# PHILOSOPHY /// Pulse Demons by Eugene Thacker

The human swarm in Dante’s Divine Comedy by Gustave Doré

Regular readers of the Funambulist have read about Eugene Thacker at least for the Cyclonopedia symposium he organized at the New School with Ed Keller and Nicola Masciandaro and the lecture he gave to it, Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans. In the following essay published by Culture Machine in 2007, he explores the notion of swarm, not only to the behavioral level that fascinates many artists and scientists (and architects… see the swarm interviews in the sidebar), he attempts to distinguish behind this collective entity, a presence of the non-human, i.e. demons. The example of the New Testament and its famous phrase “I am legion” as well as the swarm described by Dante in his Divine Comedy (beautifully illustrated by Gustave Doré) are exemplary in this regard, but E.Thacker goes beyond those paradigmatic narratives. In fact, he starts from the Sanskrit etymology of the swarm itself as meaning ‘to resound’ in order to investigate this collective unified sound (dramatized in horror movies) as carrying a hidden meaning that can be explored in a form of counter-Kaballah like in Xenakis or Dumitrescu’s music for example.

Pulse Demons
by Eugene Thacker

Contemporary popular culture often privileges the visual representations of swarms. In film, the development of complex algorithms for simulating group behavior has produced a number of spectacular, technologically-sublime scenes. One thinks, for instance, of the Lord of the Rings and Matrix trilogies, while earlier examples such as Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers, and Batman Returns are often cited as important benchmarks in the attempt to render dynamic, aggregate forms in more complex ways. Recent films such as 300, Day Watch, and The Reaping continue to push the boundaries in the genres of the war epic, science fiction, and horror, respectively.

The science behind such algorithmic representations is related to a cluster of research fields, including complexity (and its sub-branch, biocomplexity), fuzzy logic, and basic principles from nonlinear dynamics/chaos theory. Reducing to the extreme, we can say that these sciences adopt two main positions. First, they promote a more ‘bottom-up’ approach to the understanding of complex phenomena, in which multiple, local interactions are seen to produce complex, global actions. Secondly, they imply an understanding of complex phenomena that cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries, from biology to communications to economics. The abstract pattern that results from such studies imples a certain continuity across both scales (from the individual to the group) as well as across nature-culture divides. (Complexity science has been applied not only to group animals but also to economic systems and even human history itself; Ball, 2004; Kelly, 1994; Watts, 2003.)

Nevertheless, the strongest evidence for complexity comes from its study of the natural world. This includes both the study of inorganic or nonliving phenomena, but has especially taken hold in the study of group behavior in animals. Not surprisingly, insects are a favorite object of study (Brown, 2006; Preston, 2006; Sleigh, 2004). While the scientific study of ‘social insects’ goes back to the 19th century, philosophers and poets have long mused on the mystery of insect organization, while also evoking some comparison with human beings. Some, like Aristotle, take an additive approach, in which the human being is the animal ‘plus’ something (a rational psyche or soul). Others, such as Hobbes, admit that both humans and insects form ‘societies,’ but also that humans are unique in that they consciously establish a body politic and sovereign ruler – that is, only humans exit the state of nature by entering into contracts. Emphasizing the laboring capacity of insects, Marx also admits of a correlation between humans and insects, but adds that only humans conceptualize and design a model before actually building. This additive approach does have important exceptions. Bergson argues for a generative, creative evolution of insects that is equal but qualitatively different from that of humans. And Deleuze and Guattari’s comments on ‘packs’ and multiplicities even tends towards a reversal of the hierarchy altogether.

