a glitch of psychic crumbling.

For many people, if anything is representative of the art of noise, it is ambivalence.

Joseph Nechvatal’s Immersion Into Noise is a somewhat ambivalent book. It is the contrary to the noise abatement treatments of noise – it is just noise as art. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Unfortunately for me, many of Nechvatal’s claims of noise as art run contrary to my own (I do not believe that Rococo or Baroque as busy and complex as they are are in any way ‘noise.’ Intentional complexity is not noise it is complexity. The two should remain separate.). It is then, mostly the theorization of his introductory pages that resonates.

Noise may break some connections, but connections will always continue to grow in other directions, creating new thoughts and new affects.

Nechvatal is not alone in recognizing the creative power of noise. But it is theorizations of noise like Nechvatal’s that set themselves against the blasé readings of noise as just an annoyance to be toned down, a decibel level to be reduced to an acceptable non-hearing damage inducing appropriate levels. On one side of the coin noise is simply an annoyance, offering nothing and demanding everything. On the other side, the possibility of creation, new thoughts, new avenues, the very possibility of the new. Indeed:

This creative art of noise draws us closer to our inner world, to the life of our imagination with its intense drives, suspicious, fears, and loves – that which guides our intentions and actions in the political and economic world.

This is an approach to noise that is wholly other than the noise abatement campaigners. They rail against airplane noise, traffic noise, piped music, and the neighbor’s dogs and stereo. Nechvatal glories in exactly what the campaigners revile:

But for noise to be first noise, it must destabilize us. It must initially jar. It must challenge. It must initiate a glitch of psychic crumbling.

It would seem that bridging these gaps might be impossible. Noise is, after all, a complex concept with overlaying theories that cannot and will not harmonize.

the genesis of the parasitic pollution (noise in Serres)

Serres begins his work on the parasite with a parable. Perhaps we shall too. A stolen parable, the work and words of another. But a false and fictional other, a man outside of and beyond time. The ever unique Philip J. Fry:

It’s just like the story of the grasshopper and the octopus. All year long, the grasshopper kept burying acorns for the winter, while the octopus mooched off his girlfriend and watched TV. But then the winter came, and the grasshopper died, and the octopus ate all his acorns. And also he got a racecar. Is any of this getting through to you?

Futurama 1×07, “My Three Suns”

What can be said of such a parasite as he speeds off in his racecar?

And with such noise…


In the beginning was the noise.

And so we begin. Noise is an important issue for Serres. He crosses boundaries, disciplines, raising questions, questioning methods. And noise runs through it. Like a river. Let’s fly fish.

Noise destroys and noise can produce.


Silence, a discrete tenant by contrast, is only a momentary lull.

Serres draws the closest to the theorization of noise that I seek. As he transgresses boundaries, writes in parables, and waxes poetic he approaches the essence of the complex composite that is noise.

Noise is a question of wealth and power:

The more wealth a man or a collectivity amasses, the more noise they make, soft but also hard; the louder the noise and the racket, the further their visual and acoustic productions or excrements will spread, the more hard power they have.

or waste”

Now everywhere and all the time we hear sound waste, the rubbish and refuse of engines, ventilators, air conditioning, waste disposal units, reactors, grinders, tuners that saturate the old pugnacious cesspit world of the owners. 


The noise temporarily stops the system, makes it oscillate indefinitely.


Theorem: noise gives rise to a new system, an order that is more complex than the simple chain.

the relation to chaos:

In the beginning is the noise; the noise never stops. It is our apperception of chaos, our apprehension of disorder, or only link to the scattered distribution of things. 

the background of information:

The noise, the background noise, that incessant hubbub, our signals, our messages, our speech and our words are but a fleeting high surf, over its perpetual swell.


Noise is a turbulence, it is order and disorder at the same time, order revolving on itself through repetition and redundancy, disorder through chance occurrences, through the drawing of lots at the crossroads, and through the global meandering, unpredictable and crazy. An arborescent and turbulent rumor.

the trace:

Noise, you see, is also the trace of the observer. There is noise in the subject, there is noise in the object. Meddling in the phenomenon, the receiver introduces or produces a certain noise there, his own, for no one can live without noise.

and without contradictory:

Noise has no contradictory. The contradiction of a noise is a noise. The noise has no contrary. The space of a noise has no complementary, no outside. Logic is drowned in the noise. Of the prelogical or the antepredicative I know only the noise. And the fury.

