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Images et musées


Lisa Robertson
p. 409-418

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The agora in time became an indiscriminate container... The fourth century Greek poet Eubolus observed that: 'You will find everything sold together in the same place at Athens: figs, witnesses to summonses, bunches of grapes, turnips, pears, apples, givers of evidence, roses, medlars, porridge, honeycombs, chick-peas, law suits allotment machines, irises, lamps, water clocks, laws, indictments'.
Lewis Mumford, The City in History.
On ne parle pas seulement de ce qu’on sait, comme pour en faire étalage,—mais aussi de ce qu’on ne sait pas, pour le savoir.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l’invisible.

Callings and market-stalls

1I wanted the present to be an ideal library, or I wanted it to be an agora—total availability of the entire thick history of linguistic conviviality and the potential to be at any moment completely lost in the strangeness of the human description.

2Duration’s artifacts are indiscriminate: the present is disquiet. Law will not be separated out from food; clocks will turn against medlars; irises will be in with lamps. Thus the difficulty and thus the erotic, mixed in the same place.

3The present is the encompassing element; in the city more-so. I’ll define city as a peopled-through sensing. Sometimes I think that the entire history of perceiving is encoded in a city. It’s encoded in noise, in cloth, in the baths, in stray animals. Noise gives the listener duration as an artifact.

4I mean something quite banal. What I am calling noise is the multiply layered sonic indeterminacy that is the average, fluctuating milieu of dailiness. Here noise does not necessarily pertain to amplitude and intensity, although it might. Using the word noise I want to gingerly approach the irregular and constant fabric of sounding that fluctuates through any given and situated present. Noise is and isn’t composed; the listener can isolate within its environment individual sounds of various origins, identifiable or not, but no intention or unity structures their overall combination even though that combination has been conditioned by various natural and social factors. Noise is the unwilled surplus produced by the temporal indetermination of conditions and practices in co-movement. Noise has a shape as weather has a shape—we may measure it, but its movements extend beyond causation in any singular sense. Noise exceeds its own identity. It is the extreme of difference. Noise is the non-knowledge of meaning, the by-product of economies.

5I like to walk in the city and I prefer to be lost. As Rousseau did in certain of his Promenades, I’d like to dissolve into the diffuse perceiving of a multiplicity. It’s a pleasure to submit to arbitrary directives, to let something outside of one’s person determine a route and a mode. So I have, in my walks in Paris, submitted to Rousseau, taking his Reveries of a Solitary Walker as Baedecker, crossing the entire city eastwards, from la Bourse to Ménilmontant, or I have followed the ancient industrial river Bièvre, covered over since Haussman’s activities, southeast as far as the outside thirteenth arrondissement, pausing to listen at drainage grates for its underground movement.

6Having walked with Rousseau and an absent river, I decided to follow Eugene Atget. As Rousseau had botanized as he walked, carrying with him his volume of Linnaeus and gathering fragile herbs in his pockets, I would move through the city with my small volume of Atget’s photographs and my digital recorder, collecting my own specimens. I had wanted to pay simple homage to the combined humbleness and ambition of the photographer of old Paris by visiting the contemporary sites of his photographs with my recording apparatus. I decided to systematically make short recordings of the sound that I heard at the sites I located. His exposures, I read, were typically counted to 30 seconds; for my sound exposures I imitated him. I would walk, I would listen and I would count. I began because I wanted to make a constraint-based description of the present, using as the terms of my constraint these historical photographs and an idea I had of their maker. I inadvertently embarked on a study of noise. This is its prosody.


7Unlike Atget, I didn’t rise at dawn to make my civic documents in the first light of day. This could be how I discovered the luxury of noise. Mornings I read philosophy purely for intensity and pleasure; I don’t set out to contribute to any of the debates or movements within the profession. And I read also as I walk—in order to drift in the density of someone else’s intention and knowledge. So although I began my excursions meaning to mimic and shadow Atget’s own intentions and routes, in my own 30 second exposures what I found was a plenum of movement. I habitually ventured out in early afternoon, in the full economy of day, so I would never hear a clarity; the sound would not become an image. No figure would emerge. The city became random soundfield and I was not a figure either, not separate from field. Listening enmeshed me.