Given this long-standing and tension-filled relation between humans and insects as group phenomena, it is no surprise to find insects and insect-related behavior in contemporary popular film. In many cases, the actual software used for the animation of such scenes – many of them scenes of war – is derived, in part, from research on insect self-organization. Recently this field has been referred to as ‘swarm intelligence’. The central mystery which researchers explore here is how complex task fulfillment is possible with no over-arching plan or leader. The oft-cited case studies include food foraging in ants (in which each ant starts out on a random path in search for food, laying down a chemical trail), nest-building in wasps (which involves iterations and recombinations of basic structures), and the synchronized flashing of fireflies (which has been observed to display periodicity) (Camazine et al., 2001). From this, one topic of interest has been that of mathematically-based approaches for simulating and generating such complexity (e.g. ‘particle swarm optimization’ approaches). It is endeavors such as these that have been applied to a range of technical problems, from information packet routing, to the design of collective robotic systems, to computer-generated animation in film.

Speaking generally, a whole process is established in which something called a ‘swarm’ is first identified as a discrete object of study and then abstracted into a set of mathematical principles, which are then applied in areas such as computer animation. We see a swarm, abstract its essence, and from that are able to design and re-present that swarm (though in different clothing, as it were). But this is not quite accurate. For many of the swarm animations we see in films are not totally programmed down to the last detail. In this bottom-up approach, what is actually designed are, instead, the conditions or constraints for some sort of group phenomena to collectively and relationally actualize itself. The swarm is thus not top-coded, but bottom-coded.1

But the problem is that swarms are not only topologically complex, but phenomenally complex as well. For example, cicadas constitute a swarm, not because of their coordinated, bodily movements, but because of the collective sound they produce. In fact, cicadas are more often heard than seen – indeed, they are quite impossible to locate by sound. Even in cases where swarming is visually present – locusts or large-scale starling flocks – the swarm is a massive acoustic event as well. There is something ‘living’ here, but something that may have nothing to do with biology or the organic. The Hungarian composer György Ligeti cites cicadas as an influence on his work, but also the sound of raindrops on a roof, or even the sound of car horns in a traffic jam.2

This leads us to our opening question: How to think ‘swarming’ without an undue bias towards the logic of the visual and the representational? Let us first pause a bit on this idea of swarms-as-sound.

2. Sound and Swarm

It is quite plausible that the concept of the swarm is acoustical before it is visual – even when it is represented. Dante, in the Inferno, gives us one striking example. As Dante and Virgil enter the ‘Vestibule’ of Hell and approach the River Acheron, they experience their first real encounter with the swarms of the damned:

Here sighs and cries and shrieks of lamentation echoed throughout the starless air of Hell;
at first these sounds resounding (risonavan) made me weep:

tongues confused, a language strained in anguish
with cadences of anger, shrill outcries
and raucous groans that joined with sounds of hands,

raising a whirling storm (tumulto) that turns itself
forever through that air of endless black,
like grains of sand swirling when a whirlwind blows. (III.22-30)

This is the first real dramatic scene in the Inferno. It is the first depiction of the masses of bodies that populate each circle of Hell.3 As Dante and Virgil approach the river, Dante hears the swarm before he sees it. Furthermore, the swarm is not so much a set of discrete units but, as sound, it becomes indistinguishable from the very elemental properties of the storms and whirlwinds themselves. Dante has difficulty ‘pointing’ to the swarm at the same time that he phenomenally registers its (acoustic) presence. This is, indeed, not uncommon in the Inferno; the swarm’s sound always precedes its visual or corporeal manifestation, even to the point that the latter becomes effaced by the former.

But the swarms in Dante’s Inferno are at once disordered and yet tightly controlled and managed. Each instance of swarming takes place within the rigorously defined and disciplined strata of Hell, where each punishment is tailored to each transgression. Thus the sound of the swarms indicates not simply a self-organization (as with insects) but a political dimension as well. The function of this stratification of Hell is thus not simply juridical or punitive, but also governmental – the swarms must be managed and yet allowed to flow (since the swarming is in each case tied to a particular punishment – e.g. a wind storm linked to the transgression of lustful desire). Dante’s Inferno presents a twofold governmentality of swarms – both a ‘vertical’ hierarchy and categorization, and a more ‘horizontal’ regulation of the flows of bodies.

