Noise and Affect Theory (Marie Thompson)

April 12, 2024 | 48:36

Feminist sound scholar and musician Marie Thompson is a theorist of noise. She has also been one of the key thinkers in integrating the study of sound with the study of affect. Dr. Thompson is Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at the Open University in the UK. She is the author of Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect, and Aesthetic Moralism (Bloomsbury, 2017) and the co-editor of Sound, Music, Affect: Theorizing Sonic Experience (Bloomsbury, 2013). She has developed Open University courses on topics such as Dolly Parton and Dub sound systems.

For Part 2 of this interview, which focuses on tinnitus, join our Patreon for free:

Staring around the early 2000s, a number of scholars began to feel there was a tool missing in the toolbox of cultural scholarship. We had plenty of ways to talk about ideology and representation and rhetoric and identity, but what about sensation? How is it that a feeling like joy or panic can sweep through a room without a word being uttered? By what mechanism does a life develop a kind of texture of feeling over time? Affect studies is field interested in these questions, interested in how the world affects us. Words can produce affective states, but affect isn’t reducible to words. So, it’s easy to see why affect theory has been so attractive to sound and music scholars. 

Noise is a notorious concept that means different things different people. In this conversation, Marie Thompson examines noise through the affect theory of Gilles Deleuze and Baruch Spinoza as well as the systems theory of Michel Serres. We’ll also talk about her critique of acoustic ecology and a rather public debate she had with sound scholar Christoph Cox.

And this is only the first half of our lengthy conversation. In a bonus episode, we present Part 2, which discusses Marie Thompson’s recent research on tinnitus and hearing loss. And because we’ve heard from people who find our tinnitus content helpful, we don’t want to put that behind a paywall, so we’re sharing it in our Patreon feed at the free level. All you have to do is go to and sign up as a free member and you’ll instantly get access to that episode in your podcast app of choice, as well as other content we plan to drop this summer when we are on break with the podcast.

Photo credit: Alexander Tengman


Robotic Voice  00:00

This is Phantom Power

Marie Thompson  00:16

And this is difficult given the habits of the discipline or disciplines that I’m engaging with, I think that we can’t point to a particular set of sounds as inherently emancipatory or radical or having a kind of liberating potential, there’s a need to think carefully about that.

Mack Hagood  00:39

Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power. I’m Mack Hagood. Today I’m bringing you an episode with a scholar who I feel is just an intellectual kindred spirit. We have a lot of the same interests. We’ve written on similar topics and she’s someone that I’ve learned a lot from. My guest is Marie Thompson, Associate Professor at the Open University in the UK. Marie is a theorist of noise, and she has been one of the key thinkers in integrating the study of sound. With the study of affect.

Starting around the early 2000s, a number of scholars began to feel there was a tool missing in the toolbox of cultural scholarship. We had plenty of ways to talk about ideology, representation and rhetoric and identity. But what about sensation? How is it that a feeling like joy or panic can sweep through a room without a word being uttered? By what mechanism does life develop a kind of texture, or a feeling over time? Affects studies is a field interested in these questions interested in how the world affects us. Words can produce affective states, but an affect isn’t reducible to words. 

So I think it’s easy to see why  affect theory has been so attractive to sound and music scholars. And Marie Thompson’s work has used an affect as a tool to pick out one of the densest theoretical knots in sound studies. Noise. Noise is a notorious concept that means so many different things to so many different people. And in this conversation, Marie examines noise through the effect theory of Gilles Deleuze, and Baruch Spinoza, as well as the systems theory of Michel ser. And we’re going to talk about her critique of acoustic ecology and a rather public debate she had with sound scholar, Christoph Cox. And if you don’t know what any of that means, just hang tight, we’re going to break it down. 

And this is only the first half of our lengthy conversation that I’m presenting in this episode. In the second half, we discuss Marie’s recent research on tinnitus. I’ve heard from several people who find our tinnitus content really helpful. And I don’t want to put that behind a paywall. So what I’m going to do is share it in our Patreon feed at the free level. So all you have to do is go to power and sign up as a free member, you’ll get access to that episode in your podcast app of choice, as well as other content that I plan to drop this summer when we are on break with the podcast. So that’s at power. 

