Alex Vann


“A Language of Disruption: Noise and Narrative in Nicola Barker’s H (A) P P Y ”

Sound is a modulation of difference, a difference of difference.[1] - Aden Evens

Working against the grain sharpens things…[2] - Nicola Barker

1. Information as Sound, Sound as Society

Information systems dominate our existence in the modern world. Satellites, the internet. These information systems of computational communication configure how information is sent and received in the 21st century and permeate throughout the “developed” world. Within the academic discipline of information theory, such communication fields are visualised as waves: the modulation of signals directed by a messages “wavelength” (Fig. 1).[3] ‘Waves are comprised of a state of fluctuation between potential energy and dynamic energy’, simply they exist in a state of constant variation between possible and processed energies.[4] Information travels in waves in the form of light and sound, the electromagnetic spectrum, and so allows for the human senses of hearing, sight, and vision to form interpretations of our social environment.[5] Concentrating on the vacillations of the wave, it can be observed that the wave changes drastically depending on the energy output. The most suitable explication of this is in modulations of sound, by which the fluctuations in frequency or pitch alter the interpretability of soundscapes. The longer wavelength of low-frequency sound produces the soundscape of a “deep” tone or pitch, whereas a high-frequency produces a more “shrill” high-pitched sound. The visual qualities of the waves are a useful image, as the gradual rise-and-fall of the low-frequency and steep incline of high-frequency signals seem to personify the type of sound they produce (Fig. 2).[6]

Due to this wave-like quality, sounds are often thought of as unitary signals, when in fact the production of a sound is dependent, in the words of Rick Altman, on the arrangement of ‘multiple separate sounds organised in a familiar, recognisable fashion.’[7] While sound is in itself an organisation of disparate factors of frequency and pitch, there is an interpretive difference between sounds that are regarded as pleasant – music chief among these – and those that are indicative of “noise”.

Reactions to noise are vital in setting-up a theoretical frame for interpretation.   As such, it is important to return to the scientific framework that determines the physical qualities of sound. Where music, as discussed above, is the deliberate organisation of sound, noise is defined by Abraham Moles as ‘any undesirable signal in the transmission of a message through a channel’.[8] Noise, then, is an interruption, a disturbance to intelligibility due to its high frequency (Fig. 3).[9] This does not mean, however, that noise is uninformative. For, though the high frequency of noise makes it unintelligible in terms of qualitative data, it remains to be interpreted, to be heard. Writing on the distinction between noise and signal, Moles posits that

there is no absolute structural difference between [them]. They are of the same nature. The only difference which can be logically established between them is based exclusively on the concept of intent on the part of the transmitter: A noise is a signal that the sender does not want to transmit.[10]

The interpretation of noise within the social sphere is based largely on this question of intent. Whilst Moles attempts to highlight similarities here, he is aware of the interpretive differences between signal and noise. Namely, that ‘signal appears to be essentially an ordered phenomenon while crackling, or atmospherics, are disordered phenomena, formless blotches on a structured picture or sound.’[11] To see noise as a formless thing that distorts the “order” of intended information disregards the interpretive possibilities that noise holds. Noise, as a physical electromagnetic entity, rests in the “waste” space of a transmission – the extra-auditory  space between the wavelengths of the intended transmission. These spaces can be filled with noise or with nothing. Referred to as “redundant” space, these gaps of intended sound are present in every signal that does not harbour the “crackling atmospherics” of noise that Moles alludes to. Commenting on the spatiality of data transmissions, Gabriele Rippl considers noise as ‘the direct opposite of redundancy: While redundancy is perfectly intelligible but contains no information whatsoever, noise is unintelligible but maximally informative’.[12] In line with this, Rippl defines noise ‘as both a communicative disturbance and the signal that exhibits the highest amount of information because it is the most unpredictable, most entropic signal and thus diverges most radically from what we already know.’[13] Where signal (the completely intelligible message of sound) is harmony, noise is dissonance.

Noise and its discordant qualities question the very interpretations we make regarding sound. Moles’s suggestion that ‘the distinction between “noise” and “signal” is easily made on the basis of the distinction between order and disorder’ is one that pervades theoretical standpoints on sound. Expounding on Moles’s idea of the order/disorder binary, Jacques Attali wrote that ‘[w]ith noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world [, that w]ith music is born power and its opposite: subversion.’[14] In Attali’s formation, music epitomises power, the order of social cohesion, whereas noise becomes the epitome of anti-establishment thought. This binary of order/disorder, whilst invoking the scientific methodology, may be interpreted in a sociological sense: “ordered” signals can be posited as reflective of a dominant social order that benefits from the silencing of noise. Attali suggests that, to maintain a harmonious form of social order, it is necessary ‘to ban subversive noise because it betokens demands for cultural autonomy, support for differences or marginality’.[15] Transmitting signals that are subversive to the status quo are noisy in their very existence. They draw attention away from the centre of society and transmit it outwards, to the margins.

