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: