Commissioned by the arts organisation Argos that runs a major contemporary art festival in Brussels every year. It appears in Argos2003 (Brussels: Argos Press, 2003), 76-87. it is also available in Dutch (204-15).

Residue - Margin - Other: Noise as Ethics of Excess

Noise is not just a what, but also a where and a when.
Noise can be defined as a quantity of sound (that is deemed excessive), or a quality – an unpleasant and/or unwanted sound. It can be interference, disruption, an excess of different sounds merging, a physical threat, a threat to Reason and culture. Sound becomes noise due to some form of unacceptability, and this evolves through time and according to place. Historically, the modern world is where noise becomes an issue, through industrialisation, the growth of cities and transports, and is linked to the threat posed to central authority by a mass-ive population. Pre-modern society has infinitely less in the way of unexpected or new sound, and, outside of key metropolitan areas, does not suffer noise through population and labour concentration. Luigi Russolo argued that noise came about in the 19th century (Art of Noises, 23). Jacques Attali claims that earlier societies had a place for noise (for example, in the form of ancient Greek sacred theatre), a view also to be found in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. This place got lost, and noise went from being a sacred threat to occur in festivals, to being a political and social threat linked to itinerant populations (Noise, 13).

The growth of music as a relatively autonomous domain is an attack on noise. Public music becomes noise, and from this comes the idea of ‘noise pollution’ – the sense that we, as good liberal consumers of the public world, can demand not to be disturbed. The perception of music changes too: in a feeble rem(a)inder of its sacrificial past, we have to worship music silently – the transition from noise to music is the same as from the excessive sacred of Georges Bataille, based on waste, destruction and transgression, to the confines of church-based religions. The audience must respect the music, and in turn, the musicians promise to play properly. The playing of noise challenges the institution of music from within, recalling the lost origin of music. Just like the law it helps police, music’s institutionalisation (coming to be, as music) is based on a moment of illegitimate force: in that moment, sounds become musical or not. At this (always lost) moment, noise’s exclusion brings the creation of meaning, ordered languages and thought, as the other of the excluded, lost Other. Noise lies at the boundaries of form, and as the pure material Theodor Adorno detested, reveals that music is only the other to the other of noise, whilst, at the same time, it is not other to noise. This is not the same as saying all music is really just noise, which domesticates noise, and forgets that noise is held at bay. Noise is not simply a truer form of sound: in the staging of noise, we have a return to some sort of primal noise, as return only, almost ironically.

Noise is pushed further away as it comes into existence, and for Attali, this is because noise and music carry a threat that goes beyond the literal noisiness: ‘the political economy of music is not marginal, but premonitory. The noises of a society are in advance of its images and material conflicts’ (Noise, 11). Noise is prophecy, and rejected by existing authority as threatening disorder. This is inevitable, because ‘subversion in musical production opposes a new syntax to the existing syntax, from the point of view of which it is noise’ (34). Before we get too carried away by musical rebellions past and future changing the world, music is not enough – it is noise that carries rebellion, carries danger: ‘noise is a weapon and music, primordially, is the formation, domestication and ritualisation of that weapon as a simulacrum of ritual murder’ (24). It is not enough that a certain form of music is seen as subversive by political powers, or an older generation, particularly if that threat is based on the content or message of the music, because music is already a domestication, and the more meaning it carries the less it is noise, and therefore the less it actually threatens. This is despite the appearance that noise might be simply part of the aesthetic realm and, as a result, not involved in a politicised world. Noise is to do with form, or lack of it. Better still, the losing of it, in a moment of Bataille’s ‘formless’ process, both more and less than things without form.

Music has been freed up in the course of the last century, with noises incorporated into more standard compositions. John Cage sought to alter our (and music’s) relation to the soundworld, whether through the ‘silence’ of his 4’33" (1952), indeterminacy (going against composition and fixed scores), ‘misuse’ of ‘instruments’ such as record players. But is this actually noise? Douglas Kahn argues that the predominant theme in avant-garde music of the 20th century is the belief that all sound was out there, waiting to be discovered, mobilised, brought to our attention (Noise Water Meat, 74). The musician would in some way be channelling the sound of the universe, and aiming to change the audience’s perception of the world and the place of sound and music within it. Whilst this can be highly subversive, or formally interesting, it is not noise. Putting noises into music does not make the resulting music noise, except to very traditional listeners, and the avant-garde can hardly justify its avantgardeness on that. The problem is that putting all noises into music transfers them into music – it is music, and nothing else, that gains more freedom, room to manoeuvre. Noise music is something else, as it is aware of its own paradoxical situation, and shifts continuously to stay noise (whether within a performance or recording, from one to the next).

