The Murmur of the Crowd
The counting stops. The prosody of disquiet will have failed. Within this immodest failure, the world, worldliness, survives, entirely provisional and improvisatory: within and saturated by historicity. Noise is a semantic survival, a living on and amidst the potential of an unstaunched corporality, the affective site of the migration of perception to an outside always in disequilibrium, as economies and identities and bodies are in uncontrollable disequilibrium. Again, noise is a moving survival. It shapes the collective body as replete historical potential, signifying for nothing.
(Lisa Robertson, Niling)
To stand in a field of cicadas is to be engulfed by a noise that whirrs and thrums around you. A chorus of cicadas might produce a barely perceptible static-like sound akin to white noise. Or this collective noise might build to a deafening and high-pitched roar that resembles the throbbing of large machinery. The many individual cicada calls that comprise this chorus fuse together to form an indistinct and agglutinated mass that subsumes any individual call. The sound of each individual cicada dissolves into the collective din. Their sound is monotonous but never static, constantly swarming and shifting in ways that make it impossible to accurately locate. It is a sound that swells and dips, twists and folds, expands and contracts. It is ineradicable and yet never constant. To be in the midst of a chorus of cicadas is to experience waves of sound rising and falling around you. These waves are not like the ripples that form on a calm pond after a stone is thrown but are more closely related to the crashing waves or cresting surf of a tumultuous and chaotic sea. To be surrounded by the swell of a chorus of cicadas is to be immersed in a noise that is unfixed and unstable, much like the noise of the ocean or the murmur of the crowd.
This paper offers a conceptual and philosophical reading of the murmur as a concatenation of a foundational and ontogenetic noise – a figure that draws disparate voices and forces together in a continuous and processual unfolding. I argue that noise, in its figuration as a murmur, interrupts the univocity of being that is so central to Western knowledge and suggests instead a relationality that emerges from multiplicity and difference. Drawing on the work of Michel Serres and Félix Guattari, this foundational noise can be understood as a force of sensation, that is, an affective force that ontogenetically precedes (and exceeds) signification. For both Serres and Guattari, asignifying forces and machines produce connections that function in excess of systems of meaning and representation. Moving from metaphysics to the everyday, I turn to the murmur of a crowd and ask what we might learn about the nature of assemblies and collective bodies by listening to the noise that they produce. Considered in socio-political terms, the sonic figure of the murmur interrupts the expectation produced by dominant forms of power that political speech should take the form of a univocal demand. Instead, the multi-vocality of the murmur offers a conception of the voice that disrupts the largely unchallenged historical conception of the individual voice as a marker of the unique, fully-formed subject. Noisy and polyphonic, the materiality of the murmur suggests a collective voice that continually becomes. Indebted to critical race and black studies discourses, I argue that we can understand the murmur of the crowd as an improvised noise of refusal or fugitivity that exceeds the given grounds and forms of representation. The murmur is a sonic figure that produces a subjectivity that emerges from both auto- and allopoietic processes. To think through the murmur is to move toward a conception of collectivity that allows for, and cultivates, dissensus. In this article I argue that we can read – or rather hear – the crowd as a social body that voices what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten refer to as “the call for and from disorder” (Harney and Moten 2013: 133).
I argue that the murmur of the crowd produces a noise that functions as an affective force, interrupting and modulating bodies, systems and relations. I trace the connection between the murmur and a riot, arguing that the murmur animating crowds also gives rise to physical acts such as rioting. I conclude by listening to the murmur of the crowd as an improvised noise and propose that we might develop a micropolitical form of listening that foregrounds embodied experience and attends to the multiplicity and difference immanent to crowds.