It’s Not “All” in the Timing: Noise, Space, and Comedy


In The Parasite, Michel Serres looks to get rid of the idea of the center/periphery distinction and the idea that power “occupies” the center.  In its stead, he discusses things that fill and occupy space.  In a chapter entitled, “Energy, Information,” Serres starts from music and from there he moves to noise and the occupation and “counter-occupation” of space. The roar of motors is mixed with music to create a sense that there is no escape from sound. It fills all space:

Music has been a fundamental part of my life. I could not conceive of life without music.  But now, I’ve begun to hate it. It is everywhere nowadays, trapping me everywhere. I knew that we had entered the motor age when the noise coming from motors filled space everywhere. There was no space without a motor.  Even in the most rural country spots, the chain saws…replaced the grasshoppers.  (94)

The motor, says Serres, is an “expansive phenomenon.”   And it became a “founding fact of property.”  It works by making the “occupation of space intolerable” and thus “gets it for itself.”   And these noises are countered and “covered” (94) by others:

The grasshopper counterattacks with loudspeakers. Hi-fi, full-strength, earphones: the motor is beaten.  Music culture – that is to say, the culture of communication – has just wiped out the industrial revolution…Little packets of energy chase out the bigger ones. One parasite chases out another.   One power chases out another.  (95)

Serres sees this power as parasitic. It may be the power of speech or anything that has a voice in space.  He personifies this power:

Where are you?  I don’t know. Where are you going?  It doesn’t matter.  The grasshopper wanders every which way.   In other words, the emitters can be randomly distributed…Where are you going?  Everywhere.  All spaces bathe in its power.  The parasite is everywhere…Voice, wind, sound and noise. (96)

But, given this interpretation of space and expansion, wouldn’t it be the case that an explosion of sound (or an explosion itself) would be the greatest illustration of Serres’ understanding of sound?   To be sure, the explosion of words and sound I am thinking of take place in a comic kind of novel by another Frenchman, Louis Celine.  The first lines of his baudy tale, Guignol’s Band, are an explosion:

Boom! Zoom!…It’s the big smashup!…The whole street caving in at the water front!…It’s Orleans crumbling and thunder in the Grand Café!  A table sails by and splits in the air!…Marble bird!…spins round, shatters a window and splinters!

While this explosion is caricatured with such words as “Boom! Zoom!” it marks something very violent.  The explosion, the “big smashup,” is a total occupation of space.  The fact that it is comic is fascinating since it suggests that comedy is, by and large, about noise and jokes (and the laughter that attend them) are explosions of sorts that fill space. To be sure, they take over space.   It creates a tension or a kind of competition between the comedian who fills space and the audience which, in the wake of his voice, fills space with laughter.

And these explosions of comedy and sound, so to speak, communicate with each other. For your consideration, here’s a clip with many sound and spatial occupations.  To be sure, in this clip spaces are overtaken, emptied, filled, and covered over:

And, in a sense, the comedian needs to clear out the space of different sounds.  He needs to displace other sound-scapes and noises if he or she is to be affective. The schlemiel, in this account, is of prime importance; for, as Ruth Wisse and Sidrah Ezrahi have argued, the schlemiel lives by way of language.  Speech, they argue, is his substitute for sovereignty. But, as Serres seems to suggest, it isn’t a substitute for power; rather, it is power itself. It may not be history, but it overflows all spaces and competes with all narratives by turning to space (of the page, of the stage, etc) rather than time.  And that space explodes with meaning and possibility; but not in a tragic so much as in a comic sense.

Groucho and Chaplin show us the possibility of such explosions of movement and sound, which, to be sure, take over the space:


3 thoughts on “It’s Not “All” in the Timing: Noise, Space, and Comedy

  1. Very engaging; loved these thoughts. Along with your post on Comic Impositions, this is one of the best summaries of Serres I have read, and particularly on Serres much neglected theory of comedy in his writing.

