Noise as Device1
Published in RAB-RAB Journal for Political and Formal Inquiries in Art, Issue 02 , Volume B pp. 91-100, November 2015, Helsinki
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.2
In the history of noise there have been riots, scandals, misunderstandings, excitement and misconceptions. Here I will try to address where I think the potential of noise actually lies. Noise is a very diffuse term. However, it has also been a musical practice within a specific tradition. What first attracted me to noise was the possibility for pushing the limits of what was acceptable: sonically, culturally, conceptually and socially.
However, noise is not always disruptive. In order to be disruptive it needs to encounter negatively a set of expectations. Once the tropes of noise have been understood, then its critical negative effect is no longer valid. Here I will identify some of the potential that noise- as musical practice- has for producing alienation and estrangement. In order to do this I want to use noise as a device in a similar way that the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky used his concept of ostranenie (estrangement or defamiliarisation), and in so doing I will argue that noise needs to be understood both historically and contextually.
Shklovsky was part of the Russian formalists which also included Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, and Yuri Tynianov. The Russian formalists were interested in breaking apart artworks into tropes, mechanisms or devices (priem). For Shklovsky this was done in order to roughen the surface of reality so as to defamiliarise automated perception. As he said, “The artwork is the the sum of its techniques.” Therefore, Shklovsky finds the structural dance of literary devices, as arbitrary and impersonal as the moves of chess pieces.
For Shklovsky, ostranenie is a device used in writing in order to counter the habituation of perception, to produce a sense of defamiliarization. In his famous 1917 essay Art as Device (or other times translated as Art as Technique) , he takes an example of ostranenie from a moment in Tolstoy's “Kholstomer”, where the narrator is a horse which is puzzled by the belief of humans in the system of property and the lack of coherence with regards to what they say and their deeds. The passage is worth quoting at length (as Shklovsky does):
“But even then I simply could not see what it meant when they called me “man's property.” The words “my horse” referred to me, a living horse, and seemed as strange to me as the words “my land,” “my air”, “my water.”
But the words made a strong impression on me. I thought about them constantly, and only after the most diverse experiences with people did I understand, finally, what they meant. They meant this: In life people are guided by words, not by deeds. It's not so much they love the possibility of doing or not doing something as it is the possibility of speaking with words, agreed on among themselves, about various topics. Such are the words “my” and “mine”, which they apply to different things, creatures, objects, and even to land, people and horses. They agree that only one may say “mine” about this, that or the other thing. And the other who says “mine” about the greatest number of things is, according to the game which they've agreed to among themselves, the one they consider the most happy. I don't know the point of all this, but it's true. For a long time I tried to explain it to myself in terms of some kind of real gain, but I had to reject that explanation because it was wrong. Many of those, for instance, who called me their own never rode on me- although others did. And so with those who fed me. Then again, the coachman, the veterinarians, and the outsiders in general treated me kindly, yet those who called me their own did not. In due time, having widened the scope of my observations, I satisfied myself that the notions “my,” not only in relations to us horses, has no other basis than a narrow human instinct which is called a sense of or right to private property. A man says “this house is mine” and never lives in it; he only worries about its construction and upkeep. A merchant says “my shop,” “my dry goods shop,” for instance, and does not even wear clothes made from the better cloth the keeps in his own shop. There are people who called a tract of land their own, but they never set eyes on it and never take a stroll on it. There are people who call others their own, yet never see them. And the whole relationship between them is that they so-called “owners” treat the others unjustly [...] And people strive not for the good in life, but for goods they can call their own.”3
Here we can see how the displacement of the voice from the perspective of the horse makes us see reality differently, one that breaks the smoothness of the appearance of reality and goes on to describe a cruel reality for those who cannot express themselves.
Can noise also produce this “roughing of the surface”? Historically, yes. It is what noise has been doing: disturbing the order of things, making us aware that those things that we took as stable, those things that we took for granted, contain elements that we cannot decipher. In a similar way to Shklovsky's Ostranenie, noise forces perception but not because it “incorporates the sensation of things as they are perceived” but because we don't know how to deal with it. It produces a mismatch between cognition and sensation. It is not only a question about sensibility, it is a question that we don't have the conceptual categories to deal with. However, this is only a matter of time.
