The Murmur of the Crowd                                                                                                                        Precarious Formations 


Originating Murmurs and Original Murmurings                                                                                    The Murmur of the Crowd

Immersion                                                                                                                                                 References

Affective Noise

The Murmur of the Crowd


To be in the midst of a crowd is to be engulfed by a murmuring that consumes and generates space. As Serres (1995: 13) tells us, “space is assailed, as a whole, by the murmur; we are utterly taken over by this same murmuring.” The murmur of the crowd invades bodies and spaces; it rises and falls like the waves of a tumultuous sea. Always moving and mutating, the murmur of a crowd may either build to a roar or dissipate and disperse. It is a viscous blanket of sound that thrums and babbles. Yet the sound of the crowd is often described in negative terms, as riotous, raucous, and chaotic. Imbued with a moralism that equates noise with unwantedness and unpleasantness, such descriptions of the sonic qualities of the crowd work to produce “the association of public speech in public arenas with incoherence, insofar as these voices don’t cohere into any one particular ‘message’” (Dyson 2014: 150). Coherence and legibility are inextricably linked to the concept of political agency and to historical conceptions of the autonomous, transcendental subject of Enlightenment thought. As Moten tells us, “authorized and authoritative” speech takes “the form of a univocal, single speech” (Harney and Moten 2013: 135). Speech is only recognized as legitimate by dominant structures of power when it mirrors this univocal speech and takes the form of a coherent demand. To dismiss the murmur of the crowd as noise that fails to cohere into any one particular message is a refusal to acknowledge the political agency of such collective bodies. The point here is not to attempt to locate a demand in the multiplicity of the murmur but to consider the murmur as a sonic figure that refuses to acknowledge the call to order that is imposed by state and corporate institutions. Noisy and indistinct, the murmur of the crowd is an embodied and performative enactment of a collectivity that is heterogeneous and multi-vocal. It is the collective utterance of those who have been denied a voice or those whose voices have been ignored, disavowed, and broken.


Here I want to suggest that the murmur that animates the crowd extends into acts such as rioting. During a riot, the heterogeneous multi-vocality of a murmur builds from an indistinct noise on the edge of audibility into a deafening roar. The riot produces a raucous noise with multiple centers. It is a continuously moving sonicity, thickening and dissipating in ways that make it impossible to contain. The sound of a riot is a collective enunciation that deforms the univocality of authoritative speech, producing noise affectively in which the potential to create collectivities might resonate and interact. Conceived of in this way, we can understand the murmur as a sonic figure that animates the rioting crowd. Contemporary riots – from Watts and Los Angeles to Clichy-sous-Bois, Tottenham, Ferguson, and Baltimore, to list only a few – can be understood as a response to ever increasing conditions of induced precarity. Joshua Clover (2016: 11) notes that “increasingly, the contemporary riot transpires within a logic of racialization and takes the state rather than economy as its direct antagonist.” I would texture Clover’s claim by arguing that contemporary riots respond to the complex interrelations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation, and are directed at the increasingly entangled relationship between the state and the market. The dismissal of rioters as opportunists, criminals or thugs constitutes a failure to hear the ways in which the riot enacts a multi-vocal and performative declaration of collectivity and solidarity. As Moten (2011) writes, “the poetics of the open field [...] was always tied to the sociopoetics of riot, of generative differentiation as a kind of self-care, of expropriative disruption as a kind of self-defense, of seeing things as a performed social theory of mind.” 


The American conceptual artist James Hoff captures just such a sonicity of the murmur in his 2011 sound recording, How Wheeling Feels When The Ground Walks Away

James Hoff, How Wheeling Feels When the Ground Walks Away. (Source: Posted by James Hoff, January 24, 2015

Originally presented as a surround sound installation as part of the Performa 09 biennial in New York in 2009, it was subsequently released as a 19’58” audio recording by the Berlin-based label, PAN. The composition samples audio recordings of different riots, varying from riots that occurred at music concerts to those that took place in the streets. The resulting audio collage is a dense and noisy work that indexes the cacophony produced by voices and bodies sounding together. Shouts and screams punctuate the lo-fi roar of the crowd; fragments of speech emerge and dissolve into the din; grinding machinery and sirens mix with snippets of electronic noise and guitar feedback. We hear voices chanting in unison and voices interrupting one another. In short, we hear the murmuring as noise of collective discontent in its differencing. The intricate layering of sounds in Hoff’s recording works to produce a disorienting soundscape with no clear focal point. There is no form to grasp onto and no obvious structure that organizes the composition. The noise-scape that Hoff constructs is one that constantly shifts and dissipates, the density of the noise effacing any sense of a definite center or coherent form. Hoff’s collage presents an opaque noise that sounds in excess of form or content. The overlapping fragments of sound that are stitched together to produce this noise open toward a conception of rhythm that operates “as a moving figuring […] emphatically notmetre, notmeasure, nor the alternation of beat” (Robertson 2012: 84-85). For Robertson, rhythm can be understood not as a regulatory temporality but rather as “an embodied historical shaping” (Carr and Robertson 2014). That is, rhythm is not a regulating meter but a figuring that moves outside the range of signification and toward a logic of sensation. It accounts for fluctuation and fluidity, for the forces and intensities that shape a world in constant movement. The murmuring noise of Hoff’s densely textured composition is the shared rhythm of a socio-political field. 