8I walked from sleep to philosophy to noise. I couldn’t stop receiving the city. Noise opened to movement. My skin was not a barrier. I carried kinds of sound further into the present. Everything transmitted. For a moment I gave myself to only the supple layers of movement, which were like planes extending within perceiving. I walked within duration. I felt the extreme fragility of time in tandem with the inexperience of my attention. It was like this: an archive of sounding.

9When I began my recording walks what I knew of Atget was that he had been a failed actor and painter. In the middle of his life he came to Paris and set up as a photographer. He decided to photograph picturesque corners and architectural and decorative details of the city, and he gathered an archive of photographic documents he would offer for sale to editors, painters, architects, builders, illustrators, cabinetmakers, set decorators and other artists and artisans. The enterprise was successful as a business. A heritage sensibility was institutionally founding itself in Paris, as the excavations for the new metro began. Recalling the loss of neighbourhoods and buildings to Hausmann’s rationalization of the city, museum and library archivists sought to document a cleansed vision of an old Paris before it was further destroyed. Atget found in this organized nostalgia a reliable economy. Eventually an album of his documents was purchased by the Musée Carnavalet, and over time he sold several such large manila albums to various museums and archives. The Bibliothèque Nationale eventually became his steady customer. In these albums he organized, captioned and composed his images by theme—L’Art dans le Vieux Paris, Intérieurs parisiens, La Voiture à Paris, Métiers, Boutiques et étalages de Paris, Enseignes et vielles boutiques à Paris, Zoniers, and Fortifications de Paris. Molly Nesbit discusses these collations at length in her book Atget’s Seven Albums, describing how Atget persuasively presented his photographs as social concepts—borders, edge conditions, minor economies, the margins of the architectural city and of social life were set in critical sequence. The Surrealists, by chance his neighbours in Montparnasse, attempted to annex his work to their aesthetic project in the 1930s; although Atget sold them an image that they used on the cover of La Révolution Surréaliste, when they wanted to name him and draw him into their project he would have nothing of it, insisting he was not an artist, that he simply made documents. The young American Bernice Abbott knew him late in his life, and it was Abbott who, after his death, organized and curated the first exhibitions of his work. The only photograph of Atget that I’ve seen was taken by her: frail yet monumental in the folds of his great stiff coat, he sits in studio profile. The photographs he took of his own flat and studio show modest, comfortable, and intensely ordered rooms filled entirely with books, prints, and other tools. He was a great reader of Zola and he was radically socialist in his politics.

10His work could be placed alongside that of his contemporaries, Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg: like each of them, he undertook a long and methodical indexical labour, returning repeatedly and circularly over decades to his sites and his theme to compile a sprawling catalogue of gestural transience and dust. His attraction was to the minor, the populist, the temporal, the overlooked. Unlike Warburg and Benjamin, he was self-taught, and of extremely limited resources. He had his need to make a living, his camera, his glass photographic plates and his discipline. He walked Paris thoroughly. I wanted to follow him. For me the often tedious work of making a systematic record over time, of pausing and moving through the streets in ragged rhythms, of attending to the recording equipment, attempting to shield the microphone from the weather while focusing serially on the most extraneous details of the city, had the effect of loosening self-identity. Wearing my headphone monitors with coiled wire leading to my shoulder bag, microphone in one hand, pocket volume of Atget in the other, I begin to feel like a wandering perceiving organ that belongs to the city, rather than to any autobiography. I find the site, take my stance, press record, begin to count to 30 and I replace myself with the intricate density of the city’s noise. I become a plenum, not a singular. Atget’s images led me to the indiscriminate edges of sound.

