ASARMD 2019 – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Each July, for the last several years, Laurie and I have made what has become a pilgrimage to Santa Fe where I have been a participant in the American Society for Aesthetics Rocky Mountain Division (ASARMD) Conference. Last year (2019), while Laurie finally had the opportunity for some extended wandering in the markets and museums and galleries, I chaired two excellent panels and delivered a paper. This post is about my paper; I will post later about some of the panels I attended and those I chaired.

First, the full text of my paper, as delivered. Then some discussion of the comments and suggestions it generated.

Noisome Utterances: A Speculative Essay Toward an Aesthetics of Annoyance

My paper today emerges, in part, from some of the possible intersections among my dissertation-related musings, research into imagination and affect within the civic ‘sphere’, the more shadowed affects and effects of our current US—if not world—political situation, and my abiding interest in the intersections between Classical Rhetoric and Aesthetics.

The proximate cause of taking up the notion of noisome utterances as a point of entry for this project was observation of the annoying antics of Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio during his opening remarks at the most recent round of Michael Cohen Congressional hearings—though I was aware of his interrogation techniques from the Secretary Clinton hearings—and thinking, at the time, about the rhetorical and, dare I say, poetical (in the sense of ‘making’ and ‘theatric’) aspects of his performance. A video example might be appropriate at this point but for the time it would consume and the annoyance it might cause; though that latter consequence might also help me make my point.

My approach to this project, as it continues to develop, will be autoethnographic and phenomenological, working from ’thick descriptions’, in the sense of Ryle and Geertz, of my own lived experience of annoyance.

Starting, then, we have some crucial definitions and connections:

The first thing to establish is what is a ‘noisome utterance’? One way to start, of course, is to break it apart, find the generally accepted, commonplace definitions of the component terms, and then re-assemble them into a definition for the composite term.

Running the various OED definitions together yields a bulky but serviceable start; one reading goes something like this:

A “harmful, injurious, noxious” or “annoying, troublesome” or “disagreeable, unpleasant, offensive” or “foul-smelling” “manner of speaking” or “spoken (or written) statement or expression” or “articulated sound” (this is comprised of the OED definitions of noisome, 1-4, and the OED definitions of utterance, 4 and 5a).

In developing a more expansive ‘definition’, I take up and attend to the affective and sensory aspects of the imageword (a term taken from compositionist Kristie Fleckenstein) presented by ‘noisome utterance’. In doing so, I may be stretching Fleckenstein’s notion (think of other imagewords you have encountered like ‘natureculture’ and ‘theorypractice’) but, to account for what I see as the interlapping relations of affects from the component terms, the concept of imageword is appropriate, if only as an inventive trope.

Noisome, or Noisesome (with the extra ‘se’) if you happen to be an ‘obsolete’ from Scotland, indicates just what it sounds like: some noise, with all of the associated unpleasantness stemming from any attendant dissonance and incoherence (cf. OED definition of ‘noise’). But, that limits us to the aurality of a noisome situation (which, by the way, is where a great deal of empirical research into annoyance seems to have been directed). What would, or could, be such a noise to any of our other senses? Thinking, for instance, of the remainder of the canonical five senses: what would be haptic noise, gustatory or olfactory noise, or visual noise? I think we can agree that such noise, if noisome and taking whatever form it might, would generally be grating (imagine that as a haptic experience), inclining toward the wholly unpleasant. And these questions do not begin to scratch the surface of all possible polyaesthesial (or interanimation of) or synaesthesial (cross-mapping of) sensory experience(s) affecting the sensorium. And here I take the sensorium to denote what Debra Hawhee and Joseph Dumit call “the [entire] sensing package that constitutes our participation in the world.”

By way of example, for some people, Trump can be considered a multimodal, even polyaesthesial, source of annoyance. And, here, by polyaesthesial, I mean, unlike multimodality, that stimulation of one sense can cause consequent responses in multiple senses. His voice, while not taking into account what he is saying with it, is a noted source of annoyance; I have friends who not only will not but cannot listen to him. His rhetorical choices, in both the pejorative and non-pejorative senses, while not taking into account how it is that they are uttered, have been identified as offensive and troublesome in ways not observed among past presidents or some of the more extreme members of the last or current Congress. His appearance—that is, the way he presents himself, his gestures, his facial expressions—contributes to an unpleasant visual experience. Taken together, these observations suggest that the noisome presents itself on not only a physical level but psychic one as well.

As for utterances, these need not be spoken words or phrases, nor even simple sounds made by forcing air through our wind sections. Attending to the performative aspects of utterance, it is neither a conceptually nor a rhetorically large step to move from speech acts to other actions or activities that mark or identify any of us as particular subjects: that is, markers like hair color and style, the costumes we wear (like ‘legible clothing’), even the prostheses we use to get through our day (e.g., smartphones and tablets, ear buds, fitbits, the glasses many of us wear or not) elicit affective responses from others.

