Black Noise: Notes on a Semanalysis of Mogorosi’s De
My disquisition will start by cautioning that what we attempt to do here could easily be characterized as what Calvin Warren, in his response to Jared Sexton’s review of his book Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism and Emancipation, refers to as “intellectual cruelty and a disregard for black existence— a certain scholarly malpractice”, that is, “a resignation of black thought”. Secondly, I want to reductively perform what Michael Riffaterre refers to, in a book called Fictional Truth, semanalysis, that is, a study of the unconscious of the text, which should not be confused with the study of the unconscious of the author or that of the reader, but at the same time we want to follow Tumi Mogorosi’s methodology in attending to the underlying unexamined operative logics of the inferences worked out in the book. I’m saying this to caution that at some point this might appear as though it were not a reading of Mogorosi’s book. These notes are divided into three parts, the first (this one) focuses on the concept of (black) noise, the second on what Mogorosi refers to as performative silence and the last a comparative study of the concept of De
In his book, Tumi Mogorosi introduces us to a concept called DeAesthetics (a concept under erasure), which he describes as “a performance of/ from a space of dislocation”. A non-gesture that “disrupts fixed entities by way of movement, opacity, non-action as a kind of remixing, working with silence, leaving gaps, taking away, or with-holding from (in a musical sense, looking for the cut or the break as the place or space for breath)”. This space-time concept gives an account of embodiment as a limitation and as such calls for “disrespecting embodiment to the widened perceptual encounter”.
In the second chapter, Mogorosi begins with an urge to think of blues and swing music as fields of possibility. He tells us that the blues begin with catastrophe, a cry and a scream. Of course, his attendance to this is done through Saidiya Hartman’s non-accounting of how Frederick Douglass came into the world of slavery, through his witnessing of Aunt Hester being whipped.
Let us briefly turn towards Mogorosi’s study of Jezebel and Venus. Here, Mogorosi lingers on what he calls an “impossible question”, one that is made possible by way of Hartman’s theorization of impossible speech as that which, as Mogorosi states, “comes by being incapable of speaking for or as Jezebel/ Venus – the impossibility she thinks of as ‘writing at the limit of unspeakable’”. What Mogorosi reads, subsequent to this passage, is the silent space between notes as slippages or alleyways which require a different ear or navigation.
In thinking about Brenda Fassie’s Too late for Mama, Mogorosi reads the first verse as opening with catastrophe, sustained by “a minor cadence” which is read here as a confirmation, if you will, of what Frank B. Wilderson III calls the lack of narrative arc [in thinking about oppression of or the gratuitous violence enacted against black people], which is to say, as Wilderson does, that “the violence which both elaborates and saturates Black “life” is totalizing, so much so as to make narrative inaccessible to Blacks”, “leading to an association of Black music with what was seen as music that lacks both a tonal center and structure”. Or as aptly described by Hartman in Riot and Refrain (in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 2019) when she says, “To those outside the circle it is a din without melody or center”. One could liken Hartman’s reading of this “sonic tumult and upheaval” as black noise to the reading of noise enacted by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver in their 1964 text titled “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” wherein it [noise] is thought of as “unwanted additions” that interfere with and distort the signal as it is transmitted through the air and telephone wire, “creating a veil of uncertainty when it comes to interpreting the original meaning or signal” and as such acquires the status of a negative sonic interruption.
Returning to Mogorosi with a rather lengthy quote:
Hartman speaks about groans and cries of songs that become un-decodable as they serve at the limit of coding, as something other than utterable. But inversely she speaks about shrieks that find their way into speech and song, and by doing so invokes the scene in Narrative by Frederick Douglass about Aunt Hester being whipped, her shrieks being his initiation into slavery. This is how Moten in In the Break establishes it, as some kind of musicality of that shriek that can be associated with the kinds of screams vocalists and musicians have produced, with focus on Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s duet Triptych. This is in that ‘terrible music’ that Aunt Hester’s scream is transformed into the song of the ‘great house’, the terrible way of impossible being as the condition of a possible coming into being of such a song. In other words, this is how and why Blackness becomes a theory of the end of the world.