The banning of “subversive noise” – which may equate not only to noisy neighbours, but also  cultural noise, that may draw too much attention to a certain political ideology –  perpetuates the idea that noise is equal to disharmony, disinformation. Antithetical to this is the social ‘concern for maintaining tonalism, the primacy of melody, a distrust of new languages, codes, or instruments, a refusal of the abnormal’ which, for Attali, is the maintenance of a superficial status quo.[16] The disguised normality of tonalism also weaves false logics into the social imagination. Where a preference for tonalism is present, a cultural logic of social harmony comes with it. If the information that is sent into the social sphere has a singular interpretation, then the “noise” that is usually bought alongside any transmission is waylaid. A sort of sociocultural orthodoxy is transmitted, its tonal “harmonies” accepted as the status quo. These interpretive singularities are mediated and relayed as normalities through bodies of governance, in order that they may be followed and not questioned. Such discursive singularities can be figured as a one-way-system through which those in power further a monotonous sense of societal “harmony”, of normality, that disregards scapes of sound and voices that differ from normalised interpretation. As such, a modular singularity – a piano concerto, a radio-opera – is formatted as universal truth.

 2.Noise as Culture, Culture as Noise

Art, and indeed everything that may be referred to underneath the umbrella of that term, is often a school of what passes as inventive expression and what does not. There are certain aesthetic choices delineated as the only interpretive options to make a work of art. According to the popularisation of “general fiction”, as it is called in the publishing industry, plot overrides the stylistic, aesthetic, or formal experimentation of the literary imagination. In literary culture, the resounding preference of a socially realistic plot over a cultural imaginary that, as Michel Serres says, ‘always breaks new ground’ is a signifier of cultural homogeneity.[17] I would argue, however, that culture in general, and especially literary culture, exists in the background of this mainstream homogeneity of ideas, styles, and forms. To think of literature as the background and base of society is to align it with Serres’s idea of noise as the background to life, ‘buzzing like disorder and clamouring like chaos’.[18] For Serres, noise and culture are habitually similar in their qualities for diverse, maximal interpretations: ‘noise is born of the multiple, or is the pure multiple in vibrant proximity […] it is an undulating field’.[19] This multiplicity of interpretation echoes the chaotic waveform of noise (fig. 3) in that it undulates in vibrancy. These facets will be the main focus of this theoretical premise going forward.

Aligning culture with noise, literary theorist William R. Paulson formulates that literature is a ‘noisy transmission channel’.[20] The idea of literature as a “noisy transmission” imagines the literary as indeed more than a mere transmission of information, and works of literature as more than transmission channels. Paulson explicates that literature ‘functions as the noise of culture, as a perturbation or source of variety in the circulation and production of discourses and ideas’.[21] It is of interest that Paulson uses an electromagnetic lexicon here, treating the flow of ideas and discourses that literature enables as a “circulation”, a circuitry. It is in this circuitous routing of discourses that a literary text performs its own ideas through form, style, language. Indeed, for Paulson,

[w]hat we seek in a literary text is something unique to that text’s verbal arrangement, unique to its way of not exactly communicating what we might think it means to say. By saying differently, by producing meaning through systems that are not those of everyday language, not even those of everyday literature […] it incites us to learn to become its reader.[22]

This ideological changeability is ingrained within the theory of culture as noise. With the disorder of learning to encode a literary text with meaning that may or may not be what it means, our own complexities as human beings are modified. We encode ourselves into the multiplicity of the text through the ability to interpret, through the text’s noisy waveform, its informatic circuitry. Literary experimentation and its ever-changing heterogeneity means that

[t]he disorder, the noise of literary language can become information for us, can bring us to more subtle forms of understanding, because it is the unexpected, the radically different to which we can respond only because we are already complex being capable of yet more complexity.[23]

Literary interpretation in its subtle forms of understanding and negotiating subjective meaning is a coda for democratic knowledge production. In reading a literary text and navigating its noise, the reader enters into the discursive production of ideas that are fostered and extrapolated into an intersubjective way of seeing and thinking the world. As Wittgenstein once stated, ‘only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning’.[24] Only through thought, its interpretation and application into social life, is knowledge created. Rather than accepting truths, to interpret the literary – especially that which is experimenting with the form of the literary itself – is to question and renegotiate the objectivity of knowledge and meaning. Such interrelations between interpretation and meaning are perceptible motifs in our prior discussion of noise. Images of circularity, multiplicity, connectivity are evident in thinking of noise as culture and culture as noise, and of both these formulations as vehicles of meaning-production. It is such statements that this essay aims to bring into action.

