Hear the Rainbow


Like most Gentiles, I’ve spent the last couple of days in deep contemplation of the birth of the Messiah. Or just watching Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean. Looks like I’ve been too occupied with Christmas sweaters and eggnog to think about much else, so I guess we’ll have to depart from last week’s theme of serious directors/film school brats.

In its place, we’ll discuss my biggest catch of the holiday season: a new set of headphones. I was thrilled because my previous pair had landed me in the emergency room for an intimate date with some-sort of alligator themed implement (think I’m joking? The operation looked kind of like this). I’m also thrilled because they’re noise canceling. That means I don’t have to hear this. Or this. Just a lot of this.

The product description promises a serious improvement in my aural escapades:

Enhance your listening experience and reduce unwanted ambient noise with the MDR-NC7 noise canceling headphones. Featuring a convenient, foldable and swivel design, these headphones are perfect for travel or the daily commute. There’s even a convenient, dual-use capability that gives you the option to listen to your music with or without the noise cancellation feature.

The emphasis placed on my [the consumer’s] “listening experience” diverts the headphones from their presumed original task, the transmission of sound from object to person, and orients them solely toward the sensorium of the listener. Instead of improving the quality of the sound, they improve the ability of the individual to process the sound. We’re no longer putting on headphones; we’re putting on new, improved ears, which work like Adderall, allowing listeners to drown out “unwanted ambient noise” and focus on the task at hand, the desired audio.

The idea of an improved sensorium, as Edward Said argues in his work, Culture and Imperialism, has always been intimately connected to imperial expansion, particularly that of nineteenth-century European high imperialism. It’s also a constant theme in Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 novel, Mason and Dixon. Mason, the straight man, and Dixon, the funny man, traverse the globe in their astronomical pursuits, encountering and mapping the wide world of bodily experiences unfamiliar to an eighteenth century Englishman. For example, Dixon creates an olfactory map of Cape Town:

“Here, Tuan! Best Dagga, cleaned, graded, ready for your flame…” “Real Dutch gin, bottles with th’original seals, yes! Intact as virgins…” “Latest ketjap, arriv’d Express from Indo-China, see? Pineapple, Pumplenose, Tamarind, — an hundred flavors, a thousand blends!” Invisible through the long Dutch workday, life in the Cape Night now begins to unwrap everywhere. Dixon smells the broiling food, the spices, the livestock, the night-blooming vines, the ocean voracious and immense. He is acquiring a nasal map of the Town, learning, in monitory whiffs, to smell the Watch, — pipes, sheep-fat suppers, pre-Watch gin, — and to take evasive action..learning to lurk, become part of the night, close enough to slave-borne lanthorns passing by to feel their heat as easily he may scent the burghers’ wives through the curtains of their sedan chairs, — the St. Helena coffee, English soap, French dampness. In the distance the nightly curfew cannon barks, announcing Dixon’s transition to Outlaw. (Pynchon 78).

What interests me in this above-quoted passage is the relation between new sensual experience, its commodification/regulation, and power. In Cape Town, Dixon discovers exotic smells such as “Pumplenose [and] Tamarind” in “an hundred flavors [and] a thousand blends,” but he is able to acclimate himself to them by creating a “nasal map,” which in turn allows him to “take evasive action” and carouse throughout the town in search of women and alcohol. Dixon uses a map to order his new experience and afford himself the ability to move freely throughout the town, over against the wishes of the colonial authorities. In effect, he bestows upon himself a liberty which trumps that of all other authorities on the island.

This type of power is not innocent to the kinds of sensual experiences that we see marketed today, nor is it just a fiction created by an American novelist and situated just in eighteenth-century South Africa. Skittles, for instance, promises us to taste the rainbow while at the same time spreading that rainbow across multiple continents. (You can actually watch the world enjoying similar products on their parent company’s website, so make sure to check out the slide show.)

