My frustrations from earlier today have led me to think once again of Serres’ discussion of noise in his lyrical work of philosophy, Genesis. There Serres writes:

There, precisely, is the origin. Noise and nausea, noise and the nautical, noise and the navy belong to the same family. We musn’t be surprised. We never hear what we call background noise so well as we do at the seaside. That placid or vehement uproar seems established there for all eternity. In the strict horizontal of it all, stable, unstable cascades are endlessly trading. Space is assailed, as a whole, by the murmur; we are utterly taken over by this same murmuring. This restlessness is within hearing, just shy of definite signals, just shy of silence. The silence of the sea is mere appearance. Background noise may well be the ground of our being. It may be that our being is not at rest, it may be that it is not in motion, it may be that our being is disturbed. The background noise never ceases; it is limitless, continuous, unending, unchanging. It has itself no background, no contradictory. How much noise must be made to silence noise? And what terrible fury puts fury in order? Noise cannot be a phenomenon; every phenomenon is separated from it, a silhouette on a backdrop, like a beacon against the fog, as every message, every cry, every call, every signal must be separated from the hubbub that occupies silence, in order to be, to be perceived, to be known, to be exchanged. (13)

Noise cannot be a phenomenon. Rather, noise is inimical to all phenomenon, an anteriority out of which phenomenality itself emerges like a ghostly ship suddenly manifesting itself out of a dense fog on a dark night. Some of us will remember the haunting image of Carol-Anne before the television in Poltergeist, intoning “they’re here!” in response to voices that only she can hear. The white noise of the television that lulled so many of us to sleep in bygone ages prior to the onset of twenty-four hour television, produces an experience of the uncanny, causes the hair to raise on the back of our neck, by confronting us with the thought of an order impacting our life from within a flat chaos. Bateson will say that “information is the difference that makes a difference.” Noise is the great white indifference. Thus Deleuze will write,

Indifference has two aspects: the undifferenciated abyss, the black nothingness, the indeterminate animal in which everything is dissolved– but also the white nothingness, the once more calm surface upon which float unconnected determinations like scattered members: a head without a neck, an arm without a shoulder, eyes without a brows. The indeterminate is completely indifferent, but such floating determinations are no less indifferent, but such floating determinations are no less indifferent to each other… Difference is the state in which one can speak of determination as such. The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it. It is as if the ground rose to the surface, without ceasing to be the ground… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (Difference and Repetition, 28)


Some will recall the puerile film Contact, where hidden within the extraterrestrial radio transmission there is a secret code filled with thousands of pages of blueprints for the design of some device. The question is that of how a difference is made. Or rather, it is a question of how something ceases to be noise, chaos, and suddenly becomes salient. For those who remember the film, Contact is particularly nice in this regard; for when the sound signatures are projected onto a visual space, we get a multi-dimension picture where certain differences rise forth from the ground as distinct.

In many respects, this is the core of education. Andrew Cutrofello expresses this point nicely when speaking of Bachelard’s theory of science in Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction:

Just as Bachelard is more amenable than Heidegger to the reconcilability of the claims of science and poetry, so he denies that there is as great a gap between intuition and intellect as Bergson supposed there to be. Intuitions have to be educated by the intellect, that is, by the very specific accomplicments whose philosophical significance Bergson thought had to be assessed from the perspective of a naive or ‘pure’ intuition. For Bachelard, the very capacity to inuit has a history, one that is dialectically informed by developments in science… (58)


Perception is not simply a given or a gestalt, but something that must be developed and cultivated. My friend Carl tells me of his visit to Egypt, and how people drive and walk in the city of Cairo. For him there seems to be no order. Cars zoom about willy-nilly. People walk into oncoming traffic. Yet strangely it all seems to work out well. There is an order amidst this noise of which he is unaware. I have had a similar experience in the Indian-Pakistani part of Chicago, on Devon Avenue. Everything there presents itself as a buzzing confusion for the agent that does not have a “know-how” of this place. In developing a knowledge of psychoanalysis, we do not simply gain new facts, but we cultivate perceptions. Certain items in a person’s speech become salient where before they were merely noise that we filtered out. So too in the case of the physicist, the chemist, the engineer. There is a process of phenomenalization, a breaching of a realm of being, where before there was only noise.

There is thus an anxiety that accompanies all education. In learning– rather than knowing –one confronts the undifferentiated void, where saliencies do not reside. In teaching we bring our students before this noise, confronting them with a field of phenomenality where, as of yet, there are no phenomena for them. Some of us recoil from the passions this anxiety releases, celebrating rote memorization as a way of relieving the anxiety. Here no new field of phenomenality appears. Everything remains at the level of the familiar, doxa. All of us, regardless, must handle this anxiety, administering it in doses, guiding our students through the indeterminate so that the phenomenon might appear, by grace, on the other side. It is a dance that can easily go astray, leading the student to recoil in horror in much the same way that Plato describes in the allegory of the cave, where the escaped prisoner is painfully blinded with each subsequent step he takes. Somehow it is necessary to manage that blinding so that it doesn’t lead to flight. Yet holographically, a phenomenon gradually comes to stand forth from this buzzing confusion… Something becomes distinct and a grammar begins to appear. It might be a grammar of wood (in carving), of sound (in music), of the unconscious, of chemical relations. Where before there was indifference, now there is difference. Yet how is it that something begins to stand out from the white noise on the television screen? Where does the difference that makes a difference come from? Is it possible to think that which precedes the given, that gives the given, and that is anterior to phenomenality? Or must that which is anterior to the phenomenality of the phenomenon– the es gibt –be doomed to be an unthinkable abyss? More to the point, what would a pedagogy that takes this abyss into account and which guides the student to the discovery of singularities within the undifferentiated look like?

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