Considering the murmur as a figure of sound is not to ask what murmur represents but rather: what does murmur do? Or, what is the immediate sensation of the encounter with a murmur? As I have already established, a murmur is an interruptive and generative noise that operates in excessofthe discrete components that it is comprised. Conceived of in this way, we find a resonance between a murmur and the concept of affect, where affect refers to the forces of encounter and shifting relationality of a world in constant movement. Like a murmur, affect is multiplicitous and cannot be reduced to a fixed form. Affect refers to pre-personal forces of encounter that cannot be located in either subject or object, origin or destination. Unlike emotion, which can be understood as captured in states of feeling such as love, hate, and anger, affect is, according to Shaviro (2010: 3), “primary, non-conscious, asubjective or presubjective, asignifying, unqualified and intensive.” That is, affect refers to those forces that cannot be captured and owned, whereas emotion is affect captured and rendered as personal experience. Affect is immersive and overwhelming, while emotion is locatable and able to be organized into linear and causal chains of action and reaction. Preceding the divisions between subject/object, mind/body, past/future, active/passive, affect instead suggests a world comprised of relational forces and intensities, the effects of which register immediately in embodied ways rather than secondarily in emotive or discursive ways. The potency of affect, as Guattari (1996: 160) tells us, “is no less complex for being non-discursive, and I would even qualify it as hyper-complex, wishing to mark that it is an instance of the engendering of the complex, a processuality in the throes of birth, a place for mutational becomings.”
Here we can begin to understand affect – and, as I am proposing in this paper, murmuring noise – as both unlocatable and everywhere. Affect is of the milieu – the middling, relational space of mediation – and as such exists before, between, outside, inside, alongside, across, and beyond. As Guattari (1995: 92) tells us, affects are “half-object half-subject, already there in sensation and outside themselves in the fields of the possible.” Taken as the relational force or forces of encounters, affect is ontogenetic and integral to the perpetual becoming of any body, where bodies are defined not as bordered or autonomous subjects but rather by their “capacity to affect and be affected” (Spinoza as quoted in Massumi 2015: ix). This concept of force does not necessarily refer to that which is especially forceful but refers to the quotidian and everyday intensities that make up the ever-shifting world of encounters that bodies are constantly creating and by which bodies are constantly being created.
Employing a vocabulary that is resonant with Serres, Brian Massumi (2002: 32) describes affect as “a third state, an excluded middle, prior to the distinction between passivity and activity.”For Massumi, the capacity to affect and be affected are two interrelated facets of the same event, linked by the notion of the “excluded middle.” This middle comprises “a region of relation” – a space of transition and connection that accounts for the relational movement of intensities and forces that exist between (and before, around, alongside, beyond) the subject and the object, the mind and the body, the active and the passive (Massumi 2015: 50). For Serres, the excluded middle is the murmuring milieu that is both the condition for the transmission of any signal and a force of interruption that transforms the signal (and the communicants) in the process of transmission. For Massumi and Serres, we must always begin in the middle and attend to the relations and connections that occur there. Affect and noise can both be understood as forces in the midst of continually becoming that account for emergence and transformation. Both are preindividual forces that are already moving rather than fixed states and, as such, they produce a reality of continual change.
The sonic figure of the murmur allows us to attend to the ways in which this affective force – noise – sensorially registers with singular qualitative aspects. The murmur affects our capacity to listen, affectively. To listen to a murmur is to attend to the forces existing in the space between bodies. I understand listening to be a concept that precedes the distinctions between hearing as passive and listening as active (or vice versa). Instead, I am arguing for a listening practice that is situated in the space of the “excluded middle” – one that listens to, and for, the affective murmurings of the milieu. Such a listening precedes the axes of transmitter-receiver and subject-object and instead attends to the unsynthesizable multiplicity of sound, which not only surrounds and immerses but also binds and inscribes into the world. A listening practice that is tied to this conception of sound describes an embodied mode of perception that moves listening toward the realm of what Deleuze and Guattari would call microperceptions, that is, perceptions that register imperceptibly but which we might nonetheless discern in the effects they produce: “microintervals between matters, colors and sounds engulfing lines of flight, world lines, lines of transparency and intersection” (2013: 329). Microperception does not refer to a smaller perception but rather describes a bodily perception that registers the interruptions produced by affective forces before such entities as sound (or silence for that matter) are recognized. Such a conception of listening moves away from a fixed sonic object toward a space of relationality and noise. As François J. Bonnet (2016: 97) explains, in listening “the individual no longer seeks to possess the world, it is the world that possesses him and destitutes him of himself. This is the experience, the affective experience, that then becomes central to the establishing of an immersive relation to the world, a dynamic and disseminatory relation.”
The sonic figure of the murmur moves us toward this type of atmospheric listening. The murmur of a crowd can be understood as a collection of discrete sonic elements that intersect and interact to produce a singular aesthetic experience. What is important is the way these discrete and differential elements form and produce relations. Here we can understand the sonic figure of a murmur as an unsynthesizable multiplicity, that is, a multiplicity of differential yet co-composing relations. As the sonic figure belongs to the domain of affect, it is registered via the traces it leaves on a body. This listening then might attend not only to the audible, palpable, or vibratory but also to sound that is remembered, imagined, or written. Moving from the metaphysical to the materiality of the social, I now turn an ear toward the crowd and suggest that to listen to the murmur of a crowd is to engage with the affective tonalities of a collective body and how they register microperceptually yet fold into new kinds of possibilities for public socialities.