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On Moses Sumney’s album græ, Taiye Seyasi says that,“etymologically, isolation comes from insula, which means island.” The idea of an island is that of isolated land—is-land, a sort of contraction, a body of land insulated by a body of water.

When I say island, I think of how the s is silenced into a phonetic i. I don’t know if I want to say, “I’m always contracting parts of my body” or “Parts of my body are always contracting.” I don’t know if I want to efface myself from my body, like it’s an island I happen to inhabit. I try to tic silently, which means I couldn’t write this in a library. I hold my breath during moments of silence. The longer my boyfriend holds me, the more my limbs need to tense. I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to need to be alone. I don’t want to calibrate myself when I’m not alone. I am tired of the first person, all the noise about/from/that is myself.

I’ve written so many variations of this, so I guess I can’t be too tired. It’s nearly every poem I’ve published, every graduate application I’ve sent. I’ve sounded the same for so long, so I try sounding myself from other angles. “To ‘sound’ something,” as Stefan Helmreich posits in Sounding the Limits of Life, “is to seek to ascertain its depth, as for example, when oceanographers sound to find the ocean floor.” It is to find a limit, what Helmreich subsequently locates as “the point at which an identity uncouples from itself and shades or snaps into something else.” The tic marks a limit where my body sounds most dissonant from me. Across my body, I have several flavors of limit: motor and vocal, sniffs, squeaks, strains, and clenches. If I think in terms of how long I can go without, I will. I feel most limitless when I don’t think about limits. I feel best when I don’t think.

I think having Tourette’s syndrome made me want to be an anthropologist because I wanted to understand what made things extreme. I started listening to metal in part because I liked when people said it wasn’t music, that it was too noisy. I wanted to know why some sounds were music and others were noise, why noisiness seemed like the condition of not-music according to the people around me. I strained my ears toward the screams, as if deciphering the words was the only way to ascertain a language of intensity. Each tic is an intensity. Each tic withers in intensities that compete with its own. I cannot hear myself in a mosh pit, or anywhere that is consistently loud or physically demanding. So, in this sense, I came to insulation.

Credit: Yulya Bortulyova/iStock (1368011030)
Hand with pen.


I make my poems to make a way through what I often perceive as mess. This is not the only reason to make a poem, but it’s what I’m usually doing. That “way through” I hope worries certain Orders I find odious—sometimes even versions of my own.

—Douglas Kearney, Mess and Mess and

The “way through,” then, is a messing with. Instead of sounding out, noising into. To noise something is to interfere with it, its limit, to site the limit as a condition of interference.

A poem is a medium to noise into mess. It troubles the waters of my constitution. I wish I had the constitution to let myself be messier in poems, to shift from something more narrative to a scream. But, as Clarice Lispector writes in The Passion According to G. H., “Maybe disappointment is the fear of no longer belonging to a system.”

A system, etymologically, suggests something set up, an organized whole. But the suffix -em, akin to the –oma in the names of many tumors, evokes excrescence, a latent capacity to exceed itself. A poem, like a poet, has or is a body, a system. How far can my language swell before it fails to function, before belying my performance of self-containment? At the limit marking out of control, how does this system sound? If “a system is often described as a harmony,” as Michel Serres writes in The Parasite, “what use is it to be concerned with a system in disequilibrium, a system that does not function right?”

This question has motivated much of the anthropology of infrastructures—how, following Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel, “the very idea of ‘disruption’ operates with the assumption that quietly working infrastructures are ‘normal.’” A body is a system of systems, a structure of infrastructures, and I should not be able to hear my nerves, the products of their disturbed circuitry. If, returning to Serres, “the introduction of a parasite in a system is equivalent to the introduction of a noise,” my body parasites itself, or parasites me, or I am my own parasite.

Writing against the “ideal of poetry as something noiseless, something the author is in control of,” the poet and translator Johannes Göransson turns to the parasite in search of “a way to view translation and all of its noise, not as an impediment to poetry but as a way that translation generates ‘something new’ . . . with intensity and mutation.” I would add that the noise of translation generates because it impedes, because it works through disjunctions rather than equivalences. The bones of the human skull, for instance, register underwater sound insofar as they resist it. The condition upon which underwater vibrations are registered as bodily resonances, then, is impedance. How might translation be understood as a registering of feeling, of force? Or, if not a registration, as a register: a form of noise, a practice of noising?


“Because of sound’s seemingly instantaneous arrival,” Helmreich writes in “An Anthropologist Underwater,” “underwater sound is perceived by the untrained ear “as emanating from within one’s own body.” It makes sense that what is believed to be the earliest documented account of Tourette’s, from the fourteenth-century Malleus Maleficarum, culminates in an exorcism. I can’t write about Tourette’s without thinking about haunting, which slips into possession, which slips into control. I can’t control what isn’t mine, but I can control myself, at least marginally, the same way I can sometimes stall a sneeze through stretching that untranslatable feeling before. With my tics, the energy concentrates at many points of my body. The devil’s many fingers pressing. A chain of islands submerging, burbling back.