Just as Dixon’s nasal map reigns in a world of alien scents, so too does Skittles reign in the equally unfathomable taste of a rainbow. Furthermore, just as Dixon’s map allows him to rise above colonial authorities, so too is Skittles able to enjoy the prestige of a good that is above politics. A recent New York Times article shows how large multi-national corporations such as Mars, Inc. (Skittles’ parent company), Kraft, and Pepsi have been able to trade in officially embargoed countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Cuba by spinning their products as humanitarian aid. While commercial goods are not allowed in such nations, commodities designed to promote the well-being of the local population (I don’t know…maybe toothpaste? penicillin? water?) are. The former are certainly political, but the latter are not. In fact, they are above politics. American hegemony is attached to superfluous things like Big Macs and iPods; things that constitute humanitarian aid are supposedly freed from such political games — they are transacted between people helping people.

Are Skittles part of that? I would venture to say that they are not.

Dixon improves his nose, Skittles improve our tongues, and my headphones improve my ears. The ability to block out unwanted, “ambient” sounds, then, is equally important when it comes to the assertion of one’s authority over another. NPR’s All Things Considered illustrated this connection with their story on American veterans’ struggles with tinnitus, a permanent ringing caused by prolonged exposure to loud sounds. It is the number one disability experienced by Iraq/Afghanistan war vets — an ailment so crippling that it has caused a serious investment in new ear-protection technology.

However, the problem cannot be solved simply by creating permanent ear plugs; it can only be addressed by providing ear plugs that let the right sounds in. Airplanes and machine guns damage human ears, but orders barked from a nearby interlocutor must be heard in order to successfully execute battle plans. If anything, it sounds like soliders needs to hear a little less of this and a little more of this.


Darren Aronofsky is infatuated with the backs of peoples’ heads. As viewers, we spend most of The Wrestler (2008) literally trailing Mickey Rourke through hallways and back-stages, most of Black Swan (2010) walking behind Natalie Portman through dressing rooms and New York pedestrian ways, and a few segments of Requiem for a Dream (2000) lurking after Jennifer Connelly. But why? Not only are most of our noggins uninspiring when viewed from behind; they’re anonymous as well. Yet, because Aronofsky’s films hinge on hard-hitting portraits of the deluded and down-and-out, his characters’ distinct identities and circumstances matter to viewers. But Aronofsky is not attempting to dillute his characters by filming them from behind; he’s challenging our ability as viewers to distance ourselves from the world of the film.

As he incessantly insists, we don’t always receive emotion through faces; sometimes the backs of our heads can be just as revealing as the front. The whole thing is a lot like playing follow the leader. The Peter Pan clip is telling here: following the leader asks you not only to listen to your superiors, do as your told, and be an upright citizen, but to literally make your body like the leader’s body. It’s an induction ritual — the oldest goes first, followed by the youngest. Following their elder, the younger encounters similar obstacles and must overcome them in the same way. Ease of repetition is everything — jump over the hippo, but do it with the same nonchalance. If you don’t, you won’t belong. All errors are noticeable and unforgivable.

This is the kind of game Aronofsky’s protagonists play. The only problem is that he forces us to partake as well.  We feel like Rourke should stop being a wrestler, and we know that Portman needs a break from the ballet, but we don’t know that we should stop watching. The two of them are following their own leaders — Portman, through hours of practice, the role of the Black Swan; Rourke, through meticulous pre-match planning, his career as a wrestler. Meanwhile, we continue to follow them, plodding slowly in their footsteps throughout their daily routines. Aronofsky has left no space for critique. It’s impossible to stand outside these films when the director models your perspective after the characters’ experiences, when the sadness (The Wrestler) or the tension (Black Swan) that readers experience follows from characters who are themselves following.

Requiem for a Dream is earlier and makes less use of the stalking shot. However, the symbiotic relationship between the viewer and the characters is even more extreme. We don’t just follow Connelly; we’re a part of her.  After sleeping with a man for money, Connelly enters the hallway of a flourscent-lit apartment building (1:00:03) as we watch her through a camera fastened to her body — the fear factor cam. Now, our world turns with hers — we don’t just watch from behind as she shuffles to the left or turns to the right; we have no choice but to shuffle and turn in unison.The visceral experience of fear and disgust — the language of the fear factor cam — sutures the viewer to the protagonists. If before we followed because we were intrigued our because we sought initiation, then now we follow because we have no other option. We’re stuck. Just like the people on the screen.