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Background Noise: A Reading Response to Alphonso Lingis’, <I>The Murmur of the World</I> and Michel Serres’, <I>Platonic Dialogue</I> Background Noise: A Reading Response to Alphonso Lingis’, The Murmur of the World and Michel Serres’, Platonic Dialogue

While reading this week’s assigned essays, I was troubled by the statement Alphonso Lingis makes in “The Murmur of the World” that “…background noise is essential to communication”. My first reaction was to wonder how that could be so. Would not the background noise make the text more difficult to understand? After thinking about the concept for awhile I realized that one issue surrounding the background noise is that of finding meaning in context.

The distinctive dialect, the regional accents, the cultural backgrounds, etc. that make up part of the background noise provide the reader with clues to the context in which it was written. At the very least, the background noise affords the reader a chance to narrow down the infinite number of contexts to choose from.

I find myself applying this concept to primitive mythology studies. Bronislaw Malinowski in his essay “The Role of Myth in Life” says that “The text, of course, is extremely important, but without the context it remains lifeless” (Malinowski 201). The context, - concerning primitive mythology - are the cultural and sociological components that surround a mythological text. This background noise, consisting of the understanding of the culture in which the myth extends from, is essential to effective communication of the text. As Malinowski says, myth “is not merely a story told but a reality lived” (Malinowski 198).

Taking for an example the story of the sacred stone in primitive Tikopia society (Firth 207), the text is altered depending upon this background noise of culture. If the reader is unaware of the author (or speakers) background, then the text is subject to miscommunication. The primitives have a version of the sacred stone that differs from the version of the Christian missionaries. If one were to read the text without knowing which version he was reading, he would be wide open to misinterpretation of the text. The context, in this case, is essential to a valid reading of the text. The “…background noise is essential to communication” (Lingis).

Serres says, “…it is understood only if the receptor possesses the key to the drawing.” As I read that statement I thought again of finding meaning in context. While both Lingis and Serres go more into depth on the subject of communication, I keep finding myself coming back to this concept of context and how it effects communication. In all readings, especially in literature, it would seem of paramount importance to know the context in which the text was written, to “possess the key to the drawing”. Without knowledge of the author and the author’s background how can a reader begin to interpret the text in the manner that the author intended? Without knowledge of the historical content behind the writing how can the reader understand the text? (I think of Gulliver’s Travel’s here – it is a near impossibility to appreciate the text without knowing the history being satirized.)

These essay readings were very thought provoking and I will have to read them a few hundred times more. I know for certain there are many more ideas in these essays that I haven’t even come close to deciphering yet.

Works Cited

Firth, Raymond. “The Plasticity of Myth: Cases from Tikopia”. Sacred Narrative.

Alan Dundes, ed., Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.

Lingis, Alphonso. “The Murmur of the World.” The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1994. 69-105.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. “The Role of Myth in Life”. Sacred Narrative.

Alan Dundes, ed., Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.

Serres, Michel. “Platonic Dialogue.” Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. Eds. Josue V. Harari and David



K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2004, 2006


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