Experimental fiction is most adept to taking on the malaise of information in today's saturated scene of technological mediation; writing experimentally is formed thought at its most wild. As Nicola Barker said in a 2018 interview with The NewStatesman, ‘[e]xperimental novelists and artists provide the ideas that form a cultural plankton for bigger organisms to feast upon […] Working against the grain sharpens things’.[25] Concordantly, this essay will focus on Barker’s Goldsmiths Prize winning novel H (A) P P Y (2017). Situated in a future that is both placeless and timeless, H (A) P P Y is narrated by Mira A, one of The Young that inhabit a perfected world where everything is known. In this world, The Young are made chemically perfect, never ageing past adulthood, never dying, never desiring. They monitor themselves through The Graph, a virtual chart that shows how In Balance a person is, which is in turn monitored by The System – the governing socio-economic structure. As the reader follows Mira A through her experiences, her questioning of irregularities in both The Graph and The System bring about disparities between what is known and what is not.

This essay will question the notions of melody, harmony and universality, and the claim that sonic congruity is a signal of given truths. Through an analysis of the narrative, stylistic, and formal characteristics of Barker’s novel, this essay will explore the stifling effects of a society in which imperfection and its role in meaning-creation is the only unknown. By applying the theoretical standpoints demonstrated in this essay so far, noise – in both its sonic and cultural meaning – will be established within the novel as an imperfect vehicle through which Barker questions ideas of objectivity and perfection. With a focus on the management and suppression of information within the narrative and Barker’s use of typographical experimentation, I aim to show how Mira A’s disjunctive existence in The System exacts a “noisy” commentary on socio-cultural subjectivity and creativity.

 3. ‘All connections are arbitrary’: The (Im)Perfections of Music and Meaning[26]

At the beginning of H (A) P P Y, Nicola Barker recommends that her work is ‘best enjoyed in conjunction with Agustín Barrios: The Complete Historical Guitar Recordings 1913-1942’. (H, p. iii) We can receive this in two ways. One: a personal recommendation based on Barker’s particular taste for early-20th Century latin instrumentalists, and two: a key for how the author would like us to read her work of experimental fiction. It is clear from Barker’s endorsement that the novel is informed by music. Indeed, it may be said, that even the particular features of this collection of Barrios’ work: the free-form, experimental nature of the composition, as well as the crude, grainy quality of the sound recordings. Interpreting Barker’s epigraph in this sense allows us to read the novel with a keen eye to how the fictional systems created influence ideas of experimentalism and interpretation.

In the opening chapters of H (A) P P Y, we are introduced through Mira A to The System: the structure that governs The Young. Integral in this social structure is the all-knowing perfected purity that The Young are imbued with, maintaining their youth and preventing death. The Young were ‘given just enough choices to make us feel as though we were free, but not so many that our minds (our still-fragile intellects) became overloaded [sic]’. (H, p. 1) This statement reflects the informational bias towards wavebands of noise. The idea of an information overload – the maximum input of sound – is delineated as negative, and so this drip-feeding of signals through The Sensor is reflected as a social good. Where information is limited, that which is rejected can be theorised as the “subversive noise” that Attali theorises. Information, the free access to ideas and knowledge, is figured by The System as linguistic noise and negative transmission. As such, ideas of perfection and knowledge pervade the narrative structure, informing Mira A’s actions and language. This free access to information is cordoned through The Graph which censors, through a “pinkening” of words, the thoughts of The Young. To make this visible to the reader, Barker uses colour in the text to elicit the significance of language within The System’s parameters of control. Nowhere is this textual experimentation more evident than when Mira A notices an ‘oscillation’ (H, p. 123) in her Graph: ‘How curious… How perplexing. A malfunction? A blip? A kink?’ (H, p. 5) Words, figured as dangerous through their emotional “strength”, are human “noise” that are prohibited without the formality of illegality, censored without being censored. Mirroring Attali’s theory of social harmony, this betokening of the differences in human existence as negative halts any form of subjective meaning creation that doesn’t align with The System.

The increasing regularity of these unwanted transmissions occur due to Mira A’s affiliation with the musical. Within the novel, music is aligned with an excess of emotion and thus an excess of sound. Speaking of the violin, Kite The Mechanic, who chemically infuses The Sensor when it requires fixing, states his dislike of music because it is ‘Too emotional. Even jigs […] as if the riotous surface of celebration masks something underneath, some kind of… of emptiness or… or inadequacy’. (H, p. 12) Emotions are represented as an ‘unproductive form of self-indulgence’, a noisy bi-product of human existence. (H, p. 13) However, Mira A stipulates that emotion ‘permeates music […] lives in the minor key’. (H, p. 13) Entwining the noise of language with music as ‘the organisation of noise […] reflects the manufacture of society; it constitutes the audible waveband of the vibrations and signs that make up society. An instrument of understanding, it prompts us to decipher a sound of knowledge.’[27] Music is reflected through Mira A as the noise of disparate meaning, a way of accessing previously inaccessible knowledge:

