Future Sounds: The Temporality of Noise by Stephen Kennedy
According to its introduction, Kennedy's volume sets out to speculate about an "atemporal realm" collapsing critical distance, which is expected to produce the "ability to reliably predict what is yet to come." What would be the academic value of such trendspotting or futurism if it came at the price of oblivion or ignorance about what preceded it? Who decides (and how) whether such predictions are reliable if there is no critical distance or precedent in this atemporal realm? In a few pages, we encounter Foucault and Lefebvre, Attali and Whitehead, plus glancing references to Shaviro, Nancy, Virilio, Fukuyama, Thrift, Harman, Heidegger, Derrida, and a loop via Bergson and Bachelard back to Attali. Yet with the exception of Attali, none of the works invoked address sound or music or noise, and there is no acknowledgement of the fact that many of the names dropped are incompatible. This is noise of a different sort: the dissonance of suppressed, unexplored disagreements between systems of thought, intoning radically different political, aesthetic, conceptual, and methodical positions. It might have interested the intended readers of this volume in a Sound Studies series to consider these thinkers' sense of the acoustic register, but that kind of mapping of the theoretical terrain never happens here.
In addition, the book takes a rather long time, considering its titular promise of sounds and noise, to come around to discussing anything sonic or noisy. After Rihanna is mentioned twice in the introduction (albeit misspelled), the reader needs to cross a desert of fifty-odd pages of grinding and drifting theory sands to come across the next reference to music or sound (p. 53). Instead, we get to contend with Adorno—but not the Adorno who thought and argued about music (not to mention wrote and played music): instead, we get a cardboard Adorno propped up as a foil to Quine, Wittgenstein, Deleuze, and Sellars. But how do their philosophical works illuminate future sounds? Never mind: on to quotations from Delanda, Kroker, and Merleau-Ponty. Did they engage with the core concerns of [End Page 926] sound studies, or with "future sounds"? We may never know if we rely on Kennedy, because the next chapter, in its entirety, instead offers an annotated reading of Attali. It is odd to see Attali merit an entire chapter here, since in Sound Studies his work on noise had been discredited ever since Douglas Kahn mocked Attali as a Luddite who made the phonograph the wicked steam engine of the undesirable epoch of repetition, banishing it from the desirable epoch of composition.
Finally, on page 96 (out of a slim 153) we get to sounds after 1977—from Sex Pistols to Patti Smith, from Ornette Coleman to Iggy Pop, and from Krautrock to Donna Summer. Yet when Kennedy mentions these acts, there is no framework for listening to them or contextualizing their performances in a way that somehow arises from the preceding 100 pages. Instead, we get tidbits about Cabaret Voltaire or Human League. The result of all the supposedly groundbreaking theoretical musings is that when it comes to understanding something about Sonic Youth, New Order, Throbbing Gristle, or Einstürzende Neubauten, they all seem to be the same to Kennedy.
The four chapters here do not have much of an overt link to one another; there is no conceptual, let alone historical exploration of what noise is, or what noise means, in certain contexts, and what those contexts are or mean to the valorization of noise. Kennedy offers nothing on aesthetic or technical distinctions between signal and noise (as introduced into sonic discourse by the information theory of John Pierce and others), no media history of recording or amplification, no account of the role of filtering versus the creative recuperation of unpredictable, or unwanted, or unscripted sonic events. There is also no reference to the fluctuating appeals to futurity, futurism, or any movement in music or sound art, etc., that foregrounds what Kennedy's book title held out as a promise: future sounds.
Instead, the fourth and last chapter of the book is an extended riff on the Swiss-German painter Paul Klee (1879–1940), who rejected both nineteenth-century and contemporary music and favored Mozart instead. How this goes with noise, future sounds, or any of the other themes of the previous chapters is hard to assess, because instead of a discussion of music or sound this chapter retreats into some minor skirmishes of the culture wars without directly addressing sound studies or music history. Finally, on page 147 Kennedy claims to have been writing about a "sonic economy," although there is little evidence for a sustained discussion of that phrase or its potential import throughout the book. [End Page 927]
Peter Krapp is professor of film & media studies and professor of English, informatics, and music at the University of California, Irvine.