Following in the line of Cary Wolfe’s MusicSoundNoise thread (2001), Trace Reddell’s LitMixer (2001), Mark Amerika’s Sounds of the Digital Intelligencia (2007), and Reddell’s subsequent Sonic Contents (2006), the present gathering from Robert Cashin Ryan further explores the noise of culture and productive capacity of sound.
Since its inception in 2000, the music/sound/noise thread on ebr has consistently explored the productive capacities of sound (in its myriad forms) as a theoretical and affective site for interpretation and critique. In this sense, the name of the thread effects a dual movement: while it divides sonic content into a triadic taxonomy, it simultaneously suggests a certain affiliation between the three categories. What’s more, work pertaining to sound on ebr is not limited to the thread, and appears throughout the journal in various guises. The present gathering isolates noise in order to pose a series of questions: what constitutes noise? Where is noise being taken up and (re)defined? How might we rethink noise to allow it to play a more defined role in critical practice?
Of course, the central question remains: why noise? For an answer, we might turn to Michel Serres. In a 1983 essay, Serres insists on remembering noise. This may appear as peculiar, for thinking of conventional understandings of noise—grating, loud, unexpected or unwanted—noise does not seem to be something all too easily forgotten. Still, Serres insists: “It is true that we have forgotten noise. I am trying to remember it […] I shall look for noise in the parting of the seas” (50). It is, for Serres, this understanding of noise—the noise of the parting seas—that will rattle and shake metaphysics, and reorient our various philosophical, literary, and scientific taxonomies. Indeed, Serres suggests that in listening to noise, we might “begin to fathom the sound and the fury, of the world and of history…” (7). This gathering takes Serres’ essay as a provocation for thought, a point of (dis)organization around which to rethink noise in literary, critical, and sonic domains, and thereby better understand “the sound and the fury” that forms our interpretive horizon. Each article gathered here takes up noise from a distinct position, lending inflection to distinct commitments, and so broadening what noise can mean, and what noise can do.
Elise Kermani’s essay “The Sonic Spectrum” serves as an appropriate point of entry. Kermani begins by detailing platitudinous definitions for “Music,” “Sound,” “Noise,” and “Sonic” from the American Heritage Dictionary, before introducing what she terms “the sonic spectrum” in order to make sense of her composition, “Wak Auf.” This formulation reinforces the categorical allegiance (and distinction) suggested by our thread’s title. Taking the thread as a spectrum, rather than a collection of discrete entities, allows for a sense of slippage between each and so deepens our orientation to noise. To this end, a more current work by Joseph Nechvetal (outside of ebr) offers a treatise on “an art of noise […] that embraces a noisy heterogeneity that at times may simultaneously be fun, frustrating and funny […] a text that will engage them in a dynamic play of noisy forces and fluctuating perspectives that exemplifies the propositions put forth here: propositions concerning the recognition of—and immersion into—cultural noise.” Here. Kermani’s “sonic spectrum” is expanded beyond sonority—noise becomes a matter of cultural production and cultural immersion. Indeed, Nechvetal’s piece runs the gamut of noise, and provides examples of a variety of idioms for the noise(s) taken up in this gathering.
From here, the articles begin to diverge widely, tethered only by their shared concern for noise as a (dis)organizational apparatus. Olivia Block remains in the realm of music with a narrative piece on how the most banal and unnoticed objects can create unexpected sonic content, while Torben Sangild understands philosophy and noise music as very much related. As Nechvetal notes, noise cannot remain purely sonorous, it moves from the disturbing to the musical, on to other realms only tangentially connected. Such is the case with Adam Pilkey’s investigation of noise in the Nine Inch Nails/ARG album/videogame collaboration Year Zero, which takes signal noise as its central concept; as well as with Tom LeClair’s understanding of literary noise, drawing from Serres’ understanding of noise as parasitic, William Paulson’s cultural noise, and contemporary literary works from Mark Z. Danielewski to Shelley Jackson. Finally, Allison Hunter’s review of Douglas Kahn’s Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts helps ground the pervasive and divergent iterations of noise in a historical context. If this gathering is meant—in consonance with Serres—to help us “remember” noise, then perhaps we should listen with Jacques Attali’s suggestion: “[by] listening to noise, we can better understand where the folly of men and their calculations is leading us, and what hopes it is still possible to have.” Thinking with these essays—in and out of ebr—it becomes clear that if noise is unified at all, it is in its disruptive capacity: its ability to provoke thought and better understand our cultural and aesthetic experience. This gathering, then, calls for us not only to read, but more importantly, to listen.