The sound of swarms is also linked to the etymology of the word itself. It is derived from the Sanskrit svárti meaning ‘to sound,’ or better, ‘to resound.’ This latter – to ‘resound’ – is more than simply producing a sound, or causing a sound to be produced. Rather, to resound is to have an effect that permeates. This is particularly the case with the depiction of swarms as demonic. The paradigmatic case here comes from a much-referenced passage in Luke, which deserves to be quoted at length:

They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!’ For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Legion,’ he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into them, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. (8: 26-37)

In this passage there are several types of swarming occurring. Within the possessed individual are a multitude of demons. This demonic possession itself transgresses the regularity of the relationship between the One and the Many inherited from classical thought. It is also an affront to and parody of the Trinity, in which a single One is incarnated in three (following the formula established by Pseudo-Dionysius). God as Creator creates many creatures. As creatures they are at once linked to God through the act of creation (and thus contain the divine within them – ‘even the bowels of the lowest animals,’ as Augustine notes). But, as creatures, they are also separated from God in being mortal and rooted in the changes associated with temporality. The multitude of demons in the passage from Luke occupy the individual creature – the highest of creatures – and turn him into a mere animal-like puppet.

So the demons blaspheme the theological relation between the One and the Many. What is noteworthy here is that the demons first announce their presence through voice. We are not told whether the infamous answer ‘Legion’ (more commonly translated as ‘I am legion’) is uttered in chorus or as a single voice. The word ‘legion’ itself denotes some sort of an organized quasi-military unit, and thus a more rigid, disciplined mode of organization. But it is spoken – or rather, ‘resounded.’ We might even imagine that Jesus hears this demonic swarm before it is seen. But in fact, it is never seen as such. For, during the exorcism, the demonic swarm is immediately and invisibly transferred to a herd of swine. The iconography of the passage is striking – the true nature of the demons, we presume, is revealed by the choice of their receptacle in a herd of ‘dumb,’ lowly animals. But, throughout the parable, the only real indication we have of a swarm of demons is this enigmatic resounding of the word ‘Legion.’

Finally, these two types of swarming – that of the legion of demons and that of the herd of animals – effect a third type, which is the word-of-mouth among the people, which itself spreads like a disease. Jesus’ demonstration of sovereign and ‘medical’ powers instills a fear in the people, resulting, in effect, in his being deported or banned. We might take a very modern view of this scene and suggest that the threat posed by the demons is not simply a topological one having to do with the proper relation between the One and the Many, and neither is it only to do with the proper relation between Creator and creature (a division that is itself broadly parallel with the One-Many). There is another element here, which is that the way in which the demonic challenges divine sovereignty is to refuse to be topological at all. We do not know how many demons there are, nor even if it is more than one voice that speaks ‘Legion.’ We only know that it is more than one, and that it may be something other than ‘the many,’ the latter term denoting a countable entity.

To summarize, there are a few lessons we can draw from this association of swarms with the demonic. One is that swarms are often associated with sound, or, more broadly, with the concept of ‘resounding.’ This leads to a second point, which is that swarms are always heard before they are seen. But this is not to simply privilege one sense over the other, the acoustic over the visual. What it really implies is that swarms are affectual before they are accountable; or, one only ‘accounts’ for swarms in terms of affection.4 Perhaps this is what it means to ‘resound’ – a kind of affective counting, a concept of number that is at once aesthetic and yet innumerable. Before Dante can visually verify where the swarms of the damned are and estimate their numbers, their presence is resounded as a kind of abstract indicator of a quantity-beyond-counting, ‘a great many,’ in Dante’s words.

3. Sublime Swarms

Kant’s own Copernican revolution involves, as is well-known, a ‘subjective deduction’, whereby one would focus not on the question of knowing the world ‘out there,’ but on the way in which self-consciousness phenomenally apprehends a world out there, inaccessible in itself. It is no surprise, then, that aesthetic experience came to be the focus of Kant’s philosophy, emphasizing as it does the constitution and re-constitution of the subject and subjective experience.