When noise is put to use, it can no longer be fully noise.

Noise can never fully be – it is a transitional or temporary state. Unfamiliarity is required, which immediately raises the question as to how recordings can ever stay noise. Japanese noise in particular, and not necessarily by design, gets around this through the quantity, and sometimes the scale of releases. Merzbow, for example, famously released a 50 cd box (Merzbox), and among other new records, has issued two four cd albums this year (Day of Seals, Time Hunter). He also attempts to continually thwart mastery of any given record by the mass of material (often noise, blasts of sound, grinding layers that briefly mesh and then collapse as something else emerges) on each recording – with stops and starts, and the illusion of order in the form of titles and track times. All information is a lure here. You cannot control and fully grasp this material. This is noise as noise – not put into service, as the listener is subject to it, not realising anything. Even to call it ecstatic is to confine it. Merzbow’s ‘music’ is endless noise, knowing it will be at least partially consumed, incorporated by listeners, and restlessly aware that the ultimate fate of noise is always to stop being noise.

Noise is life, suggested Russolo. Cage had the revelation that there was no such thing as silence in the endlessly regurgitated story about him hearing his own biological processes in a soundproof room. Maybe we could apply this, maybe we could appreciate the sounds of the world, industrial and natural, and create a harmonious (if often dissonant) soundworld (this is the target of the sound ecologists, who seek to get rid of disturbing ‘unwanted’ sounds). There is no silence in the world, except death, but noise is the bringing into audition of the unpleasant unwanted sound: the retching of the tubercular rather than the heartbeat. Death itself, except at a local level, is not silent anyway – sound passes to noise in the revivification of the corpse. Noise is about a catastrophic ecology, taking its revenge. For he or she who would listen, noise is the prevention of listening to the world: the world is utterly consumed, momentarily, when noise is (not) present. It is also the alteration of your biological condition, as you now have noise grafts – you are adjusted by and into noise, and this lingers as residue.

Listening itself can be thought of apart from the listening that is understanding, processing (‘entente’), argues Jean-Luc Nancy. Philosophy has always privileged this, because of its preference for a unified subject: the listener exerts and affirms agency in listening, and has the object world re-affirmed as such, separate to the listener (À l’écoute, 13). But listening alters this subject, he claims, in that listening is always in the presence of, rather than in presence (30-1), with the ‘subject of listening always still to come’ (44). This new model only takes us so far, because not all listening is the same, especially if always ‘in the presence of’, and noise is not the same as ‘organised sound’, even if presented in some sort of organised frame. So in being right, Nancy allows noise music’s existence to correct him. Noise completes the argument and works as critique.

Noise cannot want – it can put you into an unwanted liberation, force you to be free, somewhere between Rousseau and Sade. Noise might be the opening up of desire, or the erotic, but it has to suspend it – no release, just a sudden end when it does stop. Noise brings you to your body, your body without organs, perhaps, but also a body made ear. When noise occurs, listening gives way to hearing, giving way in turn to the loss of hearing – not literally, but in the sense of losing the ability to distinguish sounds, to keep sounds as a merely auditory input. The volume and the harshness of the sounds bring your body to be, in noise, even in the loss of awareness. In the case of the Swans or Hijokaidan, this would be in the unrelenting mass of sound. In the case of Merzbow, Masonna, or Violent Onsen Geisha, harsh changes do not allow you to settle, however submissively.

