Noise Matters: Discussions on noise and sound (Part I of III)

noisemattersDespite its ubiquity, the concept of noise is ineffable. Always present in our lives, noise transcends social, cultural, and philosophical boundaries as we do. A teenager on the subway zoning out to music on his headphones could be a noisy annoyance to other passengers. So, then, is there a singular definition for noise, or is its definition as ungraspable as its tangible form?

In Noise Matters, out now on Bloomsbury Academic, Greg Hainge attempts to define noise beyond its conception as a subjective term. In an illuminating study of sound and culture, Haigne examines a wide range of texts, including Sartre’s novel, Nausea, and David Lynch’s iconic films Eraserhead and Inland Empire, and investigates some of the Twentieth Century’s most infamous noisemongers to suggest that they’re not that noisy after all; and finds true noise in some surprising places.

When not a slave to sound, Greg Hainge is Reader in French in the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is the author of Capitalism and Schizophrenia in the Later Novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and has published widely on cinema, music, critical theory and French literature.

Read on as Hainge describes the inspiration for Noise Matters, and some of the personal conflictions that arose during the process of its creation:

Noise matters. That is of course the contention of this book, but things are never so simple. As is hopefully clear from its subtitle (Towards an Ontology of Noise), “matters” intends to operate not only as a verb, but also a substantive. A substantive, however, that can only be apprehended in a verbal mode, akin perhaps to sound itself which undoubtedly is something yet not some thing that we can reduce to its form and use to fix the objects of the world in their place. As is the case with noise which also is something, something that blurs the boundaries of everything.

In this respect, my project resonates strongly (even if this surprises me a little) with that of Ian Bogost. In a beautiful sentence in his book Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, Bogost writes: “As philosophers, our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways” (34). This is precisely what I hope to do, to amplify the noise of everything and to see the world and its objects through that noise.

In saying this, a claim is of course made that noise is in everything, and this project thus requires us to consider noise not exclusively as sound. Rather, as Michael Goddard has written for the book’s back cover blurb, we need to venture into “much stranger and more unexpected territory” than we are accustomed to when thinking about noise. It requires us, as Michael also points out, to avoid “the clichés about modernist noise that many of both its proponents and detractors would have us believe.” In suggesting this, Michael has summed up this book’s project beautifully. This book was born in part out of my frustration at hearing the same tales about noise told again and again, from an overwhelming sense that scholars dealing with this subject were like the people of Shinar, speaking one language and providing noise with an identity, a history, an architecture as mighty and immutable as the Tower of Babel.

Now I realise that in casting myself as the force intended to break apart this unified language and introduce noise into the field of noise studies, I run the risk of imbuing myself with delusions of grandeur of deific proportions. In doing so I am in some respects falling into line with many other studies of noise, albeit for different reasons; many scholars in the field of noise studies seem to possess the power of transubstantiation, transforming noise into music and see it as the force that brings about change in the field of musical or artistic production. In doing this, though–and herein lies my real frustration–they effectively get rid of noise, meaning of course that noise’s proponents and detractors end up fighting on the same side.

For me, noise matters more than this. I want to attend to it in such a way that it remains. I want to ask what noise is. This of course is a big question if you start off from an assumption, as I do, that noise is everywhere, is in everything. And so it is fitting and necessary that this question be asked of others with an interest in these matters. What is noise?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore the answers to this question from some of sound’s most interested parties. What you’ll find are some personal responses from just a few of the many people whose work has made me think about noise over the years. I would like to thank them not only for their responses to this question, but also for having inspired such strange thoughts in me.

Haco–composer, vocalist, electroacoustic performer, sound artist, noise sculptor–had this morsel, a taste of what’s to come, to say:

Noise is everything or nothing.
When all of the vibrations emitted by life on this planet and all kinds of electromagnetic waves are mixed together, this is noise. When noise is viewed as something negative or not perceived at all, it’s nothing.

Stay tuned for Part II of Noise Matters next week.

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