Noise Matters: Discussions on Noise and Sound (Part III of III)


In the final installment of Greg Hainge‘s search to answer the question, “What is noise?” we have a response from scholar and author, Kane X. Faucher.


Kane X. Faucher: scholar and author of numerous publications including The Infinite Library. In preparation, a book on the metastability and metastasis of information through a Simondon-Deleuze lens, and another on “datapolitik.”

Allow me to make some noise, and grasp about for a good handhold that will permit me to speak on the nature of noise in the ontological sense. I promise nothing by way of conclusions or even fully baked and ready to serve philosophical propositions. This may be yet another of the flotsam in the bitstream…

We come to understand that noise does not “make the difference” (to corrupt G. Bateson’s phrase) but is difference. Now, when we lift the term “noise” from its metaphorical black box, we know from information theory that it has traditionally been positioned on the antipodes with information. So, noise and entropy are considered the natural enemy of information, an undesired external “stuff” that invades a channel to compromise the fidelity of a message from sender to receiver. This conduit metaphor aside, this marginalization of noise is of a piece with the classic binary relations that emerge out of dialectical thought (including here the principles of individuation, identity, resemblance, the Other, and so forth).

However, noise in the mathematical sense (and not in the applied contexts of engineering as such, or the audial connotation found in music or sound studies) speaks to events. So, for example, the difference between white and coloured (or pink) noise is on the order of the event itself where white noise concerns discrete, uncorrelated events, whereas coloured/pink noise is correlated and stretches back to an infinite past. In this way, white noise has no “memory” and pink noise is “infinite memory.” Noise is the event that produces surprise, but in a way perhaps more in the milieu of sense and expression than Shannon-Weaver conceives of. Parenthetically, I’m tempted here to make use of Wiener’s gnomic definition of information which is actually addressed to the physicists (he considered physics a form of philosophy) to invert the terms. Recall his celibate definition of information (which is the opposite to noise in his view): information is information, not matter or energy. Okay, fine, but does that mean the opposite is true? Noise is noise, not absence of matter or inertia.

So, in Greg Hainge’s claim that noise is not definable prior to the event, I cannot resist thinking that he is speaking the language of Simondon transduction (and, as a shameless self-plug, that is where I am going with my own forthcoming book on information theory from a Simondon-Deleuze perspective). Noise becomes immanent to the event that “houses” it. There is no transcendental plane where noise sits in its castle of conceptual celibacy waiting to delegate its manifestation, ruining our orderly lives and the Sunday picnic in the park. Instead, noise is both blueprint and effect. Noise is entirely generative, if not the very sufficient reason of generative difference. In Deleuzian terms we are speaking the virtual which is not outside the actual or the precursor as such, but both a guide and a result in the actual (where potentiality can never be exhausted for as long as new assemblages can form). This definition of noise rejects the hylomorphic model of a self-stable concept that produces the new; instead, noise is indissociable from the production of the new. Noise shares a space with difference here. As we already know, in Shannon-Weaver mathematical theory of communication which is the gold standard of information theory (if not “science” but I hate that appellation since that discipline does not even have its own criteria for falsifiability, and is thus not science proper), noise is treated like an external impingement upon the message sent in a channel between sender and receiver. So, already, we have an externalization of noise as other. Greg Hainge’s treatment is truly revolutionary in this respect because it treats noise as “already there” even in that conduit metaphor of the sender-receiver. The trick will be to see if that is not going to be argued away by others who claim that it is simply a subjective matter where it becomes simply a failure on either the sender or the receiver in terms of delivery (too easy to discount and thus trivial) and interpretation, respectively. It is there in the latter part in terms of the receiver that the information theory goons will say, “well MTC banishes any consideration of semantics in the message and so interpretation is not a factor.” That is, in the pure definition of MTC, all that matters is fidelity of the sent and received message. So if I send you a text that reads jgiu987, and you receive jgiu987, then there is no presence of “noise” in our channel even if the message makes no sense to either of us. The standard formula for determining information in an event as a value of H is:

H(X) = -∑x∈x p(x)logb p(x).
= n*(1/n)*log(1n)
= log(n)

Let’s trouble the waters a bit more here: Event H as a value of information still has to conform to the laws of physics. For example, if the sun explodes, the information contained in that event will still take 8 minutes to reach us, by which point the information is technically redundant (except for us who experience surprise – and then a toasty death!). But if information stands apart from the laws of matter and energy, Wiener’s definition doesn’t hold up since information can only travel at a maximum of the speed of light, and is thus dependent upon matter and energy. Does noise also follow the same constraints of physics?

Still more trouble: noise is treated as the enemy of information. Yet, in Shannon-Weaver, it is also the element of surprise. If I have a unary device like Poe’s Raven that says “nevermore!” every time, then each event of the raven saying that is technically information (sender = raven, channel = vibrations of air to create sound, receiver = me hearing it), but it is not informative; i.e., it does not produce surprise because I know the raven will say nevermore just as sure as my fridge will sussurate with the same consistent hum. Noise is what “makes the difference” here since if there is any compromising of my hearing apparatus or there is a loud bang, I might not hear “nevermore” but “claymore!”. That is informative. And yet it is the disparation between the rhythm of “nevermore” and the chaos of “claymore” that forms what Deleuze and Guattari call a chaosmos, and in this case the alternation between the “success” and “failure” of message fidelity constitutes an event in the rigorous sense of the word.