Noise pushes perception to the limits because there is in it something we cannot properly decipher. There is something that goes beyond our conceptual categorisation. It is not properly indexed yet and we don't have the right tools to deal with it. Either there is something wrong, or it actually shows our inadequacy to deal with reality. In this regard it brings us/our senses closer to reality and to our impossibility to ascribe meaning to reality. This is why noise, in some regards, is the most abstract yet the most concrete of cultural expressions. On the one hand it is abstract because it constantly forces complexity to reach another level which had not yet been explored and concrete because its specificity has to do with the unacknowledged residue that surfaced in a precise send-receiver situation.
So, then what would it mean to claim the possibility to use noise as a device? It would mean to incorporate and appropriate its own deciphering. While Shklovsky wants to prolong the “artfulness” of the object as much as possible and by doing this, to prolong an aesthetic experience, I propose that the deciphering of noise could be a way to socialise the way its estrangement effect works. Inevitably this would mean the disappearance of this estrangement but it would also allow us to understand how our cognitive and sensory capacities work. In doing so, we could translate the conceptual problems that are posed by noise into further techniques or devices.
Why not try to prolong the aesthetic experience? Because both terms, “aesthetic” and “experience” are problematic terms that should not be taken for granted, especially taking into account the kind of understanding of subjectivity that history presupposes (with a strong relationship to the notion of the individual).
The philosopher Ray Brassier made an excellent point regarding the potential of noise to not be subordinated to “aesthetics”:
“I am very wary of ‘aesthetics’: the term is contaminated by notions of ‘experience’ that I find deeply problematic. I have no philosophy of art worth speaking of. This is not to dismiss art’s relevance for philosophy—far from it—but merely to express reservations about the kind of philosophical aestheticism which seems to want to hold up ‘aesthetic experience’ as a new sort of cognitive paradigm wherein the Modern (post-Cartesian) ‘rift’ between knowing and feeling would be overcome. In this regard, I would say that there can be no ‘aesthetics of noise’, because noise as I understand it would be the destitution of the aesthetic, specifically in its post-Kantian, transcendental register. Noise exacerbates the rift between knowing and feeling by splitting experience, forcing conception against sensation. Some recent philosophers have evinced an interest in subjectless experiences; I am rather more interested in experience-less subjects. Another name for this would be ‘nemocentrism’ (a term coined by neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger): the objectification of experience would generate self-less subjects that understand themselves to be no-one and no-where. This casts an interesting new light on the possibility of a ‘communist’ subjectivity.”4
Later on I will try to argue that noise in practice can often produce this “rift between knowing and feeling” and in so doing it will bring it closer to Shklovsky when he claimed: ‘I am studying the unfreedom of the writer.’5 From the perspective of this essay, the best thing that noise can do is to question the constraints of what we consider freedom and how it relates to what we understand as the production of subjectivity.
Criticisms of Shkolvsky: Noise as a Corrective
Jameson in his book “The Prison House of Language” criticizes Shklovsky's notion of ostranenie on three grounds which are connected to each other:
a) Shklovsky's notion of ostranenie is ahistorical.
b) For Shklovsky's theory to makes sense he needs to isolate the material that he is working with, thus allowing us not to see it as a text (in the Barthean sense) i.e. not being able to take the context into account.
c) One is unsure whether ostranenie resides in the form or the content or the perceiver.
Regarding the first criticisms Jameson takes Brecht as being able to update a historical understanding and use of the estrangement effect:
“The effect of habituation is to make us believe in eternity of the present, to strengthen us in the feeling that the things and events among which we live are somehow “natural” which is to say permanent. The purpose of the Brechtian Estrangement-effect is therefore a political one in the most throughout going sense of the word; it is as Brecht insisted over and over, to make you aware of the objects and institutions you thought to be natural, were only historical: the result of change, they themselves henceforth in their turn became changeable (the spirit of Marx, the influence of The Thesis on Feurbach is clear.)” 6
Noise is always historically and contextually understood. There is only one exception which has always been considered noise and that is gride (like the sound of nails on a blackboard)7. Or as Jacques Attali puts it “Noise, then, does not exist in itself, but only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed” (Attali, 1985, p.26-27). With regards to individuation, noise is always within the frame but also at the margins of the frame. In fact noise constantly undermines its own framing. Or as Miguel Prado puts it: ‘What noise interferes in is the assumption of closed autonomy or independence within a system’.8 The individual instances challenge its own process of individuation by always pointing out that there is something missing. If the estrangement effect is still taking place, if there is still some noise going on, this means that our conceptual understanding is not fully able to grasp what is going which means it is difficult to individuate something precisely.
