restricted access Noirse-Made-Earsy: Noise in Finnegans Wake
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Noise in Finnegans Wake

I hear the noise of many watersFar below.All day, all night, I hear them flowingTo and fro.

—James Joyce, “All Day I Hear the Noise of Waters”

There must be no cessationOf motion, or the noise of motion,The renewal of noiseAnd manifold continuation.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Place of the Solitaires”

It has been said that “anybody who takes ‘Finnegans Wake’ as an ur-text will probably have a low signal to noise ratio.”1 Doubtless any meaningful signal that the reader of the Wake receives must be separated from a much larger background of confusion and dissonance. Another way of looking at it, however, is that noise is inseparable from the process of sense making. In this study I use such theoreticians of noise as Jacques Attali, Michel Serres, and Avital Ronell to show how noise in the Wake does not merely destroy, distort, or obscure meaningful patterns and structures but collaborates in their creation. The article is divided into three sections. First, I take two test cases from Ulysses and the Wake respectively, to show how noise is coded into meaning by both the waking and dreaming mind. Second, I examine the political dimensions of the imposition of meaning on noise and the subversions of meaning by noise in terms of the battle between generations (father against sons) and within generations (brother against brother). Finally, I place these themes in the context of the postmodernist [End Page 670] project of incorporating noise into the very fabric of meaningful form. As a self-generating, stochastic system, the Wake opposes both totalitarian reification and entropic dissolution by continually adjusting its signal to noise ratio.

Noise is a protean concept that carries many meanings according to its context. In Vico’s account, it is a shocking disturbance originating both language and civil society; in information theory, it is anything that interferes with a signal or message; on Attali’s view, it becomes a measure of political power; and for Serres, it is both a destroyer and a creator of order. While this study pursues paths that have been opened up by such authors as Thomas Rice in his exploration of “stochastic determinism” and Margot Norris in her analysis of “Joyce’s anarchic disruptions,” I believe that it adds to the ongoing conversation by placing these themes in the context of a school of thought that considers noise a legitimate subject in its own right.2 Such notable articles on noise by Rosa Maria Bosinelli and Diarmuid Maguire and Josh Epstein also pursue different trajectories from my own insofar as they are not concerned with placing their studies in this particular critical context.3 As Avital Ronell—one of the most distinguished of this group—says in the user’s manual that introduces her Telephone Book, it is necessary for the reader to learn to “tune your ears to noise frequencies.”4 Along the same lines, the Wake presents its reader with the fictitious language primer “noirse-made-earsy.”5 In both cases, a new relation to language and meaning is established by refusing to filter out interference in order to receive a message. Interference is the message.

“For the Greeter Glossary of Code”

Jacques Attali’s description of harmony as “a code that gives meaning to noise” is concretized in “Oxen of the Sun.”6 On the one hand, Stephen filters the “black crack of noise in the street” through a Vician screen of Norse violence and Hebraic morality: “Thor thundered: in anger awful the hammerhurler.”7 Bloom, on the other hand, interprets the same “hubbub noise” (14.426) according to the codes of nineteenth-century science as “the discharge of fluid from the thunderhead, look you, having taken place, and all of the order of a natural phenomenon” (14.426–28). While the transition from Stephen to Bloom appears to follow the same progression from religious superstition to scientific enlightenment that Robert Scholes points out in his analysis of the concept of code, Bloom’s appeal to a discarded notion of “fluid” reveals the limitations of his knowledge as well.8 Apparently, Joyce is more...