Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Negativity of Noise

In "Noise", Jacques Attali proposes that noise is a simulacrum of murder.

We must establish two things: First, that noise is violence: it disturbs. To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder. Second, that music is a channelization of noise, and therefore a simulacrum of the sacrifice. (p 26)

He goes on to provide a technical description for the uninitiated:

A noise is a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission. A resonance is a set of simultaneous, pure sounds of determined frequency and differing intensity. Noise, then, does not exist in itself, but only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed: emitter, transmitter, receiver. Information theory uses the concept of noise (or rather, metonymy) in a more general way: noise is the term for a signal that interferes with the reception of a message by a receiver, even if the interfering signal itself has a meaning for that receiver. Long before it was given this theoretical expression, noise had always been experienced as destruction, disorder, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages. In all cultures, it is associated with the idea of the weapon, blasphemy, plague. (p 26-27)

I can't deny that there are technical definitions of noise that restrict it to the "undesired portion" of a signal. And I completely understand that a variety of cultures see noises as violent. And that we have an intuitive reaction to them as violent.

But saying that noise "does not exist in itself", and advancing the technical definitions or intuitive folk-definitions as the final word on noise seems narrow minded to me. What about noise in an epistemological context, as a human creation: without humans, there is not only no music, but no noise. It's not that noise requires music in order to be differentiated, but it requires humans to do the differentiation. This act of sound-interpretation and categorization is equally important as our technical and folk definitions.

Furthermore, I reject language like this:

In its biological reality, noise is a source of pain. Beyond a certain limit, it becomes an immaterial weapon of death. The ear, which transforms sound signals into electric impulses addressed to the brain, can be damaged, and even destroyed, when the frequency of a sound exceeds 20,000 hertz, or when its intensity exceeds 80 decibels. Diminished intellectual capacity, accelerated respiration and heartbeat, hypertension, slowed digestion, neurosis, altered diction: these are the consequences of excessive sound in the environment.

I reject it because it's conflating two very different phenomena: noise, and damaging sound. Saying that noise is a source of pain, and then giving examples of loud sounds and high pitched sounds is just giving noise a bad name by association. If I play a Bach chorale at 80 decibels, it's going to do just as much damage as "noise".

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