A Philosophy of Echoes with Amit Pinchevski

May 24, 2023 | 00:58:38

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We spend our 50th episode (the last of this season) with communication theorist Amit Pinchevski. Amit’s recent book Echo (MIT Press) explores its topic through mythology, etymology, history, technology, and philosophy. The book challenges the notion that echo is mere repetition. Instead, Pinchevski argues, echo is a generative medium that creatively expresses our relations to others and the world around us. Just as a baby first learns to speak by repeating the sounds of others, a philosophy of echoes reminds us that our own agency and creativity reside in repetitions that respond to the past. 

For our Patreon members we the full two-hour conversation with Amit’s “What’s Good” segment. Join at patreon.com/phantompower

Amit Pinchevski is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests are in theory and philosophy of communication and media, focusing specifically on the ethical aspects of the limits of communication; media witnessing, memory and trauma; and pathologies of communication and their construction.

He is the author of By Way of Interruption: Levinas and the Ethics of Communication (Duquesne UP, 2005), Transmitted Wounds: Media and the Mediation of Trauma (Oxford UP, 2019), and Echo (MIT Press, 2022). He is co-editor of Media Witnessing: Testimony in the Age of Mass Communication (with P. Frosh; Palgrave, 2009) and Ethics of Media (with N. Couldry and M. Madianou; Palgrave, 2013). His work has appeared in academic journals such as Critical Inquiry, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Cultural Critique, Cultural Studies, Public Culture, New Media & Society, and Theory, Culture & Society.

Today’s show was written and edited by Mack Hagood. 

Original music by Graeme Gibson. 


[5:58; Amit Pinchevski Interview]

Ethereal Voice: This is Phantom Power.

[Robotic Music]

Amit Pinchevski: We start out as relational beings. You know, echoing and being echoed. The most important relation that we have, that models us, later on molds our relationships with others. Echo is necessarily both. Both repetition and response.

Mack Hagood: Hey, and welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, where artists and scholars talk about sound. I’m Mack Hagood and I want to start off by saying this is episode 50! 5-0. It’s kind of hard for me to believe. 

We started this show, my friend Cris Cheek and I, back on March 12, 2018. And of course we had actually started working on it back in 2017, and we put out our first episodes in the spring of 2018. That is five years ago! 

Chris and I parted ways after a couple of seasons. I’ve kind of been flying solo ever since then, although not really because I’ve had the amazing support of my friends, Amy Skjerseth and Ravi Krishnaswami, and my former student, Jason Meggyesy, who helps out with a lot of the backend stuff.

And I just want to express my great gratitude to those folks and to all of you for listening. I’ve been out in the world again and I’ve run into so many people who tell me they listen to the show, which is really gratifying.

So it’s lovely to actually know that real human beings are listening to this show. and you know, if you wanted to just sort of give us a little 50th episode present, we would totally love it if you would go to rate this podcast.com/phantom and just put in a review in your platform of choice.

It’ll just take you right to your iTunes or wherever you listen and you can just fill out a review. I would love that, it’s so meaningful to read what folks have to say about the show.

Once again, thanks a lot for listening. I don’t want to go on too much longer about this, but it feels good. 50 episodes feels pretty good.

And one other thing, while I’m kind of stepping outside the frame here and talking about the show, I just want to say that this will be our last episode of this season. We will take the next three months off and we’ll be back with season six in September. 

All right, on to today’s episode! 

I’m very excited about today’s episode because I’m talking to Amit Pinchevski. Amit is Professor of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he’s been teaching since 2004, after completing doctoral research at McGill University in Canada. 

Amit’s research is about the theory and philosophy of communication in media, and he focuses specifically on the ethics of communication, media witnessing, memory and trauma and pathologies of communication.

Today we’re going to speak about Amit’s most recent book, which is simply entitled Echo. It’s a small book in which Amit proposes that echo is not simply repetition and the reproduction of sameness, but instead echo is an agent of change and a source of creation and creativity. 

