Better dissonant than voiceless mute
Better dissonant than voiceless mute: A story of sonic and spatial agency

text: Chara Stergiou,
graduate at post-industrial design at UTH and graduate at contemporary art theory at Goldsmiths

graphics: Ewelina Cisak,
architecture student at Warsaw University of Technology

reading time: around 10 min

Thursday night at the old town of Volos, a town in central Greece, those who know will have a dinner at Chontro Bizeli (trans: Big Pea). This is a family buffet-service local refectory with homemade cuisine cooked by Evdokimos Ismirnoglou, the owner himself. It is true that you may not be lucky enough to find an empty seat for you to enjoy such a Thursday night coincidence. Rectangular tables able to host no more that 2-3 people each, are joined together to make a large seemingly monastic table. There is no table etiquette here, unless that you have to leave away any will for private dining and join this linear tabula. The first seats are reserved for those who will take command of the music. A few musical instruments are free for everyone to play. The only etiquette that could be found here is the motto “Better dissonant than voiceless mute” implying that silence is not a solution to any of our mutual imperfections during this Thursday night call. This phrase is uttered and constantly repeated through the night by Evdokimos — the owner of the restaurant or, as one could note, the master of this ceremony of this little Thursday feast.

Such a prompt insinuates that this voiceless silence needs to be warded off by calling everybody to be dissonant. Generally, we could consider dissonance as the state of not having any sense of rhythm, lacking of the correct tuning or, not being able to tune at the same frequency of an ensemble of tunes or voices and consequently and even more, not being able to tune with others. Nevertheless, the effort to be resonant, to reverberate at a certain frequency may be rather a tough struggle or a restrictive boundary to one’s self capacity. But, isn’t dissonance a way to enhance a condition of plurality? If silence orders the lack of any voice, then dissonance seems to give space to voices which despite their particularity or “weakness," find their way to be embodied and finally uttered, even if not perfect. While discussion on sound studies have developed a lot through the analysis of the soundscape — a notion that brings us closer to the conception of what might be an acoustic ecology, its sonic mediations and materialities — what would be a potent approach towards the sonic agencies of silence and dissonance towards the big question and affection of spatial agency and the biopolitical affordances where both space and sound meet?

1. Reference to the Situationist film “La dialectique peut-elle casser des briques?”, in English, “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?”

2. Alphonso Lingis, The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).

3. Ibid.,90.

From silence to dissonance: Can silence break standards? 1

In our case, silence insinuates that if achieved, there is no interaction between this banquet community of Chontro Bizeli. In other words, silence is the result of our decision to quit our struggle to be heard, because of our incapability, weakness or imperfection related to the production of rhythm. Actually, it is the consequence of accepting one’s expression as not worth to be uttered, because it cannot adjust to the general standards and forms of sonic expression. Cacophony as a discordant sonic quality, is nothing more than a dissonant sonic condition which explicit forms of music production tend to correct and avoid. It is often compared to noise or any boisterous sonic condition as an unpleasant almost barbarian sonic form. Alphonso Lingis while speaking about communication and noise, describes cacophony as an element to be eliminated at this field as well. 2 Even our up to date technologies of communication need to exclude any possibility of noisy signs in any transmission, phone or digital calls, recordings etc. Silence seems to be a crucial element into shaping transmission cultures and, so to speak, the very essence of communication — from a sending message to a developing physical dialogue even when not hosted by a technical medium. Silence, in this case, is the demand to deprive any message from its hidden, noisy or even cacophonous dimension. It is very interesting how Lingis describes such cacophonies in transmission cultures that seem to develop an editing-to correct-stance towards sonic incidents as the sound of “a cough, inaudible pronunciations, ejaculations, words started and then cancelled, ungrammatical formulations” or even “the noise of our throats that fills the time it takes to convey the message”. All these signs in verbal or written speech — which is formed appropriately to have the proper appearance for a dynamic and perfect communication — make Lingis think that they are rather signs of one’s vulnerability, they are the exposure of her/his condition that tends to be invisible or unheard and gets communicated by some kind of embodiment materialised through this very capacity of sound to built on immaterial agencies, saying:

I do not observe the vulnerability and mortality on the face of another, and do not construct it by interpreting perceptual data. They affect me immediately. I make contact with his pain and I feel it in my own body. 3

4. Brandon LaBelle, “Sky: radio, spatial urbanism, and cultures of transmission” in Acoustic territories : sound culture and everyday life. Continuum Press, 2010.

