Noise Culture: Thing I

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manuscript (1988)




Approaching the second millennium, culture undergoes a great transformation, the revenge of surplus and excess

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  "Pity for the world. let the new knowledge come."           - Michel Serres, Detachments "The poetic moans of this century are only sophisms."           - Lautreamont, Poesies "No place left to go and no money to take you there, abjection itself will become the last accessible frontier. But the wherewithal to undertake this exploration has been severely blunted by the media's aestheticizing the hell out of horror. Thus the abjects. They explode the aesthetic filters slapped on horror, restoring it to the capacity to affect again."           - Biba Kopf, "Bacillus Culture" in Tape Delay, ed. Charles Neal Approaching the second millennium, culture undergoes a great transformation, the revenge of surplus and excess. Totality fragments; fragments clutter; clutter accumulates. The social itself is wounded; with the disappearance of the great narratives (progress, self, family, religion, science, all tending towards the ultimate), an exponentially increasing number of tragedies - criminality, starvation, poverties, plant and animal extinctions - traverse the depths of a damaged planet. The human(e) is broken, identified now only with fictions. "Noise Culture" refers to both this state of affairs and various (sub)cultural responses. Noise culture is normative; culture undergoes splintered intensifications, floods, dissipations... --- Noise culture exists as social turbulence, invaded by parasites - fragments of incomplete data-banks, addresses, indirect and coded addresses, all operating within the incoherency of an outmoded concept of "truth" - a concept with proliferating falsifications. Logic itself has become exhausted as the foundation of mathematical culture. Deconstruction and its trace vanishes, without a trace. The fatigue of the body dominates and compresses the clarity of thought (what was thought to be clarity), which becomes nothing more than an occupational privilege, bound only to immediate situations and their promise of economic and sexual power - the checkmating of the professional elite. Absolute identity (A=A) is no longer of any consequence; even the degree zero of cultural anomie has vanished, replaced by a null set defined as the set of those things not equal to themselves. Within this accumulation of virtual displacements (crises of identity), contradiction is impossible, replaced only by waywardness - the crafty smile, the eroticism of sleaziness. This waywardness, this contrary (as in the "contrary child") inhabits a universe whose ethical structure is sham; what's left is strategy and happenstance. Contradictions themselves "float" as temporary, part objects. In place of the well-defined semantic field (the occasion of a theory of competence), one notes a swollen semiosis (sign production) possessing fissures instead of inscriptions: definitions are temporary, occurring at the weakest point of the communicativeomain. Such fissures pass for the entities of a traditional linguistics, but their occasion within speech or grammatological acts is chaotic, catastrophic, and ill-defined. (One need only consider the use of words such as "health," "drug," "intervention," "postmodern," "sado-masochism" now, and forevermore.) There is no memory or tradition at work; instead, memory becomes a construct inherited from the photographic; the representative contents of recall are nothing more than current representations, simulacra, virtual subjectities, Kodak-content. "Communication," "community," both reserved for the past tense, are American imaginaries; the Aquarian itself is tied to a surplus economics and demographics of New Age illiteracies. Noise culture is replete with the parasitic, commodity culture feeding upon real and unreal human needs and the creation/isolation of data bank fragments (dating services, mailing lists, etc.). Given the exponential rise of information in post-industrial society, given the contrary and imminent nature of this information, given the transvaluation of all truth-values, and given the problematics of scientific and technological progress - then information becomes viral, inhabiting the linguistic, decaying within it, and having no immanent value whatsoever. Noise culture is a culture of confusions, conflations - a culture of the inconceivable; it is unbelievable, because belief itself is refused entrance, except as imminent construct. What is seized is purely the momentary hiatus amidst the chattering of signifiers. Philosophy has become Das Mann, for example, and as example, philosophy is further abandoned. In place of any consideration of the modernist paradigm of cultural objects (paintings, estates, media, within formalist or New-Critical paradigms), consider the phenomenology of the cultural site. The accumulation of artworks exists, but existence is transgressive; the context is mobile, wobbly, and competitive (in the sense that any jostling is competitive). What once were considered objects are now objects of (impure) representation, formally identified as the union of the intersection of their family of descriptions; such an inexact definition (i.e. what constitutes a painting, human being, person) become a fissure within the swollen cultural domain, a fissure according to the lines of weakest resistance, but a fissure nonetheless which passes as an inscription - a temporary demarcation which may even, under exceptional circumstances, last the life of the organism.