We might assume that, within the Kantian framework, these examples of swarming-as-sound are exemplary of the overwhelming disjunction between the imagination and the understanding that Kant refers to as the sublime. Indeed Kant describes the sublime in terms that seem to be ready-made for an analysis of sound. The sublime, he famously states, ‘is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it or by occasion of it boundlessness is represented, and yet its totality is also present to thought’ (1951: II, §23, 82, italics de-emphasized).

However, what is often overlooked is the fact that, on its way to the activation of the supersensible ‘voice of reason,’ the sublime is itself divided into what Kant refers to as a ‘mathematical’ and ‘dynamical’ sublime. The former involves a determination of ‘magnitude’ while the latter involves a determination of ‘might.’ In each case, a certain apprehension overwhelms the understanding – an overflowing of quantity or number in magnitude, and an overflowing of quality or intensity in might. Kant’s description reads, to modern eyes, like a description of information overload: in counting, we depend on the ability to see and discern, to transmit our visual apprehension to our comprehension of number and quantification. However, when there is simply too much to count, apprehension floods comprehension, and what results is the ambiguous failure of the latter to keep up with the former. Of course, Kant’s story has somewhat of a happy ending, for it is in the very ability of consciousness to recognize this failure that the sublime is fully achieved, in ‘the mere ability to think which shows a faculty of mind surpassing every standard of sense’ (82).

But what exactly is the concept of number in this case? The mathematical sublime is, as Kant notes, an apprehension of number in terms of the ‘magnitude of natural things,’ as opposed to the pure mathematical concept of number (e.g. as in algebra). So there is a minimal proposition here regarding a certain indissociability of number with its material instantiation in the world. Furthermore, number in the mathematical sublime is first and foremost aesthetic, since its notion of ‘measure’ takes place through the senses:

…the estimation of the magnitude of the fundamental measure must consist in this, that we can immediately apprehend it in intuition and use it by the imagination for the presentation of concepts of number. That is, all estimation of the magnitude of the objects of nature is in the end aesthetical (i.e. subjectively and not objectively determined). (82)

For pure mathematical counting there is no limit, but for the aesthetic counting of the sublime there is a limit, which is the apprehensive capacity of the subject itself. In other words, the disjunction noted earlier between apprehension and comprehension is really a disjunction between two types of number: a purely mathematical and nonhuman number with no limit, and an embodied, aesthetic number whose limit is subjective apprehension itself.

It is at this point that the subject comes up against a sense of inadequacy in presenting the whole to itself. Imagination and the nexus between apprehension and comprehension reach their maximum threshold. The subject, in being overwhelmed in this way, ‘sinks back into itself,’ thereby gaining a certain distance that allows it to in fact comprehend this very failure, whereby ‘a certain satisfaction is produced’ that completes the experience of the sublime.

In the context of swarms-as-sound, perhaps Kant’s model can be pushed a bit beyond what he intended. Perhaps with swarms we never in fact leave the mathematical sublime, for it is precisely in this disjunction between apprehension and comprehension that we find another disjunction: that between an abstract, nonhuman number and a sensory or human number.

There is, in a way, a certain misanthropic tendency to the Kantian sublime; it threatens the coherence of the subject right up until its breaking point, when supersensible reason enters the picture. However, it is this nonhuman number that provides the most noteworthy challenges to thinking the sublime. The issue is not that the sublime transcends or exceeds number or the quantitative; rather, it is precisely because the subject is confronted with a nonhuman number – a quantity that cannot be counted – that the Kantian drama of the sublime unfolds.

