bacteria of demosponges correlate in a signature of organs gathering a unified consciousness that stretches from viruses to fish, reptiles, and mammals, a theory of mind traced to Archean rocks clamouring in entangled cosmological correspondences.

Yellow salamander cones

The audiphone was invented by R.S. Rhodes (who lost his hearing due to a disease of the middle ear) when he discovered that he could hear the ghostly mechanisms of objects by noticing his jaw. Each vibration a limpid grain sutured to the teeth that dissolve in the head as the outside draws near.

An audiphone is a diaphragm of hard rubber, a membrane with a tail that looks like the flagellum of a eukaryote. Imagine you were clamping down on an analog watch, its haptic ticking felt in finished time that becomes a place, succedaneous vibrations sumping through the jaw to the cranial bones that wear the auditory wool of nerves.

Just like modern day hearing aids, the tension and gate of the fan had to be regulated in accordance to the limits of each individual, akin to a display of tonotopic wholeness. This is where the audiphone hones its niche, an aural-oral ecology, opening windows in the teeth.

The audiphone is placed under the upper central incisors (the so-called eye teeth) as it’s simultaneously bent upward to present a convex collecting surface to the speaker, essentially like the squat and oblique gate of the tympanic membrane. Sound waves strike the collecting surface like the colour of air, resonated by the amoebic necks of teeth.

The long moon in a stick

The transition from middle to inner ear quivers through the jaw like an enormous kiss, layering frequencies as if membranes. Selectively permeable membranous logic is part of a language that, as Astrida Neimanis says, “belongs to the species of the ecotone”, a place of transit that is itself a place in transition.

At a palpitant juncture in Sophocles’ Antigone, translated by Anne Carson as Antigonick, Antigone is about to exit the stage, to bury herself alive. She describes herself thusly: “I’m an in between thing aren’t I, neither a dead one among the dead or a live one among the living.”

Antigone’s word for ‘in between thing’, Anne Carson explains, is metoikos, made of ‘oikos’, the noun for house or home, and ‘meta’, a prefix implying change or difference, an interval of passage in a deep ecology of affective salinity.

The leakiness and fluidity of self is not wholly metaphorical. Just as ‘eco’ has its homes, ‘tone’ has its tensions, its kin hidden in congealed sites of snake-spit, stages of possibility in which tensions can quickly become too thick to breath or too rarefied to hear.

“The material self, so-called, cannot be disentangled from networks that are simultaneously economic, political, cultural, scientific, and substantial…” says Stacy Alaimo, “what was once the ostensibly bounded human subject finds herself in a swirling landscape of uncertainty.”

This vertiginous alterity flows through us (all our things, all our stuff), spiralling into metaphors and concepts that reflect back on us a reality of accuracy and seizure.

In Bertolt Brecht’s adaption, The Antigone of Sophocles, first performed in 1948, Brecht has Antigone wear a door strapped to her back for the entirety of the play. This, as Carson puts it, “may come in useful”, as whilst carrying a door around may make a person “clumsy, tired and strange”, it may also enable her to “go places that don’t have an obvious way in”, or “an obvious way out”.

The membranous environments of the inner ear permit certain solutes to ‘enter’ whilst others are ‘excluded’, or pushed out. The oval window (both door and membrane) of the inner ear’s double labyrinth enables pressure fluctuations, compressions of fluid and air, to dissipate, thereby maintaining some sense of verticality as the elements break against the tertiary bulge of its cherubic globes.

To carry a door on one’s back, like holding a membrane between one’s teeth, like playing host to a reptilian wall in the ear, is to correspond between electrical scents of standing waves emanating from the larval glyphs of homes and bones.

Squalene frequencies

Audiphones were appropriated all over the world and soon evolved into the folding dentaphone, then the Japanese Otoacoustic Fan (made of lacquered sheets, coupled with dental sound transmitter made of German silver folded upon itself), and the osteophone. The affective recognisance of polarity that such devices created began to mould atmospheres to moods.

