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Noise in the 21st Century: an Interview with Inigo Wilkins

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Ahead of his debut book, Irreversible Noise, the theorist discusses the relationship between sound, thought, and power.

By Alexander Iadarola


The term “noise” is most commonly associated with everyday sonic phenomena, though that’s just scratching the surface. It is obviously the name of a musical genre, which, depending on your taste and personal history, either brings you into contact with the sublime or triggers strange memories of confusing house parties. Noise can also describe a formal quality of a piece of music: “Lady Gaga’s raucous 2011 track, ‘Government Hooker,’ is a bit noisier than ‘Shallow,’ her duet with Bradley Cooper from the hit film A Star is Born.” Elsewhere, noise refers to non-diegetic technical interferences, e.g. “The sound from my AirPods keeps being interrupted by this weird, persistent ringing noise. It’s not the battery. I’m pretty sure I have Havana Syndrome…” 

But if you wanted to identify every notable meaning of noise, expanding your focus beyond the sonic, you might begin by tracing the term’s mid-20th century development in disciplines like information theory, which offers a mathematical model of communication that would end up being crucial to the development of digital technology. You would note the tremendous influence of thinkers like engineer and computer scientist Claude Shannon, whose quantitative understanding of noise as an interference or distortion affecting the transmission and reception of a message helped lay the groundwork for information theory. 

You would also consult the inventor of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, who studied information, communication, and control processes in complex systems. Weiner allotted the term a much wider jurisdiction, using it to describe any variable that disrupts the intended functioning of a system, be it human, biological, or technological. But though Shannon and Wiener independently developed their own unique definitions of noise, both thinkers ended up leveraging the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy—which measures randomness or uncertainty, terms directly related to noise—tends to increase in isolated systems. All of this is to say that for Shannon and Wiener, noise makes a system do something it is not supposed to do.

In the decades since the introduction of information theory and cybernetics, a huge range of artists, thinkers, and practitioners have taken up the concept of noise, ranging from Fluxus affiliate Nam June Paik and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to the cognitive neuroscientists and philosophers behind more recent developments in Predictive Processing Philosophy, a multi-disciplinary theory that understands perception as a complex modeling process that updates itself according to unexpected, “noisy” inputs. The meaning of noise, in other words, varies tremendously depending on historical time, place, and context. In the late 80s, Public Enemy famously urged listeners to “Bring the Noise”; in contemporary neuroscience, scientists look for various types of noise in EEG scans in order to treat patients.

Trying to make sense of the many, oftentimes contradictory modalities of noise can be a brain-bending endeavor. But in his remarkable forthcoming book, Irreversible Noise, writer and lecturer Inigo Wilkins goes a long way to pulling many of those strands together, offering a wide-ranging, radical, and timely analysis of the concept that engages critically, not just with sound, but also with noise’s role in numerous areas of philosophy, political economy, evolutionary theory, cognitive science, computationalism, and more. 

Art and music play a central role in Wilkins’ thought, and his writing includes sharp analyses of musicians including Editions Mego affiliates EVOL, NON co-founder Chino Amobi, and German computer musician Florian Hecker. Readers in New York City may already be familiar with Wilkins’ work from Xenopoietic Deviations, a collaborative performance with electronic musician TCF, curated by DeForrest Brown, Jr. at Issue Project Room in 2017—or with his work as the co-director of the philosophy journal Glass Bead, which has featured contributions from Hyperdub producer Lee Gamble, contemporary artist and theorist Hito Steyerl, and many others. He has also lectured at CalArts and the New School for Research and Practice.

Wilkins’ willingness to engage with such a vast range of contemporary scientific, technological, and philosophical developments sets him apart, especially in a critical landscape where few thinkers seem to wander beyond the confines of their particular discipline or department. Wilkins surveys the varying dimensions of noise across these fields, drawing out unexpected connections between them and developing a critical framework capable of moving back and forth between wildly divergent ways of thinking and feeling. This is fitting, as one of the book’s core, underlying drives is the mobilization of critique toward the ongoing, collective elaboration of intelligence, knowledge, and freedom.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alexander Iadarola: I saw that you did a workshop at Cafe Oto in London last year, a venue I imagine a lot of Nina readers will be familiar with. Tell me about that project.