Perhaps more than anything, Pinchevski suggests that echo is a medium; a medium of connection across time and space and disparate domains.

I spoke to Amit for a couple of hours. This is going to be one of those episodes where there’s no music, no sound design, no special production. It’s just going to be an in-depth conversation about the ideas in Amit’s book. 

So we’ll be talking about the physics and the philosophy and the media philosophy of echo. We’re going to go back to ancient debates with the Greeks. We’re going to talk about the mythology of Echo and Narcissus, and we’re going to talk about the political valences of the way we talk about echo, the way we think about echo, and the way we think about repetition. 

So I’ll be presenting about an hour of our conversation here, but if you want to hear the full length conversation with Amit Pinchevski, join our Patreon. You’ll hear us talk about his journey from political science into media theory. We’ll also talk about one of Amit’s previous books on media and trauma and the connections between echo and trauma. 

And then we also talk about what it’s like to be a humanities academic in Israel right now where there’s this right wing coalition that’s trying to curb the power of the Supreme Court in these massive protests in the streets. 

And, we also talk about the 2013 American Studies Association boycott against Israel for Human Rights violations against the Palestinian people. It’s a really wide ranging conversation. 

For today’s episode, I really just focused on the echo part for our main offering. But again, go to patreon.com/phantompower if you want to hear the full conversation. 

Okay, here it is, my conversation with Amit Pinchevski.


[Robotic Music]

Amit: Can you hear me okay? 

Mack: Yeah, I can hear you loud and clear. 

Amit: It’s a pleasure and an honor. I’m an avid listener. 

Mack: Oh man. 

Amit: And telling people all all over about it. 

Mack: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate that!   

Amit: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Mack: Well, I really enjoyed your book and I’m very, very excited to talk about it.

Amit: Thank you. 

Mack: Your new book, Echo, is out on MIT’s Essential Knowledge series. It’s this very compact, small form factor book filled with valuable ideas, not densely written in terms of the prose. It’s very lucid, but I mean, in terms of great ideas per page, I just think, pound for pound, this is a heavyweight book.

And so maybe can you just talk a little bit about what is the goal with this book? What’s the thesis of the book? 

Amit: Well, at some point I wanted to write about echo because I felt it really nicely combines things that I was interested in. 

Voice, sound, speech, media, ethics, relation, responsibility, all those things, somehow, I found kind of combines with echo. But I didn’t want to write a long book. 

What was attractive to me is to try to do a kind of an argument driven book, rather than a comprehensive account of the history or something like that. And it’s really, if you look at it in that way, it’s really a media philosophy of echo.

It’s trying to figure out what kind of a medium echo is. Exploring echo as a medium, as something that is a phenomena, a concept, the figure, the metaphor, all those things is something that is essentially in the in between, (something) that transpires in the middle. 

Mack: And correct me if I’m wrong, but I mean, I would say in terms of the argument, there is a kind of common reductive view of echo that I think you’re challenging. And I really like how you sort of root this in Western history, Western philosophy into a sort of debate between Plato and Aristotle in terms of like two differing versions of echo, of mimesis. So could maybe you talk about that a little bit? 

Amit: Yep. The purpose of this book, the argument that I’m kind of trying to advance, basically has to do with redeeming echo or rediscovering echo.

And this rediscovering echo, as I said, the concept and the figure and the metaphor and the phenomenon, is creative rather than simply repetitive or even to say it better perhaps, is creative because repetitive.

We tend to see repetition as something that brings back self sane, as redundant. And I was trying to show that repetition is actually immensely creative and specifically because if you think of it, there’s no such thing as mere repetition. 

Complete, perfect repetition would be imperceptible. We wouldn’t be able to perceive repetition if it had not been involved with certain difference, with certain delay, variants and so forth.

So that was a kind of way to push the idea that repetition underlies creativity and productivity. So going back, you know, it’s only customary to go back to the Greeks and then find everything starting with them. And echo is no exception. 