guitars are all precious now (and all valueless, and all the same, and all perfected, and all readily available to anyone who might feel in need of one). So it was strange that I should find myself searching The Past for information about any other kind of guitar than the kind I have which is a perfectly wonderful kind of guitar, a guitar that I am truly and completely and utterly con… con… H(A)PPY with. […] And this precious guitar was anything but perfect. It was imperfect! It was a traditional wooden guitar; pear-shaped. I focused in on the picture so intensely that the image became grainy (this was still a time when images became grainy, a time of discord, of mischief, of fracture and of pixellation. A time without True Clarity. A time of blurred edges). (H, p. 6)

These grains of visual noise and cracklings of sound surround Mira A’s associations with the imperfect guitar. As with Moles theory of noise, these atmospherics are full of possible meaning and interpretation. Curiously, Mira A’s fascination with that which is imperfect is associated with The Past – a time of ‘Plagues’ and ‘Death Cults’ –  which implies the creative malleability of that which has imperfections, as well as the constrictions of that which is perfected. (H, p. 1) Seeing this imperfect object as “perfectly wonderful” allows Mira A to see the value in the flawed objects of the past, and thus sparks her interest in the muddled histories of sound. As such, Kite recommends that Mira A play the kora in order to re-align The Sensor and The Graph. The kora ‘is a double-bridge-harp-lute with twenty-one strings. The strings descend in two, separate ranks. […]  The tuning on the original kora was quite unstable […] The Young, however, play a perfected version with tuning pegs.’ (H, p. 53) Again, we are confronted with the dichotomy of instability and perfection. The System has perfected a complex instrument and transformed its many creative possibilities into the perfect signal, the ordered message of its ideologue. Through Mira A’s conversion to the kora we can see an evident shift in her character’s frustrations with the perfect models of knowledge that are upheld within The System.

Upon being prescribed the kora, Mira A attends the kora group – a sort of musical therapy session. In this, the reader is introduced to the “inner-meanings” of perfection. Though the instrument is modified, and by all means “perfected”, The Young are the true instruments of perfection. During this first session, Kipp says that ‘[p]erfection is not about the instrument itself […] but how we, The Young, choose to respond to the instrument. The tuning fork is in our hearts. Perfection is contained within us. It is something we express, something we cleave to’. (H, p. 59) This somewhat romantic ideal of the heart being in-tune, further aggravates Mira A’s feeling of difference. It uncovers the issue with the perfected structures within which The Young live, that it is wholly prescriptive in its association of knowledge with Truth. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes, collaborative intention should ‘converge towards a pre-inscribed whole’.[28] However, such prescriptive modes are bound to draw subjective limitation, and as such I disagree with Berardi’s notion of collaborative unity in this instance. Though driven by a ‘pre-inscribed design’ and rationale, as Berardi notes, Mira A strives to experiment with the kora, and create beyond the limitations of its tuning pegs.[29] The social co-operation of The Young is, in Berardi’s words, through an ‘enforced embedding of a prescriptive telos in the activity of [their] cognitive [actions which are] the peculiar action[s] of power: an act of limitation, of subjection.’[30] This prescriptive issue denies any subjective value to a narrative that aligns itself wholeheartedly with the production and value of knowledge; when all knowledge is known to its absolute Truth (or perceived as Absolute Truth), autonomy cannot be granted, information cannot be free, meaning cannot be subjective. The Young learn from a source that is perfected before their input and as such they are chemically configured to abide by the rules and restrictions of The System. Prescribing meaning before it is subjectively experienced solidifies experience within the ordered signal, the receptive message, the creative quagmire of perfection. Such questions will also be posed to the narrative noise used by Barker, which I will expound on in the next section. But here it is relevant to apply this idea of cognitive action to Mira A’s connection to musical skill and technique, and how that degenerates any sense of stable meaning.