So how does one become a respected theorist of noise? Perhaps unsurprisingly, for Marie Thompson. It started with a love of edgy music, where we grew up in the south of England in Kent. It was a pretty slow life there, there was the seaside and the countryside. But it wasn’t the most exciting place to be a teenager interested in esoteric music. If she wanted to go to a show in London, it took her nearly three hours to get back by train that night. It wasn’t until Marie was an undergrad at the University of Liverpool, that she was truly able to immerse herself in music.

Marie Thompson  04:10

It was the degree in music and popular music or there was a slash separating them. So I ended up having this education that was a bit of a mixed bag, in terms of I was learning stuff from popular music studies, but I was also learning, I guess, the kind of more traditional capital M music of a university department, but I had the great fortune of studying composition with a composer called James Wishart. And I think his influence was really formative. His work really had this modernist intensity and I was already interested in music at its limits and quite intense. And I don’t want to say difficult music because that sounds obnoxious, but, you know, kind of noisy and tombery music with quite a complex Tambora. 

My background was as an oboist as well, and you know, I kind of think the oboe is an instrument that draws you to both tambura and limits. It’s an instrument that lights, keeping life difficult. So I was studying with James who was opening up the sound world to me. But I was also taking classes with people like Anahita Serbian, who was really formative for my thinking about sound and affect. And I was also playing in bands, you know, Liverpool, at the time had a really vibrant underground music scene, which was also contributing to my education. 

I feel like that moment, I say, moment, you know, it was three, four years, but was formative in ways that I’m only just starting to really understand now I think, now that I can look back and see those connections. But yeah, like playing in bands playing sort of loud dissonant music and bands, plus having this education and quite what was at the time quite an unusual music department in that it was quite expansive, to its approach to music. It wasn’t all sort of historical musicology, not that there’s anything wrong with historical musicology. But it wasn’t just that it was quite expansive in what it was trying to do within the rubric of music. And yeah, I think that set me up for thinking about sound more broadly in some of the ways that I tried to.

Mack Hagood  06:34

So Marie was studying composition with James Wishart, she was also studying with an Anahid Kassabian, who, at the time, was doing research on sound and an affect, which would become her book, Ubiquitous Listening. And Marie was playing in noisy bands by night, she was hooked. And so she immediately applied to graduate school.

Marie Thompson  06:57

I did a PhD at Newcastle University, and I was in the music department there. And again, the music department there was important to me, but also so was the city and its wider music and artistic community, I would say. And what was great about Newcastle at that time, and I think continues is that there is quite a porous boundary between the music department in the university and the wider underground music culture there. 

There are people like Will Edmonds who plays it, yeah, you who were really instrumental in kind of ensuring those boundaries remain porous. And now there’s Marian Rosae, who’s there as well, who’s still into ensuring that, you know, things flow both ways, I guess, are certainly trying to make that the case. And yeah, like Newcastle is an incredible place to be writing about noise and thinking about noise because it has a very strong and rich history of noise music, experimental music, just underground, underground musics in general.

Mack Hagood  08:13

The first time I came across Murray’s work, I was working on my own PhD dissertation, I had gotten wind of an effect theory, and immediately saw how it could help me talk about the personal and social dynamics of the white noise machines and noise canceling headphones that I was studying. I started looking for any books out there that use these theories to talk about sound. 

First, I found Steve Goodman’s book, Sonic Warfare, which was the first thing that I read that was really putting affect theory, and music or sound more generally together. And then I saw your edited volume that you did with Ian Biddle sound music affect. And I was like, Oh my gosh, like that was the one that I could really relate to. 

Because you were dealing with like, the exact same theorist I was interested in and you had, you had already thought this through and I was like, looked at the back of the book. And I said, Oh, my God, this is a PhD candidate. She’s not even. She hasn’t even gotten her degree yet. I was like, Who is this person? So can you talk a little bit about like, what you were doing in grad school? How did you become so productive that you had an edited volume before you had a PhD?

Marie Thompson  09:29

It’s insane. It’s absolutely insane. I mean, I feel like there’s this kind of state of academia to that isn’t there where it’s probably the complex psychodrama of wanting to be a good girl and, you know, I was super young. 

I went straight through undergraduate to MA to PhD without a break. And yeah, like, that book, in many ways symbolizes so many different things to me. You know what was I doing editing a book while writing my PhD? That seems like a ridiculous thing to do now. Why was I doing that? And, you know, I feel? 