In the history of western music noise has always been put aside but it always comes back because it actually exists in the essence of western music (i.e. in the tone) . In a recent conference on noise where this text was first presented, Ulrich Krieger, explained very well how the tones that we actually hear contain some noise because a mathematically perfect tone would actually sound strange to our ears.9
Finally on the issue of whether the estrangement takes places in the form, content, or in the perceiver, with regards to noise, Attali answers this from the perspective of Information Theory: “noise is the term for a signal that interferes with the reception of a message by the receiver, even if the interfering signal itself has a meaning for the receiver.”10
If there is no such thing as silence. Then what is there?
There is information but within this information there is noise, a noise that we still do not define as something specific (i.e. music). Because it is very difficult to situate specifically where the noise resides within the context that I am talking about, I will refer here to noise in the general sense that Jaques Attali referred as the “signal that interferes with the reception of a message by the receiver.”
This would allow me to not necessarily focus on the phenomena of sound but on the general “material” that can interfere with the receiver when they are trying to decode a message, which in the context that I am talking about would be a concert. In this sense this would include non-phenomenal elements such as expectations and projections of the people involved and the general atmosphere that can be produced.
How do we know when noise is producing the estrangement effect? In concert situations we can perceive the estrangement effect when there is some tension in the atmosphere. This tension is produced because there is a set of expectations that are not being met. At the same time, people project onto what is going on but without having clear references. There is confusion but at the same time there is concentration.
If there is tension (because noise is producing this critical potential i.e. a reconsideration of what critical means) this is because the safety mechanisms that allow us to “get it” are not working. Different logics are taking place. People think differently of what is going on in the sense that there is no possible unity of thought that can be used to describe the situation.
This tension does not allow for a total subjective experience, you can't just immerse into what you are perceiving because there is a friction between the reality that we are experiencing and our inability to deal with it. I will try to explain this through my own practice. I come from years of experience of making noise and improvised music with a computer, but at some point it was clear that noise had become a genre of music with specific tropes that were becoming a parody of itself (loud volume, aggressive frequencies, total movement or total stasis...). So, I became interested in a different approach to noise, one that has to do with silence, but silences that are full of expectation because one does not know what might happen next. This came from a shifting of my understanding improvisation not as an act of interaction between the musicians and their instruments but as a collective social interaction happening in a given space without nuetral positions (such as, one of the spectator). Therefore, assuming, after Cage's 4'33'' , that there is no such thing as silence, and that the audience might well be producing the sounds, I incorporated a Marxist perspective in trying to understand and expose how social relations that are produced in given space.
Social interaction occurs easily if the performers don't use instruments. Instead through generic gestures available to all, such as speech or movements in the space, it is possible to generate unprecedented reactions from both the audience and the performers . It is no longer an interaction anticipated by a musician or director beforehand (like in Brecht's case) but elements that are put there in order to generate the unexpected which hopefully produce a tension and estrangement in everybody involved included the performers themselves.
The precondition for producing tension has to do with suspending the contract and consensual presupposition between audience and performer. If this tension occurs we do not relate to each other in the form of consensus because the elements necessary for constituting consensus are being taken away. In this sense, the situation ungrounds itself. It makes everyone think without a totally prescribed role and in this process a collective self-consciousness emerges. We don't know how to relate to either one's self or to each other. It forces people to think about the relations to one another without prefiguration. It is no longer the bad sociality of the consumer nor of the emancipated spectator. It just means a suspension of clear cut roles where people experience and explore their own conditioning, their unfreedom.
Your role as auditor cannot be taken for granted and by doing this it undermines capitalist socialization: you are not just consuming something. Nevertheless you are part of it. Through enforced participation where you are not consulted in advance,
you are reminded that you are not a sovereign individual, that you do not have a choice to remain neutral, that you are not free. With money you can always negotiate your situation in capital. The more money you have, the more power and the more you can choose your situation.
