chapter  1
45 Pages

The archaeology of our ears

Let us start from the very beginning of the 1960s. Foucault’s Preface for the first edition of Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (later translated as “Madness and Civilization”), from 1961, is an early text that is noteworthy from our angle. There, already, the issue of sound and hearing comes to the fore, when Foucault reflects on the basic orientation of his work in this period, and its central issues, i.e. reason and madness, their differentiation, and the historicity of these. To compare, in the actual work Madness and Civilization (Foucault 2002), sound, murmur, noise, and hearing do not come to the center of Foucault’s explicit treatment. Thus, the original Preface is a text that deserves a particularly careful scrutiny: “The necessity of madness throughout the history of the Occident is related to this gesture of decision which detaches from the background noise, and its continuous monotony, a signifying language [ … ]” (Foucault 2001a: 191, my emphasis). The background noise is something that precedes the formation of signifying language, i.e. the existence of the whole system (or any particular system) composed of signifiers and meanings/senses (of words, sentences, texts, etc.). It precedes the whole set of determinations through which signifying language is formed, and also, through which it is separated from what is non-signifying, or nonsense. This same division is also what gives birth to reason (associated with signification), and madness (associated with what is non-signifying) (ibid.: 187-94). Thus, Foucault (ibid.) evokes “noise” to characterize what precedes this

fundamental divide of Western culture and society. The continuity, the “continuous monotony” of noise means that everything is still entangled too tightly, that all the sounds are still “implicated in a confused way” (ibid.: 188, my emphasis) with one another. The negativities-all the divisions, separations, refusals, and exclusions that constitute signifying language and “sense,” together with its opposite (or its “other”), nonsense and madness-are not yet, or no longer established. Although noise may be continuous and monotonous, we should not think

of it as stable, or unmoving. On the contrary, noise consists of events of

interactions, exchanges, and communications, taking place between sounds, between imperfectly constituted words, as well as between the realms of sense and nonsense, reason and madness. It is this movement of exchange and intertwinement, which is continuous, i.e. it takes place incessantly, and is characterized by the suspension (not yet, no longer) of the distinctive (discontinuous) identities. The continuity of noise can also be understood by the incessant arrival and passing away of elements, of sounds, i.e. the continuity of their withering away as soon as they appear. All the signifiers, all the words, all the signs, all utterances are left imperfect in their form, precisely because they disappear “too quickly,” without attaining any fixity, left indeterminate (ibid.: 187-94). In the noise, sounds are “collapsing before having reached all formulation, and returning without glamour into silence (ibid.: 191, my emphasis).” The divisions do not come from the outside (from some transcendent

origin of order) to “cut” and organize the continuity of noise into distinctive elements and domains. Noise itself is the event (the multiplicity of events), or, as Foucault also calls it in the 1961 Preface, the gesture and decision of partitioning, division, separation, and refusal. It is in noise that “the man of madness, and the man of reason, separating themselves, are not yet separate” (ibid.: 188). Or, in the same light, noise or murmur offers us the “undifferentiated experience, the non-partitioned experience of partitioning as such” (ibid.: 187, my emphasis). Noise gives us an experience of incomplete splitting apart in the course of its happening, which is still also an unfinished confrontation with no teleological certainty concerning its direction and outcome (ibid.: 187-94). From this basis, Foucault (ibid.: 191) can suggest that the noise, murmur,

and stutter are the “charred root of sense.” This root is silenced, muffled, and forgotten inside the already fixed and established order of signification, reason, and madness. It is, indeed, akin to “cinder,” precisely because it is not a solid origin, or a foundation; because it is neither a subject, nor an object; because it is only the movement of non-distinctive particles. By characterizing the root of language as noise, Foucault also underlines that language does not originate in the speaking subject and its activities, and that language does not come back to the model of intersubjective communication. As noise, or murmur, the root of language is anonymous: “the obstinate murmur of a language that would speak all alone-without speaking subject and without interlocutor, subsiding on itself” (ibid.: my emphasis). Although Foucault stresses that noise is something preceding the division

between madness and reason, he also ponders on another possible approach to the issue. Could we think of madness not in terms of the cultural, social, and discursive partitions, i.e. as a domain separated from the area of reason, sense, and signification, but instead, in a more primary sense? In this more primary sense, madness would be discovered in the noise and murmur as such. Then, we would be dealing with madness that is still “vivid,” still in

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a “savage state,” before it has been captured, given determinate identity, and “tamed” by psychiatry, or any other regime of knowledge. As this more primary madness belongs inseparably together with the anonymous noise and murmur, we should “prick up our ears,” i.e. practice an art of listening, in order to hear it: “History, not of psychiatry, but of madness itself, in its vividness, before all capture by knowledge. One should, thus, prick up one’s ears, lean over towards that mumbling of the world [ … ]” (ibid.: 192, my emphasis). However, Foucault quickly adds that such a task of immediately perceiving madness in its savage state, and of writing its history, is an impossible one. First, this is so simply because of the evanescence of the noises. Second, it is impossible because our perception, and also our enunciations, belong necessarily to a world which has already captured the noises/madness (ibid.). Yet, affirming this impossibility does not imply any cynical renouncement.

What still remains open is the “mediated” attempt to “bring to the surface of the language of reason” (ibid.: 194) the noises of madness, and as a result, to remind reason and signifying language of the common descent they share with their “other.” This is, then, the task of archaeology. When Foucault describes archaeology in this fashion, it actually resembles an artistic experimentation with language creation, more than historiography in its established, academic forms. Especially, the endeavor to bring the noises of madness to “resound” at the surface of reasonable language, reminds us of the manner in which young Nietzsche once characterized tragedy, i.e. as “musicalization” of language, through which the Dionysian rapture comes to be manifested through words and concepts: