|Paper given at Body/Space conference/event, University of Sheffield, April 2003.
Accommodation of Noise
No Rational Body
The accommodation of noise is about where noise is, where it can be, where it happens to be, and this in relation to the body, without which there is no meaningful where. Noises arrival in a where troubles that place, and troubles the rational body.
Here Descartes has been an easy target: he stands for rationality, self-control, mastery of identity, the provider of guarantees for oppressive alienation. We are continually exhorted to wage war on the Cartesian subject: Anthony Vidler says of recent work, that architects [similarly], have self-consciously put the notion of the Cartesian subject at risk, with spatial morphings and warpings (Warped Space, 11). Post-rationalism, post-post modernity it is still the visual that dominates the viewing body is the one being made to do things and, in fact, this falls into a Cartesianism that has not gone away one that privileges the visual, and in so doing, recentres the subject supposedly blown apart. Tamsin Lorraine, in her book on Irigaray and Deleuze even offers the following sub-Descartes body, the specific body one inhabits (
..5). Descartes offers a much odder perspective, once we start to consider the place of the body, the place of noises of all sorts. This is not just to praise Descartes, but to insist on what eludes the mastery of rationality, even as this rationality is established. Rather than a new controlling strategy, in looking at errors, mistakes and at broken machine bodies, then maybe there is a place for noise (noise in the literal sense, but also a more fluid one).
I Broken Machine, Perspective
Descartes is an obvious precursor of a rational urban planning, so maybe his view on the organisation of cities is not strange. He writes that old towns are messy, having been built up bit by bit, haphazardly, and that a designed town or city will work better, Descartes judges rather than argues. The messiness is not followed up by a claim about efficiency. Hubert Damisch adds to this a comment made in the Meditations, where the street seems a place of inevitable difficulties for the power of rational judgement: had I not looked at people passing on the street below and said, in the same customary ways as in the case of the wax, that I saw the people themselves. But what do I see apart from hats and coats, under which it may be the case that there are automata hidden? (Meditations, 29). The process of judging, though, removes the noisiness of appearance itself. What Damisch is interested in is that the city is to be observed, separated off by a window, and that this distancing emerges from the applications of perspective in or on the urban environment. It is not planning that will solve all these problems, but the perspective, the distance it allows, such that reason has ratios to work with. It is no surprise either that Descartes opens his thinking process that will lead to the cogito by referring to architecture. Georges Bataille argues that architecture is the basis of limited structured human thought, and it is nowhere more limited than in the capitalist world. The implication for a writer obsessed with sacrifice, death, disorder and the festival is that architecture curbs the irrational, and should be altered with the more transgressive world in mind. Some architects might believe that that is what they do
Batailles prediction seems to be even nearer the mark when we look at the moment Descartes saw as announcing his sceptical rationalism. November 10th, 1619: Descartes has three dreams, which he takes together as suggesting his life must follow the dual path of rational research and proving Gods existence. The first of these has Descartes not separated off by his window, warmed by the fire, but flailing about in the city. Frightened by ghosts, he runs down the street but he cant, because his right side doesnt work, so all he can do is drag himself along on his left side. Ashamed of this, he tries to stand upright, but the very strong wind turns him around 3 or 4 times on his left foot. He tries to get to a church, but fails, or eventually decides it was demons encouraging him to go there. To be involved in the city is to be unable to function both mind and body are hampered, possibly broken (his memory doesnt work either). This could be because of the overload of stimuli, with his waking rationalism the defence, but as Derrida, and Heidegger before him, saw, Descartes rationalism is constantly tempered by what it is not (whether God, other people, irrationalism, madness), such that what it is not is central to it. reason and loss of reason blur, as the loss of control in the dream city is close to the ideal conditions for a thought experiment of pure rationality: I will now close my eyes, block my ears and shut down all my senses (Meditations, 30), where failure of senses is willed. In either case, the natural light of reason (33), which seems to come from beyond the self, is able to process whatever is unwilled (egs of noise, sun and fire (33)) so in the dream, reason tells him demons wanted him in the church, and in the third dream he is already piecing together a narrative that links all three. Arguably, his rationality also controls the sacred, in keeping himself out from the church, but in Bataillean terms he is closer to it in the wind and abjection of falling over in the windy street.
Descartes develops the idea of biological machines, and how this works with humans troubles the privilege he wants to give to the soul or mind: I think of a human body as some kind of machine made from bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood and skin so that, even if there were no mind in it, it would still have all the motions which it has at present (66). This body has a where, and this is outside with the swarming people of the street, whilst the mind closes itself in, closing off the senses, passions and needs. This body, then is an automaton, one that is necessarily mobile, incapable of stopping when working, and likely to be broken as a result of its environment. Descartes mind is at home, watching, mentally, whilst his body is free to be sent out a body which does not hear or see, being a face, hands, arms and this whole machine of limbs (24). In the place of highest input, Descartes body is in some trouble, more than non-Cartesian bodies but such bodies barely exist.
Rationality and its supposed other next undermine each other in the French public space with the advent of the guillotine. Again, Bataille is there to tell us that architecture (of modern times) is there to cover up the violence that led to its own construction. Archetypal location: the place de la Concorde. Here, the guillotine had its prime and busiest location. The place had already been seen as important in the belated ordering of Paris in the 17th century, and after the Revolution and Terror became an example of public democratic space (traffic, world cup, fairgrounds etc..ref?). The guillotine symbolises the ultra-rationality of the Revolution, speeding up the destruction of the aristocracy and those seen to be complicit with its interests. It is deemed more humane than other methods of execution, and also symbolises the excesses. These combine in Batailles figure of acéphale the headless one. Reason is demonstrably lost in the heads removal, and this demonstration furthers the cause of reason, politically and in terms of the value of demonstration. And we could substitute power for reason.
So this key area in Pariss 19th century re-ordering, which was in turn part of its claim to be the centre of European culture, is based on a collapsing binary of reason/unreason or ratio/excess or mind/body. The paradigm of incorporating execution sites continues after the Communes civil war of 1871, where parks are hurriedly built or rebuilt and impressionists rush to smooth over the sites of deaths irruption.
The guillotine is a machine beyond its limits (taking the human as its material), placing bodies already lost in a general economy where reason is at stake where they can be fully Cartesian the head of the body has no special privilege (as confirmed in La Mettries Man Machine (1747)). It is the guillotine that brings that as truth, visible to the natural light of reason. But the guillotine is still a transitional machine (only unemployed since 1981, nonetheless), as the true age of the machine was only just beginning.
III Time of Noise
The industrial society is not one that encourages contemplation. But it is willing to enact the divide Descartes sought so often, in removing all need or possibility of thought for the majority of its subjects. These subjects would be bought pre-broken, increasingly disciplined. Reasons light looks at them rather than letting them see. Increasingly, sound dominates the sound of machines being the most obvious, but also the growth of cities and the increased movement of the population to work or look for work or alms. Add to this the later invention of advertising, muzak, control sounds (from whistles to pedestrian signals to police megaphones)
According to Luigi Russolo, noise comes into being with industry before that was basically silence. We might alter that to note that noise increases rather than simply the amount of sound ie unexpected, unwanted sounds, often louder than previously experienced. His answer was that we should harness this truly modern material as music. The musique concrète based on collages of found sounds follows on from this. But with hindsight, this should not be seen as being that radical: much 20th century experimental music, including John Cage, are simply trying to reveal the true music around us. In his case this went as far as the silent pieces, such as 433".
Descartes silent interior world brings a great noise in his second dream, which features one thing: a huge bang, like thunder (il crut entendre un bruit aigu et éclatant, quil prit pour un coup de tonnerre , Baillet, in Discours, 208). He wakes up immediately for him, this sound is the judgement of God on his sins, as already signalled in the first dream. This noise drives him to his rational vocation but it seems the last sound heard the end of all things (rational, at least). Hearing is always only a threat a threat to the integrity of both mind and body, and therefore possibly a threat to rationality itself (a light). Is noise then the outside of reason, that which threatens the plan, or the system or the self? Tautologically, it must be, but thats not very much. Is noise an actual threat, and is actual noise this threat?
Hearing has traditionally and continually been seen as the sense you cant switch off. Biological damage can be done through hearing, particularly when bypassing the ears with low frequencies. The rationalised city contains noise (ie through accepting certain sounds and levels of sound, inflicting others), but cannot stop letting noise come into being something will always be outside control or predictability. On the other hand, if we imagine noise as resistance, as a means of offering an alternative to the explicitly visual but just as overtly auditory, managed city, it is hard to see how it could remain noise. Noise might be that which is always to be recuperated.