When I reach down into the prodrome, when I sound the immanence of the erupting tic, I feel both intercepted and intercepting. I face a parasite, Serres’s conception of “noise in the sense of disorder, and thus chance, but noise also in the sense of interception, an interception that changes the order and thus the meaning, if we can speak of meaning.” What does a noise mean? Can a noise mean? Can a tic mean anything other than disorder, than syndrome?

If my tics are instabilities, they are rather stable. My interceptions are aleatory, but systematic nonetheless. “If you introduce an impurity in a crystal,” Serres writes, “you will have produced a transistor. A semiconductor.”

Michael Silverstein uses transduction to think of how meaning, like energy, is transformed as it moves across systems of understanding. At an energetic transduction site, Silverstein writes, “two modes of mechanical energy are converted in a functionally regular way into another kind of energy altogether”: an intensity driven by a force against the force of its conductors. However, Silverstein also notes that this movement is not impervious to “some slippage between the two systems of energy organization, due to ‘friction,’ ‘inefficiencies,’ ‘random contingent factors,’ and other tragedies of the laws of thermodynamics and of uncertainty.” Whereas the narrowest sense of translation entails the “gloss” of roughly interchangeable elements in a universal code, transduction gets at what evades, or exceeds, this attempt at a one-to-one correspondence.

Thermodynamic inefficiency is construed as tragic. The only thing more tragic than being inefficient is being broken. The second law of thermodynamics is violated by a demon. In an undated letter, Maxwell crafts a catechism. He observes that, by nature, demons are “very small BUT lively beings incapable of doing work but able to open and shut valves with move without friction or inertia.” Some demons are smarter than others. The less intelligent ones, Maxwell continues, can “produce a difference in pressure as well as temperature by merely allowing all particles going in one direction while stopping all those going the other way. This reduces the demon to a valve. As such value him. Call him no more a demon but a valve like that of the hydraulic ram, suppose.”

The demon becomes valuable only when reduced to a function. The demon becomes valuable only when it is no longer what Serres calls “the Demon, prosopopoeia of noise.” “To think transductively,” according to Helmreich, “is to attend to the earache, to imbalance,” to impedance, to that which functions because or in spite of its dysfunctionality.

In his essay “Transluciferação mefistofáustica” (Mephistofaustian Transluciferization), Haroldo de Campos speaks of a translation “possessed by demonism . . . neither pious nor commemorative” but nonetheless creative. “At its limit,” he continues, “it strives for the effacement of its origin: the obliteration of the original. I will call this parricidal unmemory transluciferization” (my translation). This idea of “creative” translation cannot be predicated on an ideal of fidelity, which, in the context of sound, positions noise as that which compromises an otherwise stable signal. Instead, there is, as rendered in English by Campos and Gabriela Suzanna Wilder, “Satan’s semiological sin, il trapassar del segno (Par. XXVI, 117), the trespassing of the signical limits, in this case, the translation of the apparently natural relation between what is dichotomously postulated as form and content.”


I can also, also, also, also, and, and, and

—Moses Sumney, from g(spoken by Taiye Seyasi)

“The work of literary ethnography,” Angela Garcia writes in her contribution to Crumpled Paper Boat, “is the perpetual search for words and forms of writing that seek fidelity to the people with whom we work, or fidelity to our own ideas.” I am constantly in autoethnographic encounter. I am attempting to understand fidelity noisily, in terms of what, in another sense of the word, compromises it.

Compromise always involves concession, whether mutual or at someone’s or something’s expense. It is a relation that strikes a balance: to be with promise, com-promise. In his article for The Promise of Infrastructure, Brian Larkin suggests that a “promise can refer to a vow, or a commitment, but its other meaning refers to the coming to be of a future state of affairs.” If a nervous system is an infrastructure, mine promises nothing about its future beyond its own continued interception. In a sense, it is static. In another, it is limitless.

Compromise is a relation that unbalances, and there is no fidelity without yielding. I can only work with myself through the noise of all my workings against, in a system that is sometimes called me and sometimes my body. There is no noise without a body. Though the etymology of the word noise is contested, some trace it as coming from nausea, from naus, as in nautical: a boat. A boat is a vessel, which is to say a body, a body translated across a body of water. The boat only sails when it disturbs the water, whose waves disturb the boat. What is compromise if not mutual disturbance? What is a loop if not, returning to Douglas Kearney, a circle that accumulates? A continent is just a massive island that eventually sinks.


Justin Greene

Justin Greene is an anthropologist, editor, poet, and translator. He is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley studying the publication of literary-critical magazines in São Paulo, Brazil. He is an editor for Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences and edits the online journal Ki.

Cite as

justin-greene. 2024. “On Noising, or an Autoethnographic Poetics of Writing Tourette’s Syndrome.” Anthropology News website, January 11, 2024.