Duration. Noise needs time to become noise: many pieces are exceptionally long, and are not always a process of endless changes. Noise can also be a radical stillness, a density. As it proceeds, unchanging, you might imagine it becomes ambience, but a moving mass (that continually disappears in the passing of its time) is still altering its position compared to where it and you started, so sound, noise or music can never be static. Noise is different, though, in that it is suspended between stasis, decay and forward motion. At a more obvious level, the physical experience of extreme noise alters according to how long it goes on. Noise, then, becomes a device for a reflecting embodiment: unlike music, which aims high, and aims to create some sort of mental reaction, noise is low, its material operates directly on a conscious body, gradually becoming conscious only of noise, which is consciousness of nothing. YOU are embodied, as a you, rather than an I. This is awareness as loss of itself, nothing again and again. You are, nothing.

Is noise fascistic? Noise cannot carry content, so not overtly. Many have misunderstood noise and industrial music’s interest in extremes, and presumed that the use of certain imagery might imply advocacy of Nazism, for example, or violence, in general. Beyond the level of presumed content, though, there is still the question of noise itself being in some way fascistic. Historically, we can point to the futurists’ love of the sounds of war as indicating fascist potential, but in practice the extreme right is not at all interested in noise. It seeks loudness, rather than noise, and the restriction of sounds into a monitored code: i.e. in the form of State-sponsored, pseudo-traditional music, clear transmission of ‘the message’ when in power, more ambiguous when ‘subversive’. Noise is the outsider to be expelled. In this, as in most other areas, fascism is merely the extension of rationalised liberal society.

But if noise evokes anything, it is often not that far from phenomena fascism, or totalitarianism in general, might praise: the non-rational, some form of sacred, giving yourself over into something beyond the individual, attaining some more authentic, lost sense of either body or mind, the notion of submitting, the control on the part of the noise producer, the power of a spectacle that is physically oppressive. Bataille had the same problem: in looking at phenomena outside the capitalist worldview, his theory seemed to tend toward fascism. His answer is relatively simple, and transferable to noise: fascism is part of what he calls the ‘heterogeneous’, but is specifically about the control of that realm. It is ultra-profane rather than sacred. The sacred, here as noise, is at a different exit point from the rational, liberal, capitalist world, and the loss of that world’s restrictions stays loss.

Noise and other recent experimental musics run a risk in ambiguity: there is no judgement of good or bad – in the music or performances themselves. The imposition of high volume, for example, is masochistic, contractual (as Deleuze would say in Coldness and Cruelty), whereas music in commercial city centre areas is not – so noise, even if it will not offer a ‘positive’ stance, can invoke resistance, can be it. The noise of capital has to be jammed somehow - wearing a walkman, listening to a noise music cd would not be enough – this individualises revolt into a neatly controllable form. Listening to noise which confuses you, or prevents you from operating correctly in the city would give you a radically broken perspective.

The Big Bang: as radio astronomy improved technically, it was puzzling that background noise wasn’t disappearing. Eventually, it dawned on astronomers that this was the ‘sound’ of the Big Bang. Actually, that is not quite the case: that sound is the residue of the supposed beginning of all things, something both fundamental (or universal) and, to us, ultimately marginal. Noise is everywhere, the condition of all things, but also their passing: that noise is both present and gone, like all noise.

Again, when is noise? What was noise in 1912, 1952, 1977 or 1993 is not noise in the same way now (whichever now you might think of). It no longer shocks, and we have to re-construct a tradition and a history of shocking sounds to simulate that noise. Shock is always limited to a certain historical moment, and the logic of the avant-garde is one of a succession of shocks (at least to the traditional system), which is ultimately (or perpetually) undoing itself, as any shocking act is subsumed into the institution of art or music. Nonetheless, it has proved easier for art institutions to incorporate the oddness of modernist visual art than its sound equivalent (of which there was much less). As noise comes into its own, so too does its institutionalisation. As all noise will stop being noise, at least in human contexts, this should not be seen as recuperation. Instead, it is one more thing to attempt to exceed, through alterations, interruption, the transitional – or perhaps oddly - in a period always ready to embrace flux, solidity, density, repetition - noises you won’t like, even if you ‘like noise music’ (V/VM, for example do a version of noise karaoke with rock songs, ballads, easy listening tunes). Dada sought to annoy its own audience, noise that is not just a tribute band to noise must do likewise.

Noise as proliferation: noise is always on the side of more – even if not always (or ever) good or bad noise. Noise is not just volume, but the spread, dissemination and dispersal of its non-message. Samizdat, cdrs, graffiti, shareware – all act as forms of noise in spreading themselves parasitically. A few years ago, there was a sense that this could lead to a form of future rebellion through hacking, but that has been surpassed by the net’s will to noise, which is self-creating, auto-reproductive, auto-destructive. Within noise, we might detect another proliferation: Deleuze and Guattari name it ‘microproliferation’, and this can lead to the destruction of sound from within itself (Mille plateaux, 364), taking silence, music and noise with it.

Noise and lo-tech: across the spectrum of noise, analogue equipment still features strongly, as does the use of discarded non-musical objects. Digital reproduction might make it easier to make good quality recordings cheaply, but at a basic level, it is about removing noise, standardising all sound. Noise music offers a very material bulwark against this, in opting for highly limited editions, vinyl, cassettes, non-standard packaging. One MSBR release emerges from its pizza box to be placed in a sculpture also including a wooden block and a spring – the green vinyl disc now useless, in a multiple attack on non-noise.

A Walk in the Woods: Adorno was the last century’s most prolific theorist of music as a culturally situated phenomenon. He is firmly in favour of experimental ‘new’ music (i.e. orchestral) and widely criticised (although not always accurately) for his blinkered approach to jazz and popular music in general. Adorno’s walk in the woods is disturbed by the noise of an aeroplane flying above (Aesthetic Theory, 311), and this represents all that is bad about modern culture. But his walk in the woods is in itself a cultural phenomenon – the woods have probably been designated public amenities, with paths running through them. Furthermore, he is not talking about extensive woodland, but that form of nature that is a boundary between nature and culture – in other words, exactly where we should expect intrusions. George Brecht took a different line, and creates a piece inspired by a moment where his car’s engine was running, the indicator on, in the woods. This mutates into Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event) (1960), wherein performers switch on car engines, horns, lights, or open doors, according to instructions on cards (see Michael Nyman, Experimental Music, 75).

Confrontation, or noise as means to ends: without descending to the level of music as message, some (few, in fact) have managed to combine ideas in words and ideas in sound, whilst remaining noise. Whitehouse, especially in recent albums, have merged the physical with the mental/psychological: the words and harsh sound need each other, depend on each other, risk being lost in each other. This dependence and mutual loss of identity occurs between performer and audience in all noise. The prime purpose of confrontation is confrontation itself. Those who are there when noise is occurring do not lose themselves in some sort of happy bonding, but are driven inward, too far, and therefore lose ready access to this inside. In its place, through what was initially staged as confrontation, there is now an immanent group, where we are neither individuals nor a community (except in the Bataillean sense of one based on the moments of sacrifice). The face in front of you has gone, and so has yours: the end of ethical space, where there might be a distinction between confrontation and any other sort of human relation, or between different types of confrontation.

Noise, and the use of it, has constantly aspired to leave metaphor behind: noises would give a truer musicality, free from the rigid constraints imposed by Western tonality. Immediately noise began to signify, to take its place within linguistic systems. Sometimes this would be by suggestion, at others, a case of literal-mindedness. Non-musical sounds, or even escaping tonality, or composition, or ‘talent’, could all be seen as getting outside the stifling, linear predictability of ‘acceptable’ pre-modernist music. This is largely true, but it is not the end of the story, as these ‘noises’ lose their status, acquiring the power to represent. Abstract free-form jazz is not free of meaning, just free of explicit content. Exactly like abstract painting of the same period, it conveys (is heard/seen to convey) the ‘soul of the artist’. Later free jazz, or ‘improv’ might not be after this, but it still aims for some sort of true musicality, this time involving the listener, chance, unfamiliar sounds. Noise is always disappearing: it requires renewal, and a sense that it can break down: it allows itself to not get beyond noise. As well as Whitehouse’s own particular take on this, Japanese noise succeeds in staying noise, according to many of its practitioners, because of its physical quality – which needs always to be recreated.