Inigo Wilkins: I’m working together with a group of people; we call ourselves the Noise Research Union. So it's Mattin, Cecile Malaspina, Martina Raponi, Miguel Prado, Sonia de Jager, and me. We did a workshop called 21st Century Noise in Porto, in 2021. For me, the defining distinction between 20th and 21st-century noise is this global shift away from an image of thought, and a model of power, that is based on robustness to noise. In the early 20th century, noise is excluded or minimized under algorithmic control structures or order parameters that are relatively fixed. Then there is a shift in the late 20th century towards this flexible cybernetic form, which is resilient to noise. Noise is no longer excluded as it was in the previous disciplinary model, but actively encouraged. The system feeds on it, rather than minimizing it. This form of power is based on predictive, artificially intelligent, noise-resilient systems, what I call PAINRS. 

One thing that stands out to me about your work is its serious engagement with science and rationality alongside art and music. Can you give some context on the different understandings of noise that you work with? Because in the book, it's a tremendously wide range. 

The main argument in the book is that noise is relative to theoretical framework. A lot of the impetus of the book came from my annoyance with some stuff in sound studies, which was treating noise as if it was a signifier of freedom, or criticizing scientific uses of the idea without really properly engaging with them. I wanted to talk about the ways in which noise is defined in different scientific frameworks, and what it means specifically in each of those. The book proposes plural ways of interpreting noise. 

Thermodynamics and dynamic systems theory* are important. Thermodynamics because of its relation to entropy, which is then taken up in information theory and cybernetics. My whole account is strongly related to complexity theory** as well. It’s called Irreversible Noise because it's about the historicity of dynamical systems, basically.

Could you summarize the issues that you have with recent sound studies literature? 

The subtitle of my PhD was, “The rationalisation of randomness and the fetishisation of indeterminacy.” That’s still an element of the book, although it’s less strong. There's this tendency to fetishize noise, breakdown, glitch, and so on, which comes from 20th-century avant-garde traditions. But in the conditions of the late 20th century to the early 21st century, those gestures don’t hold critical power in the way that they used to. We need to use noise in more intelligent ways in order to actually be critical of power. 

In general, we don’t have very good or developed language for describing and explaining sound and music. A lot of it is based on analogy with other senses and practices. One response to this posits that music is this space of pure intuition, and that we can’t or shouldn't describe it. I resist that, and agree with Guerino Mazzola that mathematics can actually describe a lot of what's happening in music that language can’t. This has to do with the fetishization of the ineffable that you have in many sound studies accounts. What I would say is, for anything that is currently indescribable or inexplicable, we haven’t yet found the conditions for its description or explanation. But it is possible. Otherwise, it’s mysticism.

Who are some of the contemporary artists that are doing interesting things with noise?

In my PhD, I talked about Russell Haswell and Florian Hecker quite a bit. In the book, I’ve added some sections on Klein and Slickback. I’m talking about them in the context of a description of music that is coming from, one, an elaboration of current cognitive scientific understandings of perception, particularly predictive processing theory; two, a critique of that from an enactivist point of view***, and also [that of] various social concerns; and three, a relation to the tradition of French gesture theory****, so people like Deleuze, Lautman, Cavaillès, and Mazzola, who posit the primacy of the gestural in the constitution of space and time, or communication. This enables an understanding of music as a specific form of this constituent practice, you could say, which organizes time and space, or behavior in time and space, in a way that’s different from the way that language organizes it.

Fred Moten calls Klein a “discomposer” in his liner notes for Harmattan. Because Klein’s music has lots of layers of samples taken from the popular musical archive, some people have called her work collage. I think she objected to that description herself. It is common that her work is understood in terms of hauntology, a term that comes from Mark Fisher, which is this idea of the nostalgia of lost futures, this past hope which didn't come to be. Dhanveer Singh Brar says that her samples aren’t references to lost futures; they are textural devices that are used to talk about the contemporary. 

I agree [that] these elements in Klein’s music are not references. They are textural devices in a diagram of forces in the sense that French gesture theory understands diagrams, i.e., as the pre-linguistic/sub-symbolic constitution of space through movement. You can think of Klein’s music as a diagrammatic discomposition of the contemporary, pulling out strands from the complex knot of presents.