    And as I am new to this blog on the schlemiel, I also found the reflections on the schlemiel here leading me to a way to counterbalance the silence of tragedy with the noise of comedy. This reminds me of Agamben and Derrida, who follow the French tradition of privileging a kind of silence in response to the Holocaust, a tragedy without noise or space; this goes to some extremes in the figure of the Muselmann, the emaciated victim of the camps, who is a kind of bare life which short circuits any connection between value and life. Some have questioned whether this privileging of the camp as a norm isn’t a morbid betrayal. However, if we turn to an altogether difference portrayal, which may also be a betrayal, the film Life is Beautiful, it’s the comedic nature of the schlemiel who fills space with noise that presents a kind of bare life that – pitting the symbolic against power – Agamben would never consider.

    • Thank you so much for your good words and marked interest in my blog project on the schlemiel.

      Like you, I’m very interested in the work of Derrida and Agamben (and Levi’s work on the Musselmaner). I would love to see how you relate the schlemiel to the notion of “bare life” (in Agamben, Arendt, et al). It’s something that has been on my mind for a while. But, unlike Agamben, who doesn’t seem to get humor and Jewishness, I think there is much to be said about this kind of resistance.

      Check out this piece I wrote on _Jacob the Liar_ and Robin Williams as schlemiel. Jacob the Liar and the Schlemiel

      I’d love to hear what you think.

      Menachem Feuer – schlemiel theorist 🙂

  2. Menachem, great to hear back from you.

    Your post on Jacob the Liar and Robin Williams convinced me that there is something in the Jewish tradition of comedy that Agamben and others miss.

    I think contrasting the schlemiel as a form of ‘bare life’ as opposed to – or perhaps in relation to – the Musselmaner would bring out these kind of tensions. For Agamben, the schlemiel may be seen as relevant as a form of resistance, but would not be presented as such because it’s not a pure example for him of sovereignty or its opposite. The schlemiel is too embroiled in the middle areas of techne, calculation and noise. Despite Agamben saying otherwise, he would criticise the schlemiel and transform it into a kind of gesture, a bare life with ‘a “gag” destined to hide an incurable speechlessness’. He’d strip the schlemiel bare – or stick it in a marginal note about another scholar’s note no one else has noticed before – before it would be useful for his philosophy.

    There’s much more that I could say here, about tragedy and comedy, as well as the differences between Derrida and Agamben in regards to questions of occupation and language. But I’d be occupying too much space. I would suggest though that there is a potential in works like Jacob the Liar or Life is Beautiful – picaresque fictions, which are littered throughout the Yiddish tradition – to in fact present the form of the camp or holocaust in a more ‘historical’ way than other tragic presentations. The schlemiel in the holocaust functions as somehow surviving the camp’s ‘work will set you free’ (from sovereignty and bare life in death) operation with a naive, laborious and continually humorous, both tragic and comedic, getting free of work. This kind of picaresque is a presentation of occupation that brings it to its limit; a kind of occupying freedom that defeats the sovereign’s designs and even questions the power of selection.

    For me, Agamben never thinks of occupation enough. Which is why I turn to Serres on communication and the parasite and why many have tried to join the two in Agamben’s theory of mediality. I’m doing a bit of work on a study of the concept of the parasite that reclaims its original social meanings for politics. I want to raise the significance of the almost absolute absence of this figure in Agamben and its undeveloped abundance in Derrida’s works. The parasite has an archaic relationship to sovereignty which can be traced in ancient Greek texts, and much older than homo sacer, the parasite raises the problem of the sovereign’s selection and hosting function in creating the city (rather than ban). But the parasite also questions the conditions of knowledge and occupations and opens up new spaces. The schlemiel, like the parasite, could be a kind of presentation of bare life in knowledge production or occupation, as it is in Lucian’s The Parasite – an idiot rather than Hegel’s wise man at the end of history. It’s this kind of figure that wouldn’t occupy a certain thinking of metaphysics between and after Aristotle’s zoopolitics and logos. A thinking that seeks a ‘pure’ logic of bans and selections that the schlemiel can never see or naively or – in genius fashion – invades.

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