Because if you go all the way with it, with the argument, it’s like echo compresses the dispute between, or distills the disputes between Plato and Aristotle about the nature of metaphysics. 

We all know, many of us know at least, Plato’s The Cave, and it’s mostly told as a story about the shadows that stand for truth replicas. But it’s interesting because in the Republic it starts actually with echoes, not with shadows.

When prisoners sitting inside mistakenly hearing echoes as original sounds. And then watching the shadows as the actual figures. 

Well, we can go into a lot of detailed debate (on) “what’s the relation between shadows and echoes?” But, essentially the point is that we can find in Plato the traditional reductive view that echoes are simple repetitions. They’re reproductions of the same and even worse, they’re replicas of the truth and therefore, not to be trusted.  

In Aristotle, we find something more interesting, I think. On the one hand, his idea of how we come to understand and know the world has to do imitation.

This is how we learn to do things. We model ourselves according to something. So, repetition and imitation are actually the basis for knowledge and understanding. But he also has this idea from which we can trace back the whole idea of media and medium to this concept of metaxi, which is the in between. 

And when he talks about the in between, it brings in the case of echo, the acoustic echo, as something that moves in between and from one side to the other. 

I think this is a richer notion of echo that is not substandard to something, but is generative and productive.

So, I’m kind of siding with Aristotle and trying to tease out all those different cases, situations, context in which we can actually see echoing as creative and productive. 

Mack: Beautiful. Beautiful. So with that in mind, how exactly would you define echo?

Amit: The way that I begin the book is by starting with a general working definition. We started already saying that echo is necessarily inbetween, in the interval. In the midst of things, but other things can be there. So, the way that I define it is that echo is repetition plus response.

Not all responses are repetitions, and of course not all repetitions are responses, but echo is necessarily both. Both repetition and response. But then things become more complicated because the response is by definition, delayed. It comes at a lag. And repetition is never complete.

It’s partial or it’s distorted. And here already we can see that in the interval there is also difference. There’s also alterity. So both repetition and response, but delay and change. 

Mack: And to just concretize this a little bit maybe in terms of just the physics of echo, when you say that there is repetition and difference, I mean, obviously there’s kind of a delusion thing you’re referring to here. 

Amit: Absolutely. 

Mack: But, on a more concrete level, we’re talking about this difference is an expression of the environment in which the initial sound was sounded. Right? So, when you’re talking about echo as medium, the echo is also mediated.

The echo is mediated by the space that creates it. And yet, the echo itself is also a medium for the transformation of the initial sound. Would you kind of agree with that summary? 

Amit: Yeah. And I would even add to that, that the echo is also a medium of the surroundings, I mean mediating the surroundings in which it’s in, which it travels. 

Mack: It’s a way that we experience the space. So if we go to a canyon, part of the way that we experience the knowledge that we are in a canyon is from the echoing in the canyon itself. So it’s mediating that experience of canyon-ness, 

Amit: Right. There’s no echo without holding environment, allowing for it to transpire. So it’s about the surrounding that it brings, that it makes manifest in taking place. 

Taking place is really important here because echo has to take place. It’s of a place. So, what it spells basically is that what comes around is never what goes around or what goes around is never what comes around. Right?

Because what you send up out has to rub against the surrounding and when it turns around and comes back, it’s already not the way you sent it. It’s already altered.

And therefore it holds the potential for difference and for surprise. It’s not surprising that, you know, the traditional figure of echo was viewed as treacherous. Because, you know, sometimes it repeats what you expected to repeat. Sometimes it repeats it differently. And you cannot really control it because it’s out of your hands. 

Mack: Well, maybe we should talk about that a little bit more, the sort of mythological figure or figures of echo. So in Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Amit:It’s interesting, it’s a very famous story, of course of echo and how Echo, of course a female figure, importantly. Very importantly that it’s a female figure. 

And the way Echo became echo, and it’s interesting if you read it in the original Latin, I had to have some assistance doing that. But if you go into it, you can actually see very interesting things there, which are missed if you consult the translations. 

