Murmur is a sonicity that configures ontogenetic and processual noise. Serres describes this noise as “background noise” and understands it to be always multiple and heterogeneous. There is no single point of origin but rather a field of potentiality that conditions the actual. Noise is taken to be a force of production that precedes representation. Using the term “background noise” to describe a state of disorder and turbulence that is both the condition for the emergence of any signal and that which brings into existence new relations, combinations, and orders of exchange, Serres writes:
Background noise is the background of the world, and the world began, it is said, with a big bang. A founding blow in which the universe is embryonic, it precedes the expansion in the universal, space has already received this before receiving the things themselves, it has already formed the space where the things are going to be lodged. I am assuming that there was no big bang, that original cosmological preconcept; I am assuming that there was and still is an inaccessible number of different noises. (Serres 1995: 61)
The background noise that Serres describes accounts for a metaphysical infinite that cannot be reduced, as Greg Hainge (2013: 19) has noted, to “a single, unitary event which would henceforth act as the catalyst for all life on our planet and the existence of the astral bodies that surround us.” We can understand this noise not as “an originalnoise but an originatingnoise” (Byrne 2013: 168). This noise is omnipresent and immersive, accounting for all that is indeterminate in the world. It is not an object that can be pointed to and identified according to a stable set of characteristics, but rather, can be understood as a flux or flow that foregrounds movement over stasis and difference over homogeneity. Describing the complexity of the multiple, Serres writes:
The multiple as such. Here’s a set undefined by elements or boundaries. Locally, it is not individuated; globally, it is not summed up. So it’s neither a flock, nor a school, nor a heap, nor a swarm, nor a herd, nor a pack. It is not an aggregate; it is not discrete. It’s a bit viscous perhaps. A lake under the mist, the sea, a white plain, background noise, the murmur of a crowd, time. (Serres 1995: 4-5)
For Serres, the multiple cannot, therefore, be understood as a collective reduced to a uniform totality, such as a flock, school, herd or pack. Here the quality of viscosity is central to any understanding of the multiple. It is thick and glutinous. While the multiple may comprise discrete parts, assembled en massethey trade differences and thicken, making it impossible to cleanly separate individual components from one another. The multiple is a sticky and imperfect flow that draws together many modes of differencing. The murmur of the crowd – thick and indistinct – is one such example of this viscous multiplicity. Like the sound of the sea or a field of cicadas, the murmur of a crowd is this heterogeneous noise.
Serres’ invocation of the “background” to describe this foundational noise or state of pure multiplicity, however, requires clarification. The background does not refer to that which has been pushed away by the foreground but rather to a continuous, indeterminate conditioning from which phenomena emerge. Noise is present in everything, and everything is formed out of noise. An interruption to the dualism that dominates Western epistemologies, noise functions through the cumulative and conjunctive logic of both/and rather than the binary logic of either/or.
Noise exists in and between every entity and every event. We are immersed in it, and there is no possibility of being outside of it, even though it is also outside of us. This conception of noise does not imply a linear or causal movement from outside to inside, nor does it suggest a background that would imply a foreground. Rather, noise is the milieu through which all communication takes place. It is the (meta)medium through which any message must pass; the channeling that makes the transmission of any signal possible; a figure of pure mediality. This noise signifies an excess of meaning rather than a lack: “Between yes and no, between zero and one, an infinite number of values appear, and thus an infinite number of answers” (Serres 2007: 57). Put another way, noise is a medium-middle that exists between communicative entities. It is the immanent genesis of all informatic relations, the channel that allows entities to communicate. However, this relation of in-betweenness is not simply a neutral channel for relay between sender and receivers. Rather, it is a noisy space of relational movement in which a signal is transformed as it is transmitted. Here noise serves a dual function as both the channel of communication and the agent of interference. Inextinguishable medial noise affects the transmission of any message, forcing the communicating parties to respond by either incorporating the noise into the signal or attempting to expel it. In both cases, noise interrupts existing relations and, in doing so, produces a transformation. As Stephen Crocker (2007) writes, “the active intention to transmit a signal requires that we open ourselves to the passive reception of the medium in which it can occur. The user is used by the medium.”
This reformulation of Serres makes clear the processual and immersive nature of noise in which the boundaries between figure and field or background and foreground dissolve in the space that exists between – and conditions – all entities and informatic relations. Even further, Serres’ noise can be understood as the immanent genesis of all relations. Here noise is more than medial – it is not simply background, but it is the ontogenetic relational generator of all systems. In other words, noise needs to be understood as an ontogenetic forceof becomingthat is simultaneously being produced by and feeding back into an assemblage. Following Simondon (2009: 5), ontogenesis designates the “becoming of being, that by which being becomes, insofar as it is, as being.” Systems and entities that emerge from the force of an ontogenetic noise must be understood via an attention to processes of movement and transformation rather than via stable forms or fixed identities. As such, inside and outside or background and foreground can be conceived of as co-constitutive andemergent rather than causal. That is, they emerge from and feed back into the perpetual process of becoming.
As an originating multiplicity or Serresian foundational noise with no single point of origin, a murmur contours ontogenetic noise. It draws heterogeneous elements into an assemblage that produces a field of and for noise as it produces itself. As Lisa Robertson (2012: 63) tells us, such noise “has no meaning at the same time that it signifies an excess of signification; meaning becomes so dense and continuous that it transforms into field, having previously functioned as figure. In noise meaning has de-coalesced.” Noise belongs to the plane of immanence and, as such, cannot be reduced to the opposite of meaningful expression nor the support or ground from which “order” emerges. I am arguing that the sonic figure of the murmur is a drawing together of noise’s figuring and fielding so that these co-exist in absolute proximity.
Here we move beyond simple dualisms concerned with the extraction of meaning or order from noise. The sonic figure – as it is employed here – is derived from the Deleuzian concept of the figural. For Deleuze, the figural goes beyond the figurative and representational and produces instead a logic of sensation. The figural produces a mode of knowledge that is not pre-constituted or contained in signification alone but is felt as sensation, where sensation refers to the ways affective and insensible forces register corporeally. For Deleuze (2003: 35), we “become in the sensation and something happensthrough the sensation, one through the other and one in the other.” The logic of sensation moves us toward embodied knowledge, one that attends to the flows of forces, affects, relations, and materials. As Toni Pape (2013: 38) observes, “the figure is a wager for thinking through the body, through sensation.” I argue that the collective din of a murmur produces a non-representational and asignifying noise that can be felt viscerally, according to this logic of sensation rather than a transcendental logic.