5. From Ernst Neufert bibles to Ottoh Neurath projects on inforgraphics and calculations but also, to Henry Dreyfuss’ “The Measure of Man: Human Factors in Design” and of course Le Corbusier’s Modulor anthropometric scale of proportions, there are plenty examples of metrics and measures project that mark architectural modernity.

6. Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure (London: Verso Books, 2014)

7. Michel Foucault, “Lecture Eleven” in Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 (London: Allen Lane, 2003)

At the same time, we should not forget the considerably “modern” radiophonic wake and its imaginaries, as an emerging technological and acoustic culture, where the possibility of noise was something to disrupt the general fantasy of radiophonic space and the frequency standards of its waves. As Brandon LaBelle observes 4, the ethereal avant guard of artists who attempted to produce radio art through a manipulation of noise, misprision and appropriation of the sound and the misinterpreted signal, where the very first who welcomed the possibility of some kind of dissonance and noise which, would always be “in conflict” with the standardisation of the radiophonic waves. If going beyond standardisation insinuates the appropriation of any element that seemingly “doesn’t fit,” therefore, architecture and design has a long story related to the avoidance of “dissonance”. Inventing standards is not something new to architecture and spatial studies, even when it comes from architecture’s own modernity until the recent discourse that limits the discussion about any urban or spatial plan to the level of its instrumental reasoning through its infrastructural organisation where anything is reduced to the level of its operation and mere circulation and distribution of activities. Modernity’s endless inventions for proposed metrics and measures systems 5 of the quantified man and its surroundings, or the more contemporary and planetary ISO (International Standards Organisation) overseeing global technical standards from credit card thickness to dashboard pictograms, computer protocols create, as Keller Easterling points out, a “soft law” 6 of global exchanges. The constructive capacity of the politics of dimensions is dealing with the population in a such a way that reminds us of a Foucauldian analysis of disciplinary mechanisms of measures, forecasts, statistical estimates and generally, quantification as crucial factors for the construction of biopolitical realms. Such mechanisms “modify a given individual as he is an individual but essentially, to intervene at the level of the generality of such phenomena”. 7 And this is exactly the realm of our new biopolitical technologies to whom spatial practices and organisation seem to play a crucial role, while being in need of a new spatial vocabulary and re-evaluation.

Therefore, such a reflection showcases that the discussion about silence-dissonance relation goes beyond its apparent sonic dimension, while it can make us contemplate what is there to be avoided, what is there to be designed as “to not fit” in a certain set of standards, which is nothing more than designing “the rule”, designing what should be designed. Therefore, designing, but most of all deciding, how to exist in very certain terms of materialities that finally organise and control the realities we live in. And this brings us closer to the current discourse about spatial studies and the role of architecture into the shaping of new biopolitical forms of governmentality that get materialised — or immaterialised, insinuating the absence of actual materiality— in space. Nevertheless, sonic events and their agency can bring thoughtful insight to the ways in which we look at spatial agency, especially when it comes to certain theoretical models and conceptualisations like the ones which are to follow.

8. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “Fantasy in the Hold” , The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe /New York /Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013)

9. See at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow, but also, the Dutch Pavilion at the 16th Biennale di Venezia with the topic “Work, Body, Leisure”, but also Berlin TU Master Programs in Urban planning focused on matters of global logistics and the matter of automation and distribution in spatial terms.

10. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “Fantasy in the Hold” , The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe /New York /Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013).

11. Moten and Harney describe such mutual constructions of affection as “The Undercommons”.

From dissonance to space: Constructing mutual worlds without materials

Such a conclusion clearly opens the discussion about the haptic, palpable qualities of contemporary biopolitical agency and could be further analysed through a very certain conception of the notion “hapticality” as developed through the lense of Modern and Harney, 8 in relation to a very familiar topic of architectural and spatial studies: logistics and automation. Such a topic seems to concern significantly current architectural discourse and many of its educational programmes and biennale participations. 9 But what is actually this that triggers such epistemologies to turn their gaze to the - seemingly unknown to them - fields of infrastructural and technological realm?

Moten and Harney argue that, logistical thinking, already from the very birth of logistics during slave trading, managed to tame the unmanageable, to get rid from the controlling human agent of subjectivity and finally to shape this that we call “logistical population”. Such a population “will be created to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to adapt without question”. It seems that some kind of automation may be applied to subjects depriving them of their subjectivity or of the personal factor. Through this condition, Moten and Harney argue that logistical populations developed a certain sense of touch among them which seems to be very similar to the logistical abstract tactics applied to them. They call it hapticality, a sense of touch without surface, and they identify it with the term logisticality which is defined as the social capacity to react to the imposed automation while developing a sense of the feel of the other in an unpalpable way, just as the logistical thinking imposed on these subjects did.

Music is used as an example of impalpable mutual agency par excellence. Its agency and its capacity to build on subjectivity by the minimum mean of affect like an unwritten language or even as a form of resistance toward any oppressive sovereignty, renders it as a very special almost invisible mediator of hapticality. This condition of being shipped under the hold is the very naissance of this particular sense of touch among these populations. As the writers describe:

Thrown together touching each other we were denied all sentiment, denied all the things that were supposed to produce sentiment, family, nation, language, religion, place, home. Though forced to touch and be touched, to sense and be sensed in that space of no space, though refused sentiment, history and home, we feel (for) each other. 10

The containerised bodies that were accumulated in the ship and forced together in this particular way of being developed this particular sense of touch between them. Singing the feeling is a way to communicate and connect the dispossessed feeling by creating a new set of commons like this floating community. 11 This transatlantic story is one of many that prove the emergence of sound and the embodiment of uttered voice as an emancipatory form. What remains crucial here, is this particular way of creating such an agency through sound which is so intense in a way that it can built worlds — fictional or not — how it builds on materiality and our sensorial capacity towards phenomena which we cannot perceive. Such a difficulty to detect an aesthetic condition might be a major question in relation to spatial thinking and phenomena of our age which render spatial technologies as radical tools of biopolitical governmentalities. The hard thing to describe here — to which the above sonic narratives offer significant insight and critique — is agency, the mediation of what and how it is going to take place. This informal capacity of logistics to “built” on materialities seem as one of the answers to the question of why spatial studies turned their gaze to such fields who define agency through its affect.

12. Jacques Rancière, The politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible (London: Continuum, 2004).

Consequently, the last chapter’s reflections may be formed like this: “silence” can be seen as the preferred aesthetic quality of a new disciplinary modality. Silence here seems more like a regulatory condition to be sensed, therefore perceived by or imposed to the senses. It might be seen as “the new sensible” as Jacques Ranciére coined it 12 while talking about the distribution of the sensible as the distribution of “a set of a priori forms which determine what presents itself to be sensed as experience”. Those who can sense can be part of what is being actually distributed. Therefore, being dissonant seems like a way to acquire some kind of consciousness about the imposed aesthetic and at the same time disciplinary dimension. Being dissonant can be seen as an emancipatory practice towards oppressive silence. The same speculation applies to spatial experience and the aesthetics and agencies that take place in its own realm. The more we develop our aesthetic and sensory capacities toward spatial organisation , the more we can recognise the actualities that take place in space, therefore, to be able to take action.