Noise

“Noise,” as a word, references both the little auditory ripples, wiggles, and waves that surround us and the more metaphorical “noise” that we ascribe to things like media or a crowded, overwrought curtain pattern. Both are pretty similar.

Twitter, for example, bears some resemblance to a street, where each car is sort of doing its own thing, or like a crowded market place, filled with words, many of which I do not care much about, jostling together. Many little conversations or rhetorical projectiles surf by: ideas, images, arguments, rage, humor, injustice, grilled cheese.  They’re all here through a combination of forces, many of which go far beyond me.

To get more specific, I think the busy street and the crowded Twitter feed have four main qualities:

1. Ceaselessness

2. Perceived Disorganization

3. Perceived Lack of Harmony

4. Overwhelming “Volume”

Music provides an easy way to understand this, as it’s more accessible than most nonhuman noise. Ceaselessness, quality one, implies an ongoing character to the sound or media. Twitter always updates. Small gaps of silence exist, but each moment, a new tweet fills the gap. Like Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata’s finale, with its breathless arpeggios, or one of Steve Reich’s pulsing rhythms, noise keeps going.

In the world, noise is always around us. As R. Murray Schafer writes in The Soudscape, “The best way to comprehend what I mean by acoustic design is to regard the soundscape of the world as a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly. We are simultaneously its audience, its performers, and its composers.” Sound enfolds us into worlds, into cocoons of ambience, with its ever-present persistence. Reversing this, music also creates worlds, as Mahler argued or Brian Eno undertakes through his ambient music.

But all this has some sort of organization. Some sort of progress, in a sense. It also has harmony. So our next two qualities, disorganization and dissonance, become key fracture points. Take an an Olivier Messiaen piece, which deliberately tries to break traditional tonality in many places, or Cage’s 13 Harmonies, which doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and you get closer, for many people, to “noise.” Indeed, as Cage said in one interview, he prefers noise to the “talking” that most music does.

Sometimes, different world music strikes our ears in odd ways because it may not follow traditional, Western grammar and syntax. It is a different language. But noise lacks grammar and syntax, or at least it lacks the grammar and syntax we can understand. It is alien, and through that distance, it comes across as aharmonic and arhythmic.

Returning to Twitter, I suppose one might argue that it is aharmonic and arhythmic because it lacks an organizing hand. It’s a cluster of voices, in a variety of media, thrown together by a variety of forces. We don’t have newspaper ledes or 5-paragraph essays or whole canvases by a single painter; it’s a quilt stitched by many hands, with different agendas, different materials, different syntax, voice, and grammar.

More deeply, no ideology or purpose grounds these utterances. The #BlackLivesMatter tweets exist alongside angry tweets aimed at Anita Sarkeesian, or stories about Kim Kardashian’s latest shoot or a picture of cats. Lies exist alongside facts. Satire alongside news.

But noise only becomes “noisy” when the volume is too high. It floods in, assaults us, pounds its arythmic, aharmonic agenda against our temples. It hits us with cute cats alongside Syrian refugees. Pictures jumbled up with words, and videos, and hashtags, and emoticons, and all-caps yells, and snide one-liners–ceaseless and staggering.

I’m not the only person to look at media this way. Bruno Latour, for one, moves toward it. But I think we do gain something from studying noise. From sticking our eyes, and ears, and hands into the static and car horn cacophonies of Twitter and the street outside. I’m not quite sure what that “something” is, perhaps a better appreciation for noise, like John Cage, or a better ability to sift through it. I hope, however, that whatever we gain may reduce our anxiety and make us better listeners.

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Humdrum aesthetics, ambiance, and everyday affect

I’ve been off lately. Like a typist with baseball mitts on or a table with uneven legs. Finishing up coursework, graduating, moving back to my parents to prep for the next phase of life, I’ve been recalibrating my humdrum “average everydayness,” to use Heidegger’s term.

Doing so has left me lurching, back peddling, and out of sorts. Fortunately, I’ve been riding it out well, even thinking about my daily driftings, dustings, and feelings as they fit the humdrum aesthetics of everyday life.

I like looking at life aesthetically, as this view implies the ever messy, artful, and personal position we have. While we often talk about “building” a life or going on “journeys,” I’ve always pictured life like a canvas, gradually accruing layers of paint as we rub away and redraw our life into becoming. Talking in terms of poetry, Nietzsche puts it well in The Gay Science: “we want to be the poets of our life–first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters” (240).

So we paint our lives through “daily fidelity,” as Camus puts it, through little etches and big thoughts, baby steps and bounds, each day passing as we glide, slip, and work within our daily world.

But we aren’t alone in this process. We also have other people in our lives, immediate and present or steering from a distance. But other things, like weather, geography, and the objects that allow our habits, compose our canvas as well. To use a term I’ve been thinking about lately, our lives have “ambiance,” situated, embedded, and present in a broader cradle of being. I tend to side with Thomas Rickert on this perspective: that traditional self/world or subject/object dichotomies are flimsy and over simplifying, even wrong in a way. We are worldly and bodily, not simply a self in a body in a world.

Moreover, many of these things recede from our immediate perspective, but still exert an influence. For example, I ran out of tea recently. Normally an everyday object taken for granted, its absence skewed my routine, affecting my whole day. And through the move, my placement of everyday objects has changed, from my wallet and keys to my pants and socks. All these little differences from things long-since receded change my humdrum aesthetics. They change my life.

In Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, she maps and probes many of these “ordinary affects” and the largely diffuse and unconscious effect they exert. As she writes, worth quoting at length:

Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic. Rooted not in fixed conditions of possibility but in the actual lines of potential that a something coming together calls to mind and sets in motion, they can be seen as both the pressure points of events or banalities suffered and the trajectories that forces might take if they were to go unchecked. (5)

Difficult to pin down, analyze, articulate, or even notice, these ordinary affects steer our lives. Stuff happens that we can’t fully articulate or trace, but we know that something is happening. Something is throwing itself together. Assembling. Doing. Changing. Being. And, often, this something catches us up in its folds. We resonate in mutual ambiance, distilled into becoming.

As Stewart describes, a biker couple enters a restaurant and mentions an accident, creating a conversation, creating a “we.” The greenery of a city increases well being. A collection of affect leaves me waking up at noon instead of 6:15, blinking at my clock, in a sprawl of blankets, dazed thoughts grasping at the wakefulness that gradually pools into a day, gathered up into a life.

“Grain upon grain, one by one,” writes Beckett, “and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”

In this together, but alone

With the protests in Baltimore taking place, I’ve been thinking a lot about race, equality, and social media. I don’t post much on the subject, as I’m not sure how I fit in to the whole debate, but prompted by some conversations and thinking from this past week, I feel compelled to sort out my thoughts in a public or semi-public place. I don’t want to point any fingers or espouse any solution. Instead, I mainly just want to clarify.

In terms of labels, and the privileges traditionally ascribed to them, I’m high on the chart: straight, white, male, able-bodied, and upper middle class. I’m not part of the 1%, but I have never had to face any real discrimination. At most, I’ve had to curb decisions and trim back dreams due to constraints on money.

That said, I have felt “other” at points, whether through mingling in counterpublics or traveling to Egypt, where I was the minority at the station, in the markets, on the streets, etc. It is an odd feeling. A certain embodied and spatial self-consciousness, a sense of uncanny distance–even rejection–from the stuff and people around you. A sense of the exiled, alien, or intrusive.

With that in mind, I can’t say my experience connects to the experience of those alienated by the public sphere at large. My experience is vastly different from theirs, and I think that’s the key: find a multiculturalism that doesn’t try to erase the meaningful differences that do exist, but that provides a place where conversation can take place. Recognizing difference, but also recognizing relationship.

For example, Cornell West points out how many Black leaders become washed down or “de-odorized,” in his words. We see this with MLK, honoring his “I have a Dream Speech” without recognizing his widespread attacks on capitalism or militarism. Or, as with Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, many white Americans–and the media and textbooks I’ve encountered at large–stress the nonviolent turn they took, as if their violent actions were merely a muddy memory and not a meaningful response to the oppression they faced.

In more contemporary contexts, many white Americans might stress the “I recognize my privilege” narrative, while the victimized narratives of minorities–and the anger it expresses–becomes secondary. Some may attack the looting without reflecting on the anger, frustration, the institutional poverty that causes it, left over from hundreds of years of race relations, struggle, and oppression. On the converse, others may fixate on the violence, without looking at the nonviolence and cooperation that may take place on the sidelines. Or impose boarders that leave people alienated and uncertain. Or rely on unchallenged cultural assumptions and group dynamics, like the classic “rugged individualism” narrative.

Simply put, some narratives are more marketable or palatable than others. Some are easier to grasp, easier to hold onto, easier to repeat, easier to spread, or shout, or celebrate. Or, more bleakly, our own inborn biases–our confirmation biases, Dunbar’s numbers, and in-group proclivities–and our cultivation as individual people with limited access and viewpoints in an American milieu prevent us from seeing the whole stage. We get stuck, in a sense, caught up in simplification because the broader picture is so messy, uncertain, ugly, and inconvenient.

We are caught in a paradox: in constant relation, with constant separation. We are all in this together, but alone.

As I said, I don’t want to propose a solution, and though I unintentionally point my finger at certain broad perspectives, I’m pointing the finger at myself. I’m flawed. Even this thinking-through or “essai” may be fraught with errors, may be dangerous, may be constraining and insensitive.

If anything, though, I think we need a certain kind of sympathy, a certain kind of identification that traditional in-group out-group dynamics and bland #AllLivesMatter multiculturalism do not meet. Once upon a time, Americans were called “The People of Feeling.” Sympathy and “fellow-feeling” was a bedrock of politics and social relations. It was a scientific fact that filled all sorts of writings. Granted, as many scholars–like Julia Stern and Andrew Burstein–note, it often excluded many black Americans and women, but I think it still has some use for us today.

I know of few other things that highlight these affective ties and social relations as clearly and viscerally as sympathy. As Diane Davis argues, in order for unifying symbols–like language or culture–to develop, one must first consider an “always prior relation to the foreign(er) without which no meaning-making or determinate (symbolic) relation would be possible.” In other words, we are always in relation. We are always “being-with.”

With this in mind, we always have an ethical obligation to recognize our inherent relationship. But at the same time, that relationship always recognizes the inherent difference or “foreign” element of the other. Through “sympathetic imagination” and “emotional contagion” we may break down boarders, but a separation always persists for most of us. “I” can never be fully “you.”

So perhaps I lied (again), and I am putting forth a position, but it is a pretty basic  one: we are all different, each with different (inaccessible) worlds and stories, but we are also in the same communities, the same country, the same world.

With this in mind, I see the role of activism. I do not see myself fitting that role personally, but I think activism and the laws and tradition that allow such activism provide key resources. They are necessary. They are beneficial. But they also have a profound ethical dimension, because activism always addresses “our” world, not “my” world or “your” world. All of our individual actions ripple through the whole.

As one of my teachers would always say, “It’s complicated.” But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek progress or clarity. I think it just means we must do so with a clear sense of sympathy and “humility,” mindful of the “ground” where each of us stands and why.