What Mixtapes Can Teach Us About Noise: Reading Shannon and Weaver in 2010

One of the most consistently fascinating aspects of sound culture studies is an exploration of the redemptive characteristics of noise. Instead of assuming a dismissive attitude toward the role of noise in society (See our exposé on John Leicester and vuvuzelas), or an uncritical but positive stance (Marianetti, 1909, “The Futurist Manifesto“), sound culture scholars work to provide a reflexive perspective which contextualizes the various nuances of noise in all aspects of society. In a recent seminar, focusing around communication, media, and information science, I was provided with an excerpt from Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s 1949 book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. This was a dry but exciting read; it was a very influential text. Not only did academics specializing in communication theory explore it because of how well it helped to define transmission model communication, but Bell Labs funded Claude Shannon and used his research to help establish the global information networks on which we rely today. Telephone wires, cellular transmissions, modems and even instructional manuals all owe this work a debt of gratitude. Simply put, Shannon and Weaver explain that less noise results in a better transmission, so several mathematical algorithms are posited to reduce noise in communication technology.

The Mathematical Theory of Communication, pg.7

The present day information society has defined itself, and has even been constructed upon technologies which require noise reducing mathematical algorithms. These algorithms are so prevalent that we rely on them every day without necessarily noticing or understanding them. As a researcher, I wonder where people embrace noise, as these sites provide clues to the limits of information’s value. Although I can think of many, in light of our recent Blog-O-Versary Mix!, I choose to examine one of my most treasured – the mixtape. The mixtape exemplifies a site of resistance specifically because it is 1)a measureably inferior sonic format to CD, MP3 and vinyl, and 2) often mixtapes are used to encode messages meant for an ideal listener. The communities, couples and individuals who circulate mixtapes embrace its status as an obsolete technology, – they perceive its affiliations with noise as a strength, a contour, definition. Mixtapes are a form of symbolic currency where the message is often secondary to the communal connotations encouraged by its form. Noise can be read as a tactic, a space of densly coded inferences which resist traditional modes of authority. To understand a mixtape is to understand the community and contexts within which it circulates; no other explanation could ever prove adequate.

Shannon and Weaver constructed noise as a problem for communication in 1949, and this has certainly had a strong impact on the term’s meaning, supporting its negative connotations even today. Noise is a space of social resistance and identification, an organic model of social encoding and decoding where authority is subverted to a subcultural set of rules and rituals. Reading Shannon and Weaver makes me question the sociological: how indebted is today’s society to information, and does noise truly serve as a foil?

Here’s the essay Claude Shannon Submitted to Bell Labs: A Mathematical Theory of Communication.

Cassette From My Ex is a site which explores some sites of identification in information resistance.


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9 responses to “What Mixtapes Can Teach Us About Noise: Reading Shannon and Weaver in 2010”

  1. Rob says :

    First off, I like that you describe Shannon and Weaver as “a dry but exciting read.” It’s funny to me that it can be both at the same time.

    I am interested in what you say about noise and mix tapes as “resistance” because I’m not completely on board with this. Perhaps in some ways this is true. For example, the use of feedback as an aesthetic choice; here I’m thinking of Hendrix being interviewed by Dick Cavett who referred to his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner as “unorthodox” to which Hendrix replied that he thought it was more beautiful than unorthodox.

    And the mixtape can be an act of resistance in the sense that the audience is “playing” with the way in which they consume music, perhaps becoming “more than” an audience by doing an end run around choices made by artists, producers and record labels about song sequence, and creating a sort of gift economy with those tapes, among other things.

    But even as mixes are an act of “playing with” the consumption process while becoming a producer of a new artifact, even if that artifact only has meaning to a small number of people (as small as one or two), they are still part of a consumption process. They are a way of taking greater control over the consumption process, but they are consumption nonetheless. You are still participating with the music industry, although you aren’t buying when you make a mix tape.

    There is also the industry’s ability to “fold back in.” I am thinking here of Deleuze and Guattari and “reterritorialization” or of Fiske’s example of ripped jeans. D&G write:

    “There is a rupture in the rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of flight is part of the rhizome. These lines always tie back to one another. That is why one can never posit a dualism or a dichotomy, even in the rudimentary form of the good and the bad. You may make a rupture, draw a line of flight, yet there is still a danger that you will reencounter organizations that restratify everything, formations that restore power to a signifier, attributions that reconstitute a subject…” (A-O, p. 9)

    So now we have iTunes giving you the option to “gift” music to a friend; to send them multiple separate tracks; you can still make a “mix” in the digital sense of the concept, which is a sort of resistance to a top-down song sequencing, but now you have to pay $1 per song.

    I think more than resistance, mix tapes are “sites of antagonisms,” to use Lazzarato’s words.

    I do like the idea of “noise” as resistance in music production (i.e. feedback). I think my favorite example here is Ween and lo-fi aesthetics in general; using a small four track recorder to write and produce your own music, outside of a corporate system, having a small distribution, etc. The most important part is the lo-fi quality, the warmth of some of those old tapes I still have in shoeboxes. They are little acts of resistance against slick production and they are good because they aren’t “good.” But now I’m just being nostalgic.

    Great post Aaron; got me thinking about some things.

  2. Aaron Trammell says :

    Stuart Hall is, in fact, extremely pertinent to this discussion as he did try to reconcile this cross section between the social and technological. It’s interesting to consider that for Hall, deciphering or decoding is an act of negotiation on the part of the listener, and therefore the a point where social “noise,” is introduced. Hall’s cultural studies approach also coincides discursively with some other important breaks from the transmission communication model, like “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” by James Carey. This is a bit of an academic feint away from some of the concerns you raise above regarding information discourse and Bell Labs. No longer does the perspective of “noise as problem” hold the theoretical sway that it once did in the academy.