I feel like that’s a question a good question. Why was I doing that. But, you know, I was very fortunate that the authors that contributed to that collection were great and really experienced in some cases, and were just excited about sharing their ideas.

Mack Hagood  10:33

As Marie put it, there was just something in the air at that time, a lot of us were grasping at ways to talk about what sound and music and noise do to us how they affect us, and how that relates to the politics of sound and noise. Thompson and Bill’s volume was one important space where this nascent conversation was taking shape. 

Marie’s other important project at the time was, of course, her own dissertation, which eventually became her 2017 book, Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise Effect and Aesthetic Moralism. I wanted to dig into that book and some of its guiding theorists in this conversation. But first, I asked Marie, about a couple of themes I saw operating in that book. You addressed these things in your book, Beyond Unwanted Sound. You know, there’s, for one thing, the problem of noise being this sort of floating signifier, noise means so many things to so many different people. And then there’s a second problem, that noise is often almost always really doing some kind of work for the person that wants to theorize it or write about it or talk about it. Some kind of almost moral work, right? Like, noise is either something really good or something really bad. I believe you called this aesthetic moralism. Do you want to maybe unpack a little bit of these issues around noise and what you were trying to address with that book?

Marie Thompson  12:12

Yeah, yeah, sure. So I think to go back to some of what we were talking about earlier, with my relationship to music, and the use of noise and music as well, this perhaps explains why someone like me, might feel dissatisfaction with the definition of noises, unwanted sound. So this notion that noises of the ear of the beholder, and what defines it is, its unwanted noise.. 

And for me, starting from a position where noises often been used as a musical resource, or something interrogated through art or sound, you know, this didn’t feel like a particularly satisfactory conclusion. And at the other side of this was, at that time, when I was starting to start thinking about noise more critically. And more theoretically, there was a body of work coming out where, again, this was kind of mirrored in practice to where noise was seen as this radical, extreme, awesome force that was kind of transcendental, and was a limit experience. 

And I also found that to be somewhat unsatisfactory in that noise often is none of those things. And right, yeah, and even within noise music, which often is about limits and the extreme, there’s also a whole body of practice that isn’t really interested in that. And, you know, one of the criticisms that I’ve seen come from sort of people active in noise music scenes, is that there are all these theorists who are writing about noise music as this kind of limit or this idea of extremity or whatever. And that’s not actually what the intention is, or that’s not really what the the interest is, there’s a different conversation there about, you know, the relationship between musicians and theorists, and whether actually, we need to take musicians that what they think they’re doing, or you know, but I guess we can kind of park…

Mack Hagood  14:14

Well, I mean, this is where you’re reminding me of like Jacques Attali Noise: The Political Economy of Music, which kind of seems to preordain, the role that noise plays, you know, as being this radical thing that changes the landscape, and then it gets incorporated into the status quo once again, like I just never had much tolerance for that book, or that any of those ideas, it just seemed like this very schematic way of thinking about noise that, like you say, doesn’t map on too many experiences of either music or noise that I’ve had.

Marie Thompson  14:51

Yeah, yeah. I mean, actually is kind of fascinating. And that’s such a weird book. And, you know, it’s so-

Mack Hagood  14:58

So influential. Don’t take it as gospel and I just don’t. I never got it.

Marie Thompson  15:03

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think it’s that thing of, there’s a question here of why do theories get taken up? And I think there’s an ambiguity in that text that is actually very productive. And it’s perhaps why people really seize on it, you know, improvisers like it, because the final chapter is about music of the future. And there’s certain things that can be read as endorsing improvisation. 

There’s a sense that, you know, there’s something hopeful about music in this there’s a kind of music as structure of mediation, and, you know, I feel like there’s a risk that I’m going to end up doing a deep dive on utterly here, and, and the kinds of margins that move in that text. But I guess that there’s a sense, you know, even more basically, from a sound studies perspective that people get excited, because it’s about history, but it includes sound. And there’s a sense that, you know, the historical is for listening to, and I can see why people in sound studies read that. And they’re like, this is my guy, this is who I need to, this is who I need to engage with.

Mack Hagood  16:09

But also a very Marshall McLuhan type wave historicized sound. Yeah.