The modernist city is a battleground for those seeking to either demonstrate, promote or criticise the turbulence of that environment, on one side, and those who react against it, with Le Corbusier the paradigmatic high, rationalising modernist. He even has a Cartesian skyscraper
. Koolhaas criticises Le Corbusier for this, but his model of self-generating excess for New York could well apply to Le Corbusier. As with Descartes, the line between control and identity on one side and dangerous unreason on the other is porous, as reason is the line, not just the result: Descartes window, Le Corbusiers readings of Greek framings of space both echoing Heideggers notions of bringing space, always bringing, rather than depositing as fixed.
Le Corbusier has turned Descartes on his head: the streets are full of the busyness of too many people, but his solution is to move the body inside, while the mind roams free outside hence the removal of people from the projects, and even the photographs of completed buildings. Now the body can be rendered docile in interiors, a body without mind. The body is not absent, let alone rejected, instead it is placed. It is allowed into the margins, though, perhaps illustrating the agency of the built around them, and this is the beginning of noise in the high modernist system: the split can never be total, and it is the splitting that brings its own resistance, initially in the form of illness, fears, phobias and violence.
Anthony Vidler writes that agoraphobia and claustrophobia are products of the modern environment, dating to the 1870s, and the Enlightenment dream of rational and transparent space, as inherited by modernist utopianism, was troubled from the outset by the realisation that space as such was posited on the basis of an aesthetics of uncertainty and movement and a psychology of anxiety, whether nostalgically melancholic or progressively anticipatory (Warped Space, 3). The psychological problem of living in modernity drives radical responses to it, in the form of the early avant-gardes, and also in ultra-modernist interventions in the built world today.
IV Bring Noise
The worry created by urban space is not because its so busy, or because were all alienated: very simply, the environment is noisy, unpredictable, and is therefore a different kind of phenomenal space, as Jean-Luc Nancy notes in his A lécoute. When sight is not the only sense called on, movement within specific spaces is differently ordered, and so is subjectivity, as it does not stay within the natural light of reason that gives identity as given. Instead, the subject as listening (not listener) is open, and is listening, is as listening. In terms of what to do, then, we might combine this idea with Vidlers belief in the value in staging disruptive incursions (11), and destabilis[ing] the viewing subject (ibid.).
Art has tried to do this for some time, although sound art and sound installations are currently reinventing this particular wheel. Futurism sought to mobilise the noisiness of modern existence, whether in terms of war or the sounds of war, for example. Satie and Varèse sought to incorporate noises into compositions. John Cage used non-musical instruments, chance, and even silence, which proved not to be silence. What these attempts stand for, though, is the domestication of noise, it is given a place, just as surely the body in Le Corbusier world. How can noise stay noise is it volume? Shock? Is it, as Attali says, simply that which is regarded as unacceptable (in the past, popular song on the streets, today busking or pissed-up football fans singing?). Even then, how can you let it be, as noise? Conscious attention attributes meaning, places the sounds. Maybe you could follow Burroughs and play riot noises, or tapes of people crying out about being hurt by the police (The Electronic Revolution, in Ah Pook is Here or The Job). Cut the tapes to distort the message further, and drive it in subliminally. Play tapes at the wrong speed
. Make odd combinations on your computer mix the voices of opposed leaders. Whilst digital processing allows a lot of tricks, this too is highly domesticated, praised because it is a clean medium, a special effect thats better than the real thing.
Can we use volume, pain, duration as strategies? Yes but all these are fleeting noise is more than unpleasantness, undesirability (although these have been used, eg against IRA prisoners in the 1980s) it is the fleeting, the non-instant, which has to remain beyond control. The flat next doors music might be a more radical noise than a performance in a public space. (why isnt it- when it is a controlled, regular, disciplined noise). Maybe you could intervene by playing back the sounds of the space youre in, or the ordinary sounds of somewhere else. It is impossible to place noise, and it is always being placed, undisplaced. This paradox is no different to the Cartesian split between body and mind or between reason and unreason it is a split which is not one, one that has been crossed, and in crossing re-enacts the split again. Noise is never here.
Finally, we could look to the broken body the body that limits itself in order to feel something else something like Deleuze and Guattaris masochist body (but that body has no ears [see 1000p, 185-204]). When the machine is not working, noise can occur. Instead of the neo-liberal privacy of the walkman, the unheard sound becomes noise, creates a threat at the borders, making us like Pascal, fearful of the vacuum at our side. Instead of the neo-green world of the sound ecologists, where we can focus on natural and human sounds because bad noise has been removed, putting ourselves where noise is or might be.