11Because I counted as I recorded, I was brought to the concept of prosody. The opacity of noise or the body or the city is meted out with a counting; next materiality fails or exceeds its measure. Listening struggles expectantly towards a pattern—it is the fact of both language acquisition and music. In noise the listener finds rhythms, but they are discontinuous. A lurching, a jarring, a staccato surge, a blockage, a meandring, a too-brief alignment: the prosody of noise parses a discomfort that uncovers, in its unstable caesura, the fact of our material fragility. The prosody of noise will not banish that fragility, but will accompany it. This arrhythmia, this enjambment, is what one is—discordant temporality. Enjambment is the counter-rhythmic pause within the counted sequence. It knows that the temporal unit is sprung on the refusal of the regularization of time, which must remain situated in the body, as the body’s specificity. The prosody of noise returns discordance to time. What it shows: temporality as replete discordance, not staunched, but meted out to no equivalence.

12Disputations and material ranks, aetherialization, alarms, numbers, expropriations, violence, the burning and wresting of commodities—by this nearness of conversation and conversion the thickness of the entire accumulated history of representation is threaded on an incandescent and erotic duration. Here I use the word erotic as a way of touching upon the expectant unknowability of an apparently passive act of reception. There is a psychic and physiological pleasure in the choice of a bodily immersion in the materiality of this uncontrollable outside within a focused listening. One becomes a subject in the barest sense: the coordinated perception of and response to temporal specificity.

City walls

13As the city is not the opposite of the country, noise is not the opposite of silence. Noise interrupts the binary organization of sound as meaningful figure and its supportive field. At the same time the binary figure/ground analogy is a dominant trope within a representational tradition, which would include the history of the western city’s formation and self-identity (and I’d consider too that the city itself is a representation—a thick, situated representation of kinds of social, symbolic and cultural exchange). Raymond Williams describes and disarticulates the ideological functions of such a representational dialectic in The Country and the City. In an appendix to this book, he supplies the etymology of the word "country" as contra, meaning against or opposite, referring to the "land spread out over against the observer" (Williams 307). "Country" was used in this way, in spatial and perspectival opposition to the word "city", since the rise of urban capitalism in the Renaissance, and in its contemporary aesthetic sense—a place of traditional pastoral quietude—since the 18th- and 19th-century industrialization of the landscape. Says Williams:

[t]he division and opposition of city and country, industry and agriculture, in their modern forms, are the critical culmination of the division and specialization of labour which, though it did not begin with capitalism, was developed under it to an extraordinary and transforming degree. Other forms of the same fundamental division are the separation between mental and manual labour, between administration and operation, between politics and social life. The symptoms of this division can be found at every point in what is now our common life. (Williams 304-5)

14In this figure/field dialectic, the country acts as the stable field of tradition, both in terms of values and practices, against which the city can appear as active, often modernizing, figure. But for Williams the economic rationalism of the city itself produces, symbolically and economically, the nostalgic concept of the country; each trope depends upon the other in an integrated ratio. I am arguing here that the aesthetic, economic and social division between noise and silence, or between noise and productive, symbolically integrated sound, is one more expression of the rationalization of lived sensual space, and that this division docs not express the embeddedness of the two concepts, noise and silence, nor their profoundly implicated relationship. Already the placement of noise and silence in a binary relation is misleading: it would be more precise to consider sound and silence are two parts of the same positive figure of fully integrated sonic symbolic. Noise falls outside this positively figured meaning system, troubling and disfiguring its totality. Beyond the notion of intertwining, a third concept intervenes. Again we hear the disquiet agora.

Decorative work

15Noise is a confusion of figure and field. It presents no discernible figure of meaning. It is not silence’s opposite, but an outside, mutating term. In a way it is the double of silence, with this difference: silence’s indiscernibility is more often institutionally codified and mystified as value—whether spiritual, punitive or economic. Money, Justice and Gods buy silence. The objects of exchangeability and value can then appear as figure on silence’s supporting field, and exchangeability has also its correspondent, communicative sound-objects. From the perspective of these systems of silence, value and meaning, Noise belongs to poverty and the failure of value. Noise is pollutant, a sign of the wasteful expenditure of unused energy. Noise is inefficient. Like garbage it has no meaning at the same time that it signifies an excess of signification; meaning becomes so dense and continuous that it transforms into field, having previously functioned as figure. In noise meaning has de-coalesced.

16An unknowing expands within noise but it feels convivial.

