The work of the listener

Reflections on the art of paying attention.

In the midst of a deep dive into the Smithsonian Folkways archive, I stumbled across an album that has quickly become a new favorite of mine. Tabla Tarang — Melody on Drums by Kamalesh Maitra is a showcase for his mastery of the tabla tarang, a collection of 10 to 16 tuned drums which allow a drummer to play the melody of a raga. Tarang means “waves”, which is apt description of the flowing sound Maitra produces by moving over the tablas in rapid, fluid motions.

AllMusic lauds the album as “perfectly executed”, but the reviewer observes that “even true aficionados… can become bored partway through the 45-minute ‘Raag Mia Ki Todi’”, the closing track of the album.

Reading this tossed off comment reminded me of an interview with Zadie Smith, where she speaks about the “classical model” of reading. In this model, the value ones gets from a piece of writing is proportional to the skill and effort one brings to it as a reader. Rather than approaching art as something one sits before passively, demanding entertainment, the reader must operate like an amateur musician…

…who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it.

I’m also reminded of the composer and musician Pauline Oliveros, who during a period of retreat from the chaos of the late 1960s, “started singing and playing long, extended drones on her accordion, spending nearly a year on a single note, an A.” Around this same time, Oliveros began to develop a series of group exercises she called “Sonic Meditations”. These exercises were prompts for participants to practice similar forms of sustained attention. An exercise called, “Native” simply says, “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.”

Sonic Meditations

In her introduction, Oliveros writes that “with continuous work some of the following becomes possible with Sonic Meditations: heightened states of awareness or expanded consciousness, changes in physiology and psychology from known and unknown tensions to relaxations which gradually become permanent.” She ends by writing, “Music is a welcome by-product of this activity.”

Maitra’s playing made a demand on me from the moment I heard it. It demanded that I focus only here, on this sound. The drone of a tanpura had always triggered in me a reaction along the lines of “oh great, another Indian song”. I’ve now learned to feel its central importance as the instrument which creates the tonal grounding for the elaboration of the raga. It seems to block out a space for experience where my ordinary relationship with time ceases. I’ve found myself experiencing a blurring of consciousness during extended listening to these recordings, where I feel completely within the sound. Just as Zadie Smith suggested, these experiences break the dichotomy of musician as producer and listener as consumer, suggesting the possibility of a shared state of consciousness.

Heidi Von Gunden claims that Oliveros’ music “frequently erases the divisions between performers and audiences or creators and performers”. In her essay “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From”, Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

Attention, awareness, and attunement are all difficult activities, threatened by the constant strain on our attention. Even true aficionados can become bored by a piece of music. But the rewards of careful attention are boundless.

Self as Process

Evan Thompson’s response to “neuro-nihilism”.

Matthew McConaughey as Rustin “Rust” Cohle

Matthew McConaughey as Rustin “Rust” Cohle.

I recently re-watched season one of True Detective, interested in taking another look at the philosophy of Rust Cohle.

Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and writer of the show, has cited Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, as one inspiration for Cohle’s character. Ligotti’s book argues that human consciousness is a burden too heavy to bear and that humans should voluntarily stop reproducing in order to end the inevitable suffering that comes with being born.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti.

Cohle’s many philosophical monologues make his debt to Ligotti clear:

I believe human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself; we are creatures that should not exist by natural law… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.

Alongside the belief that consciousness is a burden too heavy to bear, another major element in Cohle’s philosophy is the belief that the self is an illusion. As Cohle puts it, people “labor under the illusion of having a self”, living “with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.”

While the belief that humankind should intentionally work toward its own extinction has few adherents, the claim that the self is an illusion is now in fashion amongst a group of philosophers and neuroscientists working on the study of consciousness.

Thomas Metzinger is one such philosopher. In a recent essay he writes: “I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’.” Or consider this passage from historian Peter Watson’s massive book on the history of ideas:

There is no inner self. Looking “in,” we have found nothing—nothing stable anyway, nothing enduring, nothing we can all agree upon, nothing conclusive—because there is nothing to find.

An obvious question hovers in the air after reading these passages: what could possibly count as a real self? What would it mean to be (in the words of Metzinger) a “whole and persisting entity”?

Just like Rust Cohle, Metzinger and Watson seem to be clinging to a Platonic-Christian idea of the self. What they are asking for could only be satisfied by some thing that survives the death of the physical body. In other words, a soul. Since the soul is nowhere to be found, they conclude that the self must not exist either.