What you see in the original Latin is that when Echo repeats phrases, the repetition is varied. And specifically that goes to the story of Echo and Narcissus. 

So, she falls in love with Narcissus and she tries to draw his attention. Now she was punished for being talkative. Too talkative. And the punishment that she received by Hera for engaging in long conversations with her while Jupiter. 

Mack: Was out philandering. 

Amit: Yes, with the nymphs on the mountain.  

So she punished her because she was talkative. The punishment was that she would never be able to have her own voice. Only repeat the last words of others. But again, when you see the kind of dialogue, in a way it’s a dialogue between her and Narcissus.

So she’s trying to draw his attention, and when he calls out when she’s like moving across the forest. And so he calls out “Who’s out there?” So she repeats “Out there,” and when he calls out, “Let’s get together,” she calls back “Together.” 

So she’s controlling how much of her repetition she’s bringing back and how much she’s holding back.

So it’s really interesting because she comes out as a very deliberate figure who controls her speech, which is not hers. And then she, of course, he rejects her and, brokenhearted, her body disintegrates and her bones turn into stones and mountains.

So it’s interesting because she starts the story as a voice and turns into sound. She becomes an echo. She becomes the phenomenon, and this is a really interesting story to look at.

Both her and Narcissus are basically media figures, like figures of reflection.

He’s enamored with his own reflection in the pond. She is hooked to his reflections back of his voice with her. 

Mack: One of the things that your interpretation really brings out nicely for me is that Hera is trying to take away Echo’s agency, right. Hera is mad at Echo.

So, Hera thinks she’s denying Echo any agency by causing her just to repeat. And so we sort of get this cross fade from the voice as a site of agency and a site of the self to being just this acoustic phenomenon, the echo, but Echo is still able to evidence a kind of intentionality. It’s still in there. 

And this is the bias that you’re challenging, we’ll talk about this I think later, I hope, but when we use echo metaphorically, particularly politically, in terms of decrying right wing echo chambers or what have you, right?

The idea is that that’s a space where people go to lose their agency. But in fact, there is a lot of agency in the repetition of sound, of ideas, of memes, of what have you that, in fact, I might push as far as to say in your book is saying that actually all of the creative agency that we have actually resides in resounding things that came before.

In a way it says that creativity is never about pure originality, right? That’s not what originality is about. Originality is about a certain way of repeating, and that’s original. 

Mack: What about nature and culture? Because I feel like that’s a really important theme in your book as well. That echo tells us something about the relationship between nature and culture and the mutual transference, I think especially when it comes to echo. 

Amit: And the mutual transference, I think, especially when it comes to echo. Even if we look at the figure of echo already, it’s a figure and it’s a mythological figure and it’s a natural phenomenon.

And the Metamorphosis, as Ovid’s stories, is precisely about this transference from culture to nature and backwards. And I think this really correlates with the relation between sound and voice. Come to think of it, echo might be a broader category than that duality that we sometimes, you know, insist on between sound and voice because echo is both. Or even better what runs between and converts voice into sound and vice versa.

If we think of the process that echo undergoes from speaking into echoing from voice to sound. When we talk about language acquisition, and this is very controversial topic, but we actually undergo the opposite process, we start out as infantile, unable to speak, as echolaliacs; as repeating sounds. 

And then become, eventually speaking agents, speaking selves. So that trajectory, from sound to voice and from voice to sound, is a very interesting one. 

And the way to, I think, to look at it is through the mediation of echo, because echoing is what allows that shift from one status to the other and back again. 

Mack: That is really fascinating to think about language acquisition and that the echo actually comes first. You know, this baby babbling, repeating what it’s mother says. The relationship to the other is primary in that.

So, the difference is inherent in the repetition and it’s not like the self is this originary source of utterances, the other actually comes first. The relationality comes first, which I think is fascinating. Especially in terms of like current debates around AI, I think. 

Because we have this long new way of understanding the self that that has been developing for quite some time now with AI researchers and so forth. This idea, it’s a very platonic idea that the ideas come first, right? And that there’s a certain kind of processing, whether it’s programming or now maybe neural nets and that that’s primary, it’s kind of self-contained.