17Noise suspends itself: a thick and tactile curtain, a temporal fabric composed of tiny sub-cognitive movements that function below the spectrum of recognition and outside the range of rational signification, but not outside of time. Noise is the historicity of non-meaning.

18Noise does fold, in Deleuze’s, and Liebnitz’s sense. A gathered density of inconspicuous perceptions (as waves to oceans, or crashings to forest), noise is the obscure differential relation within the ordinary, the habitual, the unremarkable auditory plenum. Within noise the listener might choose to cognitively battle the non-logic of perception, or she could submit to the lack of discernibility. Noise doesn’t cohere with the figural self-identity of meaning; it distributes sound as non-identity. This distributive movement is extensive, not intensive, leading the listener outwards to a worldly and abundantly shared incongruity. In noise, the remarkable obscurity of the ordinary becomes a medium. Deleuze’s baroque fold offers a model for thinking about the proliferative sensual perception of an incipient incoherence, a perceiving that is not dependent on the figure/ground dialectic:

Tiny perceptions are as much the passage from one perception to another as they are components of each perception. They constitute the animal or animated state par excellence: disquiet. These are 'pricklings', or little foldings that are no less present in pleasure than in pain. The pricklings are the representative of the world in the closed monad. The animal that anxiously looks about, or the soul that watches out, signify that there exist minute perceptions that are not integrated into the preceding one and that nourish the one that comes along (so it was that!). (Deleuze 87)

19In Deleuze’s description, perceiving doesn’t halt or rest at point of figural stability. Perception moves: it is movement, where movement observes no distinctions between inside and outside, figure and field, since indeed, for waves or vibrations there are no such distinctions. What is non-integrated is none-the-less unfigurably necessary to the movement of changing. The incipient movement of sound is a-structural, a-systemic. This non-integration of noise into a meaning-laden structure or convention of perception is also what permits noise to bathe the listener in potential, in the very obscure and indiscernible agency of the present as uncoordinated disquietude. No privileged point of view can provide a coordinating vantage. The fold of noise is purely external, purely uncertain, and purely present, and it ripples through the listener. Noise is time’s excess. It indicates our own bodily opacity.


20In his book Soundscapes, composer and ambient recording pioneer R. Murray Schafer says that "[h]earing and touch meet where the lower frequencies of audible sound pass over to tactile vibrations (at about 20 hertz)" (Schafer 1998, 11). Twenty hertz is below the threshold of hearing, but in the range of vibration sensitivity. Chest cavity, palms, and soles are particularly receptive. We listen to infrasound through our feet and our hands. This average and vague receiving, this average corporal immersion in a bath of sound, either audible or tactile or both, is what I’d like to describe and present because it constitutes the shared rhythm of the political. We city dwellers constantly bathe in the folds of non-communicating noise and this is also the polis.

21Noise permits the subject’s sense of interiority to figure as silence at the same time that it constitutes the outer limits of that interiority in terms of the tactile. This limiting founds and unfounds itself rhythmically, so that we feel time as a sensing.

22In the city I try to think with rather than against the ambient vernacular. Chaotically edgy and at first seeming arbitrary, and so destabilizing, I could follow the unraveling of meaningful or symbolic sound into noise as movement outwards. Instead of conceptualizing noise as blockage, negativity or detriment, something privative to be banished from the cherished peace of interiority, I’d like to frame noise, present it, so that its sounding reveals also its intimate structure, its micro-surface of folds, and the continuation of these folds into our bodies. The urban experience of being in noise brings the frictive relation of bodies to economics right into perception.