In your book, you critique a range of disciplinary frameworks that propose a fundamental opposition between the notions like order and disorder, or music and noise. You compellingly argue that this simplification elides real complexity. Klein’s work is relevant here. 

In Klein’s music, you have this really dynamic, changing space of foregrounds and backgrounds. There’s this tension between signal and noise, so you get this washing out of signal into noise in the background, or washing up into the foreground. That very basic kind of opposition between order and disorder, or noise and music, is massively complexified in an artist like Klein. To analyze it in that frame, you would miss a lot.

Another artist I write about in the book is Slikback. What’s interesting about his work is this constant crossing of genres. If you think of genre as a discipline, what Slikback does is transdisciplinary, rather than interdisciplinary. It’s not just moving between genres, but doing something to the genre as he uses it, crossing it and fusing it into another form. And because you’re lurching between these mutant transformations of genres, you are also lurching into and out of different temporal spaces. 

Mazzola has this idea that music is able to escape the tyranny of physical time, because it creates something like an anti-world, again through this gesture theory idea that gestures constitute space and time. So there’s a time that is constituted by the gestures that constitute the form of the music, right? In Slikback, that time convulses. It has been ravaged by warfare. You can hear it in the music. It’s not celebrating warfare, and it’s not a simple negation of it, either. It’s a complex relation to past trauma, an immanent critique that is aesthetically innovative and affectively powerful.

In your work and that of other so-called neo-rational thinkers, for example Reza Negarestani, there’s this idea of utilizing reason as a means for collective liberation. This work is compelling, and yet the context of the contemporary feels like a uniquely irrational period in history. 

Rather than rejecting the inherited form of the picture of reason that comes from the Enlightenment, we re-conceptualize it according to the critiques that have been mounted against it. For example, there’s a classical distinction between reason and emotion, or logic and emotion. I reject that. Reason is often conceived of as happening in the individual, as if you're autonomous; we can also reject that, and have a social-interactive understanding of reason instead.

Reason has historically been seen in exclusionary terms. It was used in the Enlightenment as a form of separation in the construction of whiteness. We reject that, along with the patriarchal form of reason. Through the immanent critique of these caricatured ideas of reason, we can construct what it ought to be for our current conditions. Reason is not something given. It’s a project. This is how Negarestani frames it. 

In asserting that, it’s important that you recognize the concrete political conditions involved. Economic, geographic, and various other constraints are going to be different for different people. The universalizing idea of reason is still one that we can get behind, as long as we acknowledge this difference in the way that we have to cope with our conditions of existence.

Can you talk about how this notion of reason relates to music? 

There’s a section in the book where I do a deep historical account of the evolution of musicking in early hominins, looking at arguments from Gary Tomlinson and Ian Cross. In the long stage development of proto-languaging and proto-musicking, which is over a million years, you can see them as this proto-normative form of the organization of sociality. Over this duration, what arises is a communicative bifurcation. Language comes to be more and more developed as a medium for reference to concrete or abstract specifics, which are either present or not present. Meanwhile, music becomes this form of communication that is also untethered from presence, so that it's able to refer to something else. What it refers to is not something here, but another world: this anti-world that we talked about earlier. 

The other world is not just a fantasy. It’s a diagram of forces and relations that relates to behavior. Music sculpts how we understand and interact with the world in a way that is very deeply embedded in us. It organizes sense, meaning, and behavior in a way that is different from language. It has a sub-symbolic affective power. 

The critique of the ideas of freedom proposed in the Enlightenment runs through philosophy, and also music. The critique of the conditions of modernity is most strongly found in the Black radical tradition, which encompasses the most important strands in the development of 20th-century music. This is directly related to resistance to the forms of oppression and domination that were being suffered. In some ways, you can see the unfolding of that musical tradition as the reformatting of what it means to be, or what it means to reason. Kodwo Eshun talks about these “waves of reformatting” by Black radical music. 

Is there a resonance here with the notion of “the trans-umweltic,” which you discuss in the book—this idea of reflecting upon and even modifying the conditions of possibility for experience?