Drawings that accompanied the educational literature expounding the benefits of such devices, showing crowds of ‘deaf-mutes’ gathered around a piano, attempting to experience the polyphony of various lieder in the mouth.

These scenes, in which each person is trying to ‘hear’ by tuning their device, create an inside-out with which the vagaries of anxiety and expectation are rendered in the torsion of the membranes that hang from lips like disembodied ears.

The body enfolds among aggregates of mediums and membranes, each a frequency in elliptic recollection of former frequency. We shed resonance, sloughing the outer layers of skin in lozenged ozone cycles.

Mulberry sprinkled with meal

If we think of the way sound (it’s hard to imagine that sound is ever ‘only’ sound) acts upon human skin, we find an interesting nuance of analogy and perspective in the pages of Charles Darwin’s last, and perhaps least well known book; The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits.

What I glean from Darwin’s book contributes a sense of repetition, continuous change within apparent constancy, the effects of a continually recurrent cause. Darwin spent simply observing his garden, trying to calm his hot nerves, slowly evolving a Spinoza-like faith in the natural forces he discovered, the invisible texts of naturphilosophie.

Darwin attempted to read worms, stating that “vegetable mould is always the same yet always changing”. Each particle cycles through the system in fluid masses of cymatic periodicity, beginning at the surface in a casting, spreading out, and then working its way down as worms deposit new castings above.

The mould retains its thickness and character while all its particles cycle, like a pulsating text. “A worm’s work, when summed over all worms and long periods of time, can shape the world and form the soils.” If a worm could speak and we could ‘understand’, perhaps it would say that the soil is eminently univocal, a quasi-bacterial tongue.

Worms, seemingly the most ordinary, commonplace and humble objects of our daily observation and dismissal, work constantly beneath our notice, forming much of the soil and shaping the world that in lighter moments, we place our jaws upon.

The inaudible hum of triturating particles (like the metameric formants of human speech creating gobbets of affective protoplasm) slides through their guts as they churn the soil in meridian rituals of ventral nerve chords.

The work of worms and the spectrums of energy that we understand to be atmospheres are of a saturated complementarity, a concordant mist.

The castings, originally spiral in form and composed of fine particles, are then disaggregated by wind and water, spread out to form vegetable mould under mingling laws analogous to the insides of a cell, delicate tissues that develop and repeat indefinitely.

“I was thus led to conclude”, Darwin writes, in a matter that leads me to consider particles as the memories of waves, “that all the vegetable mould over the whole country has passed many times through, and will again pass many times through, the intestinal canals of worms.”

A magnet laden with a body

I am made of a tendency to create morphologically temporal terms for larger concepts, distended word-beasts that grow and die in my body like decibels of nematodes. Speculative listening is no different. Such a practice feels immanent in its making, a vibrating topography of phyla. I try to observe its affects as if I were at a remove from them as I am moving ‘into’ them, changing with relation, circles of osmotic atmospheres.

A speculative practice can help to render premature conclusions into illegible cadastral maps, rolling among myriad predilections of self- individuation and desublimation. Its ratios don’t quite add, part poetics, part galvanisation, a fearfully gentle polysemy unconstrained by positional view. Neither limited to form or content, such a practise has many possible ears, ringing in runic and reticular unknowing.

Skin is a dig site of shifting miasmic centrality, it is where it appears to be. It is feeling, and the conjoined lice of feeling that have evolved to be infinitely conjoined, the sum of embrangled dissolution.

To prise apart is to reveal further wholeness, germs that evanesce under the signs of analogy, diffracting meanings and questioning observations, a deafening thicket of silent matrices drifting among contaminated and churning mulch vortices.

Thinking about sound in order to think about something else cannot help but lead to sound. A sea is a seething cell, node to anti-node, tidal bores condescending like a squall of scops that hear the umbral of sound.