I say rhetorically, here, because I am thinking in terms of the capacity of such utterances to move the persons experiencing them to act or react in particular ways. This pushes us in two directions. First, toward thinking of such utterances instrumentally, as suasive ‘speech’—think Antony before the mob in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That is appropriate in terms of any affects stemming from an utterance. Second—and more importantly—it moves us toward attending to the interlapping and interanimating rhetorical, in terms of constitutive, effects and affects that constitute each of us through the multiple ecologies in which we are immersed. This is a direction in which many contemporary rhetoricians have been moving.

Now the big term: annoyance. There are few—so far I have found no—studies specifically of annoyance that approach it as I am taking it up here, that is from an enquiry into its experiential, affective aspects. The results of Google Scholar and Academia searches for research into or related to annoyance are dominated by IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) research papers that (a) take annoyance to be a well understood phenomenon and (b) focus on sources of annoyance—most specifically, various kinds of noise (recall the Scottish variant of noisesome), e.g., helicopter and jet aircraft noise, traffic noise, railway noise, low-level sonic booms, and low-frequency wind turbine noise. More recent studies consider synergistic effects and affects of auditory and visual noise, e.g., the low-frequency thrum of wind turbines accompanied by visual presence of rotating blades. But, these papers never quite get around to asking or answering: What—at the level of experience and affect—is annoyance?

I contend it is not, nor is it a form of, anger. Anger is a cathartic (καθαρτήριος, or cleansing) emotion. In Book II of his ‘Art’ of Rhetoric, Aristotle takes up what he perceives to be the psychological contributors to suasive speech. This ‘psychology’ is a crucial part of his project; he makes it clear at the outset that rhetoric is not ‘the art of persuasion’ but is, rather, the technique (τέχνη/technē), the skill or craft, of discerning or of “discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever” (Freese trans., 15). In Chapter 2 of Book II, he takes up anger as an inroad to techniques of persuasion, defining it as: “a longing, accompanied by pain, for a real or apparent revenge for a real or apparent slight, affecting a man himself or one of his friends, when such a slight is undeserved” (Freese trans., 173). This is not annoyance, per se, though it could be the result of prolonged, repetitive annoyance. Annoyance, as I construe it, is a non-cathartic response to an affective situation; it is more like a physical sensation (αἴσθησις/aesthesis) than an emotion (πάθος, πάθη/pathos, pathē). This is not to say that annoyance does not have variable intensity, nor that prolonged annoyance will not lead to a cathartic/cleansing outburst, but that annoyance and anger are dissimilar and discontinuous.

I think we all have a gut-level (visceral) grasp of annoyance, of what is meant when someone says, “Stop annoying me!” or, “You are so annoying when you do that!” But, can we clearly state what it is that we mean by annoyance? As before, turning to the OED offers some assistance: It can be either an ‘act’ of annoying or a ‘state’ of being annoyed. And, given the continuous deferral of real meaning offered by the dictionary, we might get more help from a thesaurus. Though a similar form of deferral could be said to follow from using a thesaurus, it does offer us the opportunity to build a common understanding of annoyance through triangulation of a variety of alternate terms, including irritation, vexation, frustration.

Some may have noticed by now that I have scrupulously avoided using terms like irritate, or irritation. Arguably, an acceptable synonym for annoyance is irritation. As explored by Sianne Ngai in her book, Ugly Feelings, it shares some crucial attributes with and contributes to my thinking about annoyance. And, I do like the way the intersections between annoyance and irritation are amplified by the bodymind (taken as an imageword) relations inherent in the emotional and the physical senses of irritation. But, I prefer working with the idea of annoyance because of the expanded range of sensations/feelings/affects it brings with it. Where irritation does carry with it certain somatic connotations of an abrasive experience, as well any cutaneous and sometimes subcutaneous reactions to such an experience, annoyance—as I construe it—is a more comprehensive upset to one’s sensorium.

I realize at this point it might appear as though I am breaking things into component parts only to recombine them as I did earlier with the OED definitions for noisome and utterance. Shifting to a ‘story’ might help to better illustrate and make my point about the imageword of ‘noisome utterance’ and its relation to an ‘aesthetics of annoyance’:

I have the luxury of taking my morning walks in a good-sized desert park within easy walking distance of our home in Las Cruces. I particularly enjoy being there when the creosote bushes are respiring, filling the air with a pungent greenness. Or, better, during the start of or immediately after a rain just heavy enough to raise the petrichor. More often than not, though, while walking there I am assailed and assaulted by the annoying reek of ‘Fresh Scent’ (or otherwise flavored) laundry detergents, or fabric softeners, or bath soaps, or colognes, or perfumes, or other unnatural smells as some of my fellow walkers pass by me on the trails. On some days, I can smell them coming around a corner or over a hill before I can see or hear them (and don’t get me started on the people having telephone conversations or listening to talk radio on a handheld, volume cranked). These experiences call to mind and represent for me an almost willful violation of the sense of the desert given by the film version of T.E. Lawrence who, when asked what attracts him, personally, to the desert, replied simply, “It’s clean.”

There is nothing ‘clean’ about these noisome utterances.