    That said, I’m not sure there is a common sense perspective outside of academia that reflects the consideration which has been placed into this theoretical scaffolding. I’m fairly confident that “noise” is still laden with negative connotations, and these are often constructed as obstacles which people struggle to overcome. This is reflected in network design, acoustical engineering, domestic engineering and even behavioral patterns. These patterns manifest in actions as simple as searching for a new bar because the prior haunt got too “noisy.” Noise problems are frequently solved with legal sanctions and scientific development. Because these institutions concern themselves with objective measurement, I feel a duty to give these factors a critical weight that is not outright dismissive.

    For me, this critical weight manifests in an attempt to look at the ways people embrace noise, especially in instances where many perspectives come into play. Mixtape revivalists exemplify this sort of convergence specifically due to the cross-play of both the social and technological. Certainly, I could explore Sterne’s perspectives regarding the technological, by exhuming grammaphone revivalists who embrace an obsolete technology, or Attali’s perspective by examining the cultural circulations of mix-CD’s, blogs, and podcasts. I choose mixtapes however, because there is something poetic about how well they address both the social and technological. There is a certain spirit which travels with a mixtape, and tells stories all its own. These days – when I listen, I hear a lonely tale about some songs which couldn’t be forgotten through the crackle, hiss and drone of a medium that could.

  3. Aaron Trammell says :

    Thanks for all the great feedback! Nick – I appreciate your trepidation over some of my word choices, I maintain a strong social constuctionist perspective within which I work to undermine traditional understandings of things like “measurement,” due to their ultimate socially relative natures. Also, I understand that information/noise is just one way to approach mixtapes, but it is so interesting! I’m working a lot within information science circles right now, and the constructions of Shannon and Weaver are extremely pertinent to the epistemics which ground that field’s work. Transmission model communication is rarely interrogated, and things like social rituals often slip through the cracks. I hope that helps a little in contextualizing these ideas.

    As far as mix-tapes go, I think it is amazing that people still make and identify with them, even though they have become inconvenient. It’s no longer easy to make a mix-tape, and it’s rare that you can find a player to listen with anymore. They are still traded, however, and in many circles given a bit of ‘cred.’ I love mix-tapes dearly, and for years I tried to explain myself through them. In many ways this was the seed for this idea: what rituals and social values still surround these artifacts?

    • Nick says :

      I had no idea that mix tapes were still made in any significant number—that’s very interesting, and certainly something to interrogate. I imagine there is quite a bit that is different, w/r/t obsolescence etc., in these tapes as opposed to those of the 1980s.

      I also wanted to name-check Stuart Hall in here. His encoding and decoding model does seem to be the link between Shannon, the comments JSA made above, and media/cultural studies. Does the endorsement by Hall take away my worry about the universalizing tendencies of information theoretical discourse? I’m not sure.

  4. Nick says :

    I’m fascinated by Shannon-Weaver model mostly because it so plainly describes an intrusive “other”—look at noise, over there, getting in the way!—as if “noise” comes from somewhere other than the very conditions of our mediatized communication. The more traditionally-defined “noise” in the case of the physical mixtape—hum, wow, flutter—is native to the medium and perhaps more “naturally” present than the communication itself. I wouldn’t say that Shannon and Weaver are the source of “noise as problem”—check Attali for that—but they are definitely a source of the contemporary usage of “noise as informational problem.”

    The other half of this, which you incorporate as “noise” and JSA elaborates on in her comment, is the idea of “social noise” or “discursive noise” et c. I think connecting the Shannon-Weaver model to attempts to eliminate this social noise is the right move, but I’d be wary of defining the noise in terms of their model: The military simplicity of Bell’s desires (see how Shannon discriminates between regular, easily removed interference and the irregular, more insidious because it looks like data noise) runs counter to the academic preference for thick descriptions and intricate, local understanding. Talking about mixtapes as noise in this context strikes me as similar to the universalizing cybernetic discourse that arises in the 20th century, treating all as information, or the regular historical tendency to reconsider the world by analogy with novel technologies (the world is a stage, the world is an engine, etc.)—approaches that grow stale rather quickly in their over-simplifications.

    I’d love to read more of your thoughts on mixtapes (you don’t get to them until relatively late in the post, and I actually read it thinking of “mixtapes” in a more general sense, divorced from tapes themselves, which made your assertion that they are “measurably inferior” a head-scratcher). Actually, I would be careful with the “measurably inferior” thing too—inferiority is primarily a social and historical situation (they certainly weren’t “inferior” to mp3s before mp3s, and their inferiority to vinyl is debatable, even in terms of frequency response), and the conditions that produce “measurably” emerge in conjunction with the media themselves. Sterne’s book, especially the chapter on the social construction of fidelity, gets at this quite well.

  5. drjsa says :

    Very interesting post. . .i guess i had never thought of mixtapes as “noise” quite in this way. It is interesting to think about them from the perspective of the listener as well. The makers of mixtapes often embed a narrative within the mixtape for a particular listener to receive. Sometimes the message is received, loud and clear, and other times, not so much! I think “noise” for the listener can arise when songs are included that are very very new –until repeated listening makes them familiar–and/or songs are included that grate on the listener’s sensibilities (how many times have we all gotten the mixtape from that friend who is hell bent on introducing you to a band/genre/label she loves. . .but you don’t?). It is especially “noisy” when fast forwarding is difficult. You can’t unstick or erase that song, so you must endure it. One’s changing relationship with the producer also can produce “noise”–if things go awry, certain tapes just simply become unlistenable. You are dead on with the idea of noise being dependent on context and community–and it keeps on changing.

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