Loosely speaking, this could be called ‘driftwork’, a means of corresponding from theory to theory in a migration of intermediary matter, a practise of conscious pliability among congeries of variety and predilection. Vast skeins redolent of the chaotic architecture of worms.

To be a membrane is to be made membranous, metamorphic echo-rings and spectral selenium spirals pulsating in cacophonies of bolides, protuberant warts ageing with gaseous emission, blemishes of holographic ammonia, diaphanous alums inside craters of vertigo.

Molecular cantabile

How can we describe the location of any part of the cochlea without then needing to refer to a seemingly infinite index in a vocabulary that eats its own memory?

One such glint in the timorous maw of a corporeal lexicon is the tectorial membrane, a minuscule gelatinous structure––an extracellular matrix thinner than a human hair and composed of 97% water––that wraps around the apical surface of auditory epithelia in the inner labyrinth of the human ear.

This membrane is part of the micro-telescopic universe and is a glut for sound propagation, frequency tuning, and amplification of auditory stimuli. It is composed of a school of proteins, many of which are the products of genes that, when mutated, cause nonsyndromic forms of human hereditary deafness. A protein that is life’s recomposition, a deafness gene.

Quite how the proteins of the tectorial membrane are assembled within the micro-mechanical lumen of the inner ear, forming a structure that is precisely regulated in its size and physical properties along the length of a tonotopically organised hearing organ such as the cochlea, is an answer that is beginning to forget its own question.

In a practise of obverse homeostasis, the tectorial membrane gives us our hearing by distributing nanoscale pores as a mean to control the movement of its own water. For a long time, its presence atop of the inner ear hair cells opened mouths. The size and arrangement of pores within this mercurial membrane, an accuracy of black and white clods, creates a distal clade in the ear where anthropomorphised deities, sound–hearing–listening, become waves of light entering the brain, honeycomb under a microscope, ice on the ground, bats in the trees, moods stuck to us.

The tectorial membrane is a species of alchemy that hides in plain sight, subdividing frequency in a tertiary nature of high and low (which are less affected by its predilections), and the eponymous middle, of which it makes a limen of amplified boundaries.

The human voice is square among the middle nature of the tectorial membrane, approximately 3,000 – 8,000Hz. This is a so-called mechanical construct (possibly engendered by confirmation bias) that is a reflection of spirit. Ejected from the obverse of human exceptionalism, the tectorial membrane is tuned ‘just right’ to get the signal ‘we’ need, to amplify the sounds that are most ‘useful’.

This membrane is its own aural gambit, a solid that behaves like a liquid. Ignited and wrapped around its own centre, it moves as fluid under the influence of a centrifugal mistral, petrifying its own maniacal physiology.

This, as Sara Ahmed might say, “disturbs the order of things”. The membrane weaves between in vitro and in vivo, akin to what Sandor Ferenczi calls the ‘Biological Unconscious’, a semi-substance with the quality of being both body and mind simultaneously.

Voiding conscious deities

TMC1 (trans-membrane channel like protein) is a vertical stone that mediates sensory transduction in the auditory system by chewing on the crust of its own stasis. TMC1 forms the quixotic pore of mechanosensory mystery in vertebrate inner ear hair cells, recomposing mechanical burr– –in the floam of air pressure fluctuations and head movements––into electrical heft.

TMC1 proteins collapse into pairs to form sound-activated pores, or ion channels. They’ve been found in mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles (I can well imagine their equivalents being found in stars and gonopores) and act as radiating arks of evolution.

Our widely diverse and complex ability to detect changes in intonation begins with the opening of a tiny molecular gate in TMC1, as the proteins form the pore of sound-detection. These proteins are apparitions of hearing. The fact that they have been conserved across the metamorphoses of all vertebrate species fossilises both pomp and prevalence.

No life without a membrane

Appropriating TMC1 protein as a model of communication, I think of the primeval field of Peter Lamborn Wilson, of his need to transcend the interdisciplinary, to press his jaw to the gateless gate.