(Thus an inscription is a "classical" demarcation within a culture's mapping of the world, while a fissure is an ambiguous, temporary, and commodified demarcation of both the real and increasingly remote layers of representation.) Prejudice expands within the boundary-zones; born out of the swollen, it is the "simplest thing in the world," collapsing the need for real observation. Anything for demarcation, transcendence; godding and the sexual play similar roles. Bondage/domination and sado-masochisms temporarily harden what appear to be permanent positions of the body(politic). Within noise culture, then, all communication is distorted, and distorted necessarily. Clutter carries no memory, no history, no competency. Seriality is always on the horizon. Bodies penetrate and grapple. People sigh and borrow from one another. Clutter contains no memory; the absence of history, history adjudicated and collapsed, is characteristic of noise culture. History eliminates noise from temporality; as a process of reorganization, it produces the purity of historical process. History does what the present cannot do; cause and effect appear ncontrovertible and the cluttered horizon of everyday life disappears into discourses on power, economics, media, bodies, and demographics. With the accumulation of information across the planet, there are more and more calls for reoganizations which are problematized upon their creation; history has become histories (mystories, herstories), and local history descends into the mythopoeic, the realm of legend which futilely inscribes itself as "tradition" against the incrusion of electronic media (employed by local history as a matter of record) - more information, more histories. Memory disappears into legend and exhaustion. There are no conclusions to be drawn (no time to draw them in). (History, history, history.) Romanticisms (jogging, art-school, substance abuse consultations) appear in which individuality is promulgated as defense; no one listens. There is no longer anyone to listen; there are no sites for competencies. The best one hopes for is computer matchups, successful searching, links in which information may be exchanged without decay and the presence of computer viruses, which clutter up the immediate works. More and more, the binary interiority of the computer dominates; the output is monitored and nothing more (everything watches everything else). Dialogs are reduced to microdialogs which circulate endlessly in eccentric space - phallocratic and headless dialogs, situational ethics, invaded by noise and parasites, dying and reborn endlessly (nothing dies within the loop; power runs out). The (transnational, managerial) corporate domain is also invaded: terrorism, viruses, sabotage, and bureaucratic labor continually collapse, on a local level, economic structures parasitic upon an increasingly depleted planet. Still, this domain speaks the totalization of culture everywhere; it's as if the culture were One but the "family of man" syndrome has long been deconstructed. Familiality, the sheer goodness of things and commodities, is questionable amidst famine, drug culture, the neutralizations of late capitalism - questioned everywhere; the most totalitarian systems leak within and without the world information (dis)order. The body becomes a production of the state; by capital; by scarcity; by itself within noise culture, where it collapses into part-objects and representations. Character becomes an accumulation of "character traits," which give the appearance of being able to be rearranged at will, as smokers stop smoking, entrepreneurs make fabulous fortunes from foreclosures, and men and women stop fucking in a viral atmosphere still reeling under the myth of hygiene and self-control. Traits and body parts, sexualities and aggressions, circulate in a space of information overload; this is the liquidity of organic information where the body collapses in fissures and abjections. Again: No one listens, because no one can. As usual, the "media" become problematic (designed for the body!) with the introduction of new information displays, formats and sensations. Enter noise culture's media dump: the accumulation of battered television sets, video disks, vinyl records, CDs, old computers - "it's cheaper to get a new one" ...Clutter transforms into rubbish. In noise culture, bureaucracy and language are viral themselves; the former is paralleled by T2 or T4 bacteriophage, which possesses modularity, assembly-line technique, and the bacterium as a market investment transformed back into itself. Everything is absorbed within the bureaucracy, which ideally possesses no inputs or