A New Ear is what we need, writes Arthur Kroker, one that would be able to cope with the new digital soundworld – and the newly expanded music where noise can occur (concurring to some extent with Cage, but crucially, Kroker’s is not an ear regained, but an ear reconfigured, and in conflict, rather than harmony, with the world). This would be a ‘cynical ear’ (Spasm, 50), one able to be more than simply natural, passive, and more than a recipient of culture’s constant ideologising (hidden as common sense). The postmodern world has ostensibly downplayed sound in favour of images, but sound has pervaded it anyway. Not yet as explicit resistance, but much sound is resisted (by ‘the system’) – whether biological or technological, as being ‘too much’. In a utopian burst, Kroker argues that ‘the education of the cynical ear can be an aesthetic strategy for learning how to cohabit the planet with android processors’ (Spasm, 53). In this, he is not far from Attali’s advocacy of ‘composing’ (see Noise, 133-48), which is a form of ‘active listening’ and participation. We can challenge power through ‘conquest of the right to make noise, in other words, to create one’s own code and work’ (Noise, 132). Ironically, it is the success of the ‘music business’ that could lead to its downfall, as ‘no longer having to say anything in a specific language is a necessary condition for slavery, but also of the emergence of cultural subversion’ (122).

Let Sound Fail. Cage argued that ‘wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise’ (‘The Future of Music: Credo’, 3). Percussion, taken very broadly, allows us to bring this awareness into music (5). Portentously, in capitals, he writes that ‘whereas, in the past, the point of disagreement has between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and so-called musical sounds’ (4). The experimental musician is to ‘set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments’ (‘Experimental Music’, 10). This all fits with the idea of noise music, but Cage is caught between The weaker bits of Rousseau and the didactic bits of Hegel, such that we have a dialectic that marches proudly backward, rather than collapsing, or exploding in headless glory (as in Bataille’s interminable, self-destroying theoretical take on Hegel). Cage’s problem is that he was the composer least able to ‘let sounds be’, let them happen outside of aesthetics. The death of silence, outside any ‘organised sound’ was now to be unthinkable, inhuman. This inhuman is what noise tries to (un)think. The problem remains, as remnant, though, because there is no way not to lose, when making noise as noise, even if not trying to make noises musical.


The listener must not believe itself to be free, if what might be occurring is in any way noise. That the listener is somehow free to create music that is somehow open-ended relies on the myth of self-presence, where the individual is in control of all they do and think. Also on the myth of learning: all we need is to be shown the way. Noise does not wait to take this time, but places you in the location of the loss of self. We contract into this, a form of Deleuze’s take on masochism, which is not linked to sadism, as the latter insists there be no contract, and orgasm instead of jouissance. In sadism, there is sex and pain, and sensual pleasure. In masochism, the ‘coldness’ is ‘the disavowal of sensuality’ (Coldness and Cruelty, 52). There will still be intense physical sensation and attempts to mentally process or anticipate, but neither of these attain presence: ‘the anxiety of the masochist divides therefore into an indefinite awaiting of pleasure and an intense expectation of pain’ (71). The masochist contracts, strikes an agreement with the noise producer, but only this act is autonomous (and of course is no such thing, as it is never not bound by social rules) – the rest is subjugation. Is listening to noise pathetic? It is more and less: according to Deleuze the masochist holds the law in derision, and is ultimately more subversive than the sadist: ‘the law is no longer subverted by the upward movement of irony to a principle that overrides it, but by the downward movement of humour which seeks to reduce the law to its furthest consequences’ (88). In other words, the punishment is not one, but neither is the ‘victim’ ‘really in charge’. In likening the experience of noise to masochism, we can take both as fetishes, but in the knowledge that ‘natural sex’, ‘natural noise’ are just as fetishised. There is no way back or forward to purity.

Noise is low form. It might seem obvious to connect Bataille’s notion of ‘formless’ with noise and/or noise music, but this formless is not the same as formlessness. ‘Formless’ is a process, not a description, and is at work, is forced into work in noise. Noise deforms, reconfigures in form, dissipates, mutates. It also emerges from unformed materials (i.e. nonmusical, or abused musical sources), it does not figure its sounds, it does not limit the sound to fixed pitches. Noise is also material, which Bataille characterises as being ‘low’ or abject. His materialism favours dirt and decay – everything comes from them, and despite this, we as a society shun them. Noise from what has been rejected, often literally. Having come in low, it stays low, rather than trying to transcend music, it falls ecstatically underneath music.