23What an economy rejects we call garbage; what it represents we call value. Both are kinds of waste. Pollution-behaviour ritualizes economic belief and behavioural systems. Non-contributing environmental traits and corporalities are expunged to an non-ethical outside. Disease, animals, foreigners, garbage, non-conforming sexuality and so forth, once ejected, traditionally emphasize the structural identity of the centre. This has been the most basic gestural trope in the consolidation of authority and continuity in the western city. Sound too has entered this civic figuration trope. The legal categorization and treatment of some sound as pollution is a recent behaviour. The behaviour can be traced to new regulatory protocols in the 19th-century city, and the advent of noise by-laws: on the one hand pedlars, hawkers, rag pickers, street musicians, prostitutes and other wanderers from the centralizing capitalist economy were silenced with new civic ordinances. On the other hand mechanized factory din was confined to labouring class quarters. In the 1960s the vocabulary of ecology entered the soundscape as a privative expression. The concept of noise pollution suggested that the city had a natural balance, a natural sonic state, and this balance would refer nostalgically to a previous stage or era of civic economy. If the 1960s were the beginning of global capital, the sonic "health" of the western city would not reflect the movements and dislocations of people and resources, the escalating cycles of consumption and waste, the hoarding of profit. The active sonic traces of this new economy would be cast in terms of pollution, and the identities of western cities would wishfully gather themselves around the carefully preserved and mythologized artifacts of previous economies. The concept of sound pollution ironically functioned to camouflage the concentration of new capital.

Old signs

24R. Murray Schafer’s World Soundscape Project was a Canadian ambient sound research group that included among its members composers (Schafer himself and Hildegarde Westencamp), poets (Peter Huse, Brian Fawcett), and communications theorists (Barry Truax). They began their work in the early 1970s and were based in Vancouver at the then-new Simon Fraser University. The WSP, with their portable recording equipment—at that time reel-to-reel—set out to systematically record, first in the city of Vancouver, then elsewhere, especially in villages and cities of Europe, what they called signature sound-objects, place-specific but threatened sound specimens which expressed the uniquely situated sonic traditions of communities. Examples might include echoes, squeaks and other sound qualities transmitted by vernacular stone or wood construction and paving, and the signifying sounds of animals, weather, clocks, bells, hunting horns, postmen’s whistles, handpumps, millwheels, tramcars and so forth. The project developed in response to the 1960s mounting discourse about "noise pollution"—a soundscape which could be characterized by the globally blanketing and non-specific droning sounds of late capitalism—motors of airplanes, cars, air-conditioners, lawnmowers and other similarly powered mass produced tools and vehicles, all to be curtailed with noise by-laws and sound mitigation planning (Canadian poet Peter Culley refers to the current era as the Age of Briggs and Stratton, the largest manufacturer of the two-stroke engine). Generally, "noise pollution" was judged by Schafer to have replaced or endangered local high fidelity differentiated sound traditions exhibiting clear figure-ground relations with a low fidelity unending and blanketing drone. Noise pollution destabilizes the figure/field structure of the soundscape, where individual sounds specifically communicate meanings with heritage identities. The work of the world soundscape recordists was a preservationist and anthropological practice of acoustic ecology (the term is of their own coinage) directing positive listening attention towards remaining desirable hi-fi and often mechanical sounds of the 19th century, and preserving these as an archive of lost or endangered figure-ground sound relationships. As acoustic ecologists they performed an important pedagogical role in a reclamation and articulation of listening as an interpretive and productive socio-aesthetic practice. They insisted on thinking about sound as one component of a broader social, economic and psychological system of affect. My feelings about their work are interestedly ambivalent. They were Botanists of the sensorium, intrepidly combing deepest Europe for fugitive samples of a lapsed authenticity to bring home to the new world’s universities and studios. I follow them with combined gratitude and disbelief.

25The WSP’s acoustic ecology can be interpreted as an incipient audio analogy to the professionalization of city planning. Nostalgia-based urban planning concepts of architectural heritage, inner city regeneration and neighbourhood preservation responded to the high modernist urban rationalism of the 1960s, which had resulted in the emptying of city centres, the parsing of old cities by freeways, and the hygienic clearing of small industry and pre-modern living conditions from urban neighborhoods. The WSP’s acoustic ecology sought to return to and preserve what they sensibly theorized as a more livable and human-scaled soundscape. For them the record and preservation of clear figure/ground sonic relationships would contribute to a continuity of tradition-based human meaning, and by extension, individual psychological health. But the concept of acoustic ecology, I am arguing, was a direct expression of late capitalism’s division not only of labour but of labourer from consumer. The din and racket of resource extraction and manufacture was sent out to an anarchically polluted and polluting productive beyond—Mexico, China, the oil-rich sub-arctic of Canada—while the freely circulating consumer of the North American or European city was to enjoy a healthful, hi-fidelity noise-free symbolically authentic soundscape. The old cities of the West, cleansed and preserved, were to harbour clean exchange, not least of which would be the privileged exchange of tourism.