And then it can be an actor, it can be agentive, it can be eventually artificial general intelligence. But what a lot of folks, you know, from maybe outside that field would point out is that there’s so much tacit understanding, environmental understanding, embodied understanding that allows us to be agentive in that way. 

To be thinkers in that way, and that there’s no basis for a human-like intelligence, to say the very least, perhaps any intelligence at all without all of that tacit stuff that we can’t even explain ourselves because we learned it by echoing, by babbling, by interacting with otherness in the environment.

Amit: By being imbued in it, being part of it. It’s a phenomenological phenomenon rather than a cognitive. And also, another lesson perhaps here is that we’re obsessed with like, you know, finding what’s the origin and what’s the copy, whether AI can copy our abilities or not maybe surpass our abilities. 

That’s a very platonic way of it thinking. But if we’re, you know, echoing creatures. So there are different ways of, you know, being repetitive and creative, which is perhaps two sides of the same thing. And we’re participating with other echoing creatures or..

Mack: Entities

Amit: Mechanisms together. 

Mack: Which I think is lovely as long as we don’t lose sight of. I think there’s been this really reductionist as we’ve been discussing this whole time, our media technologies become our metaphors for ourselves, and I think in the public discourse around AI, we are really losing sight of a lot of aspects that don’t get captured by that particular metaphor that AI offers us.

I think I would like to talk next about the second chapter in the book called “Resounding.” And it’s really cool because I’m always telling my students we have to define our terms. Like, what are we actually talking about here?

And I love the way this chapter thinks very deeply and precisely about what you call the “resounding family.” That there are material and metaphorical differences between reflection, reverberation, resonance, and then echo. And then a lot of times we conflate these things. 

Could you talk a little bit about what you wanted to achieve with this chapter and maybe we can sort of tease apart those differences and their affordances?

Amit: Yeah, sure. So first, as you said, it’s kind of, you know, conceptual clarification. So we know what we’re dealing with because the language tends to take over and then you see a lot of times people really conflate the resonance with echoing, with reverberation, with repetition, with a lot of other things that are quite different. Certainly acoustically different. 

But then when you follow it through, I think also metaphorically different and conceptually different. So it’s a way first to cover a lot of ground. In terms of like comparative analysis, conceptually, but also to bring out really what is distinctive to echo and to echoing.

So it’s all forms, I guess, of resounding of the repetition and the reflection of sound. So the overall phenomena and concept or notion is that of reflection of the returning; of returning sound waves. And that also goes of course to optics, which I don’t really deal with only very little, but reflections are all optical and acoustic.

But still, I think generally speaking, we have this bias when you talk about reflection. It a visual bias. When when we talk about it and when you go back, you see that like in the 16th, 17th century, scholars were obsessed with sound reflections. 

That was what we now call sound they called echo, because that was a way for them to try out, measure, determine how the phenomenon works. And what we call acoustics now, they called echometria. In the 16th and especially 17th century people like Biancani and Nielsen and (inaudible) especially, they were like experimenting with reflection, with sound reflections and measuring the reflections and constructing all those weird kind of structures from which different reflections come back and different parts of speech come back.

So you can actually manipulate echoes architecturally. 

Mack: And these are those strange constructions that maybe people have seen images floating around on the internet. Many walls at different lengths that a sound could be reflected back at different. 

Amit: I mean, I’m not sure it really works if you actually tried construction.

Mack: They look rather dubious to me. 

Amit: But the logic is interesting. So from different distances would reflect in at different times, different parts of what you cry out towards that construction. So that would’ve been a way to, you know, to create a kind of an old recorder machine.

So it brings back the sound from those, from the different walls. 

Mack: You’re mentioning sort of like what we would call sound, they would call echo. I mean, I think maybe some of us have heard different scholars sort of remind us that there wasn’t really this general category of sound that was widely used and that people would talk about voices. They would talk about music. They might talk about noises, but sound as this general category is a somewhat modern invention. 