Mira A’s understanding of the kora is underpinned by its limited capabilities. On the “perfected” instrument that The Young play, ‘the pitch is much more limited than on the original instrument, where the ability to modulate the subtleties of tuning was an intrinsic part of the skill of the player; a marker of experience, of knowledge, of experience’. (H, p. 54) This limited capability mirrors the limited informational accessibility of the systematic perfection with which the Information Stream is made. The original imperfection of the kora, as with the guitar Mira A dreams of, evokes an aura that is ‘[s]o warm. So evocative. So joyful. So fresh’, so accented by emotion. (H, p. 54) This modulation of emotion that draws Mira A to the instrument is silenced through its perfection. The experimentation required by the player with the original instrument, void of tuning pegs, is inscribed through the requirement for “intrinsic skill”. Such limitations that are intoned within its perfected tones and pitches reflect the prescribed and ordered signals that are approved of within The System. As Attali notes, a silencing of subversion is in tune with the maintaining of a social cohesion, and the silencing of the kora and the experimentalism implied within its very modal configuration is aligned with this social perfection: ‘The Young play a perfected instrument. A limited instrument’. (H, p. 54) Limiting creativity, the perfected instrument silences social differentiation. Mira A, drawn to these different ways of seeing and thinking, concentrates heavily on the limitations of the kora’s singular tonality. By highlighting the “subtleties of tuning” that are lost through the application of tuning pegs, the kora can be figured as ‘the mark of something missing, a shred of utopia to decipher’.[31] Just as with Mira A’s interest in the imperfections of history, so the imperfections of musicality and experimentation are thought of as ‘information in negative’ in which meaning could be inscribed ‘allowing those who hear it to record their own personalised, specified, modelled meanings, affirmed in time with the beat’.[32] It is with such subjectivity that Mira A is drawn to the idea of tuning an instrument for oneself, to imbue a melody with imperfect emotion that is different from the social score.

Hidden underneath these limited layers of silence hums a noise, a history of possibility. In her dreams, Mira A is confronted with images of multitudinous melodies far more complex, more convoluted, more ambitious than anything I have engaged with before. You might call it a mosaic – a musical mosaic. There are many parts to it. […] And each plucks and hums in a different way – resonates at a different level. (H, p. 31)

Imagining musical composition as a mosaic widens what can be interpreted. The physicalisation of sound here, and Barker’s choice of image, connotes a whole made of different pieces, each made subjectively, highlighting the need for multiplicity to create meaning. The complexities of these sounds proffer the necessity of interpretation within knowledge production, to create new ways of seeing, listening, thinking. Accentuating the interpretive quality of noise, the sound resonating at different levels within Mira A’s dream reflects Serres’ theory of background noise, that which ‘is born of the multiple, or is the pure multiple in vibrant proximity to rousing, to sleep, to awakening, to sleepiness – it is an undulating field’.[33] Through noise, meaning swells and ripples and the differentiation present in this dream-song furthers Mira A’s craving of difference, something multi-layered, away from the one-note perfections of The System. These background noises present throughout the novel – particularly in Barker’s repetition of ‘minor chord’ –present an underlying rhythm of inaccessible knowledge.(H, p. 36) The noise that enters these dreams in the form of experimentation provide Mira A with information that allows her to question The System. Relatively, it simulates Rippl’s theory that noise, as the most entropic form of sound, produces meaning that diverges from that which is already known.

4. ‘The words of the story shake themselves out’: Experiments in Noise and Self-Expression (H, p. 279)

In the use of music as a conduit for the construction of meaning, Barker disentangles traditional literary modes of expression. This is mirrored in the narrative through literary experimentation, which constitutes what William R. Paulson theorises as the “noise of culture”. Creating a system in which meaning is complex and easily misunderstood signals a permeable surface for interpretation, a ‘rich and indeterminate margin into which messages are sent off, never to return the same, in which signals are received not quite like anything emitted’.[34] Experimentation exists within the literary not only to push the form of the novel, but to diversify the ways in which readers interact with their own forms of meaning creation. As such, the physical narrative of H (A) P P Y is permeated with the noise of experimentation to make the reader’s experience of reading a complex narrative of its own.

We encounter this noise in Barkers prominent use of colour, as previously touched upon, which highlights the interjection of narrative between reader and meaning. Eminently, colour is used as a disambiguating force that separates Mira A from the all-knowing Information Stream of The System: ‘It makes us H(A)PPY… H(A)PPY H(A)PPY […] Why does the A persist on disambiguating? On parenthesising?’ (H, p. 4) Drawing attention to the physicality of the text, this use of colour separates Mira A from the usual subservience to The System, showing that she is a “disambiguating” being within The System, the catalyst with which the narrative will question how meaning is created and questioned within the novel form. This disambiguation also leads to Mira A questioning her compulsion to speak, to create noise: ‘why am I talking? What am I doing? Why am I rehearsing this?’ (H, p. 4) The parenthesising “A”, as well as being a metaphor for Mira A’s own parenthesis within The System, leads to her questioning The Graph and The Sensor. Although these technologies are all-knowing, Mira A’s (mis)understanding of their intention reveals her own difference. This use of questioning also points to Barker’s intriguing self-referentiality within the novel. Using Mira A’s self-made narrative, Barker questions the validity of her own narrative construction: ‘This is a curious splicing, an amalgam of ideas, photographs, written text, recordings, objects and hearsay forged into a four-dimensional document’. (H, p. 68) Such self-referential techniques create further textual noise within the novel; the meaning of the narrative is not self-contained, but intangible. Thus, meaning can only be created through the reader’s interpretation and self-expression, through their subjective application of meaning into the text. Prior to the major visual experimentations in the text, Mira A lies between attempting to conform to The System’s narrative of absolute knowledge and drifting away from such forms of knowing. She realises that the ‘narrative is consuming me! And what will remain thereafter? Just two clamps and a small pile of tinder? And a slight oscillation? And a gap? A hole? An echo? A question?’ (H, p. 123) Exhibiting the numerous possibilities of subjective experience, these questions reference the experimental techniques that Barker uses to further disambiguate Mira A, her narrative, and the reader’s experience of reading from a knowable literary referent. The reader should let the narrative consume their thoughts and remain interrogative.