26The basic constituting gesture of the western city is expulsion. We rid the bounded site of what we next configure as danger, pollutant, threat to the self-identifying community. The efficiency of the expulsing gesture has demonstrated itself: the means of living are what are extracted or wrested from an elsewhere, and brought apparently cleansed into the agora, in order to be exchanged for the stance and insignia of authority. It interests me to record signs of the failure of this hygiene.

27We know that however thoroughly policed and legislated such a system is, it is never totalized. Migrants slip through borders, illegal or sub-legal economies proliferate, or the central economy suddenly reveals its own illegality. In spite of dominant intentions, movement doesn’t stop. The city does not ever become a static image of its own nostalgia, because some movement will always be indeterminant. Centrally defined limits and products are misused, transgressed. These border practices take place on a deeply layered and concentrated history of related counter-activity. To be in the city is also to be in the ancient habitus of refusal and resistance. Bodies assert their incalculable drives. Noise is made. It is the present.

28I too wanted to make a record of the present. But unlike the WSP, I was not looking for sound objects that distinctly represented and captured figural remnants of heritage lifeways and economic nostalgia. I wanted to represent the city as digressional, not causal; as ephemeral, not monumental; as commodious, not commodity. I wanted a record of the break-down of exchangeability, propriety, and borders I heard acting within noise. I would record what was already there—cacophony. Within its habitus I feel the extreme fragility of time, in tandem with the inexperience of my attention. Listening extends into non-identity, the danger-zone bordering the institutions of meaning’s exchangeability. Maybe I could offer some plots of noise as the inconspicuous descriptions of a civic thinking. Such inconspicuousness is the necessary non-separation of perceiving from thinking, of figure from ground, of economies from bodies. What is initially at hand? The present in its complete and necessary sonic density is here the site of an average beginning that goes nowhere, a beginning that stays with itself, that stays with materiality as the proliferative folding of perception into an always unstable environment. But a retreat into the present’s inconspicuousness is not asocial; thinking moves in the replete temporality of other thinkers, listening moves among other listeners, continuing on paths others have taken. This is a present also. The privative concept indicates that what is there for thinking will not appear as an object. Listening or thinking moves in the thickness of what has been banished from identity: it moves in noise.

Edge Dwellers

29The counting stops. The prosody of disquiet will have always failed disquietude. Within this immodest failure, the world, worldliness, survives, entirely provisional and improvisatory. Noise is a survival, a living on and within the potential of an unstaunched corporality, the affective site of the migration of perception to an outside always in disequilibrium, as economies and identities and bodies are in uncontrollable disequilibrium. Again, noise is a moving survival. It shapes the collective body as replete historical potential, signifying for nothing. I arrive at its manifesto.

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Culley, Peter, The Age of Briggs and Stratton, Vancouver: New Star Books, 2008.

Deleuze, Gilles, The Fold: Liebniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Douglas, Mary, Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

duBois, Page, Centaurs and Amazons: Women and the Prehistory of the Great Chain of Being, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alfonso Lingis, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Meschonnic, Henri, La Rime et la vie, Paris: Gallimard, 2006.

Mumford, Lewis, The City in History, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

Nesbit, Molly, Atget’s Seven Albums, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Schafer, Murray ed., European Sound Diary (n° 3, "The Music of the Environment Series", World Soundscape Project), Vancouver: ARC Publications, 1977.

Schafer, Murray, The Tuning of the World (The Soundscape), Indiana River, Ontario: Arcana Editions, 1998.

Williams, Raymond, The Country and The City, London: Chatto and Windus, 1973.

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Bibliographical reference

Lisa Robertson, “Disquiet”Caliban, 25 | 2009, 409-418.

Electronic reference

Lisa Robertson, “Disquiet”Caliban [Online], 25 | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 10 December 2023. URL:

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About the author

Lisa Robertson

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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