Noise for Serres is an infinitely useful, infinitely mutable concept/construct. It flows, it ripples, it disrupts. It is the parasite, the pollution, the genesis. It is the background of all things, the necessary of relations, the corruption of power and the power of corruption. If not for Serres poetic language (and perhaps some translation barriers) it might be that he suggests some of the answers to the question of noise as such/in itself.  He certainly is able to put the term, the concept, the metaphor to use. So what then of the octopus, his girlfriend, and that racecar?

We must introduce into philosophy the concept of chaos, a mythical concept until this morning, and despised by rationality to the point of being used nowadays only for discourses on madness.


quotes from:

Serres, Michel. Genesis. Trans. Geneviève James and James Nielson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

___. Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?. Trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-DibonStanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011. Print.

___. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print.

without listening.

There is no sound, no noise, no silence, even, without listening.

Paul Hegarty closes his excellent work Noise/Music (a direct heir of Attali) with a chapter headed with the above quote. This is, unfortunately, a stance on sound studies that I cannot agree with. The tree falling in the forest does not need me or any other listening subject to fall. To make the claim that the sound pressure levels or the vibrations created by said fall must be somehow null and void because no actor was on scene to ‘listen’ is beyond what I am willing to claim. There has been (and continues to be) debate in philosophy about correlationalsim (cf. Meillassoux) and about what might exist or fail to exist or fail to be recognized as existing outside of the human subject to think it existence. Noise theory seems to have skirted the edges of much of this theorizing, ignored because noise is, at root, the ignored, the suppressed, the excluded.

But despite Hegarty’s correlationalist stance, much can be made of his work:

What exactly noise is, or what it should do, alters through history, and this means that any account of noise is a history of disruptions and disturbances.

Disruption and disturbance are inherently political terms. They can be used to multiple ends and can, indeed, be ends in themselves.

As well as this disruptive element, noise must also be thought of as constantly failing – failing to stay noise, as it becomes familiar, or acceptable practice.

The failure to stay noise, as well, remains a constant issue in noise theory. Stemming from Attali’s judgments of noise as a moving target as the avant garde that forces the political, noise always fails to be itself. It disrupts until that disruption is normalized, it offends until the offense becomes commonplace, one man’s noise becomes his kid’s music. Certainly the question of annoyance echoes regularly in the failure of noise to stay noise (how long is it annoying, is it still noise so long as one remains annoyed?). But that seems a secondary issue to the role of noise in motion (constant vibration, unable to be pinned down).

But what Hegarty keeps circling back to is the listener. Noise demands a listener. Noise is nothing, noise does not and cannot exist without listening.

First, even in this model, noise needs a listener – probably some sort of animal or a non-organic machine with hearing capacities (both can be classified as ‘hearing machines’), in the vicinity of the noise so that the soundwaves can be heard. The sound then has to be perceived as dangerous to the functioning of the hearing machine. Without these two moments, we might have a sound, but we do not have noise.

If noise is to be defined relationally this quote remains valid. If the human subject is the whole of knowledge, if there is no knowledge or thought beyond the thinking and knowing subject, then clearly this is the whole of knowable noise. But I would venture further. The philosophers of OOO and speculative realism have tread this ground before me (with much better reasoning and citation) so I’ll not go too deep into the theory. But the fact remains that the world exists beyond the capacity of the human subject. Sound withdraws, noise withdraws, those objects that emit or cause to emit sound and noise withdraw. And the human subject itself withdraws. We cannot fully know the object. Nor it us or other objects. But I do not want to make the claim that sound is only noise in relation to an offended subject. That sound itself might not exist as such without a listening subject. Sound pressure waves are things. Noise is a thing. Noise is an object. And it withdraws.

Noise is negative: it is unwanted, other, not something ordered. It is negatively defined – i.e. by what it is not (not acceptable sound, not music, not valid, not a message or a meaning), but it is also a negativity.

Noise is not just volume, but the spread, dissemination and dispersal of its non-message.

All quotes from:

Hegarty, Paul. Noise/Music: A History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

On Attali’s Noise.

Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise.

Jacques Attali is a seminal figure in noise. Nearly as prominent as John Cage and Luigi Russolo. Perhaps that is the issue.