Questioning the prescriptive system, Mira A’s Graph begins to replicate her process of thought. Barker uses this physicalisation of thought as the basis with which to experiment with text, visualising Mira A’s venture into the unknown qualities of associative thought (Fig. 4). (H, p. 130-5) The gaps in text can be interpreted as the fractures present within The System, gaps of creation and self-expression. The carving-out of these frantic, repeated phrases that “echo” across the page realise Mira A’s questions of intentionality, highlighting that there are also gaps in our knowledge as readers if we take the novel at face-value. The shadowing around these unknown symbols also draw attention to the palpability of the bookitself, as if the symbols carve through the physical page. Additionally, these gaps perpetuate Mira A’s position within, or rather without, The System; she exists within the gaps of meaning and knowledge through her own experimentation with music which is, here, visualised within her Graph. As well as confronting the reader with the liminality of the reading experience, these gaps relate cautiously to the superficiality of the novel form by steering the narrative. The gap between author and intention has a deep relation with how the reader constructs meaning, and Mira A’s interrogation of systemic knowledge simulates Barker’s examination of the author’s self-expression through experimentation, adding further to the noise of culture present here. Setting precedent for the important relation between void and congestion, noise and silence, within the novel visual experimentation is a motif of Barker’s narrativity throughout.

This first instance of experimentation signposts Mira A’s break with the “grand narrative” of absolute knowledge. Subjectivity, the need to express ones own experience become ‘gaps… spaces. […] Strange spaces pushing their way in between the language’. (H, p. 117) Again, these gaps become the “push” with which Mira A’s narrative progresses. The ability to interpret information for oneself, to decipher the unknown, is visualised in these spaces of emptiness and contrasted with the meandering linguistic play that carries on around it.  From the disambiguation between her thoughts and The Graph, she proclaims ‘I MUST TELL THE STORY OF MYSELF!’ (H, p. 195) Through Mira A’s decision to take control of her own narrative direction, the noise that was the background hum of musicality now shouts through the silence bought about in an attempt to halt the historical information overload she receives about Agustín Barrios. (H, p. 181-93) It is not coincidental that Barker only increases the typographical experimentation after her protagonist makes this story-changing decision. The noise of culture takes hold of the narrative direction, as the disambiguation of language becomes a wave-like form, vibrating at multitudinous intensities: ‘I am not speaking. There are no words, as such. I am simply vibrating.’ (H, p. 232) Thinking of language as a sonic entity, it may be said that vibration is suggestive of the noisy transmission channel that Paulson’s work is concerned with. Sonically, vibrations

do not disappear, but dissipate, echoing all the while, for energy is conserved. Every vibration, every sound, hangs in the air, in the room, in bodies. Sounds spread out, they become less and less contracted, they fuse, but still they remain, their energy of vibration moving the air and the walls in the room, making a noise.[35]

The waves that emanate from vibration, being those electromagnetically transmitted by a noise, relate to the dissipation of knowledge through literature. It can be specifically seen in a linguistic sense through Mira A’s transition into a vibratory state, allowing herself to mingle freely with ‘[n]ew tunings – different frequencies – pure sound’. (H, p. 240) As with Rippl’s formulation of sound, what could be considered “pure sound” is that which is maximally informative and most entropic – noise. This is rendered visually through a collation of different fields of information – from mathematic equations to paraphrasing Lacan – as a way to express noise as a tangible concept (Fig. 5). (H, p. 241) Through the creation of her own narrative, Mira A forms monolithic structures that evoke the noise of both information and self-expression; forming shapes, melding theories, and forging textual space with visual expansion (Fig. 6). (H, p. 253) By equating Mira A’s personal freedom with the creation of meaning, Barker’s experiments in the visual are exemplars of the creative purpose of the author to create meaning through complexity, to dissipate knowledge through self-expression. Including scientific illustrations, Barker highlights literatures place alongside its “objective” sibling in the interpretation of knowledge. Interrelating disparate academic disciplines also calls attention to the subjectivity present in all creation of meaning, for all meaning is reliant on some form of experimentation, some form of noise, before it can be signalled. And of course, ‘any literary attempt to represent noise must grapple with its unrepresentability’.[36]

