Friday, June 17, 2011

Douglas Kahn’s Noise Water Meat

Kahn subtitles his Noise Water Meat as “a history of sound in the arts,” but as Kahn admits, he focuses on sounds in the 20th century, what we usually associate as the periods of modernism and postmodernism. In his introduction, he tries to explain his goals with the book, which is a wide-ranging interdisciplinary study. Because of Kahn’s wide-ranging methods and topics, the book seems a bit uneven and disconnected. Kahn does not provide a conclusion to the book, ending on his extended essay on Artaud. I suspect that the form of the book is an attempt to render it as a more ‘historical’ account than an interpretation, but the book does not move chronologically, and Kahn provides several instances of cross-referencing from previous chapters. My suspicion is that, like many academic works, Kahn had several papers and essays that he wanted to unify into a book. Although there is an apparent sequence of noise (Futurism), Water (Modernism—in particular in literature), and Meat (McClure’s ecology; Artaud), it’s hard to figure out exactly what Kahn is trying to achieve with this.

In the introduction, Kahn claims that modernist auditive states and the philosophy that backs them up “drown out [. . .] the social in sound—the political, poetical, and ecological—and this is what the present text seeks to reinstate” (4). Kahn does a good job revealing the ideological motives behind modernist art, which can be summed up as a banishment of signification (17). Kahn’s approach, at least for some of the book, can be considered a close deconstruction of various composer’s and movement’s rhetoric. By contextualizing the philosophies of composers, Kahn reveals composer’s attempt to eliminate the social and semiotic aspects of sound. The reason I invoke Derridean deconstruction is not because he uses deconstruction as a “method,” but because Kahn closely traces the textual and historical influences of artistic creation rather than looking at the ideas and sounds ‘in themselves’, which is a primarily modernist attitude.

If we look at Kahn’s project like that, I believe it succeeds. However, Kahn does not seem to really draw many conclusions from his observations. This may not be a fault and my criticism my come from my own purpose for reading: looking at music in relation to Writing. Kahn is also interested in music as inscription, phonography, and the visualization of music. But although these themes are addressed, I think we can expand on some of Kahn’s observations. Another theme that shows up a few times, but is never fully explored or foreground is ecology, environment, and biology: “McClure’s meat science[‘s]  [. . .] pertinence lies in an imperative to supersede the destructive consequences of philosophies centered on a sociality isolated from biology and ecology” (324). I might not disagree with this, but despite Kahn’s tracing of sources that inspired McClure and also Burroughs, this does nothing to argue for the “imperative” for considering biology and ecology. Not that this evidence does not exist in the scientific literature. Kahn discusses L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, which is fictional, but accidently hits on theories with existing scientific support. Dianetics  is based on the “recording” of trauma on the body into the reactive mind as opposed to the analytic mind. While such binary distinctions of minds are BS, we could understand this in terms of neuropsychology, which recognizes that a traumatic event does not pass through the part of our brain responsible for language. This is why it is difficult to articulate—even using psychoanalysis. My point being here, is that the argument for a consideration of ecology and body is not really made, but restricted to a tracing of these themes through Burroughs’ and McClure’s texts.

There is an implicit argument that comes from the way the book moves through modernism to return to an idea Kahn touches on in the introduction. With the phonograph,

The voice no longer occupied its own space and time. It was removed  from the body where, following Derrida, it entered the realm of writing and the realm of the social, where one loses control of the voice because it   no longer disappears. From bone to air to writing, permanence outside the subject invites greater mutability, where the primacy and purity of the         voice are subjected to the machinations and imaginations of culture and politics. (8)

Much modernist art seems to be an attempt to return to this “presence” of the voice and body, culminating in the analysis of Artaud: a purity of the voice without reference and signification, a primal scream that eludes meditation. Here is Kahn again:

These trances and screams belong to a vibrational scheme found throughout modernism, whereby communication occurs through the correspondence of internal and external vibrations, the sympathetic identifications of different vessels, often bridging different perceptual  registers and always attempting to elude cultural mediation. (353)

This sort of vibrational communication space that Kahn finds in much modernist literature and practice seems to align with the movement of object oriented ontology and speculative metaphysics. This is the kind of thinking that I find in Deleuze and Guattari, which Kahn cites, but, due to his own preoccupations, does not go into depth about their relationship to the modernist impulses he finds in Cage and others.

Kahn implies that D&G also have an impulse to move away from signification through deterritorialization (see Kahn 105). Citing a passage from A Thousand Plateaus, where D&G argue that John Cage’s prepared piano pieces are “too rich” and remain “too territorialized: on noise sources, on the nature of objects” (115). Thus, we may understand deterritorialization as a move away from signification and reference, much like Cage tried to do with his entire philosophy. For Kahn, D&G’s attitude toward Cage’s prepared piano (and percussion) “reproduces the tradition of Europeans hearing non-European music, especially percussion music in a modernist response to primitivism as noise” (115). Let us look at a few other passages in A Thousand Plateaus regarding noise, music, and sound.