Evan Thompson offers a way out from this line of thinking in a fantastic essay written in response to True Detective. No, the self is not a “whole and persisting entity”, but the self still exists. Countering the perspective he calls “neuro-nihilism”, Thompson writes:

The self isn’t a thing; it’s a process—one that enacts an “I” and in which the “I” is no different from the process itself, rather like the way dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing. From this “enactive” perspective, although meaning and the self have no absolute foundation, neither are they complete illusions or nonexistent; they’re brought forth in how we act and live our lives.

After reading Thompson’s essay several times, I found myself thinking what seemed an obvious larger question: if the self doesn’t exist outside of process, time or change, then what does? A little research showed that many people have had the same thought.

Getting started with complexity science

A handful of online courses, books and other resources to start learning about the field of complexity science.

Over the past month I’ve been spending a big chunk of my time learning about complexity science. That term is broad and covers a number of areas, from chaos theory to artificial intelligence. The unifying perspective within the field, roughly speaking, is a focus on the emergence of unexpected system-level behavior due to the operation of simpler agents operating within the system. In essence, systems where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Map of the complexity sciences

Members of the complexity science community often place their work in opposition to reductionism. For example, a blog post by the neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell makes the case for the insufficiency of reductionism within biology:

The reductionist perspective on biology is that it all boils down to physics eventually. That anything that is happening in a living organism can be fully accounted for by an explanation at the level of matter in motion – atoms and molecules moving, exerting forces on each other, bumping into each other, exchanging energy with each other. And, from one vantage point, that is absolutely true – there’s no magic in there, no mystical vital essence – it’s clearly all physical stuff controlled by physical laws.

But that perspective does not provide a sufficient explanation of life. While living things obey the laws of physics, one cannot deduce either their existence or their behaviour from those laws alone. There are some other factors at work – higher-order principles of design and architecture of complex systems, especially ones that are either designed or evolved to produce purposeful behaviour.

As I’ve written about previously, it’s most certainly false to believe that “higher-level explanations cannot be fundamental”.

The field of complexity science is incredibly rich, with more than a hint of subversive energy running through it. Here is a sampling of online courses, books, and other resources to get started learning about this field.

Online Lectures & Courses

  • Introduction to Complexity: This free online course is offered by the Santa Fe Institute, the unofficial home for complexity science research. This course is taught by Melanie Mitchell, who also wrote the very good book Complexity: A Guided Tour, which covers a lot of the same territory. I finished this course a few weeks ago and highly recommend it as a first place to start learning about the field. It has a good mix of history, theory and hands-on practice using math and code.
  • Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Chaos: This free online course, also from the Santa Fe Institute, covers some of the same territory as the Introduction to Complexity course, but is more math focused. There are a number of mathematical ideas and formulas that come up again and again in the field, and this course gives a good introduction to a handful of them.
  • Journey into information theory: Information theory is another field that is heavily referenced within complexity science. This video series from Khan Academy is the most interesting, accessible intro to information theory I’ve found.


  • Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Published in 1987, this book is often cited as the best place for a high-level overview of chaos theory and other ideas from complexity science.
  • Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. As mentioned above, this book covers much of the same territory as the Introduction to Complexity course, but the longer book format allows her to go into more detail on many of the subjects. It’s less journalistic than Gleick’s book and more focused on the actual science.

For more book recommendations, check out the list at the bottom of the blog post from Kevin Mitchell quoted above.


  • The Nature of Code: This free book “focuses on the programming strategies and techniques behind computer simulations of natural systems”, with many ideas pulled from complexity science. The code examples from the book are available in either Processing or p5.js, the JavaScript port of processing.
  • Think Complexity 2: This free book explores some ideas from complexity science through Python code. I haven’t had the chance to go through it yet, but I’ve read other books from Green Tea Press and was impressed with their quality, so I have high hopes.

Interactive tools

  • Complexity Explorables: a collection of interactive explorable explanations of complex systems in biology, physics, mathematics, social sciences, epidemiology, ecology and other fields.
  • Emergent Mind: a project-based blog about emergence, evolution, and artificial life.


Finally, here are some members of the complexity science community with interesting online presences.

  • Kevin Mitchell: neurogeneticist interested in the genetics of brain wiring and its contribution to variation in human faculties.
  • Jessica Flack: Professor at the Santa Fe Institute.
  • Melanie Mitchell: AI researcher, professor and author.
  • Evan Thompson: I am in the midst of reading Evan’s book Mind in Life, where he uses ideas from complexity science to address the “so-called explanatory gap between biological life and consciousness”.

This is just a small sampling from this broad and growing field. As usual, I’m collecting more resources in a dedicated channel as well.