Marx wants freedom for the individual but this is possible only in and through the community. The condition of my freedom is the condition for everyone's freedom. Now my freedom seems to be purchased at the expense of others. My ability to consume comes at the cost of others to produce goods in terrible circumstances. Systemic alienation cannot be negated just by discursive participation or making noises together. We have structural and systemic exploitation and this means there is no possibility for a kind of immediate negation in the whole of network of mediations.
There is no immediate negation of mediation as such. False immediacy has been too present in noise and in free improvisation.
We need to think about our conditions of experience, but not as indeterminate thinking but as determinate thinking. We need to find a specific point to focus on and noise can be this focus because it is precisely what we have no control over and questions our conditions of experience. What am I witnessing? How do I behave given the suspension of the audience performer relation? How do we relate to each other once we are no longer passively consuming? Some people would reassure their individuality, reasserting themselves. I refuse this position, I refuse to take for granted a notion of the individual fermented under capitalist conditions.
Many people might try to reconcile this experience as a prank or a joke,
reestablishing normality as if they cannot tolerate having to think about what is going on and why is it going on. In my experience when tension is produced it can go into two direcions: a) people reassert themselves, their knowledge and authority, pretending to be clever by making a joke or behaving as if they have seen it before. This attitude kills the tension. b) people follow the tension and when this happens, a certain honesty emerges where the individual contributions become part of a collective rational agency that tries to makes sense out of the situation, understanding that there is some undecipherable noise going on. There are certain techniques that can help the acceleration of tension and estrangement such as: spiking space (organise the furniture in unconventional ways), human sampler (sampling and repeating things that have been said in the space), glitching voice (malfunctioning discourse), anti-social realism (collapsing the impotence of changing the social conventions in the performance space with the impotence to change reality in the general sense), ungrounding the situation (tear apart these social conventions), going fragile (sharing deep insecurities and doubts), daring together (doing the ungrounding collectivelly).
Once we have identified that there is tension, then we try to measure its critical potential. Noise can be transformative precisely because it makes you connect to other aspects of reality that are not necessarily sound. In doing so it foregrounds its historical specificity. It is in the socialization process of this deciphering that I can see the potential of noise understood as a device.
There are three levels from which we can measure the awareness that noise can produce;
awareness, awareness as and awareness of the mechanisms that makes you aware as.11
-Awarenes: This would be noise understood as an absolute immersion in sound that could be required of the listener, which would also mean the most phenomenological approach to noise. It is not surprising that people who claim this approach often imply a very individualist emphasis. As, for example, in Francisco Lopez12 or in VOMIR. In fact with Vomir we can see this connection between noise as absolute autonomy and the individualist politics in his NOISE WALL MANIFESTO:
"The individual no longer has any alternative but to completely reject contemporary life as promoted and preached. The only free behavior that remains resides in noise, withdrawal and a refusal to capitulate to manipulation, socialization and entertainment”13
I find this approach the most problematic precisely because it would the most aestheticised one and because it implies a certain agency of the individual which under these conditions would be a very questionable claim.
Awareness as: Here the context would need to be taken into account: you have the map and you identify other references. It already takes you away from the total immersion of sound. A couple of examples come to mind:
a) Cage 4'33'', even though Cage would want to deal with the sounds just as sound in themselves, it makes you question what music is, and tears apart previous judgment values, the audience needs to question themselves and their roles (are they producers of sound or/and the perceivers?)
b) Junko and her extreme vocals which sonically trigger the most disturbing imaginary situations, nevertheless her delivery is the most neutral one without any of the clichés of noise: aggression with such as references to serial killers or concentration camps or simply pure expression as if it was an act of freedom. I would say that her work produces the rift between knowing and feeling because it tears apart any reconciliation between your cognitive abilities to deal with it and how it makes you feel.
Here we can see how noise no longer relates to just sound but it takes into account other aspects that have to do with the context, the historical reception of the material and our ability to deal with it.
Awareness of the mechanisms that produces an awareness:
This last level is the most transformative because it makes you reconsider your relationship not only to the context but also with the mechanisms that you have in order to deal with this context. This inevitably would not just be about aesthetic experience but questioning what experience is, and how it is produced but more importantly how subjectivity is produced. It would not only force conception against sensation (like in the case of Junko) but it would also force the process of objectification in which you would have to see yourself from a third perspective point of view because the means to feel and see yourself as an individual are being undermined.