In noise, the listener finds rhythm, and it is discontinuous, effacing its own figuration and count even as it begins. A lurching, a jarring, a staccato surge, a blockage, a meandering, a too-brief alignment: The prosody of noise parses a discomfort that uncovers, in its unstable caesura, the fact of the citizen’s material fragility. The prosody of noise will not banish that fragility, but will accompany it. This arrhythmia, this enjambment, is what one is – discordant temporality. (Robertson 2012: 61)


How Wheeling Feels When The Ground Walks Away is composed of rhythms that lurch, jarr, surge, and block. It is a continuous noise comprised of discontinuous rhythms, a sonicity that captures a myriad of tiny, fragmented movements that register corporeally rather than discursively. Here noise is composed through fluctuation, bringing us back to Serres’ conception of the way that a “form” such as the murmur might be born out of noise’s formlessness. Almost none of the speech that we hear in the recording is legible in a discursive sense, and yet the work has a visceral quality in which we feelthe shape of these shared yet discontinuous rhythmic movements. There is a thickness to the quality of the sound that emerges from the many modes of differencing that are drawn together into a noisy mass. The sounding of such noise, as Robertson (2012: 65-66) tells us, “reveals also an intimate structure, a micro-surface of folds, and the continuation of these folds into our bodies.” Of course, this is not to say that Hoff’s workgives the listener access to the experience of the riot. There is an obvious distance that is produced when sounds are transposed from the streets to a stereo, and such a gesture runs the risk of aestheticizing and spectacularizing a politics of life and death. This work – composed entirely of archival material – treads a fine line between documentary and voyeurism. What is produced is a document that attends to the complex sonicity of collective bodies forming. Perhaps we could say that the murmur here is less a formed rhythm and more a rhythmic “event” as suggested by Eleni Ikoniadou (2014: 17): “A transitory flash that may or may not emerge to perception, a feeling that takes on a life of its own outside and beyond the bodies that live and undergo it.” Listening to the murmur that animates the rioting crowd is to listen to the fluidity and multi-vocality of assemblies, to what exceeds the space and form of “protest” in media reportage. What we hear are the rhythms of disorder that fold into our bodies and emerge out of them toward (proto-)socialities. How Wheeling Feels When The Ground Walks Awayprovides us with an opportunity to listen to the collective noise of a murmur. Such an affective listening can open new ways of conceptualizing what a collective body might yet do.


A murmur contains a general antagonism toward univocal expression. It is an interruption to the status afforded to the voice as the expression of a unique, individual self. As Dominic Pettman (2017: 5) observes, “the voice is often considered as one of the prime instances of unmediated communication.” This largely unchallenged conception of the voice creates an inextricable link between voice and speech, in which the capacity to speak (coherently) functions as a marker of a subject that possesses autonomy and agency. The murmur of the crowd is the sound of voices operating in excess of legible speech. It reframes the voice as something that functions excessively. As Adriana Cavarero (2005: 13) writes, “to reduce this excess to mere meaninglessness – to whatever remains when the voice is not intentioned toward a meaning, defined as the exclusive purview of speech – is one of the chief vices of logocentrism. This vice transforms the excess of the voice into a lack.” In opposition to this common understanding, we can understand the voice as something that, first and foremost, produces noise. In the words of the Caribbean philosopher Édouard Glissant (1996: 123), “noise is essential to speech. Din is discourse.” 


Listening to the murmur of the crowd is to listen to, and for, a noise that interrupts the primacy of univocal speech. The murmur of the crowd is a multi-vocal sounding of collectivity. Here I want to think assemblies that form in response to induced precarity (and the noise that they produce) in relation to the concept of improvisation. Improvisation – as it is derived from the black radical traditions of jazz and blues – refers to a modality that is generative, relational, and inherently collective. The improvised antiphony of black music is a site of encounter in which “the lines between self and other are blurred” (Gilroy 1993: 79). Improvisation describes a type of collective organization that is concerned with the creation of new forms (whether those be political, institutional, or aesthetic) and an orientation toward the unknown. Yet, while improvisation is concerned with the production of novelty, it is also defined by techniques and rules, it is grounded in that which can be practiced and repeated. 