In a related sense, being sensitive to the fragility—as well as the beauty—of the desert environment, I am annoyed by the ecological predations of the invading retirees (admittedly, I am one of them) and the migratory snowbirds who, with their terra-forming efforts to enclose and eradicate the desert, plant and tend green-grass lawns and water-hungry trees (I don’t do this), a particularly egregious behavior given the water issues we have in southern New Mexico. Yet, it is fair to say I’m also a bit annoyed at my own reaction here, the smell of grass, fresh-cut (usually wafting from the golf course that surrounds the desert park) is not annoying, not in the least. In fact, it is pleasant.

Can the experience of annoyance be ‘pleasurable’ in any way? I’m inclined to say, “No.” Certainly not in the same sense Aristotle suggested the possible pleasurable aspects of anger. Recalling his definition of anger, what strikes me is the longing for “revenge for a real or apparent slight […] when such a slight is undeserved” and the pleasure derived in contemplating that revenge: “it is accompanied by a certain pleasure, for this reason first, and also because men dwell upon the thought of revenge, and the vision (φαντασία/phantasia) that rises before us produces the same pleasure (ἡδονὴν/that is, sensual pleasure) as one seen in dreams” (Freese trans., 175). There is a piece of me that (now) wants to know the cause of the difference in my reactions—another rabbit hole, another paper, another conference. That said, there does seem to be a self-congratulatory pleasure in the contemplation of one’s annoyance. 

Summarizing and concluding with three points that I hope I have carried along with me in this speculation might help to clarify this last remark:

First, annoyance is a wholly subjective response to experience; idiosyncratic, one might say. If I have not made it obvious up to this point, I have tried to imply that while I might feel annoyed by certain things, others might not find those things annoying at all. And, in the case of the walkers in the park, or the retirees and snowbirds growing grass and trees, I am—or people like me are—very likely annoying for them.

Second, there is a continuum of annoyance, unique to each of us. Some things are just not as annoying as others. Different people have different thresholds for annoyance. Importantly, annoyance is not anger and it should not be thought of as such (though we should be aware of the possibility and the opportunity for annoyance to ‘jump the gap’). It is, rather, as Sianne Ngai might call it, an ‘ugly feeling’; which leads to my final point.

Annoyance is a non-cathartic response to some unpleasant experience, likely the thwarting of some desire, of which we might not even be aware. It is more unconscious than conscious at its inception. There is nothing ‘cleansing’ about annoyance—not at all like the cleansing experience of anger, in the cathartic sense. Rather, there is a certain smug self-satisfaction to annoyance that, on some reflection, leaves you feeling soiled.

Thank you for your attention to this speculative sketch. I welcome any and all suggestions for rocks I’ve not looked under that I ought to.

Discussion – Comments – Suggestions

As I tried to make clear at the beginning of my presentation, this paper has both an underlying, ‘root’ cause and a more immediate, proximate cause. First, the proximate cause: I have watched, since the Secretary Clinton hearings, what are to me the clearly partisan ‘antics’ of Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, as he berates and badgers Congressional witnesses he considers to be (political?) targets. I say, here, “what are to me” so as to make clear that this is both a sensory and a conceptual perception on my part, experienced from within my particular frame of reference (political and ethical). It was while watching Jordan that the phrase ‘noisome utterances’ occurred to me. The underlying root cause is my ongoing dissertation work, which is—of course—always in flux but despite that remains focused on the role of imagination (specifically φαντασία/phantasia) in the affective and constitutive aspects of ‘rhetoric’, taken broadly, in the public sphere (see a forthcoming post on my paper at ISSN 2020).

The folks at the ASARMD conferences are among the most welcoming and generous of interlocutors and, consistent with that, this paper generated some wonderful questions and suggestions which I did my best to capture. The post-paper discussion split itself pretty evenly across the line separating ‘act’ and ‘consequence’. I am chagrined to say that not only did I start this post almost a year ago (immediately following the conference), leaving it sitting in DRAFT form for almost a year, but I have not yet taken the time to follow up on many of the leads I was provided.

One respondent suggested exploring the relation between ‘annoyance’ and ‘taking it personally’ or ‘moral outrage’. This is, I think, related to establishing a threshold at which behavior becomes annoying, there is an important qualitative difference between Elijah Cummings’ righteous indignation, and his passionate expression of it [‘taking it personally’, ‘moral outrage’], as he dressed down the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Chief and the gratuitous badgering of Congressional witnesses that has become the raison d’être of the likes of Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. And, just as there is a qualitative difference between them, there is another between our reactions to them. Another respondent suggested exploring the difference between intentionality and obliviousness in the ‘act’ of being annoying. Following that thread could also shed light on what another respondent suggested as differentiating between justified and unjustified annoyance, in terms of both the act of annoying and the response to (presumed) annoying acts. I think all of these warrant further exploration.

Suggestions for areas of expansion and further research included the works of Epictetus (at which I have not yet looked despite knowing I should), the social psychology aspects of actor/observer theory, and the annoyance factor associated with music played intentionally off-key or with a change of key from minor to major, or vice versa.

But, perhaps the most intriguing question raised by one respondent (and one that generated a lot of head nodding and vocal approval) was: “Can I annoy myself?”

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