Wilson looks to what Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘permeable boundaries’, divisions kept up for purposes of discourse, yet always known to be permeable in a syntax of consciousness and inverted perspective. A morphospace of angulated spectra and lucent verdure.

A vernacular of proteins

In the face of perturbations and disturbances, membranes are like soft doors that permit nutrients to enter while preventing water from escaping. The membrane makes possible the discreet union of the microcosm, the bacterial cell. Along certain waves we may hear that lipids combined with proteins to make translucent packages of lifelike matter before the beginning of life itself.

What is not a horse

By the end of the Permian period, some 280 million years ago, almost all mammal-like-reptiles had deceased. Many may have been eaten away by their cousins (thecodontia) forerunners to the dinosaurs. Regardless, only a few synapsids survived.

At night, under a schist of rain on laurel, those that remained ventured out to feed on the leathery chelation of reptile eggs. Like a blind person who develops increased sensitivity to sound, they began to find their way through the dark. Those that survived shifted from reptilian perception, dependent mainly on sight during the day, to a state of being nearer that of early mammals, primarily dependent on sound in the night.

In certain reconstructions of evolution, mammals evolved from nocturnal reptiles, and whilst their reptile ancestors instinctively responded to visual stimuli (the light that creates its own melanin), these new mammal- like-reptiles survived by listening, antagonising molecules for miles.

To appreciate in reverse how difficult it was for our ancestors to hear rather than see–in order to sense actions at a distance–biologist Lynn Margulis suggests that we try listening to sound by staring at the wavelike patterns of a stereo oscilloscope, to become lost in a blizzard of electrochemical phantoms, mesmeric visions pulled from the background rotation of sinusoidal sub-continents.

Abstracting time from space, a wheeling blankness blew form into auditory cortices of mammals, a fugacious delirium beginning in the late Triassic, some 200 million years ago. Mammalian vision became highly cephalized as our ancestors began to distinguish objects in space and maintain awareness of them even when they turned around. This allowed the positions of objects haunted by the asymmetrical spectral reflections of sounds to be lacquered in vision like marbled looms of soft and scalene reciprocity.

Pond water is latent thought

The presumption that snakes can’t hear is fed by the fact that they lack a recognisable outer ear. Snakes do, however, possess inner ears, with cochleas like Archimedean diamonds. Their skulls are highly kinetic, almost pure energy, an undivided droning wholeness of implicate crystalline chondrocytes.

Snakes can detect disturbances as lithe as an angstrom (honeyed foliage of atomic indistinction) if their head is placed close enough to the ground. The lower jaw merging like vibrational folds with slug canticles.

The popping spines of rocks and nacreous boom of dunes flow through the inner ear by means of a length of bones attached to the snake’s lower jaw, a process comparable to the impedant suction of air pressure fluctuations by the ossicles in the human middle ear.

“The emphasis on the visual rather than the verbal, on sight over sound, reflects the difference between reptilian and mammalian perception,” writes Lynn Margulis. Whilst I’ve no desire to bang that particular drum– –the predominance of ocular aesthetics in occidental culture, like a scale of opaque interstices that cast no reflection––the limbic strata of adaptive auditory evolutions continue to undulate.

For example, turtles are nearly ‘deaf’ to sounds in the air. Placing their heads down to the ground, they hear less through their ears than their bones, conducting vibration through the fused scutes of their shells.

Fish muscles

The stapes is the smallest bell in the world. Suspended in the air filled bulla of the middle ear, it’s connected by a crus, or limb, to the annular ligament of the oval window. This pestle of bone is part of an original order of intimacy, a sweltering glossary traced back to the stapedius muscle as it suckled on a nerve to make a face.

In 1546 Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia, professor of anatomy at the University of Naples (a then burgeoning city with roughly nine times the population of Marseille, its marketplaces brimming with taffetas, silken knots and cockades, a silken air promising freedom, but not necessarily a full stomach), identified a third small bone in the middle ear, an ossified ring he named stapes:

“By chance, while showing students the two small bones of the middle ear, the malleus and the incus, I noticed that a third bone had fallen on the dissecting table, and for its similarity to a bracket or to the Greek letter Delta, I thought to call it ‘stapes’ or ‘deltoid.’’

