In the end, and despite the distracting game of its written inscriptions, With Hidden Noise is a remarkably concise statement of internal energies and forces held in mutual balance, organizing its binaries like a battery: the hard and the flexible, the organic or recently natural (fiber) versus inorganic and mechanical (metal and screws), constriction against agitation, flat surface (plates) against oblate mass (twine), etc. In this sense, it is less a work than a practical device for activating relationships between the scopic, the haptic and the auditory; a mechanism whose shortcoming is that only the first of these can now be operated. But this is a machine powered by an absence: at its center, that un-namable thing, conjuring presence by its sound alone, gesturing towards Kant’s Ding an sich, in the unknowable realm of truths behind the world’s appearances, rather than something whose identity can be discerned and tested through the normal channels. Kant’s proposal that our understanding of the object is always forestalled, since something obstinate, irreducible always remains within it, shadows With Hidden Noise’s persistent return to the problems of knowledge. For Adorno, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason includes
an identity philosophy – that is, a philosophy that attempts to ground being in the subject – and also a non-identity philosophy – one that attempts to restrict that claim to identity by insisting on the obstacles, the block, encountered in the subject in its search for knowledge. (Adorno 2001: 66)
Arguably all artworks that appeal to the Readymade – and perhaps all artworks tout court – bring into play that reciprocal tightrope that connects and holds in tension the notions of subject and object. With Hidden Noise enacts this tiny drama in some very specific ways, summoning the subject through a relation to an object (“someone in particular put this thing inside, at this time and place”) then withdrawing it again (“so whose work is this, exactly?”), setting in motion an object at the heart of the work, one that drives its meaning and predicament, then winding that object back into the unknowable. So perhaps, then, this is a work which might stand as avatar for Adorno’s poise between identity and non-identity, one in which the battle between the visual and the aural also enacts these competing claims. Surface appearances literally block knowledge: the secret object inside cannot be read since the objects around it act to screen and contain this invisibility, and yet, thanks to the aural, to sound, meaning leaks out, like a prisoner tapping on the plumbing. That (for us, imagined) sound, the hidden but persistent noise of the unsound, is the link back to identity in its insistence that we solve the riddle of its subjectivity rather than chain it to an objecthood we will never properly know.
In its very inaccessibility, the unattainable object also approaches the lost, repressed or imaginary body, governed by otherness, that is Lacan’s objet petit a or “partial object’” and that, even whilst remaining forever out of sight, hastens everything to its tune as an object of desire: “A unique object of desire [convoitise] insinuates itself at the heart of love’s action, we might say, one that constitutes itself as such. It’s an object whose rivalry one precisely wishes to avert, an object that is even loathe to be shown” (1991: 161). Thus it is not so much any artefact’s external form but some enigmatic kernel lurking at its heart that fascinates: “If this object arouses your passion, it is because within it, hidden, there is the object of desire” (1998: 176-177). In his theorization of phantasy and transference (during the 1960-61 seminar Le transfert), Lacan proposes as a model the brief dialogue between Socrates and Alcibiades towards the end of Plato’s Symposium which centers on the figure of a humble container which hides the precious agalma: a statuette, a gift box, a mystery to be offered to the gods or as Lacan has it, “a kind of god-trap [piège à dieux]” (1991: 166 and 171). Thus the lover finds his or her desire in the beloved, a figure of desire focused not on an ultimately disposable container but in a longed-for but unattainable jewel within: “Included in the objet a,” Lacan writes, “is the αγαλμα, the inestimable treasure that Alcibiades declares is contained in the rustic box that for him Socrates’s face represents.” Describing the agalma, Alcibiades locates it as being precisely a hollow sculpture representing the performance of sound and problematizing container and content:
And now, my boys, I shall praise Socrates in a figure which will appear to him to be a caricature, and yet I speak, not to make fun of him, but only for the truth's sake. I say, that he is exactly like the busts of Silenus, which are set up in the statuaries’ shops, holding pipes and flutes in their mouths; and they are made to open in the middle, and have images of gods inside them. (Plato n.d.)
As Lacan notes, the box is more specifically in the form of the satyr Marsyas, flayed alive for daring to challenge Apollo to a contest of musical virtuosity, except that now the figure shifts to Socrates, not a musician but a specialist in words (1991: 182) – just as With Hidden Noise moves to and from sound and text in its games of absence and allure.
Conceptual or imaginative correlations for With Hidden Noise’s articulation of presence and absence as a lure for desire and knowledge are legion: Bill Brown’s Thing Theory that postulates the “thing” as an enigmatic excess around an object, at the moment when conventional functions abate (2001 and 2004); Heidegger’s das Ding, with its problematized nearness (just as With Hidden Noise’s object is so close yet never attained), its will to “the unconcealedness of what is already present” exemplified as a jug, made up of a void (1971); Kafka’s enigmatic Odradek, a worn spool with bits of thread attached but no clear purpose or identity (from “The Cares of a Family Man” written around 1914-17, so contemporary to Duchamp’s object). Is the rattle and then silence of its secret object like the ping of a black box recorder waiting to be found and decoded before it’s too late, or the chirp of a cicada, stopping as you get too close? It is as though for us this sound is lost in its anticipated dimension, just as the hidden object that makes it is always foreclosed, only to reappear in another; since we’re forbidden its performance, we hear its secret noise instead in the frameworks of our own longing… Maybe the work joins that speculative category of Duchamp’s note on a proposed “intaglio music [musique en creux] for the deaf”, a kind of sonic braille inviting us to feel the noise in any way but through sound. In these ways, its unsound works to trigger an aural desire, propelled by silence.
So here I am, standing in front of With Hidden Noise in its display case. In its latencies, in its potential for resonance, a kind of “persistence of audition” joins noise and the unsound, braids its actions in other ways as we follow a thread back out of the labyrinth: to read noise, to hear meaning. In its always deferred or delayed performance, the instrument awaits activation. And what noise does it make in its packing case as it shuttles back and forth around the world, recalling the sound of Duchamp rattling around in his New York studio in the decades before his death in 1968, secretly making his last work Étant données? The trajectory of this little bleeping satellite has taken it from sound object to an unsound one, waiting to be rung or perhaps still resonating from its previous activations, below the threshold of our perception. These secret noises are akin to a memory of something we have yet to experience but that seems already to have been lived. In this sense, as Walter Benjamin has it, a noise might connect us across space and time:
The déjà vu effect has often been described. But I wonder whether the term is actually well chosen, and whether the metaphor appropriate to the process would not be far better taken from the realm of acoustics. One ought to speak of events that reach us like an echo awakened by a call, a sound that seems to have been heard somewhere in the darkness of past life. Accordingly, if we are not mistaken, the shock with which moments enter consciousness as if already lived usually strikes us in the form of a sound. It is a word, a tapping or a rustling that is endowed with a magic power to transport us into the cool tomb of long ago, from the vault of which the present seems to return only as an echo. (Benjamin 1979: 345)