Originating Murmurs and Original Murmurings
A murmur is a boundless, layered, sonic indeterminacy that is both continuous and dispersed. The coalescing of many discrete and discontinuous sounds into a noisy mass that lacks a definite or identifiable structure, a murmur is inherently multiple. This sense of noisiness and multiplicity is mirrored in the onomatopoeic and repetitive construction of the word. As Ben Byrne (2013: 172) observes, “murmur itself murmurs.” A murmur is commonly considered to be an indistinct sound at the edges of audibility. The multiplicitous nature of the sound is mirrored in the multiple applications of the word, as it is variously invoked to describe a muted, apprehensive or incomprehensible speech; expressions of discontent; the irregular beating of a heart; the sound of machines; or the noise of the crowd. We might think here of the “walla walla” sound effect used to produce the murmur of the crowd in early radio, television, and film productions (Mott 1990: 171). This technique involved a mass of extras repeating the phrase “walla walla” or the word “rhubarb” to simulate the hubbub of a crowd and this repetitive collective utterance produces a polyrhythmic noise that exceeds meaning.
Taken as the sound of the crowd, a murmur denotes the noisy speech of many individuated voices simultaneously sounding. It is important here to make a distinction between the concept of individuation and that of the individual. Following Gilbert Simondon, individuation can be understood as a continuous process of change that gives rise to an individual that retains a preindividual share, allowing it to remain open to relational exchanges and potential orientations. The preindividual both precedes and exceeds the individual, operating as a dimension of potentials from which the process of individuation draws, and indeed also processually transforms. Crucially, this relational field-in-process is not exhausted by the individual and contains the possibility for the unfolding of different becomings. Simondon’s theory inverts the Western philosophical tradition by understanding “the individual from the perspective of the process of individuation rather than the process of individuation by means of the individual” (Simondon 1992: 300). For Simondon, the individual is not a stable and fully formed subject given in advance but rather that which crystalizes at certain moments in the course of an ongoing process of relation between intensive potentials and extensive relations. The process of individuation does not only produce the individual but also gives rise to its milieu, which is both external and internal. There is a dynamic and continuous interaction between the internal and external milieus, and it is this relationality that comprises an individual’s associated milieu. This notion of the associated milieu cuts across the divisions between interior and exterior that emerge from a priori conceptions of the individual (and its interiority) and the environment (and its exteriority). Here, following Thomas Lamarre (2012: 39), we can understand the associated milieu as "energetic, charged, potentiality." As such, the crystallization that is “an” individual can only be understood in relation to its milieu, since an individual both carries these charges or potentialities and yet has also left some of them in the preindividual register by individuating: “The process of individuation must be considered primordial, for it is this process that at once brings the individual into being and determines all the distinguishing characteristics of its development, organization and modalities” (Simondon 1992: 300). Emphasizing the process of becoming, individuation allows us to attend to the continuously changing relation that is the individual and its milieu. As Steven Shaviro (2006) explains, the process of individuation understands “what is unique and enclosed about the individual precisely in terms of its relation to the milieu which it is not, but which it requires contact with and nourishment from.”
The concept of individuation gives us a processual understanding of the individual. As such, it gestures toward what Muriel Combes (2013: 64) describes as "a more-than-individual center of being." The register of the preindividual can give rise to different orders of becoming that correspond to different domains, such as the individuation of individuals and the individuation of societies of individuals. These are not distinctly separate but rather can be understood as connected yet internally differentiated processes. In terms of subjects and socialities, the individual subject must always be understood as in relation to the collective. Combes writes:
It is not relation to self that comes first and makes the collective possible, but relation to what, in the self, surpasses the individual, communicating without mediation with a nonindividual share in the other. What gives consistency to relation to self, what gives consistency to the psychological dimension of the individual, is something in the individual surpassing the individual, turning it toward the collective. (Combes 2013: 41)
For Simondon, the collective is a condition for the (psyche or subjectivity of the) individual to self-relate. His concept of individuation gives us both an ontogenetic account of collectivity and a preindividual process for the ongoing production of subjects or subjectivities. Applied to human individuals, the emergence of the individual “self” is intrinsically and relationally connected to the collective as that which is always in excess of it.
This is not to claim that people do not experience social reality in particular ways; consider, for example, the ways in which the force of law or induced precarity are differentially experienced. Rather, Simondonian thinking offers an alternate way of conceptualizing the social. It moves beyond the regulatory and normativizing paradigms that emerge from the treatment of the individual as a given and stable structure or form, emphasizing instead the processual relations between the individual and its associated milieu. In relation to the murmuring crowd, an attention to individuating voices rather than individual voices allows us to conceptualize the crowd not as a mass of autonomous, fully formed subjects but rather as relational and processual entities undergoing constant change. The crowd can therefore be understood not by its constancy but according to its potential to alter and change. Conceived in this way, a murmur is not the reduction of many voices into an expression of univocality but rather the sounding of a heterogeneous and processual multi-vocality that complicates the ordering of its sound into a meaningful figure that occupies the foreground and a supportive (back)ground of “noise” against which it is organized. An interruption to this binary logic, a murmur suggests an endless trading of places between signal and noise, speech and sound, inside and outside, figure and field. As such, it is never static: it involves continuous movement and constant change. I argue that to listen to the murmur is to listen to the multiple, an endeavor that calls into question the notion of ontological stability, fixed identity, and being in favor of differences, relations, and becomings. Such an understanding allows us to contour the materiality of murmuring voices toward and into a politics and socio-technics of noise. Indeed, this distinction between individuating and individual voices is, I contend, crucial to conceptualizing the difference between the interruptive noise of a murmur that we can hear in the dissensual sound of protests and riots – such as the 2017 Women's Marches, Black Lives Matter protests, Occupy, and so on – and the univocal chanting and shouting that typifies the public gatherings of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The former is a multiplicitous and relational noise of difference while the latter is the concretization of a single signal.