Ingrassia was called a ‘scholar of the human body’, he lectured on medicinal theory and practise, on Avicenna and al-Razi. Possessing a rare osteo-sensibility, he gained even greater renown upon declaring that Galen, the famous philosopher-surgeon of Ancient Rome, had often described monkey bones when writing about those of a human. He intuited the symbolic wildness and under-textures of the inner ear’s oval and round windows, hypothesised on the vibratory capacity of teeth, opined the extra-sensorial conduction of bones.

Innominate bones

Pressure waves pass through the middle ear, disappearing into cochlea ripples as if an oak springing from a gnat, parsing the infinite through the finite intimacies of the body. The oval window eclipses and is engulfed by the grotto of the tympanic membrane like a symbol for the sun, bitten by the liminal priority of the ossicles.

Life swarms just above the fallow lamina of the oval window, a metaphysical swamp of magnetic weft, a ghostly dome over a lake. The bulb of a membrane stutters in immediacy of laggard intensity.

Losing one self in the infinite

The philosopher Gilbert Simondon saw that two spatiotemporal conditions were required in order to define life: ‘a topological determination (or folding), and its chronogenetic consequence’. A transitory subsistence hems the outskirts of the living like a soluble osteology, a calcareous splitting of the differentiation between relative interiorities and exteriorities.

In her meteorological journal, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes of a cast- iron bell hung from the arch of her rib cage. We imagine the concentric signals cascading from her body like a complex non- verbal liquid, electromagnetic waves of an anxious or listless heart, sequences of whipped up clouds in eccentric particles. Every movement, microbarom, opening door, electrostatic muscle, steamed neuron, causing it to knell whilst pulses of muffled feedback permeate the scrim of her bones (one of billions of biochemical responses the mechanoreceptive membrane of the skin ‘stops’ from getting out).

Try as she might, she can make no sense of it. Having read that the Ancient Romans thought bees were killed by echoes, Dillard resolves to put this to the test. Hoping to still the bell, calm the vibrational field. Setting off to an echo rich quarry, her hopes are soon thwarted as her radial voices return empty handed, and yet the experience gives rise to other ways of muting the insides, other observations through which she might still the rippling perturbations, those violent alterations in between structure and flow.

The mass of weight

Simondon’s ontology doesn’t emerge in the form of a sudden rupture, but is due to a kind of torsion, a morphogenetic materiality, a clump, “the apparition of a specific tissue equipped with the chemical property of functioning as a limit endowed by a selective permeability”. A membrane, in other words. A marvel of simplicity, the first distinction between self and non-self.

The membrane is defined with reference to two properties implied in spatiotemporal differentiation: a selective porosity, which allows only certain elements to pass, and the fact that such porosity is polar.

It animates in both centripetal and centrifugal directions, allowing some bodies to pass through in selective opposition to the passage of others, creating folds that are edgeless edges in states of immanent recomposition, traversing the rim of the membrane to fracture the selvedge of the surface.

Henri Michaux describes living as life in the folds. A membrane is the quiddity of the fold as it creates interiority in the bellowing of its outside, attaching itself to the mischief of the world.

The polar membrane defines a milieu of interiority, by which it differentiates interior from exterior. The fold is such that, to paraphrase Deleuze, ‘it can be the outside of the outside’.

Dillard’s cast-iron bell is the indistinct lip of an Archean door that is also a jaw. Oscillating between immense subtleties, like fragmenting partials of quasi-tonal sensation, its presence is proprioceptive fluid radiating in a stoop of sensation and minor sensation, the sense that one is sensing the other being sensed.

Originally commissioned for Auraldiversities, Goldsmiths, University of London; funded by CHASE (Cohort Development Fund), with kind thanks to Helen Frosi.

%d bloggers like this: