Listening for Noise in Political Thought

Article excerpt

...the most noble and profitable invention of all other, was that of SPEECH ... whereby men register their Thoughts; recall them when they are past; and also declare them one to another for mutual utility and conversation; without which, there had been amongst men, neither Commonwealth, nor Society, nor Contract, nor Peace, no more amongst Lyons, Bears, and Wolves.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan1


The association of sound and political philosophy is venerable, but usually only silently invoked in metaphor or analogy, as in Cicero's likening 'concord' among the citizens of the republic to 'harmony in song', or John of Salisbury's image of rulership as 'producing the sweetest consonance of dissonances' by 'stretching or relaxing' the variety of 'strings' in the commonwealth.2 These musical metaphors have at least two important implications for our understanding of how political ideas are communicated in the Western tradition of political thought. First, their antiquity implies that political ideas have frequently been communicated, even in written texts, by means of specific reference to the noise of ideas resonating in music, in speech, or in dialogue. Second, they also imply that the communication of political ideas takes place by means of purposive and meaningful 'sound' (of the orchestrated harmony of music in this analogy) rather than invasive and irritating 'noise' (to stretch the same analogy, in discordant strumming or tuneless chanting). These two implications deserve further investigation if only because political theorists have often been deaf to the ways in which the invocation of noise has been used in written texts to underscore the meaning of political ideas.

A 'widely accepted definition' of noise is that provided in Clay's Handbook of Environmental Health, which asserts that noise is any 'sound which is undesired by the recipient', typically including machinery, traffic or industrial noises.3 Noise is here associated with sonic phenomena that penetrate, that invade and pervade the spaces occupied by subjects who do not wish to hear them, and in being thus subjected, those subjects are rendered 'passive' by noise.4 This negative definition of noise as unwanted sound is challenged by those for whom noise is also a relational phenomenon linking different subjects together in shared spaces and in interactive and often purposive noise generation in speech, in music, or other sonic signs and gestures.5 While noise unites and links, it is also subject to situational variables where architectural or geographic spaces may amplify, modulate or sharpen the pitch, tone or resonance of noise to levels that may be wanted (or just tolerated) by some, unwanted by others. Indeed, the context in which hearing takes place may itself determine when the pleasurable sound of overheard music in an apartment, for example, becomes the punishing sound of interminable music employed as 'standard operating procedure' by military prison interrogators.6 The perception of noise is determined not only by such variables, but also by the mediation and inscription of meaning through language. In other words, the pounding of waves upon a shoreline is not usually heard simply as noise, but as the workings of tides, or as the pounding of surf. This linguistic inscription of meaning operates by means of the formal grammar and syntax of language, and by the variable forms of speech appropriate to particular contexts, whether in the home, classroom, public square, coffee house or on the floor of parliament. In this way, language mediates the individual's sonic experience, imposing, as Nancy would have it, the rationality of 'hearing' on the pure sensation and corporeality of 'listening'.7

Political ideas are typically heard in this sense. The linguistic inscription of meaning mediates between the ideas being communicated and the subjects who hear them. Ideas of liberty, justice or equality, for example, are heard not as noise, but as ideas in the purposive sound of political debate, pedagogic dialogue or the stump speeches of campaigners. …