Marie Thompson  16:15

And it’s very top down. It’s light on the details. It’s, you know, it’s a general model, which, you know, I would say that what my book is doing is also providing a general model, but I try, and I try to situate that model and say, you know, there’s a specific interest that is guiding this. And that’s to do with practice, and to do with noise, music, and to do with noises, uses a musical resource, and that’s conditioning. The general model of noise that I’m, I’m seeking to develop in that book. Yeah,

Mack Hagood  16:47

So instead of the aesthetic moralism of an R. Murray Schaffer, noise bad, you know, hi-fi soundscapes are the soundscapes that we can hear everything clearly. And they’re not occluded by noise. And then or something more like this liberatory version of Noise, Bring the noise, you know, this utterly thing that noise is this revolutionary disruption, you were interested in putting something else on the table. So maybe we can move on to what, what that is what were you trying to get?

Marie Thompson  17:22

So I was using sort of affect theory, mainly coming from Spinoza or Dillards, this reading of Spinoza, I always feel like I need to qualify this because a lot of the a lot of the political theorists who who are political philosophers who are familiar with Spinoza, would not recognize Spinoza, from what I’m writing. 

And, and I was also engaging with Michel ser, who is, in turn, very influenced by information theory, and is drawing on Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s work. And I’m using this work to try and think about noise as something that is both necessary and transformative. So this, again, is coming from media theory and information theory, which suggests that noise is something that is necessary in terms of communication and connection and making relations. 

You know, you and I, Mack are talking through two computers, and a piece of software and microphones, not cameras, because the bandwidth can’t cope with that. And all of these points though, those forms of mediation are shaping and transforming what is what is sent and what is received, and leaving an impression. So the sound of my voice, for example, differs in the room that I’m sitting in which you know, itself is shaped by the walls, the temperature that you know, all kinds of things, the carpet, you know, my voice transforms as it’s going to the microphone, which introduces other temporal qualities to the signal, and on and on and on.

 And at every point. The separation of noise and signal is kind of an abstraction, because we can’t really imagine that the other and this was the idea that I was trying to start with the idea that noise is the necessary relation to relations. It’s not something external, in a straightforward sense of inside and outside or music and noise or wants to an unwanted it’s something that’s present, whether you notice it or not, or whether you want it or not, because it’s necessary. So that was the assumption that I was starting with. And so yeah,

Mack Hagood  19:43

And ser is saying that we tend to think of noise as an interruption of a system and it certainly can be that but noise is also intrinsic to the system itself. It has to be which is actually something Claude Shannon also says, right?

Marie Thompson  19:59

Sure, yeah and ser is drawing on Shannon. But also, I think making things a bit more fluid.

Mack Hagood  20:08

Yeah, he’s emphasizing that middle space that Shannon kind of doesn’t think very much about Shannon thinks about the sender and the receiver. And this kind of linear transmission of information across this, I think what Sarah called the excluded middle, right, like the like. And the middle for Shannon is just the place where the noise lives. And we want to minimize that. But Sarah was much more interested in the productive aspects of that middle that, in fact, the noise in that channel can be a signal in certain contexts, right? Or it could be productive about an entirely new system, it could interrupt one system, but in so doing, create a new system of some kind.

Marie Thompson  20:56

Yeah, yeah, precisely. And, you know, I think it’s always really important to remember why Shannon wants to minimize noise. And this is something that people like Jonathan Stern, have been really keen to emphasize is that the general model of communication that Shannon came up with, was informed by the economic imperatives of Bell Labs and the desire to develop efficient communication. So the need to minimize noise is an economic imperative. 

It’s something that’s coming from the context of that work, it’s not a universal concern. So I think that’s something that’s really worth recognizing now as a philosopher has very different concerns. So he is able to have a slightly more open perspective in this stare is tricky, because there are other books that have said, where noise is very much the enemy and is very much something that is derided. Whereas in the parasite, which is this text, where a lot of these ideas are playing out, sir has a much more interesting idea of noise and is interested in how these relations are both necessary. 

And changeable. You know, there’s this great line that systems work because they do not work. And this idea of actually, it is, you said, it’s the excluded middle, but in the set for, say, noises in of the middle, it’s also off the offset, it’s off the start, because we can never really separate signal and noise. So even the kind of linear model that we tend to have in mind, when we think of Shannon and Weaver’s, you know, he is saying noise appears in the middle in that model, but actually, it’s there at the start, it can’t be escaped.

