I think of vibration as a genus of a certain kind of thing collecting various different species into one category. Shivering from the cold, the tingling from a bubble popping near the surface of the skin, the shaking of a muscle during a strenuous exertion, or the rumbling in my bones during an earthquake are all examples of different kinds of vibration. Though I might mentally classify all these things as of one family, the really interesting thing is in putting close attention to their qualitative variations. A shake means something different in the body than in the mind and a quiver takes on different notes if you feel it in your heart or in the wobbling of your conceptual system of thought.
Now, it is obvious that there is a sensational difference between the vibratory sensation associated with the pulsing of the heartbeat and the buzzing sensation from sitting in an electric massage chair, for example. So I can think about these things in terms of their qualitative distinctions, which I can make note of by paying attention to the way in which these things seem to occur in me. But it is also useful to find ways to harness a quantitative approach to such things. For example, a Richter scale is a method for quantifying the intensity of an earthquake. Numerically assigning a value to the intensity of the earthquake is suggestive of a qualitative difference in sensation. You’d suspect that the rumbling sensation from a 2 point earthquake will feel different from a 5 point tremor.
The quality of pretty much anything can be thought of in terms of its intensity. My cold shivers are extreme. I have just a mild throbbing sensation in my foot. The light is flickering at a very high pulse. If you think about it, while these examples might sound like qualitative descriptions of something (and they are) there is also a sense in which these are technically already quantitative ways of describing these things. Insofar as we think of qualitative distinctions in terms of intensity, we are in a good place to allow quantitative ways of thinking to work as an ally in inquiring into qualitative differences. If you can set up a scale for any phenomenon, it is likely that a quantitative measure of 2 will be associated with a quality distinct from the quality accompanying the quantitative reading of 9.
So, first things first. Quality, meet your new friend quantity.
I think it is clear that there is a way in which these two characters work in tandem. It is important, I think, to not set them up as highly antagonistic to one another. Sometimes I slide into a way of thinking that number and quantity are too cold, dry, and boring. At other times I have the converse perversity of thought which imagines that paying attention to qualities is too wishy-washy, artsy, and head-in-the-clouds. As we’ve seen, this is an unnecessary way of setting up this relationship.
So having reached this point, can I call it a wraps and conclude that quantity and quality are pals and leave it at that? I suppose I could, but I think I’ll linger for a while here.
Did I make a mistake above when I said that any quality can be thought of as an intensity? We describe the quality of light in terms of intensity; it strikes us as either dim or bright. However, maybe it is a mistake to think of that as a qualitative description at all. After all, this description is nearly quantitative already. All I need to do is come up with some numeric scale to assign a quantitative value to the degree of dimness or brightness. So perhaps descriptions of intensity are rudimentary quantitative distinctions. I say that wow, that light is bright! and this description is the embryonic form of a quantitative statement which when fully bloomed would say, wow, that light is 99 bright!
So, we’re in a weird situation where any instance of a qualitative description could easily by translated into quantitative form. And vice versa. You go to the doctor feeling a piercing sensation in your shoulder. The doctor asks you to place your pain on a scale from 1 to 10. Now, the doctor uses this numeric description of the sensation you are experiencing and draws upon his knowledge of other cases of people feeling level 4 shoulder pain to inform the diagnosis. Quality keeps wanting to slip into its quantitative form of expression and vice versa. You look at the weather report and it says tomorrow will have a high of 95 degrees. Sure, this is a quantitative description, but you find yourself sitting in perhaps dreadful expectation of the qualities that tend to be associated with it.
Maybe a good way to think about it is like this. Quantification of some quality is a method of locating what is very specific in that quality within a more generalized set of patterns. If we’re accessing the quality of something, there is an immediacy to this. A weather forecast of 95 degrees gives you a good general idea about what the weather will feel like tomorrow, but to actually come into contact with the qualitative aspect of 95 degrees, you must wait until tomorrow to experience.
So these two remain in interesting relation to one another.
One of my favorite passages from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra shares something in common with a scene from the latest season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. At one point Zarathustra is speaking with a personification of Life. They are dancing together. At a certain point, Zarathustra whispers something into the ear of Life, and she responds, “You know that! Zarathustra...but no one knows that!” (forgive me if the wording isn’t exactly correct). The text then never reveals what it was that Zarathustra whispered into the ear of Life. We’re left to guess for ourselves what might have been said. Lynch uses the same interesting technique in Twin Peaks. FBI special agent Dale Cooper is sitting in a chair when the already murdered figure of Laura Palmer approaches him and whispers something into his ear. While this scene is set up as important, and the camera lingers here so curiously on this exchange, we as the audience never get to hear what she says to him.
I think this is incredible as a story-telling technique. It is enticing and frustrating and tantalizing to the audience. We’re configured to assume that someone whispering something into another’s ear must be a message of high importance. We lean into the book or onto the screen wishing to catch even just a tiny bit of what is being said. But then we are left uncertain. These moments sit and linger with us, as we ponder all the possibilities we can muster as to what might have been said.
Not only is the unrevealed secret whisper a great way to peak an audience’s interest, it is also a method of putting responsibility onto the shoulders of an audience. It invites us to participate in the creative process. Because the information shared between these characters is not something given to us, it is up to us to discern for ourselves what, if anything, was said. It is also a good way for an artist to create an amount of distance between the audience and the work. We expect the artist to fill us in on all the details and explain the meaning for us. But in these examples, he refuses. This in itself is an important message. Something undoubtedly was said between those characters, but we get to hear the silence. It reminds me of the turn away from figurative expression in painting. Rather than feed us with traditionally digestible narrative elements, remove them and the hum of a silence takes center stage.
I like to imagine Quality and Quantity locked into a dance in the way that Zarathustra and Life were, or in the manner of Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer, swinging and swaying and sashaying across a ballroom filled with poppies, daisies and an intensely dim light. They lean over to one another and whisper something to one another. What it is exactly? Who knows. But the sense of the quality of the staged whisper strikes a cord in some latently powerful center of your brain as you patiently scramble for ways in which it might be possible to precisely quantify the meaning of this situation. At precisely the point where these two characters are presented to us in the most intimate engagement, we find ourselves flung into a hyperspace of intense impenetrability. Perhaps this is a soil ripe for our own peculiar growth.