D&G characterize music as “a de-territorialization of the voice, which becomes less and less tied to language” (302). Furthermore, D&G characterize the machine as something that makes consistent rather than something that reproduces. I cite this long passage to show what I mean:

Varese's  procedure,  at  the  dawn  of  this  age,  is exemplary:  a  musical  machine  of  consistency,  a  sound  machine  (not  a machine  for  reproducing  sounds),  which  molecularizes  and  atomizes, ionizes sound matter, and harnesses a cosmic energy. If this machine must have an assemblage, it is the synthesizer. By assembling modules, source elements,  and  elements  for  treating  sound  (oscillators,  generators,  and transformers), by arranging microintervals, the synthesizer makes audible the  sound  process  itself,  the  production  of  that  process,  and  puts us in contact with still other elements beyond sound matter. (343)

This is the passage that comes right before the one on Cage’s prepared piano. Making something “consistent” in itself is also something that D&G claim makes a concept (see posts on What is Philosophy?). But how this making ‘consistent’ and ‘synthesizing’ any different from the modernist impulse to synthesize all thought (which has been going on since the early 20th century)?

 Furthermore, if we look more into D&G’s suggestion of attitude, it seems very close to Cage’s, although the goal is different. Whereas making and listening to music disinterestedly for Cage “is the means to integrate the personality,” for D&G  “ “Sobriety, sobriety: that is the common   prerequisite   for   the   deterritorialization   of   matters,   the molecu-larization  of  material,  and  the  cosmicization  of  forces,” not integrating the personality but integrating matter (Kahn 173, D&G 344). To me, this does not sound like a new move in thought at all, but is an extreme metaphorization of the modernist impulse to synthesize the world into a coherent whole (with a postmodern twist)[1].
            Back to Kahn.

Kahn characterizes noise as “the most common and the most productively counterproductive” sound of modernism (Kahn 20). I have written somewhere (as I’m sure millions have before me) that we characterize something as “noise” that we don’t understand or don’t care for. This characterization of noise should be modified in light of Kahn’s observations on modernist music:

Suppressing noise only contributes to its tenacity and detracts from investigating the complex means through which noise itself is suppressed, while celebrating noise easily becomes a tactic within the suppression of something else. (21)

This leads him into his critique of Futurism. I have recently been interested and inspired by futurism, despite its ideological problems (alignment with fascism, war, anti-feminism). Kahn basically argues that Futurist’s celebration of noise suppresses these political elements. However, on the specific musical side of things, Kahn allowed me to see Futurism as a movement in tension with itself.

The distinction that many of these composers want to make is between noise and sound (music and sound). Composers appropriate noise for music, making it pure and uncontaminated with reference and signification. Even the Futurist Russolo, although he stated that “music had become anachronistic, its self-referentiality had afforded no link with the world,” tried to separate musical noise from imitation. Noises, “once so controlled [. . .] had the advantage of coming from life and recalling it and thus could exceed music while remaining within it” (81). The modernist impulse that Kahn identifies from Russolo to Cage is this “freeing” impulse of composers: “It was necessary not to go outside of music for the rejuvenation that noise could bring but only to release the repressed within music itself” (83). Is this what D&G are doing too when they argue that we must making things sonorous and de-territorialize? The search for un-mediated experience—immanence.

Wassily Kandinsky developed the idea of an “inner sound” that was not concerned with imitating sound, but rather than using sound as a different kind of communication: “Communication among humans [. . .] would take place vibrationally, unmediated by signs” (107). A sort of metaphysical substrate is created that would bypass the contamination of inscription. The phonograph, rather than seen as a machine of inscription, promises “an alternative to musical notation as a means to store sonic time and, in the process, deliver all sound into artistic materiality” (103). We see later in Kahn’s book that Edison believed he could create a machine that could connect with the dead—to reach the Other side, the invisible world[2]. On the other hand (outside of modernist music) sound was beginning to be used to accompany the visual and took an imitative role.

The kind of appropriation of all sounds for the purposes of music (in a purely musical realm) is epitomized, for Kahn, in John Cage: “[Cage] was known for stepping outside the usual confines of Western art music to usher noise and worldly sounds into music and for proposing a mode of being within the world based on listening, through hearing the sounds of the world as music” (Kahn 161). Kahn meticulously traces Cage’s textual and philosophical influences in order to deconstruct his philosophy of music, which is based on liberating the sounds of the world into music, away from crude signification.

