Nicolás Kisic Aguirre (SMACT ’18): Broadcasting Matter Out of Place

Nicolás Kisic Aguirre, Final Review Documentation 2018. Photo: Ostin Zarse
ACT at MIT

Final Review, Spring 2018
Nicolás Kisic Aguirre

Learning about social and cultural anthropology I came across Mary Douglas’ assertion on defining dirt as “matter out of place”. In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), she writes:

As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder. If we shun dirt, it is not because of craven fear, still less dread of holy terror. Nor do our ideas about disease account for the range of our behavior in cleaning or avoiding dirt. Dirt offends against order. (2)

If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity. (36)

Years after I encountered Mary Douglas’ perspectives, I started working with sound. Only recently, since I had been working particularly with noise, I found myself in the need of understanding it better. Defining noise rapidly related to the definition of dirt as “matter out of place”. I even thought I had been enlightened by a link that no one had ever thought about in the history of knowledge, but I was surprised to learn that, according to Hugh Pickering and Tom Rice in “Noise as ‘Sound Out of Place’: Investigating the Links Between Mary Douglas’ Work on Dirt and Sound Studies Research” had already explored the association. Moreover, they write: “Indeed, when reading the literature, it is striking just how often this appropriation of Douglas’ famous line takes place.” Pickering and Rice then link this definition to some 15 scholars that both explicitly and implicitly have assumed a similar approach.

I clearly was not the first to make the connection. However, it is relevant to my work, and I shall continue to understand noise as “matter out of place.” And I shall continue to borrow from Pickering and Rice’s suggestions:

Each of Douglas’ theoretical points about dirt can be applied to noise. …Whilst dirt, excrement, violence, and crime can all be ‘shut out’ both literally and figuratively by the closing of a door, noise has the unique power to penetrate. What noise symbolizes in the wider discourse remains roughly the same: it is disorder, rebellion, instability, and contravention of the expected (or dominant) order… In short, to be quiet is to be good, to agree to cherished classifications, to uphold the sonic and social order and to follow accepted ways of being. To be noisy is to be bad, to disregard convention, and to confuse or ignore classifications and have different and unacceptable ways of being. Noise, far more than just “sound out of place,” is indicative of an entire moral system.

Rather than thinking of noise as similar or equivalent to dirt, we should instead say that noise is dirt, an aural type of pollution. Thinking about noise in this way heightens our consciousness of noise as a charged and challenging presence. If we see noise as dirt/pollution in the Douglassian sense, then we can appreciate with more immediacy the revulsion, fear, and danger which noise can evoke as well as the potential it holds as a creative force for use in acts of deliberate aesthetic and social transgression.”

To broadcast is to scatter: to squander, to dissipate, to disperse in many directions. In relation to seeds, broadcasting refers to a specific agricultural or gardening technique of dispersing seeds by hand to the soil. It is ultimately an exercise of biological distribution, and an aid to the survival of a specific species. As with the wind, broadcasting brings life from an origin to a new origin. In communications, starting in the early 20th century broadcasting referred to a one-to-many model of distribution of information, as opposed to a one-to-one system. Broadcasting creates a connection between the thing, group, or individual in charge of the emission of the signal and a “general public”, on the side of the reception. With audio, sound waves constantly broadcast messages in different levels of complexity, ranging from the basic relation between an object and its movement to complex communications using language and other codes. To broadcast noise is to broadcast matter out of place. But out of place for whom? To broadcast noise is to question, to deliver new possibilities, to irritate who needs to be interrupted and to ask for openness to potential allies.

Broadcasting is related to radio. Radio is connected to its Latin root radius, the straight line linking the center of a circle and its circumference. Radius has also been associated to ‘radix’, translated ‘root’ from Latin. Radix is linked also to radical: going to the root or origin, or advocate of radical change. In both cases there is a sense of a center point, an origin from which further consequences are drawn. Radio is both the signal and the numerous circles that are created around it in physical, social and cultural terms. Radio is fundamentally radical. Broadcasting is fundamentally radical. Noise is fundamentally radical. Dirt is fundamentally radical.

 

References:

Pickering, H., & Rice, T. (2017). Noise as “Sound out of Place”: Investigating the Links Between Mary Douglas’ Work on Dirt and Sound Studies Research. Journal of Sonic Studies, 14.

Schrijver, P. (2003). The Reflexes of the Proto-Indo- European Laryngeals in Latin. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Hoad, T. F. (1986). The Concise Oxford dictionary of English etymology. Oxford: Oxford/Clarendon Press.

Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. New York: Praeger.