Signalling is a concept that lies in duplicity as Moles theorised in his order-disorder dialectic. For there to be an intelligible message, there must be indecipherable noise. In a similar fashion, Barker’s experimentation pushes Mira A’s narrative to meet her sister star Mira B. The two are immediately related in terms of their emotive synchronicity: ‘There are two of us, we are two: desire and restraint – we are double, like […] A and B. She was always there. Waiting for her chance. And the second star oscillates – even more than the first.’ (H, p. 196) Mira A and B are metaphor for the text itself, for experimental language use. Two sister systems: desire and restraint. These two concepts interlock through the sister stars and their transmissions of noise; ‘[i]n their rhythmic structures; their jarring juxtapositions of different media, genres, and styles; and their textual dislocations and fragmentations, these texts themselves become sounding objects’.[37] The subversion of sound is present in the sister’s very communication. They are able to connect because of an experimental relativity present within them, their relation to language and meaning being one of enquiry. This is exemplified through their meeting in The Cathedral, where Mira A experiences language as tentacles that ‘hiss’ around her and manifest her creative method, carving the walls with repeated words that fluctuate, pulsate around gaps to construct illusions of form (Fig. 7). (H, p. 270-7) Alluding to the construction of texts, this creative flux bonds Mira A and B as one exegetic force: ‘For the line between music and language is another of the zones of indistinction […]. Language meets multiplicity in thirdness […] it meets music in sound, and in the fact that it shares sound’s own emergent relation to noise’.[38]

The emergence of language as tentacles, as architecture, as sound, hybridises concepts seen as separate epistemological realms and practices. This emerging and bonding of ideas are present in Mira A and B. As the two beings bond, experimentation culminates in a kind of rebirth. Barker uses imagery of the Immaculate Conception to show that anyone can imbue themselves with the idea of knowledge by creating meaning. (H, p. 279) By discovering Mira B, Mira A flourishes and becomes at peace with the unknown. Through noise, particularly the repeated imagery of the ‘8Hz’, Barker examines and brings to the fore the constant negotiation between knowledge and experimentation. (H, p. 243-4) As Brandon LaBelle expresses, ‘questions of noise open onto experiences of intrusion and interruption […]. By doing so, the vitality and vibrancy of bodies may be seen as reliant upon the strangeness of others’.[39] The oscillation of Mira B into existence alongside, and possibly as a result of, Mira A’s creativity solidifies a sense of difference and disjunction that is suppressed within The System. By silencing subversive voices, their vibrations and ambiguousness, The System silences subjective thought and the possibility for experimentation. It is this subversion that Barker narrativises through typographical and visual experiments, expanding the formal possibilities of the novel form alongside her character’s creative agency. Mira A, at one with the unknown possibilities of language, can live in a silent contentment that ‘I will keep moving forward, so long as there are words, and I watch them dancing ahead of me’. (H, p. 279)

5. Conclusion: The Unknown

This essay has explored noise as a scientific, social, and literary entity. Connecting the forces of electromagnetism and musicality with social and linguistic concepts of noise, the immaterial materiality of sound has been considered as equatable to knowledge. Using the theories of Michel Serres, Abraham Moles, Jacques Attali, and William R. Paulson, I have traced a lineage – all be it a brief one – between science, philosophy, art, and society. Using these theoretical standpoints, the analysis of literature has been key to expressing the convergences between knowledge and the unknown. Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY is the (im)perfect vehicle for such questions. Through the examination of musicality within the novel as a foil to the perfected world of The System, with its all-knowing Information Stream, we are able to uncover the relations between sound, knowledge, and creativity – particularly the creation of meaning. From this, the novel can be seen as a text that performs between boundaries of epistemology and ontology; as well as questioning what it is to know and create knowledge, and how this shapes our existence. After all, “knowledge” is merely a word. And, in the words of G.L. Hagberg, to “know” is simply ‘a work of fiction, which presents to us, with great delicacy and sensitivity, the stream of thought and life in which the word, in some of its many varieties and characteristics, is significant.’[40]

Through the analysis of the varieties of experimental typography in the novel, it has been outlined how the hybridising of epistemologies and the use of experimentation creates a platform for interpretation. Experimentation, as the “noise of culture”, implicates what we think we know into the unknown. It parallels form with formlessness. Using these ideas, this essay has critiqued The System in the novel as a metaphor for knowledge, and shown how an acceptance of creativity, of the unknown qualities of art, can form new knowledges and enter ones consciousness into new realms of feeling and emotion. Barker’s intertwining of narrative with experimentation ties the theoretical with the tangible. By inspecting the impact of noise on the Mira A’s narrative world, we have been able to track the impact self-expression and creativity has on the restraint to learn, to subvert, to be different. Through this critique, noise, as the ‘backdrop of the universe’ and the catalyst for meaning, has been exhibited as a crucial component to drive experimental fiction into wider societal discourse, whilst maintaining its complexity. There is a requirement within the literary of this complex factor; it ebbs and flows through the reader and emerges as subjective meaning. By experiencing literature with our own subjective eye, the political landscape of our own world may be at peace with the unknown, with the knowledge that complete knowledge is ungraspable. We may learn, through the literary, through the noise of culture, to illuminate ourselves through that which is different and ‘softly embrace silence[s]’ within ourselves and others. (H, p. 282)