That term comes from Gabriel Catren, who makes this argument in his paper, “What is Ensoundment?” As we know from Kant, appearance has to do [only] with the side of something that faces us. In order to constitute a perceptual object as a phenomenon, we have to effectively imagine the other side of it. We can vary our empirical perspective on the object in order to know it from all sides, but we are still, for Kant, stuck in a certain point in transcendental space. We can’t move in transcendental space, because for Kant, this is structured by fixed a prioris. For Catren, and for many philosophers after Kant, the transcendental is not something fixed, but rather something historical and social. So the conditions of possibility for thought are in continual transformation through social, technological, and historical processes.

We can think of movement not just in empirical space, but [also] in transcendental space. You can think of varying your transcendental perspective. But of course, that’s not going to be readily possible, right? To vary your transcendental perspective, you have to alter the conditions of possibility for thinking.

By drinking a lot of kratom. 

Haha, well that’s one way. But really, Catren’s example is the invention of zero, or the invention of negative numbers. These changes to the possibility space of mathematics alter the conditions of possibility for thinking. And you could think of varying degrees of this, right? For example, the introduction of the synthesizer dramatically alters the possibility for musicking. And if we think of musicking as thinking in the way I described before, then it changes the transcendental conditions for thought. 

What do you say to somebody reading this who disagrees and says that music isn’t thought?

I’d say they have a restricted understanding of thought. I argue against the restricted understanding of reason as well. If reason is understood [based on the] exclusion [of] those who don’t reason, then it’s poorly understood. Similarly, music is poorly understood when it is construed in opposition to something posed as extra-musical, or when it is viewed in narrowly aesthetic terms. I argue for this continual process of destroying the given boundary between music and noise, or between reason and what’s excluded from it. 

In the book you write about the “ongoing collective elaboration or progressive unfurling of the limited possibility space of music.” I like this framing, but it’s not uncommon for people to say that there's nothing exciting happening in music right now. 

There certainly was a time where it felt like there was nothing radically new in music. In the late 90s and early 2000s, there was a lull in the radical transformation of music, depending on where you look. From the perspective of noise in music, it’s been really exciting since then. In the 90s, the noise music scene felt very disciplinarily excluded from other scenes and genres. Usually, the music in that scene had this very cerebral kind of form. You listened to it in awe; it wasn’t dancing music.

Towards the end of that, there was this transformation where noise went into beats and dancing. Dance music, along with other genres, also became more noisy. There was this cross-infection between genres. That’s where you have this massive unfurling of new possibility spaces: through these trans-generic mutations. 

In broad strokes, I would periodize this in terms of a distinction between modernity, post-modernity, and trans-modernity. Again, talking about Slikback, or Nyege Nyege Tapes in general—these are best understood as trans-modern forms. Fernando Zalamea talks about this quite well. You could say that modernity concerns this idea of the break and the absolute. Post-modernity had to do with relativization. Trans-modernity is this capacity to weave between the absolute and the relative, the concrete and the abstract, and so on.

In aesthetic terms, modernity introduces this European idea of dissonance and noise as a radical break with tradition. In post-modernity, you instead have an embrace of difference and a relativization of traditional forms. I think of fusions as being the characteristic form of post-modernity; effectively, it’s still under the form of European dominance, but otherness is kind of introduced into it. In trans-modernity, there’s multiple entry and exit points into and out of the modernity that has not ceased in its becoming. It’s no longer the classical form of dominance of the center over the periphery, but this articulation of the complex relations between them.

Slikback is a great example. He’s playing global bass music. There’s elements of trap music in there, and elements of gabber, and so on. But it's not subservient to the forms that it’s using. It’s taking them up as tools in a form of composition that is not beholden to the social relations that are embedded in them.

* Dynamic Systems Theory focuses on how systems develop and change over time, noting the interactions of processes at different levels, and often modeling this behavior with differential equations.

** Complexity Theory studies dynamic systems and how they are constituted by the complex, interdependent interactions of their components, which can lead to emergent or non-linear systemic behaviors.

*** Enactivism is a framework within cognitive science that posits that cognition arises through an organism’s interactions with its environment. 

**** French Gesture Theory is a term used to describe a body of philosophical thought which includes Deleuze, Lautman, Cavaillès, and Mazzola—thinkers who, in Wilkins’ words, “posit the primacy of the gestural in the constitution of space and time.”

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