Mack Hagood  22:48

One of the few times that I really engaged with him was my friend, Travis Bogan. And I wrote this article about the role of fans’ voices of fan noise in the NFL, National Football League, the American football. And there was a time in the sport where the league was looking to penalize crowds for making too much noise, when the visiting teams offense was on the field, right, because that crowd noise was a disruption of the gameplay on the field. 

Yeah. And so they tried to regulate that noise, they tried to minimize that noise to sort of maximize the signal of gameplay, so to speak. But a really interesting thing happened. First of all, fans completely rebelled against that. But secondly, they gradually realized that this so called noise of the crowd, was actually a really productive signal in itself. And then it became, it became part of the story. Right, it became part of the story of the game. 

And the TV network started to realize, oh, we could actually mic this crowd noise up. And especially when surround sound came in, we can send it to the rear channels of the speakers have in the home setting to make it a more immersive experience for the people being there. And to me that that was like this thing. Like this crowd noise is sort of inherent right? Like the the people just spontaneously, it’s kind of an affect of the joy, the excitement, the rage of being a sports audience member, but then also, it turned out to be a signal in itself. That could be max, you know, profitably used by capitalism.

Marie Thompson  24:38

Yeah. And I think that’s, that’s a really great example of why, again, I’m I find some of the attempts to position noise as a site of autonomy or freedom. You know, there is a need to caveat that with the fact that there are lots of ways that capital finds uses of noise, as it goes with silence and quietude as well. So I think one of the themes of the book is that it’s, and this is difficult, given the habits of the discipline or disciplines that I’m engaging with, I think is that we can’t point to a particular set of sounds as inherently emancipatory, or radical or having a kind of liberating potential, there’s a need to think carefully about that. 

And, you know, I think it’s easy to see noise as or it’s not easy. But you know, it’s easy to see noise in some ways as this resistive site. Yes. And that requires us to kind of discount or interrogate Well, what do we do about all these in case occasions where noise and the various things that it stands for is capitalized on?

Mack Hagood  25:56

So there’s no yeah, there’s no essential nature to noise positive or negative, in part, because it’s relational? And maybe, maybe that’s another maybe that’s a good segue into the other influence that you mentioned, which is, you know, Spinoza is affects , through dilemmas. Can we maybe, yeah, walk through that a little bit and how that relates to sound? Yeah.

Marie Thompson  26:18

So I mean, I’ve been thinking about Spinoza. Because, again, with, with theory, there are trends. And then things come and go. And it’s kind of easy to look back at stuff you wrote a few years ago and be like, oh, you know, this was all about Dillards and Spinoza. And that was kind of fashionable at that time. And now it’s no longer as fashionable and maybe I need to just disown this or but I think I think there’s a reason why, you know, I would I was drawn to that work. And with Spinoza, it’s probably worth noting that in Spinoza, his work affect is not just synonymous with feelings, or emotions, it’s not just about what the subject feels as emotion, it’s not necessarily the same as affection. But it’s also about forces of change and relating to the capacity to act and be acted on. So there’s this notion of capacity and ability.

 And yeah, there’s something quite resonant there with thinking about systems and to think about noises is to think about systems or relations or infrastructures, you know, certainly in the approach that I take. And I think what’s particularly prescient for people interested in sound and music is that Spinoza enables us, I think, to think about these things as part of a wider series of relations. So thinking about the technological, the ecological, the social, the aesthetic, kind of in relation to one another. I think there’s a capacity in his work for that. 

But I’ve also been, you know, I’ve been thinking more and more on this about why Spinoza? What does Spinoza what’s useful in Spinoza, not to just have a kind of horrible instrumental approach to to these theorists. But I also think there’s something in here about harm and damage, which sound and music studies, I think has often struggled with, you know, I think, even though there’s some really fantastic scholarship that deals with the ways that sound of music are bound up, including your own work are bound up with conditions of exploitation and oppression. 

I still think there is a challenge to articulating musics capacity to be harmful and sounds capacity to be harmful in ways that are not just a kind of top down. moralist kind of we’ll probably come on to this later. But you know, loud sound loud sounded bad for you, everyone must wear earplugs. I think there’s something in Spinoza that allows a careful interrogation about the bad side of these phenomena that I think is perhaps useful. I don’t know. What do you think? You think about these things, too? Yeah.