In terms of the argument I made in my paper discussing the film Noise, we can look at Cage as partially responsible for people’s ignoring useless noise:

The noise in the city would not be physically diminished [which would require political action and participation—not disinterestedness] but the city-dwelling concert-goers would accommodate themselves to it by appreciating it differently, removing the aggravation if not the noise, while both noise and aggravation would continue to exist for non-concert-going city dwellers. (Kahn 184)

Is this not Cage’s endorsement of a particular kind of status quo? Its true that David’s initial concern is to rid the city of noise in order to make it a more beautiful world, but the way he eventually does this is engage in the political order, not to assimilate to the noise, which he sees as the major problem. David identifies the noise as noise, which stands in for the noise of an indifferent public and an indifferent politics. This is quite different from the kind quietism endorsed by Cage. Silence against mass media? Is this not also silence against the masses? Silence against the impurities of film, television, radio—the impurities of signification and semiotic complexity? This passage from Cage shows his withdrawl from public participation: “My feeling was that beauty yet remains in intimate situations; that it is quite hopeless to think and act impressively in public terms. This attitude is escapist, but I believe that it is wise rather than foolish to escape from a bad situation” (186). The problem with this is that noise and sound penetrates the walls of ‘intimate situations’ and in terms of sound the public and private are inevitably intertwined. The blasting of rap music from a hummer provokes violent reaction in me—how dare they be allowed to blast that shit! How dare they put that noise in the air! The “noise” is a metonymy for the noise of the system—for the system that they believe does not benefit them. I am not taking the side of the person blasting rap music, but we must acknowledge the complex significations and subjectivities expressed by this noise (as sound—not just music).

 David’s engagement with the noise of the car alarm is a metonymy for the power of the government, which does not listen to the people. As his helpful (temporary) girlfriend says, “The genius of a car alarm is that you can’t talk back to it. It has a mouth, but no ears. It makes you pay attention to it, but it pays none to you.” How is the car alarm like those in power? Or rather, is it that the problem with the local government in the fictional place is the disjunction between the people’s actions and the government—no one pays any attention to either—they are both autonomous realms.

At first David may be seem to be on a crusade for himself—pretending to the liberator of the people (the “rectifier!”) from their ignorance, but eventually he realizes that the locus of power is the law that says the car alarm can ring for 3 minutes before turning off. Eventually he realizes that he must turn the brute power of the car alarm against the government (which is the force and power behind the car alarm’s force). The only way to get the government to listen is to situate the car alarm in a disruptive situation, creating the extreme of the conditions he lives with every day.

The previous reflections may only be a summary of my paper, but I hope that they extend the argument a bit, as I begin to understand the nature of noise and music better. I think that the key to an engagement between composition and sound is precisely that: sound and not music. If we rely on a musical model, it seems we are trapped in metaphysics, but if we look at sound, location, and space, we may be able to get somewhere with thinking writing as event and performance.

Thus, sound is a great way to look at the necessity of the local(e) (the place). Cage preferred barely audible sounds because “loud sounds were fixed to specific locations and too attached to actions and the quotidian to contribute rhetorically to his cosmology of sound” (235). Thus, composition as loud sound (not just noise)—composition as an intensity of sound (not just atmosphere or mood), and intensity of sound in relation to the space given—a disruption, a violence within a small space—a forced listening. Sound as an inscription on a particular space.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University
            of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and
            Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Kahn, Douglas. Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge: MIT, 1999. Print. 

Noise. Dir. Henry Bean. Seven Arts Pictures, 2007. Film. 

[1] Ok, enough of D&G. Perhaps I want their work to be more obscure, to push the limits of language and thought, whereas I only see appropriations of scientific discourse to further modernist impulses.  And its not that I am against modernism by any means! My favorite authors basically correspond with the authors D&G constantly mention (and are all part of the modernist/high modernist canon): Henry Miller, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf—could I get more canonical? My undergraduate thesis? Lawrence Durrell—another great ‘synthesizer’ of ideas. Blah blah blah. Is it that D&G’s work is art masking as philosophy? But then, should I not be just as frustrated with Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger? Why must I push against these two French philosophers? Is it them that I am frustrated with, or the willy-nilly way their thought is applied without consideration of the philosophical, assumptions/metaphysics that underlie it? And am I even getting those right? I was just reading Derrida’s (eulogy?) to his friend Deleuze, and, even though Derrida was friends with him and puts him in the best of light (although mostly praising his work alone than the one with Guattari—perhaps I should read Difference and Repetition in its entirety?), he may hit on my frustration: “Deleuze was, of all those in his "generation," the one who "did/made" (faisait) it the most gaily, the most innocently. He would not have liked, I think, the word "thinker" that I used above. He would have preferred "philosopher." In this respect, he claimed to be "the most innocent (the most devoid of guilt) of making/doing philosophy” (see Derrida “I’ll have to wander all alone"). Its this innocence that makes him endlessly creative and, in a sense, ‘original’, but that I think also causes him to lapse into metaphysics—a difficult thing to escape!

[2] All of this makes me want to re-read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, where communication technologies, séances, war, noises—all of these are dealt with from the view of artistic satire. 

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