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Hillel Schwartz, Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond, Zone Books, New York, 2011 Hillel Schwartz, Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond, Zone Books, New York, 2011
IT’S AN ALL TOO COMMON MISTAKE. SCHOLARS, SCRIBBLERS AND UNDERGRADUATES ROUTINELY GIVE BACK TO FINNEGANS WAKE AN APOSTROPHE IT DOESN’T REQUIRE. JOYCE’S PUNMANSHIP CONTINUES TO BEGUILE. IT WAS UNDECIDABLE, IMPLYING, RATHER THAN CHOOSING BETWEEN, THE PLURAL TENSE AND THE SINGULAR POSSESSIVE. UNLIKE THE LETTERS ‘S’ OR ‘Y,’ THAT APOSTROPHE DOESN’T HAVE A SOUND (CHEEKILY IRONIC, OF COURSE, IN RELATION TO A BOOK ALL ABOUT SOUND, WITH ITS BABBLING, CHATTERING AND HUNDRED-LETTER THUNDER WORDS).

Hillel Schwartz’s prefatory remarks to Making Noise contain one of the most poetic and beautiful accounts ever written of John Cage’s mythic 1951 visit to Harvard University’s silent, anechoic chamber and the aleatory composer’s wonder at hearing the sounds of his own body. It’s expected, then, to find an account of 1920s radio static and ‘stray’ sounds in Finnegan’s Wake (sic), but surprising to encounter such an elementary spelling mistake by the indefatigable author of The Culture of the Copy (1996). But further, Schwartz neglects to include the surfeit apostrophe before Alfred Jarry’s ‘pataphysics, a bogus, diacritical pomp that, while symbolic rather than sonic, is nonetheless accepted as bibliographic convention. On the other hand the grave accent is correctly placed in musique concrète, in this instance adding appropriate sonic weight and inflection to the pronunciation (Schwartz happily also loses the Austrian-flavoured umlaut often and incorrectly placed over the o in English derivations of Schoenberg).

It would indeed be churlish to spend too much time on such frippery in relation to Making Noise’s extraordinary scholarship and exquisite writing, wit and intelligence, its labour and love. While this suprasegmental detail sounds decidedly bookish it is far from pretentious or fustian. The very notion of the unnecessary, in this instance incorrect marks and “unwanted sound,” of “noise rarely indexed but often hidden,” is unavoidable. This sense of uncontrollable excess, of sound being surplus to need, of the inescapable weight of noise in the world from the beginning of time to the continuous present tense, is what Schwartz’s remarkable book is all about. The blurb (itself a form of noise) on the dust-jacket (of which I’ll say more directly) is succinct: “From the uproarious junior gods of Babylonian epic to crying infants heard over baby monitors, from doubly mythic Echo to loudspeaker feedback, Making Noise follows ‘unwanted sound’ on its paths through terrains domestic and industrial, legal and religious, musical and medical, poetic and scientific.” For a book two decades in the making, we should expect nothing less.

By the age of six, Schwartz tells us, “a child has spent more than 20,000 hours listening to the world and can recognise 10,000 complex sequences of syllables.” This connection between anthropology, sociology and biology, audition and grammar, reinforces Schwartz’s fascination with the human condition as essentially sonic rather than visual. In this, Making Noise daringly flies in the face of a generation of theorists for whom “typographic man” emerged from the Enlightenment as the literate product of the alphabet, dusting off the phonetic savagery of oral cultures along the way. Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong are barely mentioned, Ted Carpenter and Jack Goody fail to detain the indexer. Put simply, Schwartz tells us that to be alive, “joyfully alive, or deeply troubled, or floating under the spell of a hypnotist” is to be “noiseful.” The Enlightenment has much to answer for, as has been demonstrated by more than 50 years of agonistic cultural criticism and literary theory. Schwartz caps off this counter-critique simply and pithily: being noiseful is evidence, personal as well as impartial, of the “fall of noise into nature.” Jorge Luis Borges taught us in his ficciones that there is something demiurgic about astounding scholarship. Reading this book realistically underlines that fabulatory astonishment.

Apart from the long history of noise and its affinities with culture, this book, if it is about anything that we can tidily name, is about the sounds of modernity. Note not the sound of modernity, since that it is far too monumental and inclusive. Schwartz portrays the emergence of the modern world as the empire of the ear, as a phenomenon that will always elude the anti-noisites and the trans-historical war on noise. Urbanisation, population growth, mass transport systems, stress etc may be things, but they all make sound. Like Joyce before him Schwartz identifies the inventory as one of the decisive techniques of modernity, the capacity to collate the sheer excess of the world into exhaustive lists. Accordingly, some of the sounds and noises of being modern that pepper the book’s pages include: machinery, street sellers, car alarms, primal scream, tinnitus, black noise, white noise, orange noise, pink noise, mufflers, sneezing, sniffing, noseblowing, traffic, toilets, farting, tittering, muttering, mobile phones, jackhammers, muzak, tutting, ventilation, brakes, television, radio. And so it goes. Silencing the noise from the business of being modern, Schwartz emphasises, would be impossible. For good measure he says it again in case we didn’t hear it the first time—“Let’s be blunt: impossible.”

At over 900 pages of text (including index) and 349 of endnotes (as downloadable pdf) Schwartz is no friend of parsimony. But forget for a minute that any words in this text, unlike sound and noise, are surplus to need, extraneous or padding. Schwartz is a writer’s writer, meaning that he is a sublime stylist, can turn a phrase you’ll never forget and knows he is being read by, inter alia, other writers. Which brings me to the dust jacket. I confess that I covet dust jackets and value paper more than cloth binding. On receiving my copy of Making Noise the first thing I did was remove the jacket for safe-keeping. In doing so I realise I had already taken Schwartz’s point before I had even read a word. For the paper cover is secondary, disposable, removable and ultimately unwanted. It is, after Philip K Dick, kipple, stuff that protects and otherwise clutters the real thing. It is an allegory, in other words, of Making Noise itself. As Schwartz says, there is no escaping noise since it is everywhere and all the time and without it, he advises, “we would not be in the world.”

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 37

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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