outputs. Starvation and a mismanaged (managed) ecosystem are the result. Language, too, is manipulated on the model of 1984; the part-objects of social realities are bureaucratically constructed. Words are identified with manipulation; released, they result in idle chatter dominated by prejudice and confusion. (No one admits this, the poverty of language, the abject fear and sorrow that lie just beneath the surface of most of us. No longer speaking, we try out speech; no longer thinking, we try out thought. No wonder so many turn to the frozen realm of ideology - Christian fundamentalism, right-to-life, RCP, whatever. Certainly the thought of the Other, which can pass for our own, structure lives in a fast-forward culture where reality and Otherness themselves are problematic. The Christ-narrative continues to find expression, moving from cultural center, however, to the periphery of empowering the bitter and meek.) Even the Freudian model of loss, retrieval, and reconstruction (symbolized by the "Fort-Da" all over again) has been transformed into the bureaucratic shuffle of memory input and recall, across the confusion of conflicting data-bases within an impotently totalizing eye (Foucault's Panopticon). The Panopticon itself records everything, loss everything; epistemologies shift under its eyes which always operate across the wrong spectra. Information is assorted piecemeal (knowledge is replaced by knowledge management, knowledge management by turbulent information flows), and the result is the "block" of dead language - the advertisement, propaganda message, little (colored) book, holding things together within the flux of distorted communication. (Hence the naivete and absurdity of the conclusion of Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: open access to data banks is literally open access to nothing.) The tens of thousands of commercial messages one is exposed to every day conflict; the message is always Buy! but the effect, like everything else, is one of increased noise and destructuration. Noise is literally that in noise culture - an effusion or emission of partial signifiers everywhere and nowhere at all, and an effusion which transgresses ontological and epistemological boundaries on a random basis. Teleology becomes an accumulation of "asides" and deflections; goals are presented fully immersed in discourses which are impossible to unravel (the soap-opera approach to life). "Truth-values" become smeared across these (broken) discourses, ultimately referring to a conflation of noisy logics. This noise is compounded by a parasitology composed of AIDS, computer viruses, advertising, piecemeal ideologies, criminalities, bureaucracies... Behavior appears ab nihilo and protean. This noise cannot be modelled (i.e. reduced to a chaotic domain), since it partakes of ontological confusion on one hand, and the imminence of making-do on the other. Nothing coheres. --- Noise culture is the culture of the worn, worn-out, the culture of exhaustion. It is abject, corroding whatever mythopoeic sites are left. Pure power remains the only immobility, ultimately grounded in the absolute speed of nuclear retaliation. In reality, confusion reigns in the battlefield, equally ill-defined. Civilians and soldiers alike are ground up in a general slaughter. The pessimist might assume that all states are states of total war - internal, external, or both. War has been transformed from a series of operations ("battle," "strikes") to a condition, within and without the parasitic. Noise culture is a civilian response to a situation of fear, foreboding, and information overload, to which the body responds by a continuous literal deconstruction (no metaphysics here!), including drug culture. Dulled and disassembled, producing and reproducing the lie, one move in media res, in extremis. The cords binding the body in sado-masochistic theater spell out in hieroglyphic everything and nothing that remain to be spoken. The stutterings of desire, cries of infinite orgasm, are the only hygienic result (take the plunge!). Looking!: Take the plunge! The gaze is dissolved; there's no longer a site for it. The gaze collapses into aimless and endless loops of saccadean, protean movement. Absorbing absence, it's replaced by a glance which covets power. (Think of the Obsession and Charlie perfume ads, existing between gaze and glance, mediated by commodity, searching surface, producing a body-economics and nothing else.) Only pornography remains as absolution within noise culture, contributing to its parasitology - only pornography provides the site for the collapse of distorted communication into the immediacy and arousal of the body. Erect tissue chatters until its completion (complementation) within itself. (And flesh is everywhere, resonating in the quantum domain; noise culture is also the release of the flesh, from object into millenarian field.) In daily life, however, the glance predominates - the glance whose province is clutter itself. The glance is a moment in retreat, a continuous search and withdrawal. This retreat is (as simulacrum) inverted in the video or computer game, with their temporary totalizations