Mack Hagood  29:05

Yeah. I mean, I think the thing that you highlighted about his focus on the capacity to act, right that basically he’s thinking about bodies, and the term body writ very large, could be human, non human organic, like what it could be a lot of different things, what a body could be, and that bodies are constantly affecting one another. 

And from the perspective of a particular body, those interactions are either diminishing the ability of that body to act or enhancing it. And and so, as I understand it, a joyful effect would be the feeling of having feeling enlivened and enabled to do more or conversely feeling diminished feeling disabled by some other body, some other set of relations. is kind of a side effect and just having that kind of non moralist non judgmental, stepping back kind of looking at the material relations, but also the psychic relations, because what’s really, I think so helpful about this system is it transcends what we would, I don’t know, transcends is the wrong word, but it engages with both what we would think of as the mental and the material.

Marie Thompson  30:24

Yeah, and I think that’s really useful to highlight because I think there was a tendency to see Spinoza, as you know, it’s the body and its mind. And there’s, I think there’s been in a kind of rush to see this as a non Cartesian model, the mind has kind of been thrown out a bit. And actually, you’re right, there is something about the mind in this that needs to be retained, you know, and Spinoza understanding, it plays a really important role in and this, you know, in the ethics, understanding is key to what he sees as a kind of ethical enhancement, or the joyous life rule. 

It’s not just about maximizing what happens to you, it’s also about understanding these affective relations. And that plays a key role. 

Mack Hagood  31:10

When we miss understanding those affective relations, we tend to do things that are harmful and unethical. 

Marie Thompson  31:18

Yeah. Well, we attribute them to the wrong things as well, or we or we have a limited, and, you know, for Spinoza, it’s inevitable that we don’t really have the full picture that we, you know, our understanding is, we can’t have the kind of position of ultimate understanding, but we it’s an issue of degrees, you know, we can improve our understanding, we can improve our understanding of acting and being affected, that

Mack Hagood  31:46

An example I often use is, it’s very easy to demonize the coworker in the cubicle next to you, who eats loudly, or something like that, right? And focus on them as the problem that’s affecting you. But to perhaps have a more wider understanding, you might think about, well, okay, what is the structure of this room that I’ve been put in? And, you know, how are we expected to maintain our attention on these very detailed things on these computer screens, but we’ve been placed alongside one another in this particular arrangement that generates an experience of noise. 

You know, it’s just so tempting to attribute the noise maker to being the individual next to us who we’re mad at, right? And everything encourages us to think that way. And yet, I think from a Spinoza perspective, we might step by step back and say, Okay, well, how are the bodies arranged in this space? What kinds of experiences of noise are being encouraged in this setting? Why

Marie Thompson  32:54

Why are workers having to eat their lunch at their desk? What are the demands? Yeah, it kind of goes back to our Why is a PhD candidate editing a collection with they’ve got no business to be doing that. Yeah. Like, it’s a similar thing. Right, you know, yeah, I think that’s a good explanation and illustration of some of these things. But, you know, whenever I have these conversations about noise, there’s this kind of having written a book called Beyond unwanted sound, there’s a sense that I can never complain about noise ever again. And I have to just kind of move through the world, completely unbothered by auditory experience, because I’ve written a book called Beyond unwanted sound, it’s very annoying. 

I have regrets. But there’s something interesting about the effects of here where it’s, there’s a thing you know, even with understanding, even if you understand the structural conditions on an effective level, and on a kind of an emotional level, that can still feel really annoying. You can. The other great example of this is noisy neighbors, you know, we can think, okay, the problem is poor quality housing, which in the UK is poorly insulated, the problems at the rent market, the problems with a de structured around the wage, you know, there are all these problems and contribute to experiences of neighbor noise as particularly egregious and annoying. 

And yet, on some level, it’s just annoying. Even without understanding, and I guess that’s one of the challenges for these theoretical works is, you know, how does this relate in practice as well, and in the every day as well, and you know, I’m sure there’s a smart Spinoza answer for that as well. But yeah, I’d need to go back and read the ethics and figure out how to square that one.

Mack Hagood  34:51

No, it’s such an important point, though. Because, you know, with my own work, you know, that there’s a critique of these ways that we use technology not to listen. And one of the things that I wanted to do is challenge the notion that media are always there to help us communicate better, I actually think they’re not. But at the same time, people might think, well, oh, you’re doing like anti noise canceling headphones, you’re anti white noise. No, I own all of these things. There is a difference between analyzing it and trying to be charitable towards the others who are embedded in this system alongside you. And on top of you, interfering with you, it doesn’t make it not annoying. 

