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Sounding the Idols

Idolatry and iconoclasm are evil twins. They need each other, feed on each other. The idol is said to demand human sacrifice. The iconoclast responds by sacrificing idolaters, or (more likely) exterminating them without the dignity of sacrifice. See Exodus 32, in which Moses melts down the Golden Calf, forces the idolatrous Israelites to drink it, and massacres half his people. When Poussin paints this scene, he cannot help himself. As a painter, he must glorify the Calf and its maker, and shroud the furious Moses in darkness. Why does Aaron, the artist who made the idol, get away scot-free? Was Milton a true poet, and of the Devil’s Party?

Idolizing Systems: That Doesn’t Sound Right

Veneration, respect, acceptance can turn things—images, but also systems—into something live, real, and revered; certainly not questionable. I have recently read a novel, which was composed by SMS messages and emails sent piecemeal from a clandestine iPhone by an Iranian Kurdish journalist imprisoned for five years on Manus Island in Australia. His crime? Trying to save his life by escaping from Iran, seeking asylum in the land of freedom. The book won several awards in that same country that locked him up and tortured him. The New York Times calls the author, Behrouz Boochani, “Australia’s most important writer.”

Resistant Noise

Resistant Noise is a musical representation of the conflicts and social forces in the United States today.

Denounce, Resist, Change, Struggle


Oh, Say Can you Sing?

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about idols as something to sound: We imagine the hollow, golden calf that horrified Moses as full of air, a mere bloviator on behalf of the Canaanite fertility god, Baal. But Nietzsche pushes the reader to go further, to listen to the idol’s “famous hollow sound” as someone with “ears behind his ears,” which invitation theorizes sound about sound. WJT Mitchell theorizes metapictures along similar lines; they consist of “a picture in which the image of another picture appears” and which “may function as a foundational metaphor or analogy for an entire discourse.”

Muse-ecology: on birds and other tuning forks

Perhaps we can locate in the ancient Stoic conception of listening as an experience or competence and something other than a technique, a distinction like the one drawn by Nietzsche when, for the purpose of sounding out idols, he recommended using a hammer as if it were a tuning fork. Although this analogy does not align with the essential passivity central to Stoic listening, nonetheless, it does seem that correspondences can be drawn between the Stoic foregrounding of silence, immobility, and attention, and the tuning of idols.

Ear Witness

In 1968, Alistair Cooke, the BBC correspondent to the US was one of many witnesses to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. His account included an unusual detail. He said that “There was suddenly a banging repetition of a sound that I don’t know how to describe, not at all like shots, like somebody dropping a rack of trays.”


Rereading Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods, with its “great declaration of war,” whether with a hammer or a tuning fork, on universal idols, I thought immediately—and irrelevantly—of Barack Obama. When this charismatic leader first came on the political scene, I was dazzled. A presidential candidate who fused the legacies of White Kansas (his mother) and Black Africa (his father), a presidential candidate who had published two serious books—Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope—and had actually read Kafka and Dostoevsky, a brilliant law student who became the first Black president of the Harvard Law review and whom the famous law professor Lawrence Tribe called “the most impressive student I have ever taught.”

Narcissus in Black, Brown and White

Debunk phallic fallacy numero uno: Idols are not chosen. Idols prickle at you—from screens, hieroglyphic stones, ink on paper, or if you’re Lauryn Hill, on the bus to school, senior year. Idols can be found in hidden places. They are conjured in sermons in the houses of the holy, and for some, in the hushed librettos of paternalistic survival—passed down from Gido to Baba, to you. They linger like ghosts, lodged in your subconscious.

Better a Good Ear than a Good Law

It is a hoary saw of common law, and forgive the rhyme, that arguments from precedent should sound. Like most oracular juridical pronouncements this invocation of a syntonics of casuistry, a euphony of edicts, is somewhat opaque. Judges will often intone that an argument sounds in law, that it is on all fours with prior decisions, and this appears to mean that it rings, chimes, or tinkles like a clashing of cymbals or roll of drums announcing the onward march of the legion of legists or the achievement of a perfect pitch such that harmonizes with the choir of juristic precedents. The sounding, however, goes unexamined, the word astray as if a mere metaphor or esoteric reference, some croaking divinity or old-fashioned idol lost now in the mists of the immemorial and time, as they say, out of mind.

And They Dimmed the Sun

Look darling, I’m already having enough difficulty figuring out life with COVID, life with no sun I’ll deal with next year.

The Birth of Music out of the Spirit of Critical Idolatry?

“Sounding the idols”—wait, isn’t this what music already does? What music is? Everything music touches—and it touches everything—seems to appear after the fact as having been an idol, or at least idol-like: hollow, silent, still. A drum, a mouth, a score for sure. A room, a premise. Maybe images above all? None dead, none even all that mute, and yet music, once it arrives on the scene, makes them seem as if they had been dead and mute, refuges for a kind of unearned authority. No idols without unearned authority.

Iconophobia or idolatry

For me the most important thing is not the destruction of an image by religious fanatics but, on the contrary: how much this “disfigurement” and violent cancellation of a historical monument or a symbol actually strengthens the relationship with it, with its ghost or trace that remains … Iconoclasm rather than destroying (even if physically it does) makes the vandalized object even more powerful … I think that my project on iconoclasm is deeply linked to the power of images/pictures and their fruition … It is not a critique of idolatry or ancient and ancestral worship for an idol (whatever it is), but how its representation affects us…


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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