For example your condition as audience or performer is not totally given so there can be an element where positions shift to conditions that are not yet described. This would resist the fetishism of the singularity of a unique experience.
SOCIALISATION OF NOISE AS DEVICE
Why would it be important to try to socialize the estrangement effect that noise has on us? We have to take into account that both formalist strategies and noise are being recuperated for very nasty purposes. Anthony Iles in his text discusses how some of the formalist strategies are used in Britain: “Disturbingly, we discover recently, in the reform of both Higher and Primary Education in the United Kingdom – a ‘formal aesthetics of behavioral psychology ’ – a troubling reformulation and deployment of formalist techniques to the ends of producing an automatic subject appropriate to crisis capitalism’s instrumental needs.” 14 This is is done in order for students to develop better information acquisition and ‘encourage’ the cognitive ‘development’ of the individual student.”15
In regards to noise, we can see how it is being used in the battlefield, in torture and the city in order to disperse demonstrations. James Parker recently delivered a great lecture “Towards a Jurisprudence of Sonic Warfare”16 in which he points out how the use of sonic cannons like LRAD 500X-RE, the model that appears to have been present at the Ferguson demonstration but also in Gaza and other places, poses juridical holes which is very helpful for governments as they cannot be proven responsible for the damage: as there is no physical impact which can be proven to have caused the damage (it could have been loud music on headphones). Or in another perverse form of recuperation Parker points out that the band Skinny Puppy is trying stop the U.S. Government from using his music for torture.
These, of course are the most perverse forms of the negative critical potential of noise. However, what is argued here is that there is a critical negative potential in noise which can push our thinking and our perception to points where we don't know what “our” means. This approach to noise would go against the absolutisation of experience as a reservoir for agency. To do this a socialisation of the alienating effects of noise through rational understanding would be necessary in order to understand how it functions. To use noise as a device would be to use its alienating potential, to produced fucked up experiences that would make us question ourselves as subjects. If it reaffirms yourself as subject (I get it or I like it) this would not be noise as device but noise as taste which could not expand much further from the experiencing self. The important thing is to identify whether noise has its estrangement effect and if it ceases to have this alienating effect, to recharge its critical negative potential constantly so as not to become a parody of itself in the worst sense.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at Noise and the Possibility of the Future conference organized by Warren Neidich which took place at the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles on the 7th of March 2015. Thanks to Warren Neidich, Ray Brassier, Anthony Iles and Sezgin Boynik.
Shklovsky, Viktor, 'Art as Technique', Russian Formalist Criticism Four Essays Translated and with and introduction by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln,University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 12
Brassier, Ray Against an Aesthetics of Noise, 2009. Available here: http://www.ny-web.be/transitzone/against-aesthetics-noise.html (accessed 20th April 2015)
Viktor Shklovsky, op. Cit., 2003, pp.8-9.
Frederic Jameson, The Prison House of Language (Princeton University Press, 1972), 58
Hillel Schwartz interviewed by Sonic Acts, he talks about this around 2'20'' https://vimeo.com/113593758 (video accessed 17th May 2015)
Miguel Prado, “Schelling´s positive account on noise: On the problem of Entropy, Negentropy and Anti-Entropy”, unpublished paper 2015.
Ulrich Krieger, “Noise – A Definition” a talk delivered at the conference Noise and the Possibility of the Future organized by Warren Neidich which took place at the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles between the 6th and 7th of March 2015.
Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 26-27
This triadic understanding of the potential of noise comes from a conversation with Ray Brassier.
As you can read from his bio on what he is trying to produce: “transcendental listening, freed from the imperatives of knowledge and open to sensory and spiritual expansion.” Taken from http://www.franciscolopez.net/ (accessed 13 May 2014)
VOMIR, HNW MANIFESTO: http://www.decimationsociale.com/app/download/5795218093/Manifeste+du+Mur+Bruitiste.pdf (accessed 17th May 2015)
See Anthony Iles text in this issue.
This paper was delivered at Liquid Architecture Festival in Melbourne on the 11th of September 2014. Thanks to James Parker for sending me his material and Danni Zuvela and Joel Stern for letting me know it.