But you’re saying that echo was actually the first time that they started to objectify something?

Amit: Yep. 

Mack: Other than music. 

Amit: Yep. 

Mack: Noise and voice.

Amit: Yeah, that’s already in Aristotle, but certainly in the 17th century. You can see that with Nielsen measuring the time of sound coming of voice, you know, going back and forth, which was quite accurate when we look back at it.     

But reflection really names the general phenomenon and notion. When we try to find what is distinctive about echoing, I think it’s very important to differentiate between reverberation and echoing. Both are reflections of sound, but reverberation is the prolongation of reflected sound. It’s what you would have like the cathedral effect, right?

So, you hear the sound like, you know, continuing until full decay and this has kind of grandeur to it. You need the structure or environment long enough to enlarge the sound so it would be perceived in that way. But when it starts to echo, it requires certain conditions for reverberation to turn into echo.

So the distance from a reflecting object needs to be long enough, far enough for echo to be perceived as repetition rather than enlargement. That takes 17 meters or roughly 55 feet, so that’s psycho-acoustically, for us, that’s the minimum time for us to perceive sound reflection as a repetition.

Before that, we would take it psycho-acoustically as reverberation, as what we call like reverb. As a sound effect. So metaphorically, also, they’re very different because reverberation, again, signals that kind of, you know, enlargement and grandeur.

Whereas echo opens up the whole possibility of repetition and change and variation, which you don’t get in reverberation. Reverberation is really reproduction of, or prolongation of, the original emission. And then there is also resonance, which is different, but sometimes it’s also being conflated.

Because resonance could be acoustical, but not necessarily. And the way that I approach resonance is that the name itself is resounding, basically, resonance. But what it points towards is a situation or phenomena in which there is correspondence between the triggering emission or frequency and the reacting one. 

So two systems, one hitting another, and evoking in it, triggering in it something that is already there to a certain extent so it resonates with something. 

So for something to resonate with something else, it has to have a certain predisposition towards it; a certain frequency, which is latent in it for it to be activated from the outside. 

Mack: That allows it to sympathetically vibrate with that other. 

Amit: This is actually, how it’s called sympathetic resonance. It activates something in it.

So there is a sense of repetition there, but it’s not time delayed repetition. And it’s a different kind of, I guess, relation; one of correspondence rather than of repetition. So there are resemblances. Because it’s one family. I think it’s really important to see how echo is different because it has to be and has to do with what is going in between and is something that is necessarily across time and space.

All of these reflections, of course, are across time and space, but I think echo is distinctive in that it goes all the way, so it goes forth and back. It travels the whole way rather than the other which is one way part of the way. So it’s full relation, basically. 

Mack: It’s interesting because I’m just thinking about the different political metaphorical valences of these things. And if echo has somewhat been perhaps a bad object. I feel like at least in leftist discourse resonance has been a good object, right? I mean, we sort of talk about, “Oh, I really resonate with that.” Or just in the culture, I feel like there’s been a lot of talk lately of vibes or vibing. 

There was a big article about an alleged vibe shift that happened. But, you know, vibes can also be bad and resonance can remind us of unwanted connection, which is really kind of like what my work is about with noise cancellation and these kinds of things.

If your apartment is resonating with the sound of somebody’s, you know, playing trap music in the apartment next door or whatever, and you don’t feel like hearing that, like that’s not a good resonance for you. So, it’s just interesting to me how politically these metaphors take on certain valences. 

Amit: There’s an important book by sociologist Hartmut Rosa called Resonance. So it’s kind of critical theory, sociological critical theory building on the notion of resonance. Something that’s the good that you would want to achieve.

But the political social conditions work against that. This kind of, I would say homeostasis, perhaps. Balance between myself and the environment, myself and others, myself and the world. 

So resonance is something that he considers as the good that is missing. And interestingly, he refers to echoing as a problem because it kind of postpones, or perhaps even negates that possibility.