Attali focuses his research on music and political economy. Likely, I will be drawing heavily from his work and the work of those he has influenced. But for him, noise also remains relational. Noise is everywhere, it is essential:

Today, it is unavoidable, as if, in a world now devoid of meaning, a background noise were increasingly necessary to give people a sense of security.

and arguments have been made that we can no longer abide the quiet, the silence of life without constantly blaring mp3s. But Attali never gets to what noise is as such.

For Attali:

With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world.


To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder.


Noise, then, does not exist in itself, but only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed: emitter, transmitter, receiver.

And this remains the issue. For Attali, noise is a moving target. Noise is whatever it needs to be to disturb and disrupt the status quo. It is that music that is ahead of the curve and presaging the to-come of politics. But inevitably it will itself become passé, it will be brought into the fold, become meaningful and commonplace, and thus cease to be noise as some newer more aggressive/transgressive form takes its place in the cycle.


Attali makes an early foray into the noise as violence and physically dangerous milieu:

In its biological reality, noise is a source of pain. Beyond a certain limit, it becomes an immaterial weapon of death. The ear, which transforms sound signals into electric impulses addressed to the brain, can be damaged, and even destroyed, when the frequency of a sound exceeds 20,000 hertz, or when its intensity exceeds 80 decibels. Diminished intellectual capacity, accelerated respiration and heartbeat, hypertension, slowed digestion, neurosis, altered diction: these are the consequences of excessive sound in the environment.


Since it is a threat of death, noise is a concern of power; when power founds its legitimacy on the fear it inspires, on its capacity to create social order, on its univocal monopoly of violence, it monopolizes noise.

But even then noise cannot remain fixed for him. Cannot remain an as such or an in itself. Cannot be defined without a human subject to be in pain, a human subject to be threatened with death, a human subject to be empowered or disempowered. This logic is often reduced to the simplistic noise abatement campaigns and annoyance rather than elevated to philosophical and ontological realms. Perhaps that is an elitist claim, diminishing the value of grassroots anti-noise campaigning for the quiet comforts of the ivory tower (btw, anyone know directions to that place and is there like a special key or handshake to get in?) where one can listen to Merzbow album after album in peace. And perhaps, at a level it is. But anti-noise campaigns that are about annoyance rather than more generally about exploitation and alienation are off the mark as well. And a broader understanding of noise and its transformative and emancipative powers, regardless of the idleness necessary to think such thoughts, is not wasted nor apolitical.




All quotes from:

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. Print.

Noisy Relations.

Herein, however, lies a problem, for if noise can become what it is not, what exactly is it?

The problem of defining noise – one notably absent for noise abatement campaigners – is a central project for Greg Hainge’s Noise Matters. For him it is not the simple manner of finding any and all ways to reduce noise such that we can go back to Arcadian idylls because noise, especially noise given its broad definitions, is inevitable.

noise is the ineluctable travelling companion of information

Hainge, in his intro, attempts at certain all encompassing definitions, gives nods to information theory and physics:

For the physicist, noise can be defined as a non-periodic complex sound, in other words, a sound that can be decomposed into a large number of waves all of different frequencies that (according to Fourier’s theorem) are not multiples of one basic frequency and which do not therefore enter into harmonic relations with each other.

but does not truly try to find a definition that would (because really does such a thing exist?) meaningfully combine the colloquial and common sense definitions with ones from musicology, acoustics, information theory, physics, art, experimental psychology, &c &c. Perhaps, then, a metaphoric reading of the physics definition above might be apt. Noise is the non-periodic complex combination of all of its complimentary and competing definitions that do not enter into harmonic relations. Not that that necessary solves the matter, but it is a more holistic means of approaching the subject. And the last thing any theorist wants is to be caught out in the cold having forgot about Vickers. Applesauce, bitch.

What Hainge does offer is this:

For whilst noise may seem like an eminently unproblematic term, concept or phenomenon when one does not really attend to it – and, as claimed here, we spend most of our time attempting not to attend to it – as soon as one does stop to think about noise actually is, one quickly realizes that its meanings and definitions are highly subjective and unstable.

Though again, might one not comment that noise itself is often found to be subjective and unstable. Is this not a case of art imitating life. Theory inevitably forced to maintain that the primal chaos cannot so easily be chained?


My main contention with Hainge is that noise for him remains solely relational. There is no noise-as-such, no noise-in-itself, only a noise that demands a human(listenting)subject to determine it to be noise.