of space, time, and power; the player can be assured of a definitive (one-to-one) response based on his her her well-defined operations. The space-time of the game is therefore classical, temporarily empowering - but now a space-time based on capital investment. Here, the gaze appears momentarily (concentrate!, concentrate!); these games are another pornography (as are all investments). Channels of desire, sexuality, and capital have collapsed into general (catastrophic) flows from somewhere to somewhere; one sees (on the computer bulletin-board) only the banks of the rivulets, which themselves are changing course. Classical mathematization (taxonomies, addresses, hierarchies) is being replaced by a universal mathesis of widely disparate domains and computational heuristics. The result is the gaze's meander, traversing for example the shopping mall, in which desire is accessed by the body (or the body's representation, the credit card) in every direction, and through every sense. The body, too, is jargon. The "jargon of authenticity" has been transformed into the authenticity of jargon, the language-stream of the culture slipping forever away. What occurs, if not exhaustion, overwork, impotency, performance - one withdraws, backs down, self-censors, editing out all but the most vociferous (desirable, dangerous) messages. The world of the dream, no matter how nightmarish, provides at least temporary escape; the noise of the day transforms the random firing of neurons, a firing ultimately under the control of the brain as a totality. The resulting dream is a structural reorganization of firings commingled with both traumatic memories and everyday activities. The dream curiously parallels its Freudian interpretation. Instead of reflecting the past-unconscious, it reflects the present-conscious commingled with deep organization. It "saves" the organization, not through sublimation, but through guaranteeing, at least "in dream," the ability of the mind to recuperate its environment, make sense of it. On this level, it is irrelevant whether or not the dream is pleasant or nightmare; what occurs is narrative, and noise culture itself is put to bed. (Providing of course that one sleeps, and sleep disorders have become an integral part of culture's disorders of the real.) Put to bed: to a degree. For beyond this, exhaustion dominates, and the dreamworld no longer functions, except perhaps on the level of distorted narrative of fear, abandonment, anxiety. Exhaustion is all that can occur within turbulence. Do not forget that nothing is absolute, transcendent (and that nothing itself is nothing); even deconstruction leaves one only with play in a world which already has tomuch. (For whom?) One fears totality as one fears fascism: there is no turn, no Kehre, no return. (Adorno: "Fascism is the absolute sensation.") The collapse of noise (collapsing noise within noise) is the re-presentation of the repressed with a vengeance. Too much play: nothing operates. Theory dissolves as well (and what is the use of theory if, as here, it can only remark incoherencies with incoherencies of its own?). Language plays itself out in the empty space of mutilated bodies, the remnants (Panama City, Beirut, Baghdad, East Timor, Kuwait, Brazil, China) of the World War I battlefield in which the distance between bodies was reduced to zero (nothing), and in which bodies were literally fragmented into noise and the abject. Does this alter? Has this been altered? Does this alter anything? Only these spaces (collapsed, commingled) remain. Of course there is no conclusion (no time for one). Beyond noise culture, what refuges remain? Apocalyptic culture reproduces classical narrative structure, beginning, middle, the caress of the end - but here the ultimate, resulting in the simultaneous death of reader and writer. Apocalyptic culture can be considered in terms of a field of operations upon deteriorating logics, focusing on the margins of these objects for both recuperation (1950s atomic paranoia) and lurid effect (Manson's writings).Essentialisms of all sorts produced the privileged witness, the guarantor of classical truth-values; deconstruction is thereby applied to the Other, critique produced from a stabilized site. "Essence" itself is taken for granted, resulting in false or inauthentic consensus. Spiritualities appear to entail specific rites and beliefs (why, for God's sake?), resulting again in essentialisms as well. Disbelief joins belief at the margins suturing the subject (surely in need of construction). Radical disbelief denies "believing in, and perhaps that is the best one can hope for. This position, however, with its denial of transcendence, remains problematic in regard to ethos and praxis. It also opens to noisy inundation. Finally, pervading all, are the various subcultural responses; these aren't passive productions, but may in fact be cultural assaults. It is here that a frontier appears, that orgasm recuperates; it is here that the existence of an avant-garde becomes meaningless, as culture continues to proliferate and aesthetics simultaneously moves to outer space and the liquid interiority of the body.