And of course I’m trying to redeem echo, right? Showing that it’s absolutely not necessarily the case, and even more than that is that with resonance, I think there’s something a bit self-serving. Because it’s about how I resonate with something or how something resonates with me.

Whereas with echoing, I am given away to the other, and I am out of bounds in a way, because I’m echoing and therefore dependent on the outside. 

Mack: I like that so much. I mean that you just put your finger on something that really annoys me about the resonating discourse. There is a certain narcissism to it. 

We should maybe dive in a little bit deeper into this sort of rhetoric of echoing. I don’t know where this will go. But, you kind of talk about, and I’m glad you did because I have to be honest as a reluctant Twitter user, I never completely understood this whole thing with the echo symbols. 

I mean, I knew it was some kind of anti-Semitic online discourse. But you kind of use it as a case study, and I’m really interested maybe if you could tell that story and what you learned about sort of like rhetorical echoes from taking this on as a case study.

Amit: Yeah, so I was trying to look at echo from different angles, so we can talk about echo as kind of, you know, as poetic; as a kind of a repetition that, you know, is creative as you would find, like in poems that try to bring out this kind of creative effect of repetition of sound.

But also it goes back to rhetoric in which we know, of course, repetition in rhetoric is very important. It’s never simply redundant, right? What you repeat is very important, and I found this case that was most emblematic, I think to me because it’s a case of I would say it’s kind of a signaling of anti-Semite discourse.

So, it started with some right wing podcast, I can’t remember the name of the podcast, and what they did is they cried or they expressed like Jewish names on the podcast vocally and added to it a sound effect of echo, right? So it is like the names were echoing literally, and they were saying, “Oh, you see, this is like, they are chasing us from the past.” Like those Jewish names. 

And it had to do with some Holocaust denial issues and so forth. 

Mack: And for those who don’t have any idea what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about how online people were taking Jewish surnames and putting these parentheses, triple parentheses around them. So I did not realize until I read this book that it started off actually as an echo sound effect on this podcast. 

Amit: So it started as a sound effect and then for those listening of course, to the podcast, and then it traveled online especially on Twitter and then it kind of converted from a former vocal or sonic effect into a textual one. And instead of the repetition, the sonic repetition, it became this triple parenthesis kind of hugging Jewish names. And that was for those in the know, because not everybody knew that that was the intention when that kind of broke out.

That was what happened, I think was completely unanticipated by those who had come up with the symbol. What happened is that Twitter users, Jewish and non-Jewish, claimed that symbol and started using it for their own names and others’ names. 

So they echoed that textual echo and subverted the meaning. So it started out as pejorative and then it was reclaimed and became a symbol of solidarity. 

So if somebody is being named as something, so we’re all identifying the same way and therefore we’re like standing with those that are singled out.

So this is an amazing kind of turn of events in which like acoustical sound effect of echo transforms intertextual one and becomes echo, and then becomes rhetorically echoed by other users. That turned the original meaning around and instead of being a kind of antisemitic category, it’s reclaimed as sign of solidarity. 

Mack: And I think, you know, you’re kind of putting your finger on a very common phenomenon in online discourse, which is people sort of take on whatever thing that they were interpolated as, they sort of repeat it back and take a proud form of ownership over it, at least that’s one of the tactics of echoing that we see online.

One of my favorite quotes in the book, you write:

“This case exemplifies the rhetorical effect of echoing and the way repetition allows superseding the original message. This is because echoing always transpires against a specific background and context while ostensibly repeating the same thing. Echo actually brings out the changing conditions of uttering and in so doing makes the original message susceptible to new meanings.”

I think you’ve explained this phenomenon that we maybe all have sensed online in a really lovely and lucid way there. 

Amit: I think this point actually holds to all the cases in the book that it brings out the context; it brings out the situation in which it occurs.

And here again, I think we can see again the duplicity of echo. Because echo basically is really about duplicity. Because we find all this discourse about echo chambers as the ultimate evil nowadays, right? This is where everything is going wrong with today’s politics, this is one of them.

