Sound bites and Sartre

By Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)


Revelation of the week: Life is a sound bite. For those of you, my beloved readers, who do not follow the Anglo-Saxon press as intensely, it is best if I offer you a quick definition (once again, courtesy of Merriam Webster):


sound bite. Function: noun, Date: 1972: a brief recorded statement (as by a public figure) broadcast especially on a television news


The idea of a sound bite is to offer as succinctly as possible a memorable phrase that will stay with the passive television viewer at least until the election. Since the average TV addict is considered to have a short attention span, and politics such a very boring subject, the media gurus have reasoned that it is best to provide information in small, sweet, and easily digestible form. Like what pharmaceutical companies do with medicines (this is an idea that the folks who make cod liver oil have failed to embrace). The concept of the sound bite represents a sort of ‘politics for simpletons’, or even more cynically, a process whereby democracy is simply by the idiots, of the idiots, for the idiots.


Far be it from me to pass comment on the strange ways of the advertising world, or the even more bizarre world of politics. My interest in the sound bite is philosophical rather than sociological or anthropological.


But the dictionary is wrong. The concept of a sound bite predates 1972. Life is a series of sound bites and always has been. Perhaps here I am indulging in this advertising gimmick myself, to gain your attention, to pull you in, to lock you irrevocably in to my cacophony of words. We often buy books because of a catchy title, or records or movies because of a phrase. For instance, I bought Blink 182’s brilliant album, ‘Enema of the State’ because of its memorable title. How many people still say (groan), ‘And now for something completely different’ before introducing the next speaker? How many people bought ‘Waiting for Godot’ because the title intrigued them? Almost anyone can identify Pink Floyd with the expression, ‘We don’t need no education’ (I myself have stopped singing along to this brilliant song when I realised the hypocrisy in it after my decision to enter the academic world). It is patently clear that a good catchy phrase can make or break a politician, an author, or a songwriter. We are surrounded, and have been surrounded by sound bites for millennia. Not just one or two but everywhere and everything is either a sound bite of a wanna-be sound bite.


But I stray from my theme. My thesis, dear readers, is not Life is full of sound bites, although this is in fact the case, and has been since the ancestral apes discovered that they could do more with his lips than suck up honey ants and grasshoppers for a quick snack between antelopes.


My thesis should more accurately be Life as a sound bite. I shall elucidate. I have been spellbound by the number of (recently deceased) famous people I had previously never heard of, ever since The Economist (a journal to which I am devoted) began including a weekly obituary between its covers. What fascinated me was not the fact that they were dead (the great constant of life), or that I am so very ignorant (I revel in it), but that these people had been born, lived full lives, cried, celebrated, had babies, wrote books, made speeches, partook of drugs, had thousands of friends, vast numbers of enemies and numerous lovers, and engaged in millions of both meaningful and pointless conversations before finally keeling over and dying. This has mesmerized me for four reasons. First, that I had hitherto no idea that some of these people were so very interesting. Second, that a person’s life – all those conversations, events, and precious moments - can be condensed into a 1000 words or less. Think of it. 70 years of existence, condensed into a series of sound bites. Third, its amazing just how certain phrases and events got to be selected to define a person, and not the millions of others? Fourth, what of the billions of other dead people who have died anonymously, despite having (probably) produced millions of perfectly useful sound bites that no one has seen fit to record?


To distil a man to his bare essentials, to his sound bites, to his essence. But what was his essence? Just as a liquid extract of rose can never capture the fragility of the flower, its translucent petals, their silken feel, the frailty of its seed, so too can we never expect an obituary or any other collection of sound bites to be anything but fleeting and incomplete.


Some people even get full-length biographies written about them. But not everyone qualifies for a book- or even an obituary-length collection of sound bites. Most of us will live and die, unknown and acknowledged even in our own lifetime, save for a small select group. The rest of us only qualify for one single sound bite, if that (a more modest version of the proverbial 15 minutes of fame). Take a situation where an inquisitive acquaintance, student or neighbour asks one of you, “What’s Rajneesh Narula like?” what will you answer? You will not hold forth about my love of food and wine; nor how once, I held your hair back while you puked in a toilet bowl; nor about my unconcealed delight when showing off my maps, or when discussing John Lennon’s lyrics. For the acquaintance is asking politely, wishing only to have a thumb nail sketch, perhaps simply as a curiosity, to put flesh to the name. He or she seeks not to receive chapter and verse of our conversations, my penchant for African travelogues, or my disgust for Okra. The examined individual may not herself be aware of all these facts. An ex-girlfriend may hold a small cache of memories, unique to she and I, to which no one else will ever be privy. She will probably answer in a brevity of words, concisely, knowing that the examiner is looking for simplicity. So (if she has pleasant memories of me) she will say something like, “Strange, short and funny, he wrote a book or two”.


Thus my epitaph, my sound bite. So, my sound bite, thus envisioned, differs not at all from another 1 billion people all of whom are short, strange and funny. It’s a nice phrase, easy to remember, and this student, remembering this, might even find occasion to describe someone entirely different, dead or living. So described I am no different from Winston Churchill, or Eddy Izzard or Steve Martin.


I have not participated in any events that might be regarded as fundamental to human history, nor written any books or poems that will be cited or read much beyond my lifetime (if that). I am eminently forgettable, and all the books and photographs and phone numbers I move from one location to another, will one day end up in a garbage dump or a second-hand bookshop, and perhaps an occasional friend (or the child of one), or a former student will indulge in a sound bite about me in passing. And this is how it should be, that we pass into the mists of anonymity, so someone else can make the same mistakes and discoveries over and over again. We are all gradually eclipsed into obscurity, except for the occasional exception. I know less about my grandfather’s life than I do about Lenin, Aurangzeb or Ibn Battuta.


Is this why people have children? So they can act as their personal repository of sound bites? Is this why academics like myself keep trying to write that seminal paper that will be cited ad infinitum?


Shakespeare and Sartre were right: We exist, and then we die. When we are dead, we are worms meat. And the occasional sound bite.


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