Improvisation emerges from the intersection between constraints and escapes. It is connected to preordained rules and techniques, yet has the potential to generate something in excess of those techniques. It produces an opening in the event in which potentials resonate, activating a process from which new relations may emerge. 


Paired with the careful crafting of technique, improvisation can play an important role as an emergent procedure for the creation of new associated milieus of relation, milieus that subvert the linear time of if-then. What improvisation can do is texture technique to flesh out its potential. It does so by making ‘if’ an open question, a time-loop, a folding proposition for the moving. From habit to invention, from technique to improvisation, the form becomes a folding-through of time in the making. (Manning 2013: 37)


Approached this way, improvisation is that which creates an operational field that moves beyond fixed forms and positions. This operational field is akin to a field of cicadas producing a constantly shifting noise that obscures the distinction between background and foreground, individual and collective. While it is dependent on techniques that can be repeated and rehearsed, it moves beyond these techniques to produce an opening in which “form once more becomes force” (Manning 2013: 34) and from which novelty might emerge.


The improvisational imperative is central to Harney and Moten’s formulation of the undercommons, in which the commons are reimagined not as a set of property relations but as a collective disposition. For Moten, improvisation describes the labor of a collective ensemble, or a force of operativity that can “lead to models of collective organization and production that oppose expropriation, the reproduction of private property, enclosure, and other forms of subjection” (Donovan 2011). Moten finds this sense of resistance in the multi-vocality of improvised performances, in what he and Harney refer to as “the call for and from disorder” (Harney and Moten 2013: 133). Improvisation (as both a musical and political strategy) involves the “constant organization and disorganization of the demand that takes the form-in-deformation of a single voice consenting to and calling for its multiplication and division” (Harney and Moten 2013: 133). Figured as a cacophony of demands, improvisation might offer us a model of organization that resists the univocality of dominant power and the logics of possession and accumulation that accompany it. Such resistance links improvisation to a politics of noise that might variously take the form of assembly, withdrawal, refusal, excess, incoherence, opacity, or riot. Such improvised noise interrupts fixed forms and positions, creating an opening within the event in which forces may fold and resonate to produce newness. For Moten, improvisation is a condition for the emergence of what he refers to as an “ante-politics,” where ante-politics describes the forces and relations that precede and condition the political. In other words, ante-politics describes a politics of exteriority in which political motivations, formations, and actions both precede and exceed their given forms and representations. Here we understand the collective bodies that form in response to induced precarity as an enactment of this improvisational imperative and the murmur of the crowd as improvised noise that contains the creative forces of immanent bodies relating and sounding together.


I have been arguing for the murmur of the crowd as a web of transversal enunciations, an improvised noise that belongs to the in-between space of “the break.” This multi-vocal sonic figure cannot be accounted for by a general theory of communication, but rather produces connections and openings in logics and hierarchies that might otherwise remain closed. It is an affective noise, a force of expression that is registered as sensation yet amasses much more than what is contained in the sensory. It is a noise that cannot be held in place, a noise with no definite origin, a noise that cannot be owned. The in-betweenness of the murmur marks it as a field of expression that has the potential to produce new alliances and assemblages. Of course, this does not imply that such alliances are necessarily straightforward or harmonious; rather, the multi-vocality of the murmur foregrounds heterogeneity and dissensus. The murmur of the crowd ushers us toward an open production of subjectivity that, to quote Guattari, is “simultaneously singular, singularizing an individual, a group of individuals, but also supported by the assemblages of space, architectural and plastic assemblages, and all other cosmic assemblages” (quoted in Lazzarato and Melitopoulos 2012: 240). This emphasis on processuality and singularization foregrounds becoming rather than being, figuring rather than form.


I want to conclude by reiterating my argument that the affectivity of the murmuring crowd ushers us toward a collective politics that is grounded in difference rather than commonality. The murmur moves us beyond the limits of a common language of political protest or “rights” and takes the complexity of dissensus as its starting point. Conceived in this way, the murmur brings us to a conception of vocality that is suspended between an “I” and a “we.” The voices that comprise the murmuring crowd are themselves always multi-vocal, moving transversally between the individual and the collective. To listen to the murmur of the crowd is not simply to listen to the audible sound produced by many voices gathered in one place. Rather, listening to the murmur is an invitation to develop a micropolitical listening practice attuned to the affective tonalities of the social field. Listening in this way involves “my entire body and the whole of my skin” (Serres 1995: 7). Developing such a micropolitical listening is to develop new approaches to being undercommon, or to inhabit the relational space of the in-between. Such embodied listening might offer us a way to listen to a politics in process, a politics that is yet to cohere into a rigid and stratified form. Listening to the murmur of the crowd offers us a way of conceptualizing collective politics anew.