Ecstatic: the loss of identity in noise is the near-loss of desire, in suspension. Noise places us in Bataille’s version of the erotic, where death, loss of self merge with the more usually understood sense of eroticism. In this erotic, the self is sacrificed, temporarily and continually, creating a phased subjectivity. There is a difference between this occurring in the (non)presence of noise and in highly rhythmical musics. In the latter, the body is summoned, and then left behind as the endpoint of a process. In the former, the body is endlessly brought low, brought to itself in an experience of density, brought out of itself into the pool of noise. One is the upper, gassy realms, the other a thickening liquid that threatens to cut off respiration. One is safe sex, the other an endless ritual where desire is held down (neither let free nor removed).

Crap: noise as bad music, played unprofessionally, played incorrectly, inauthentically, in the wrong place, with the wrong machines for the job. Noise is weak (Vattimo), noise is minor (Deleuze), abject (Bataille, Kristeva), perhaps ‘mere noise’ (Benjamin, Agamben). Beneath it all, it is not heroic or even heroically excluded.

Transgression: experimental music is, by most definitions, something new, outside the norms, and will itself one day be law (i.e. accepted as music, art etc). Noise music’s transgression is more complex than its breaking of rules. In crossing genres, it tries to dismantle the idea of genre. Its loudness is not transgression as such, but its combination of volume, intensity, indefiniteness, unpredictability, crossing of genre drives a deeper transgression. Bataille, again: transgression is the re-iteration of a lost moment of (not) coming into being, opening a space that is only provisional, always missed, always gone for consciousness, which can never become present in the presence of noise (or anywhere ‘else’). Transgression/noise is, as a whole, and as nothing - because of its exclusion from ‘the’ world, which we can see, hear, understand, and in which we would act with agency – it has been made to stand apart (as the realm of unreason), and in this displacement, it returns as the moment of displacing, which continually occurs, and sometimes brought to occur. It also is, as if it were the world, as if it were music, as if it were itself, as if it were noise. Noise is a purposeful iteration of the situation at ‘the’ limit (between law and transgression, music and noise) - ‘a line of demarcation which has a ‘nothing’ marking the distance travelled from one indetermination to another, a nothing, or that which cannot be determined, separating nothing from nothing’ (Maurice Blanchot, ‘The Ease of Dying’, 315). Not only is there nothing (noise as process) separating nothing (music, reason) from nothing (noise, unreason), there is also nothing in the crossing, in the transgression itself – but this is a nothingness that is not empty, as everything comes to exist in, from and against nothing.

Does exclusion imply a catalyst for rebellion? Noise is on the side of revolt rather than revolution (not that this can be said of all experimental music), as revolution implies a new order, and noise cannot be a message-bearer (other than of itself as message). A politics requires consciousness and agency, not present in noise itself. The use of noise, however, would not be in the way of politics. We could imagine a politically engaged use of noise, where the noise had purpose – and this could be minimal (creating a group, community and so on, as in Hakim Bey’s notion of the temporary autonomous zone), or maximal (using noise to highlight issues or problems). Noise itself could serve a didactic end, and ‘change the way we think’ or perceive things. Any of these would disqualify the event or sounds from being noise, as the noise would now be drawn back into the realm of the useful, the realm of clearly assigned values, only with noise now as positive value. The values or the binary opposition would have been revalued, in a simple reversal, rather than being transvalued. To counter this, or in the full knowledge of this, noise and noise music are not purist, and therefore cannot complain about being adulterated, without also losing their status as noise. Occupying this paradoxical space is what noise is (not) about. Then, noise has structured the space as a process, and we have something like Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘smooth space’, a vague location full of intensities and noises (Mille plateaux, 598), defined by what occurs in them, and then as them (601-2).

When noise catches on, it will no longer be any sort of avant-garde: uniquely, perhaps, if it were to become a movement or inspire one, it would already be failing. On the other hand, the artists are trying for something, there is an attempt at communication – an excessive one, even. Maybe noise will fail more prosaically, and always be marginal (which would allow ‘noise practitioners’ to be perceived as an unrecuperable force). Noise music will continue to occupy a space between these failures. As it ages, some of it is supposedly surpassed (i.e. in extremity, in volume, in technique, ‘style’) and being not of the present adds noise, just like the use of analogue equipment and junk (junk is doubly anachronistic: firstly in its initial use being over, secondly in that to use junk is not new).

