Survey by Qualaroo

On Noise

Al Cameron, Arnolfini’s Associate Curator speaks to Hillel Schwartz, cultural historian, poet and translator.

Hillel Schwartz has written on a wide range of topics, including millenarianism, the ‘culture of the copy’, the history of dieting, and recently a groundbreaking study of the Western experience and understanding of noise, Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. He will be in conversation with broadcaster and author David Hendy at Arnolfini on 2 July. We caught up with Hillel in advance of the event here. Al Cameron, Arnolfini’s Associate Curator asks the questions.

Your book Making Noise represents a major project of research. What prompted you to begin researching this subject?

As I write in Bang, the introduction, I came to noise from several directions: my childhood delight with Margaret Wise Brown’s Quiet Noisy Book (1950); my curiosity in the 1970s about the “Low Noise” banner printed on cheap audiocassette tapes; my consequent curiosity about the changing nature of audience in a world of recordings, and the related, revealing history of theatrical and musical encores; my subsequent determination, while at work on The Culture of the Copy (1996), that noise is figuratively what makes perfect copies implausible and literally what makes them impossible.

Please could you tell us how your work challenges some common assumptions about noise? For example, you describe noise as less a measure of the intensity of sound, as might be supposed, than of the intensity of relationships.

Noise is often popularly conceived of as something extrinsic or peripheral, a nonsensical accident or willful interruption. My book demonstrates that noise is never not meaningful, and indeed intrinsic to our lives. It is the double negative of our breathing. The sciences have taken this to heart: information theorists postulate noise as a generic and intransigently defiant (statistical) presence; astrophysicists study noise as a universal (subatomic) residue of the Big Bang; molecular geneticists find noise so insistent a predicate of replication that our double-helical systems accommodate and anticipate it. But if noise is a constant in universes large and small, it is socially and politically subject always to negotiation.

This makes it a creature of time, of place, and preeminently of discourse between bodies and minds, even when it is a question of tinnitus, since those suffering from “noises in the head” only report noises with which they are familiar in their own era. So noise historically is neither simply subjective nor simply relational; it is a key to how people of different ages, circumstances, and societies differently understand the rhythms of time, the cues of place, and the balance of powers.

What challenges and possibilities does a history of the auditory open up within wider historical approaches and discourse?

Challenges: the evanescence of human sounding, even granted our comparatively recent ability to record ourselves in action; the unnoted problems of ototoxins and ototoxic diseases that historically disturb, distort, or constrict our hearing, briefly or permanently; the ever-shifting emotional and attentional complexes that shape our listening and our memories of what we hear.

Possibilities: a greater appreciation of the substantial degree to which our making sense of the world is embodied and contingent; a greater respect for the import and perdurance of orality/ aurality in a world of ever-larger, physically dominant, ubiquitous screens. 

What new approaches would open up if researchers were to focus on the social or relational aspects of the audible?

It would be richly rewarding to explore the likelihood that as (now) primarily urban animals who live in ever-larger and denser communities; we think with our tongues and act with our ears. Why? Perhaps because hearing is comfortable with simultaneities in a way that the visual and haptic are not, so the auditory establishes our own individual density and our social presence more firmly than anything other than the olfactory (which we in the West have so rubbed down, cleansed, and overridden that its capacities are currently restricted to cuisine, erotica, mulch, and certain delirious perfumes).

How do you see the current interest in noise
and listening in the context of the wider (and visually-dominated) cultural field; and even more specifically in the field of visual arts?

How do I see? Well, I find it telling that museum goers now don headphones in order to go through galleries, where the “art” is static but they themselves are in motion, a motion at once guided and paralleled by ongoing, authoritative, recorded commentaries. So I’m not sure exactly how “visually dominated” the museum art world is, although there remains that odd museum etiquette of hush in front of inanimate objects, as if each and every one were sacred, perhaps because many are worth more than most of us will ever be. As for the visual arts in general, those that seem today to be the most inventive and exciting (literally, intellectually, metaphorically) are the most theatrical, either involving or invoking sound or amplifying silence. The emergence of such fields as “sound studies” and “acoustic ecology” has been complemented by the appearance in traditional art venues of “sound artists” whose work usually vibrates between the visual and the acoustic. So the visual arts are losing their customary frames to performance and visual artists who, like Jutta Koether, draw much of their inspiration and energy from raucous or experimental musics, which some hear only as noise. 

Hillel Schwartz and David Hendy discuss the centrality of noise to life at On Noise at Arnolfini on 2 July.

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