In an essay titled Venus in Two Acts Hartman (2008) coined the term “critical fabulation”, which is a type of history (or the narration of it) that not only challenges positivistic attempts to rely on archival evidence and facts, but also refuses to reiterate the events of slavery, as they are reproduced in archival sources about the materiality of its effects. This is preceded by a similar gesture made in her book, Scenes of Subjection, leading to an engagement with/by Moten wherein he proposes that we contest the originality of the primal scene and imagine other modes of living that challenge what he refers to as “an unavoidable mode of subjection”. Here we are required to think with Paul Gilroy’s politics of lower frequencies enacted in his reading of black music:
Created under the very nose of the overseers, the utopian desires which fuel the complementary politics of transﬁguration must be invoked by other, more deliberately opaque means. This politics exists on a lower frequency where it is played, danced, and acted, as well as sung and sung about, because words, even words stretched by melisma and supplemented or mutated by the screams which still index the conspicuous power of the slave sublime, will never be enough to communicate its unsayable claims to truth.
This would later inspire modalities of thinking about noise that contest the discursive attempt to make legible and as such commodify the experience of the enslaved (see Hartman, 1997 and Moten, 2003 for their debt to Gilroy). Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman (2005), for instance, call black noise the shrieks, the moans, the non-sense and the opacity that emerges from practices of resistance:
What we call black noise Robin Kelley would describe as a ‘freedom dream’, or Fred Moten would describe as ‘the surreal utopian ‘nonsense’ of a utopian vision’, the freedom we know outside of the opposition of sense and intellection. [This black noise] represents the kind of political aspirations that [are] inaudible and illegible within the prevailing normative political rationalities insofar as what they call for is wildly utopian and derelict to capitalism.
As Inigo Wilkins demonstrates (as we will later show) in his work, it is rather misguided to place noise and excess in opposition to capitalism and reason insofar as doing so fails to consider the “multi-scale complexity of noise.” The Hartmanian-Motenian understanding of noise here seems indistinguishable from opacity, insofar as we see in Nathanja van Dijk’s navigation of noise which she thinks of as “a leap in the dark: a rather brave move away from certainty to orient yourself towards the unknown, towards uncertainty”, and at the core of the Glissantian configuration on opacity, is an insistence on being “decoupled from the violence of the colonial world-making project and its ways of seeing and knowing” and of course this insistence on opacity is “not about remaining in the shadows, but
an active refusal of the Eurocentric demand that experience be made transparent (or legible)”.
Here, we want to problematize what we wish to term “the fetishization of noise”, however our problematization of this fetishization, albeit proposing a metacontextual reading of noise, is not in line with or does not necessarily parrot the one enacted by Rene Thom in his 1983 paper titled Stop Chance! Silence Noise! wherein he says “this fascination with randomness testifies to an antiscientific attitude par excellence”. We subsequently observe that he reviles this, insofar as it characterizes, according to him, a deliberate mental confusion of those working in the literary register, that those trained in “the rigor of scientific study/ rationality” barely fall for.
Aaron Zwinstcher like Mogorosi (at least insofar as the use of erasure is concerned) thinks
noise as a concept under erasure, he reads noise apophatically, which is to say, for him noise can never be fully apprehended but rather attended to obliquely through negations. I want us now to turn away from Zwinstcher, to whom we will return shortly.
What I want us to do is take seriously Wilderson’s injunction that we “stay in the hold of the ship” and how this converges with Cecile Malaspina’s reading of noise as “lived ambiguity” (from Miguel Prado’s Noise and Morphogenesis), and how this leads to a reconfiguration of the white immunological drive. I want to do this without going through the various expansive genealogies of the readings of the concept of noise as done by Malaspina, Wilkins and Miguel Prado.