Indeed, if the ontology of noise is relational, as has been suggested, then it can never be pinned down to one definitive thing, its points and coordinates will never remain fixed, able to be mapped, but will always only ever arise in different sites, with different characteristics according to the specificities of the expressive assemblage in which it is born again.

Now I certainly do not want to pin down noise into a definitive thing. But I would like to explore the thingness of noise. There are many things that are unfixed that are not solely defined by the human subjects that interact with them. But the way out of the correlationalism of noise is a road not traveled and the night is dark and full of terrors.


So what can be added to the conversation, to the theoretical discourse that wants to maintain that

Noise, then, is and of itself is nothing, for it arises only in the relational process through which the world and its objects express themselves in an infinite number of possible relations, assemblages or expressive forms.

while also claiming that there is a noise beyond the human subjects that are affected by it. That wants to find an object oriented ontology of noise. An ontology that understands that noise withdraws from human understanding and that the human understanding of noise cannot claim to be the whole of what noise is (cf. Harman).


Noise, then, is that which unmoors the world from the illusory fixity to which we tie it down in an attempt to keep it in place, to separate its elements out from each other and elevate ourselves about the ‘natural world’, subjecting it to our will and mastery as though we were somehow separated from nature.

 Hainge seems to be just on the cusp of thinking a noise beyond the human. A noise unmoored from our fixity. But he does not find it, theorize it, or explore it (if he is even looking for it, aware of it, or willing to admit that such a thing might exist). Thus the narrow path remains open. Let us see where it might lead.


All quotes from:

Hainge, Greg. Noise Matters: Towards and Ontology of Noise. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

If It’s Too Loud…

Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile

– C.S. Lewis

The John Stewart, et al authored Why Noise Matters: A Worldwide Perspective on the Problems, Policies and Solutions is a well-researched, well-documented, properly reasoned but ultimately narrow and stale treatise on noise. This is, unsurprisingly, because noise for Stewart and his colleagues is a relatively simple (if not quite straight forward) combination of high decibel (and often low frequency) sounds and the drive towards a quiet, retiring, private life. Annoyance is a word that surfaces far too often.


I do not want to belittle here the value in noise abatement and its related campaigns or the desire to classify noise as a pollutant (this dovetails well with Serres’ Malfeasance, the question of noise as excess and waste, and the Lacanian tidbit about civilization and the disposal of shit). The book dives into World Health Organization guidelines for noise, raises the question of industry and industrialization being primarily responsible for significant portions of contemporary noise, and even gets into the positioning of noise as an ignored environmental issue. But its proposals are too simple, too clean, and because of that often off target.


The enemy in the book is noise and the resultant annoyance and potential health risk. But mostly its annoyance. The enemy is not capitalism. The enemy is not (though it is mentioned) the drive for higher profits that only brings quieter machines to market when it is cost effective and only introduces quieter manufacturing processes when absolutely necessary. Questions of social justice are mentioned (for indeed it is the global poor in the industrializing world that are most often subject to unsafe sound pressure levels) but the enemy remains the noise itself and not the globalized capital markets that unfairly balance the scales.


The question of what is nature and what is natural is never explored much like the question of what is a noise aside from this rather vague definition: “Noises are those sounds that are judged to be intrusive, bothersome, uncontrollable and unpredictable. … Sound becomes noise when a person of reasonable sensitivities is bothered by the sound and this noise can adversely affect that person’s mental and physical health. That sound need not be loud to be annoying, for example, a dripping tap or a partner’s snoring.” Not that the authors are all that militant about plumbing and sleep apnea. Indeed, the book is rather light on its definitions. The arguments exist in a commonsense sphere of Potter Stewart know it when I see its giving rise to a number of worthwhile arguments that cannot be extended outside their original context.


Noise is more than sound. Noise is more than excessive sound pressure levels, ultra low and high frequencies, and annoyance. Stewart and company make an impassioned cry (that they seem to know will fall on mostly deaf ears – too many years with the headphones turned up to drown out the world) but by limiting themselves to such a narrow definition of noise and the possibilities of noise they miss the forest for the tree that falls over. Traffic noise needs to be reduced and can be. Industrial noise as well. And the questions of the right to privacy (and silent or acoustically uninvaded privacy at that) are valuable questions going forward but when the arguments are couched in terms of annoyance more than health and anti-capitalism, the gains that they may lead to will be incremental at best.