And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use technology to try to diminish some of these affects, right. But I do think there is a sort of moral imperative to try to use those things. Trying to avoid the word mindfully. Felt like ethically and thinking about their position within the system, and what the knock on affects of using these things are going to be right? Are we just exacerbating a problem? Or are we actually mitigating in a way that’s going to help us deal with other people better?

Marie Thompson  36:13

I think there’s that thing, isn’t there of it’s one thing to use these technologies and engage with them. And I guess this resonates with some of the work I’ve been doing recently. I’m interested in the sort of technologies that are engaged in processes and practices of social reproduction. So things like Amazon smart speakers, I’ve been looking at these prenatal sound systems. And yeah, yeah. What a world and things like sleep, sonic sleep aids as well, which I know that you’re working with. And it’s, it’s one thing to talk about using these things. And another thing to talk about the wider conditions that make these technologies possible, and make these technologies a thing, do you know, do you know what I mean?

Mack Hagood  36:59

And make them feel so necessary.

Marie Thompson  37:00

And natural as well, you know? So I think the conversation about using these technologies is always partial, because it’s, you know, ultimately, what it is about is a wider context in which these things become seemingly sensible, technological interventions.

 And I think that’s where some of these distinctions occur as well. And yeah, it’s tricky. It’s tricky, squaring these things, dealing with what happens on an individual personal affective level and the wider conditions and context through which these things occur. I think those tensions are in some way. The point is, it’s difficult. 

Mack Hagood  37:42

I was wondering, we’ve been kind of talking about these rather materialist in many ways conceptions of sound, right, like in both the ser  and in Spinoza. They both engage with what we might call non representational aspects of sound. But you’ve also taken issue with like certain materialist conceptions of sound. And I don’t know if you feel like talking about this, we could cut it. Back like in I think it was 2017. You were in a back and forth with the sound art scholar/philosopher, Christoph Cox, you wrote an article in parallax as did Annie Goh, do you want to talk about like the sort of critique you had? Cox’s version of materialism? And yeah,

Marie Thompson  38:36

So I mean, again, it feels like 2017 it feels like these issues that were really pressing at that time, I don’t know, the theoretical, you know, at that point, object oriented ontology was still quite an influential body of thought. And that’s something that this critique was drawing on, not in a way of advocating for or as it was known back then. 

And that drawing on critiques of speculative realism and object oriented ontology to think about the application of these critiques to some of the discourses and debates that were going on in the Sonic arts in sound studies. And yeah, I mean, I don’t know if you can call it a back and forth, if you write something and then someone writes something back, and then you just don’t really, you write a Twitter thread, and then you’re just like, You know what I’ve said what I’ve said, let’s leave it about whether he’s,

Mack Hagood  39:32

I mean, he had this concept of Sonic flux, right? It was a very influential concept. And it’s this sort of idea, as you said, of sound itself that sound is this material phenomenon outside of human perception. And to me, what I heard you doing, as I recall, and I got this is not entirely fresh in my mind, either, but you were basically critiquing the idea that we could I make claims about what that is what sound is outside of any human perspective, and that that sort of alleged objective distance? Yeah, is actually this sort of, you know, re-imposition of a European masculinist epistemology, rather than an ontology. Right. So it’s an epistemology in the sense that it’s a way of structuring our thinking about something, but it’s claiming to be the reality itself, the ontology is that is that is that a kind of, I

Marie Thompson  40:34

think, is also about the desire itself? And why not a kind of why would you want to do this in that kind of crude sense. But the notion that we can go beyond identity, we can go beyond the social stratifications that constitute life, I guess, and have this kind of pure explore pure sound, you know, I think thinking about it in terms of purity is, is kind of useful, actually. You know, that desire in and of itself is bound up with, or as I trace it, sort of discourses and ontologies of whiteness, this idea of, of the frontier was very prevalent in that discourse.

 And this idea of going beyond, you know, I say this as someone who has beyond in the title of their book, but yeah, so there is this, this notion of getting to this itself, or this beyond, you know, has has a connection to a frontier logic. And there’s also, you know, there’s a sense of, to whom the ontological is accessible as well. And then just in general, there is the question of the exemplars of who is exemplar of sound itself, because, you know, within this notion of Sonic flux, it’s the things that can give us glimpse to it and Cox’s account our particular works of Sonic art, and that requires quite a particular reading of those pieces of sound art and, and also the compositional intentions behind it, I think. 