Muzak Everywhere. Globalisation has been led by music, driven by economics and homogenisation (including the spurious ‘difference’ of ‘world’ or ‘global’ music). Whilst technology has sped this process up, it has also been encouraging resistance. One of the specifics of what we think of as noise music today is that it is a fragmentary version of a genuinely global communication. Resistance has for a long time also been a commodity, and, paradoxically, again, this is where noise music scores, because it makes no claim to be the authentic underground, or alternative, and even if you can make claims on its behalf, its amorphousness (internally and as an overall phenomenon) prevents it reifying itself (although as noise music, it is already reification of noise, and noise, in turn, is never even noise until it has been reified through recognition).

Merzbow and Levinas. Phenomenology, in deconstructing the positions of subject and object, self and other, the living subject and death, such that there is always an infinitely momentary transaction between the two, is highly suggestive in conceptualising noise, as it does not necessarily impose a position from which noise inevitably emerges. In, turn, so-called extreme noise or power electronics, is not caught within even a deconstructive model, as it is able to add to, and almost (but never quite) complete the move made to understand it. In this instance, I am going to look at Emmanuel Levinas’ article ‘Reality and Its Shadow’, which seems to prophetically approach work that largely did not exist at the time. He claims that ‘art does not know a particular type of reality; it contrasts with knowledge. It is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, and invasion of shadow’ (132). In this statement Levinas exceeds the claims made both by artists and critics, in terms of a work’s meaning, and enacts exactly what he suggests art does, in emptying it of meaning. As noted above, abstract art merely shifts meaning on to expression, and abstract experimental music attempts to summon some sort of ineffable, or create a particular experience (which then becomes the meaning), or open our ears to the soundworld around us. Noise music is not free of these attempts, but the material resists, and awaits, withheld, rather than being absent or coming to our meaningful comprehension. It comes near, and is endlessly halting. In not being in front of us, or even tidily placed in a subjectively commensurable auditory space (i.e. headphones or any other anthropomorphic, literal stereo device), it does not have a being for me, and in not having the character of being-for, it does not allow the ‘I’ to be either. The self of noise is a ‘you’.
Rhythm, taken broadly to refer to an oscillation of the real and the image (mediated through some sort of subject), empties the subject of the illusion of control over reality: ‘rhythm represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away by it’ (‘Reality and its Shadow’, 132). This is not rhythm as repetitive beats, but an ontological pulsation across subject and other(s). It emerges from music, for, he writes, ‘the musician’s element realises the pure deconceptualisation of reality. Sound is the quality most detached from an object […]. Even its timbre, a trace of belonging to an object, is submerged in its quality, and does not retain the structure of a relation’ (133). At one level, this is a highly idealist view of music (i.e. that it has a fundamental essence, whatever its from or content), but once we introduce noise into the question, we can let noise be the deconceptualisation he writes of, and the closer to the materials, or the closer its materiality, to the world, the more this is the case. Merzbow (as one example of the field of extreme noise music) empties out sounds of their source, and multiplies this effect by layering – Levinas’ theory is now not a fixed judgement on how things are, but a process, one of interaction with the material, an interaction that is never completed or knowable to listener or producer.
This incompleteness is to do with the making of an object or ending of a performance: what separates art from the rest of the object world is not human intervention as such, but the moment of ending, which suspends the object. His example is a statue, which despite being a solid, fixed object, carries within it the time of its incompletion, the possibility that it could be worked forever, and ‘the eternal duration of the interval in which a statue is immobilised differs radically from the eternity of a concept; it is the meanwhile, never finished, still enduring – something inhuman and monstrous’ (141). Noise would also carry ‘an eternally suspended future’ (138), which brings us to our perpetual incompletion as subjects (137). Brought to it again, in ‘the indefinite time of the event’ (Deleuze and Guattari, Mille plateaux, 320), which is the eternal return, the time of ethics: an ethics which is empty of content, where the subjects are empty, but where we are no longer confronting any other subjects either. A paradoxical ethics that emerges from aesthetics, but one where judgement is surpassed. Noise is where the rules are suspended, such that we glimpse the moment the rules came in and their simultaneous transgression.