Echoing Still

In William Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello wrestles with the rumors circling around his wife, Desdemona, and her virtue, and counsels with Iago in his private chambers. Their exchange is full of echoing repetitions and circuitous thoughts that come bouncing back to Othello, further disorienting him.

Iago: Indeed?

Othello: Indeed? … Is he not honest?

Iago: Honest, my lord?

Othello: Honest? Ay, honest. What dost thou think?

Iago: Think, my lord?

Othello: “Think, my lord?” By heaven, thou echo’st me

As if there were some monster in thy thought

Too hideous to be shown.[1]

Little does Othello know, the “green-eyed monster” of Jealousy (a modern commonplace from good ole Bill Shakes) lives inside Iago. The echoing exchange fails to help Othello locate truth in his chambers. Echoing themes outside his rooms do little to further expose the “monster in [Iago’s] thought/ Too hideous to be shown.” “O blood, blood, blood!”[2] is paralleled by Desdemona’s “O Lord, Lord, Lord!”[3] Othello is a “fool, fool, fool”[4] for relying solely upon fading, fragile “reputation, reputation, reputation.”[5]

Othello is, by Iago’s manipulative hand, isolated in body and spirit. The play’s action is precipitated by a move from the cosmopolitan hub of Venice to the island of Cyprus. While Iago has more soliloquies and asides, Othello is isolated onstage frequently, and is left alone with the bodies of Emilia and Desdemona. Iago manipulates social and emotional distance between characters—where once a stream between Othello and his lovely bride, now a gulf. And we cannot overlook the isolating Othering that, from the beginning, marks Othello as separate. Othello’s skin color, read as a somatic marker of difference and emphasized in characters’ speeches and asides, segregates Othello visibly, socially, and psychologically. Through dramatic irony, the audience can see what Othello cannot. Even when, especially when, with Iago, Othello is heartbreakingly, tragically alone.

“Echo + loneliness” are etched in the mythological tree under “together 4eva,” thanks to Ovid, among others. In a tale as old as chronos, Echo the mountain nymph played wing-woman for Jupiter and her friend. Juno caught wind of the affair, but was distracted by Echo’s loquacious ramblings. She wised up in the end, cursed Echo for chatting her up, and got upset at Jupiter for, well, being Jupiter. Echo, no longer able to say more than the most recently spoken words of another person, was left to wander alone through mountain and glen.[6]

Tired of isolation, she fell for Narcissus. Those familiar with that vain boy—or any, really—know how this story goes. After Narcissus died courting his own reflection in the pool, Echo, too, wasted away. Her bones turned to stone, her beauty gray. Her voice alone remained, keeping those who traverse her bones company.[7]

Turn we now to a bit of social media spelunking. If we dive deep into chambers and chat rooms, we find echoes of the vain, the jealous, the lonely. An echo chamber is an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own. Existing views are reinforced, alternative ideas are not considered.[8] In extreme echo chambers, one person will make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again, until most people assume that some extreme variation of the story is true.[9] Like Iago in Othello, the echo chamber doesn’t seek to erode someone’s interest in seeking truth—Othello is encouraged by Iago to track down the “truth” behind Desdemona’s handkerchief. Rather, the echo chamber manipulates a source’s credibility so that fundamentally different establishments will be considered “truthful” or honest sources of authority. Thus, Othello comes to doubt his beloved’s assurances of love and faithfulness, to a violent end.

Oddly, the echo chamber of social media maps more onto the figure of Narcissus than poor, near-mute Echo. It is Narcissus who falls prey to an illusion, while Echo can see the truth. And while Narcissus only hears from Echo what he himself has said—he exclaims, “Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine is yours,” to which Echo can only, miserably, answer, “What’s mine is yours!” before fleeing in scorned grief—Echo can only work with what Narcissus gives her.[10] Thus, in a world spinning over social media platforms’ toxic echo chambers, we would do well to question not only the capitalist structures that reinforce echo chambers’ damaging effects, but also what we say in the chambers, in the chat rooms, in the cloud. Echo is dependent upon Narcissus for substance, not the other way around.

Echo—the nymph, the voice, the villain in most narratives of modern communication. But echoes have always been good at bouncing back. Echolocation, the ability of animals to map their surroundings by sensing echoes from objects through creating sounds of their own, helps “blind” bats see, and people who are blind map the world around them.[11] By tapping their canes, lightly stomping their feet, making clicking noises with their mouths, or snapping their fingers, people trained to orient themselves by echolocation can interpret sound waves received, processed, and, in a spirit of generosity, given back.

Daniel Kish, who works for the non-profit organization World Access for the Blind and who has been blind since infancy, says, “The sense of imagery is very rich for an experienced user [of human echolocation]. One can get a sense of beauty or starkness or whatever—from sound as well as echo.”[12] In the quiet, he can hear the warm quality of wood and the cold of metal. It is a matter of sending signals, yes, but more so, listening for how the real responds. Echoes locate the listening subject. They ground them and help them see when clear sight has failed.

Maybe, in a strange twist, we need the echo chamber more than the reflecting pool. Maybe Echo, yearning for connection, needs better conversationalists.

This post was written by Abby Thatcher, Humanities Center intern.

 

[1] 3.3.103-112, in Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice.” The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008, pp. 2109-2192.

[2] 3.3.454, ibid.

[3] 5.2.93, ibid.

[4] 5.3.333, ibid.

[5] 2.3.246, ibid.

[6] Ovid. Metamorphoses, Book III: 359-401. Available at https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph3.php#anchor_Toc64106190. Accessed 30 October 2021.

[7] Ovid, ibid, Book III: 474-510.

[8] “Echo Chamber.” Digital Media Literacy: What is an Echo Chamber, GCF Global. Available at https://edu.gcfglobal.org/en/digital-media-literacy/what-is-an-echo-chamber/1/. Accessed 30 October 2021.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ovid, ibid, Book III: 359-401.

[11] “Echolocation, n.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Available at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/echolocation. Accessed 30 October 2021.

[12] Kremer, William. “Human Echolocation: Using tongue-clicks to navigate the world.” BBC World Service, 12 September 2012. Available at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19524962. Accessed 30 October 2021.

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