Re: the virtues of noise

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Thu Dec 04 2003 - 11:52:49 MST

This might be orthogonal to the discussion, I'm not sure, but if it's just
noise you can always ignore it:


William Paulson has urged a similar view [to the epistemological anarchism
of Paul Feyerabend] - abhorrent to traditionalists in either culture - with
force and zest. In the light of our current understanding, he notes, it is
reasonable to seek in literary studies (and, one might add, paraliterary and
scientific studies)

     "not pure knowledge, not a means of dishing out common cultural fare to
the many, but a part of the process wherein new concepts, practices, and
symbolic moves are invented and propagated. . . .
      "Literature is the noise of culture, the rich and indeterminate margin
into which messages are sent off, never to return the same, in which signals
are received not quite like anything emitted." (Paulson, The Noise of
Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information, 1980: 180)

  The frame for Paulson's startling argument is the place we started our
discussion: information theory understood within a model of life and culture
as self-organising, creating their own stability and complexity in the face
of entropy, a picture based on Prigogine's controversial theory of
thermodynamics far-from-equilibrium (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984; Waldrop,
1993; Lewin, 1993). Noise is not necessarily just a `parasite' (as the
French call it, in an untranslatable pun). It can be novel information that
requires a new frame of reference for its reception. It can be an
unsettling input into a tired old system from one or more alternative
structures. Whether smuggled or welcomed into that system, redefining it,
such novelties can renew and extend its possible moves in the world - can
renew even its self-understanding. Paulson notes:

     "Literature is a discursive form and an archive that is out of step
with technocratic modernity. It cannot therefore supply that modernity and
its political institutions with reassuring narratives or metanarratives to
live by; it can only perturb them as a kind of noise. Yet it is only
because of internal perturbation, whether arising from memory or from the
plurality of cognitive and discursive strategies, that we can be observers
of ourselves. . . . Internal noise, in other words, keeps us from being so
fully integrated into a silently functioning system that we would cease to
be aware of it as system." (Paulson:181)

  But while this is true of canonised literature, alternative textualities
such as postmodern, post-colonial and other marginalised narratives might
have a larger role still. Unlike authorised literature, these texts
sometimes have the capacity to grind noise and grit into the meta-narratives
which ideology remorselessly drones through our eyes, ears and bodies. By a
curious reversal, they constitute a discursive form and an archive which is
*not* always out of step with technocratic modernity or postmodernity.
True, this might make such textuality easily co-optable to the work of
suasion; the postmodern workplace, including the new virtual reality
cyberspace, is more often decorative than challenging (Benedikt, 1991;
Rheingold, 1991; Ross, 1991). Yet it offers as well an enhanced access to
Paulson's fecund noise.



Damien Broderick

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