February Discussion Recap: Noise, by Jacques Attali

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Fight between Lent and Carnival

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Fight between Lent and Carnival

Last week, our sound studies group met to discuss Jacques Attali’s Noise. For over an hour we discussed the central claims of Attali’s textits implications on sound studies, and the many ways it still resonates today.

First, we defined what Attali means by noise.  He argues that noise is violence: it disturbs, creates disconnects, and brings disorder in music and, more generally, daily life. (Think of a phone call interrupted by static, for instance). Noise has a special relationship with music, which Attali claims is ordered and harmonic. For such ordered music to exist, chaotic noise must be repressed, if not eliminated. In this way, the “code of music simulates the accepted rule of society” (29): music creates harmony by marginalizing unpleasant noises, just as society retains order by squashing subversion.

We then noted how Attali constructs a developmental narrative of music featuring four stages: ritual sacrifice, which makes people forget the general violence of their society; representation, which makes people believe in the harmony of the world; repetition, which silences people by mass-producing a deafening music that censors undesirable other noises; and composition, which has not yet occurred, but if it does it will be an entirely non-commercial art, where composers make self-communicative art.


Thinking about Noise: Simmel and DeLillo


William Hogarth depicts a noisy London in The Enraged Musician (1741).

In the next few posts, I will highlight some of the many ways writers have approached the phenomenon of noise. I begin today by turning back to the beginning of the twentieth century with Georg Simmel’s famous 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”

Georg_SimmelIn his essay, Simmel observes how humans’ senses have adapted to specific environments over time. As people moved from the countryside to the modern metropolis, for instance, they had to develop physically and mentally to withstand the city’s constant external stimuli. Simmel explains that the metropolitan’s body gradually builds a “protective organ” that counters “the profound disruption with which the fluctuations and discontinuities of the external milieu threaten it” (12). In other words, the organ literally shields metropolitans from the external city’s innumerable sights, sounds, and smells.  This organ is necessary in an environment marked by constant sensory overload, for if metropolitans tried to perceive everything they encountered, they’d quickly become overwhelmed (and certainly accomplish nothing).