Work Cited

Altman, Rick, “The sound of sound: A brief history of the reproduction of sound in movie theaters” in Cinéaste, 21:1-2, (1995)

Attali, Jacques, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985)

Barker, Nicola, H (A) P P Y, (London: William Heinemann, 2017)

Berardi, Franco ‘Bifo’, Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility, (London: Verso, 2017)

Evens, Aden, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2005)

Gatti, Tom, ‘The slow death of the literary novel: the sales crisis afflicting fiction’ in NewStatesman, 13th January 2018

Goddard, Michael; Halligan, Benjamin; Hegarty, Paul (eds), Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise, (London: Continuum, 2012)

Hagberg, G.L., Meaning and Interpretation: Wittgenstein, Henry James, and Literary Knowledge, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994)

Halliday, Sam, Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture, and the Arts, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013)

LaBelle, Brandon, Sonic Agency: Sounds and Emergent Forms of Resistance, (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018)

Moles, Abraham, Information Theory and Aesthetic Perception, (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1969)

Paulson, William R., The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988)

Rippl, Gabriele, (ed), Handbook of Intermediality: Literature – Image – Sound – Music, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015)

Scarlatos, Tony, ‘Making Waves’, (New York: Centre for Visual Computing, Stony Brook State University), <> [accessed 15 April 2019]

Serres, Michel, and Roxanne Lapidus (trans.), “Literature and the Exact Sciences” in SubStance, 18:2, pp. 3-34, (1989)

Wang, Meng-Hui; Yau, Her-Terng, ‘New Power Quality Analysis Method Based on Chaos Synchronization and Extension Neural Network’ in Energies, issue 7, pp. 6340-6357, (2014)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Zettel, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967)


[1] Aden Evans, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 15

[2] Nicola Barker quoted in Tom Gatti, ‘The slow death of the literary novel: the sales crisis afflicting fiction’ in NewStatesman, 13th January 2018 <>

[3] Tony Scarlatos, ‘Making Waves’, (New York: Centre for Visual Computing, Stony Brook State University), <> [accessed 15 April 2019]

[4] ibid.

[5] This covers anything from visible, to infrared or ultraviolet light, and gamma- micro- or radio-wave signals. For more information see: ‘Electromagnetic Spectrum’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, <> [accessed 15 April 2019]

[6] Scarlatos

[7] Rick Altman, ‘The Material Heterogeneity of Recorded Sound’ in Sound Theory, Sound Practice, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 18

[8] Abraham Moles, Information Theory and Aesthetic Perception, (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1969) p. 78

[9] Meng-Hui Wang and Her-Terng Yau, ‘New Power Quality Analysis Method Based on Chaos Synchronization and Extension Neural Network’ in Energies, issue 7, (2014), p. 6350

[10] Moles, p. 79; signal is the sound that is intended to be made, serves a purpose as it were; the attention-grabbing beep of a traffic light crossing comes to mind.

[11] ibid.

[12] Gabriele Rippl (ed), Handbook of Intermediality: Literature – Image – Sound – Music, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), p. 1240

[13] ibid.

[14] Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), p. 6

[15] ibid., p. 7

[16] ibid.

[17] Michel Serres and Roxanne Lapidus (trans.), “Literature and the Exact Sciences” in SubStance, 18:2, (1989), p. 14

[18] ibid., p. 22

[19] ibid.

[20] William R. Paulson, The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. ix

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid., p. 99

[23] ibid.

[24] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967), sec. 173

[25] Nicola Barker quoted in Tom Gatti

[26] Nicola Barker, H (A) P P Y, (London: William Heinemann, 2017), p. 245; hereafter abbreviated to H

[27] Attali, p. 4

[28] Berardi, p. 339-40

[29] ibid., p. 339

[30] ibid., p. 340

[31] Attali, p. 9

[32] ibid.

[33] Serres, p. 22

[34] Paulson, p. 180

[35] Evens, p. 14

[36] Rippl, p. 1243

[37] Rippl, p. 1239

[38] Brian Massumi, ‘Floating the social: an electronic art of noise’ in Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise,  ed. Michael Goddard, et al., (London: Continuum, 2012)

[39] Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency: Sounds and Emergent Forms of Resistance, (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), p. 69

[40] G.L. Hagberg, Meaning and Interpretation: Wittgenstein, Henry James, and Literary Knowledge, (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 178