And if we really, you know, take echo to be duplicitous, I mean, has two faces, two aspects to it. So there’s one that is treacherous; You cannot control it. But it has the other side of repetition as that effect of like, “I’m Spartacus.” I’m standing with someone. I’m endorsing something. I’m acknowledging and repeating something.

So echo is not all bad. I mean it has to have something to do mobilizing, with standing with, with identifying with something. There’s no politics without echoing. This is how we gather together and become politically engaged.

Of course, not all echoing is politically engaged, right? And I wouldn’t want to live in a situation where there is a huge echo chamber. But this is where things are more complicated because echo is not either good or bad. It’s about the context.

It’s about where it happens and how it happens. And this is why you think echoing is such an interesting phenomenon because it really has to do with the specific context. 

Mack: There was a question that I wanted to ask you very early on in our conversation, and it’s just come back to me. You mentioned how it was very important that Echo was a female figure, and I think part of the work you’re doing in this book is, at least one of the sub-arguments, is that there is a feminist argument for echo. A sort of other focused relational conception of creativity instead of this singular autonomous originary force where sound comes from.

Could you maybe talk a little bit about that and, I believe you mentioned Kristeva in that context, but also you brought forward some Native American conceptions of echo that I thought were rather interesting as well. 

Amit: Yeah, I mean, there’s a whole gender issue that really goes as we started with Narcissus and Echo, right? So the male centered an self-obsessed figure as opposed to the female, other oriented relational figure. And I think that kind of follows through with a lot of discussions around and reference to echo because it’s secondary. 

And if you associate it with kind the female figure, I think you can actually turn this around because it’s secondary, but there’s nothing secondary about being secondary.

It’s originary because it’s relational. That’s the beginning of everything. The obsession with self-creation, with the logo centrism. So echo, I think, is very powerful in skewing and unsettling all that because it might be not immediately perceptible how it works, but because it has to do with the relation rather than with the content or with the message. 

It’s about the relation that takes place rather than what is said. 

Mack: It’s not about the transmission of information. 

Amit: Exactly. It’s about the relation, which means that this is what comes first and what what ultimately counts.

Mack: It reminds me of, you know, phatic language, right? Like, yeah. You say “hi,” I echo “hi” back. These are meaningless utterances in a sense. There’s really no information being transmitted, but a relationship is being established. 

Amit: Absolutely! phatic communication is the basis of all communication, and the minute the phatic communication fails, there is no communication.

We need to recreate it. We need to recreate the channel, right? Fix it. Restore it. And I think this also brings out what is taken for granted, or even more than taken for granted, is something that underlies the condition of possibility of what we might call the message and the back and forth. But the actual back and forth is not about the message, it’s about the possibility of a relation.

And we start out as relational beings. It’s like, you know, echoing and being echoed, and that perhaps is the most important relation that we have. That models us later on, models our relationships with others. 

What’s important there is not what is said, right? What was repeated, but the act of repetition itself.

This is a very important insight. It comes from Kristeva and other feminist scholars. That’s that push against that kind of originary fixation and try to go convincingly towards the idea of response and responsibility. And here I completely see how Levinas aligns with that conception.

He too fore grounds relation. He calls it the “saying” rather than the “said.” So the relation rather than discourse. Not that it’s not important, of course it’s important, but if you want to look at things in a more kind of profound situation, profound understanding it has to do with the relation.

[Robotic Music]

Mack: And that’s my conversation with communication theorist Amit Pinchevski. There’s a whole lot more to be heard. Just go to patreon.com/phantompower. You can hear us consoling one another over what the right wing is doing in our respective countries and much, much more. It’s more fun than I make it sound.

And that’s also it for this 50th episode of Phantom Power, thanks for being along for the ride. And if you want to send some feedback that just can’t fit into your review at ratethispodcast.com/phantom, send me an email. 

My email is…

Today’s music is by Graeme Gibson. Have a lovely, chill summer. You deserve it. And I’ll talk to you later.

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