If fidelity is the gold standard in information engineering, I say we should melt that down and debase this currency to discover something far more interesting that will effectively prop up noise as having primacy. In fact, I would be very tempted, after reading Hainge’s book to take comfort in the alarming statement: noise is information (and vice versa). This effectively removes the opposition between the terms by rendering them synonymous, yet in a way that they are but two perspectives of the event itself. How about a concrete example of noise as being generative? Coming right up:

In a recent article in Nature on replication stress, we are privy to how cancer “succeeds” in proliferating throughout the body. A cancer cell proliferates by blocking the apoptotic signal that generally tells wayward cells to die, and thus the cell keeps growing and releases vicious RNA to other cells in non-adjacent areas to follow suit. But copying fidelity is compromised; we are not presented with a simple cancer cell diktat of “here is the code, you go and replicate that code.” Instead, a cancer cell’s success banks on noise. That is, the lack of “building material” and copying errors produce radical difference in other cells that metastasize and thus improve the success rate of the cancer. Error or noise is what precipitates a successful event for the cancer. Extend that macroscopically to everything from genetic differentiation to systems (even up to cosmic phenomena) and you tap into the real lesson: noise is not opposed to information, but noise is information (or at least informative as well as generative). How else to explain the survival of cancer which, on its own, has a very low probability of survival given factors of the immune system, persistent apoptotic signals, and even blood shear when the little “cancer colonists” go on their voyage throughout the body looking for a new cellular place to call home and start a family, so to speak.

If fidelity of message in a channel were key to our survival against entropy, I suppose we would all be dead ducks by now. In fact, complexification cannot depend on fidelity, but instead on “copying errors” that arise that become instances of fortuitous or serendipitous production. Ensembles and assemblages are not produced factory style with set production orders, inflexible blueprints, or little governors and managers to supervise the production.

And what of noise in literature? Certainly the dramatized cerebral intervals in Celine’s later novels qualify as a kind of cognitive pyrotechnics that shatter and reassemble the narrative in new ways that only noise can generate. That would prove far too easy, and perhaps vulgar. Instead, why not step foot into Borges’ Library of Babel, that testament to the cybernetician’s and the rationalist philosopher’s futile attempt to bring meaning and order to a space that appears entirely meaningful and orderly, but whose meaning and order sits on a horizon that can never be reached. Yet, is that not the seduction of noise? To appear as though it is stable information, entirely predictable if only we can create a probability scheme that will “justify” the incoherent, the unintelligible, the cacophony of objects? Let’s stick with the Library of Babel for a bit longer to illustrate something noisy among those dusty tomes and their dusty librarians.

But herein is the lesson of noise: things simply come to be, and they do so without transcendental relation.

Assume that you have been hired on by Library of Babel Council as an information science consultant with the task of bringing some order to the Library itself. You are given the basic specs Borges’ short story provides: each book is 410 pages, composed of the same number of letters in each book, and that there are only 22 letters, a space, and two pieces of punctuation. Eager as you are, you plug the data into a simple permutation equation of some sort and arrive at the exact number of books (which is around 1.312 million times ten to the power of 25, or more books than there are atoms in the entire known universe). Well, at least you know that the number of books is not infinite as such, so it is possible (although highly improbable) that a few thousand generations of diligent librarians could start cataloguing all the books. However, you discover just what a daunting task you have since any catalogue you produce that befits a pattern imposed upon the Library will be arbitrary. Keep in mind that there is no guiding axiom or even a choice function in this vast place. You understand that the probability of happening upon Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the same as finding a book that is entirely composed of the letters MCV; i.e., probability zero. The only “correlation” between any of the books is the rule of each being 410 pages and containing the same letters in permutation. So, you go ahead and start compiling your arbitrary catalogue according to the pattern of incipits; i.e., recording the first line of each book and applying the equally arbitrary organizational method of alphabetization. Assuming you can automate this process using one of Google’s spooky digitization machines, what are you left with? An order, but not the order of the Library since there is no such thing.
At this point you might be tempted to simply throw up your hands and quit. However, in this tomblike quiet place with all its noisy books filled with gibberish and possibly accidental sense, you might come to the realization of embracing the noise that is the Library and its contents, choosing to cluster books at random, performing bibliomancy and constructing new meanings that are highly subjective, possibly hopelessly relative. In a way, you go native, which is to say that you simply accept that the Library = noise and information synonymously and become an eccentric mystic. Maybe. But herein is the lesson of noise: things simply come to be, and they do so without transcendental relation. It is process and one that obstreperously laughs at your attempt to forcibly graft order, pattern, unity, or transcendental guiding principle upon it. For it is discovered here that it is the mask that wears the actor, and that events cannot be tamed in advance using a transcendent grid that predicts or prescribes them. Shades of Heraclitus, since we come to know that no two events can ever be duplicated, and even if there is resemblance that is simply a desperate imposition of thought to “locate” and create patterns to assuage our fear of that which refuses to stay still long enough for us to measure it.

The pronouncements heralded by noise: 1) There are no meaningful signals; there is a process of signification, perpetually negotiated and never resolved; 2) Either information is noise or is impossible without it; 3) “Error” is more conducive to generative differences than “fidelity” can ever be; 4) Noise is the channel itself that generates and is also a part of that which becomes; 5) Noise is not heard, but experienced––in fact, it is possibly a precondition of all experience since it is noise that distinguishes the event, the incoherent and uncanny “sense.”; 6) Noise possesses a potentiality that can never be exhausted no matter how many times it is “incarnated” or “actualized” in any discrete event.
Let this be yet another example of what it is to bruit from the mind, since any and all minds are not immune to noise; in fact, the mind is a noise machine–-at least mine.

Greg Hainge’s Noise Matters is out now on Bloomsbury Academic.

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