Wilkins in enacting a critique of the reading of noise as taken up in the humanities seeks to problematize the fetishization of noise as randomness, indeterminacy, uncertainty and chance. Through a metacontextual reading, he builds “a case for a concept of noise that can act, instead, as index of intelligible constraint”, which, unlike what we have witnessed enacted in the reading of noise in what I’d reductively call Black Studies, does not, as Ray Brassier says, “want to eliminate ambiguity in the conceptualization of noise, but rather make it explicit…”.
In the insistence to only think noise through this fetishized register what gets overlooked is the other side of this lived ambiguity of noise, so that in tarrying with it, we are confronted with the reality that unveils, that to twiddle with noise only reveals the limits of the concepts or domain within which we are operating but does not necessarily mark a break or move towards freedom. It is perhaps this lengthy quote from Malaspina that lays bare a more succinct description of noise as lived ambiguity:
Noise (accidental, non-necessary, increasing uncertainty and ‘freedom of choice’ in probabilistic terms) is also normal and ubiquitous, often subject to a highly predictable statistical form, called a normal distribution. So predictable, in fact, that telecommunications can mimic its uniform distribution across the frequency band, and use what is called additive white Gaussian noise (AWGN) as a basic noise model for the underlying behaviour of a system, so as to later distinguish phenomena like fading, interference, dispersion or other chaotic or unpredictable (non-linear) events. Noise that at first presented itself as non-reproducible stochasticity, for the communications engineer, on the contrary, becomes characteristic for the underlying behaviour of a system. The least we can say is that the relation between noise, stochasticity, the accidental and the predictable is far from simple.
Zwintscher in a rather less protracted manner gestures towards the same in accounting for noise as lived ambiguity: “Noise is both background and parasite, both ground and disruption, and undecidable in the difference”.
Albeit admitting to this lived ambiguity of noise and going to lengths to account for it, Zwintscher in his attempt to theorize human being-as-noise chooses to pursue what he thinks to be or contain the radical capacities of noise, that is, what we’ve characterized here as the fetishized reading, noise as randomness, indeterminacy and chance. It is Wilkins who reminds us that contrary to this elaboration of randomness, chance and uncertainty as undermining reason, we ought to consider them as the achievement of it, so that for him noise is intrinsic to reason and in a positive manner, it is a relationship of complex reciprocity. Wilkins adopts William Wimsatt’s proposition that “models and heuristics are indispensible tools for scientific research precisely because calculation of all aspects of a problem in the manner of a Laplacean demon is not possible: “the scientist must consider the size of computations, the cost of data collection, and must regard both processes as ‘noisy; or error-prone”.
Wilkins turns this apparent shortcoming into a virtue by demonstrating how the failures that ensue from the application of heuristics reveal important facts about the object under investigation”. What we see here is the intentional and motivated incorporation of noise into a system as “a beneficial effect or as a functional aspect of its operation”. So that the conception of noise as randomness and interference a la Shannon and Weaver is now regarded as essential or intrinsic to the adaptability and variability of a system. Wilkins further states that, “Reason is not opposed to noise; on the contrary it thrives on the discovery and explanation of noise, the prediction and control of random processes”.
In light of this, the proposition we would like to make is that we take seriously Wilderson’s injunction to stay in the hold of the ship, so that if reason thrives on randomness and noise, what happens to what we think of as black noise? Does it mark or serve as the background through which the world reconfigures itself through this white immunological drive, as one would’ve noticed with dub and jazz music? The reading of the immunological drive adopted here is attended to through Fréderic Neyrat, who thinks of it by way of co-reading Spinoza’s concept of conatus or the “effort to preserve in its being” (1677, as cited by Neyrat, 2017) and Jacques Derrida’s reading of the death drive which is described as the drive to “destroy all that might stand in the way of its ultimate goal: to be and to remain intact, sheltered from all harm, from all damage”.
Which is to say then, what happens when black noise does not necessarily mark a rupture In The Break but rather marks a reconfiguration of the world in an attempt to preserve itself or persist in being, in an otherwise form? What then do we make of Mogorosi’s Hartmanian-Motenian reading of the musicality of the shrieks/ black noise, as that which potentiates
a theory of the end of the world?