So, I draw on George Lewis’s critique of Cage and his discussion of what freedom means in cages work, for example. But ultimately, within this, there’s a kind of innocent or an unmarked orality that is being constructed where we kind of have to do away with orality and myths in order to allow for this kind of pure Sonic Sonic flux.

Mack Hagood  42:42

Yeah, I mean, I understand maybe because I am a white man, I don’t know. But I, I understand the impulse in the sense that I sometimes when I remember when I was a graduate student, you know, speaking with professors who were pretty extreme social constructionist, right, and they really didn’t want there to be any space where I could talk about an effective sound on the body that wasn’t socially constructed. 

And I was like, Yeah, but you know, what if I stand, if I go stand next to a jet engine, you know, on a tarmac, and I don’t have any ear protection, like it’s, those sound waves are going to damage my ears, right? Like, there’s something not socially constructed happening there. And so like that, there is this tricky now, now, the fact that that’s the example that I draw, and like all of these different ways, the way I’m framing it, the words that I have to even describe that experience, like, yes, that’s all completely socially constructed. But there’s something I’m referring to that is in dialogue with the social, but it’s not completely included by it unless we have that more expansive, you know, ser version of the social right, or where the social includes the most.

Marie Thompson  44:03

I think, you know, I would be terrified to just subscribe to a real crude determinist model where everything is predetermined by identity and pre existing structures. You know, that’s definitely not what I’m trying to advocate for. 

Mack Hagood  44:18

I think in Cox’s letter that responded to your article, I do think that’s more that’s how I read his portrayal that you were denying that there is a material reality that exists. Sure. Outside a human experience. It’s really interesting, too, that these debates that we were having within academia, like have really become so dominant in the wider culture today, right? I mean, it was almost like that what you guys were arguing about was a harbinger of things like, I don’t know, people who are saying, hey, there are just two sexes. Gender constructionists think there’s this plethora of genders, but there’s really only materially two sexes, which is definitely not true because my wife works in a clinic that works with people with development, sexual differences, and there are definitely interest plenty of intersex people a lot more than than you would really realize.

But anyway, like, those kinds of debates, I feel very familiar. And also, it’s kind of interesting, because the same people who are angrily waging these kinds of debates also seem to think that within the academy, we don’t have these debates, right? No, actually, we were having that one like a decade ago. Yeah.

Marie Thompson  44:33

I think there’s probably, you know, I think that that is yeah, that’s definitely not what neither Annie nor I were aiming for, to articulate. But I think where our point is that who gets to lay claim to these things and how how it claims to these things made that there’s definitely that kind of you don’t believe in science. aspect to some of the response, which that’s not really where we’re at. 

But at the same time, we’ve often appealed to science as this, above all, objective field when we know actually, time and time and time again, its conclusions have been bound up with race, gender, colonialism and coloniality. You know, the exploitation of capital, you know, it’s to kind of posit these things as neutral spaces. I just think there’s better ways of doing this and engaging with the material. 

Mack Hagood  46:54

So this is the point in our conversation, where we moved on to a different topic, which is tinnitus, and hearing loss. And what we’ve both learned as researchers in that space, particularly around the relationship between tinnitus and the arts. It’s a different topic, and yet one that still closely relates to Marie’s work on Affect Noise and Aesthetic Moralism. We spoke for another 40 minutes about tinnitus, and the different ways that people experience it. 

We talked about ableism, and sound studies and much more, including Murray’s excellent book and music recommendations. And you can hear it, just go to, and sign up for a free patron membership. And of course, if you’d like to be a paid member, that would be amazing. I know that 1000 People are going to listen to this episode, but right now, we only have about 20 Paying patrons. So it would be amazing if you wanted to sign up for as little as three bucks a month. But if you don’t, that’s okay to just come get a free patreon account and hear Marie talk about tinnitus. And that’s it for this episode of phantom power. Huge thanks to Marie Thompson. Our editor today was Nisso Sacha, our transcript and website is by Katelyn Phan. And our SEO and YouTube content person is Devin Ankeney. Music by Graham Gibson and yours truly. I’m Mack Haygood and I’ll talk to you again in a couple of weeks.