Perhaps this is what Alain Badiou means when he defines the concept of number as an ‘inconsistent multiplicity.’ Badiou outlines three basic characteristics of number: we measure with numbers, and thus they imply an order; we also count with numbers, and thus they imply calculation; and these two – order and calculation – must observe rules of compatibility or consistency with each other. Thus order, calculation, and consistency form the concept of number.5 But this itself must presuppose a larger concept within which all possible species of number can co-exist. And this is what Badiou calls an ‘inconsistent multiplicity,’ within which ‘species of numbers carve out consistent numerical situations’ (2004: 61). The existence of a wide and incompatible range of numbers (from ordinals to infinitesimals) does not change the fact of their existence as such – the ‘being of number’ – and that each species of number demonstrates consistency within itself. Thus Badiou posits a being of number, which is itself split along Heideggerian lines: ‘Number’ (capitalized) and ‘numbers’ (lower-case).

If it is true that one hears swarms as a resounding of a great many before one can count exactly how many; the visual apprehension of swarms is also always moving from a relatively static, countable group to a dynamic phenomenon that overwhelms the senses. Furthermore, it is when swarms are present but not seen – that is, when they are acoustically but not visually manifest – that this affective dimension is highlighted. Swarms are indeed sublime, but they tend to be sublime in particular ways, in a mathematical sublime that, as Kant notes, presupposes the availability of the aesthetic as the condition for ‘numbering.’

4. Unholy Numbers (An Abbreviated Typology)

With this in mind, we can consider the example of swarms-as-sound in contemporary music. Immediately, however, a question arises: is swarming ‘represented’ in music, or is there some way in which the structure of a particular musical composition actually is a swarm? Is the swarm the ‘content’ of a musical piece, or is it the music itself?

One could, for instance, begin with the question of representation in music. And here there would be no shortage of examples, particularly of those examples in which swarming is associated with the demonic. Here the question to ask is, how does a conceptual engagement with the demonic impact, transform, or re-structure musical composition itself? Consider two case studies in this regard – Norwegian Blackmetal and Japanese Noise. Emerging from different cultural contexts, and borrowing from different influences both musical and non-musical, Blackmetal and Noise bring together thematic elements of the demonic, the occult, and the supernatural with particular uses and mis-uses of new technologies.

In popular music, the demonic is most often associated with heavy metal, but, as a trope, it takes on an interesting guise in Norwegian Blackmetal.6 While Blackmetal is known to most people for its tabloid-like association with a string of church arsons in the 1990s, it has become a topic of interest in cultural studies, particularly for its engagement with mythology, nationalism, and youth culture (Moynihan and Soderlind, 2003; Kahn-Harris, 2004). However, relatively little attention has been paid to its treatment of new technologies and the then-dominant formal elements of heavy metal. Many Blackmetal albums from the early and mid-1990s display formal changes that were counter to the formal aesthetics of mainstream, extreme metal. These included a stripped-down highly-distorted sound, devoid of any guitar solos, machismo singing, or chorus-refrain structure, and privileging a minimalist composition: repetitive, rapid-fire drums, condensed guitar chord changes, and a kind of intermittent inhuman screeching only produced, presumably, by banshees or gargoyles. The result is a sound that confronts the listener at breakneck speed and from all directions – a kind of immanent, intensive, drone.7 But what makes Blackmetal interesting is not just the formal elements alone, but also the way in which they are indissociable from the technology of recording. Blackmetal recordings are frequently described as having a ‘necro’ sound, meaning that the recording quality is intentionally low-tech, sounding as if the recording itself was disintegrating (early Blackmetal bands often used analog-based tape or 4-track recording technologies pushed to their absolute limit). In contrast to the high production values of mainstream metal, early Blackmetal recordings tend to sound as if the medium itself was decaying. Darkthrone’s Transylvanian Hunger, Ulver’s Nattens Madrigal, and Ildjarn’s Forest Poetry are exemplary in this regard.8 What we have here is a formal element – minimalist repetition – sutured onto a technical element – low-tech recording. The motif of the demonic is manifested not only in the content of the music but also in the ‘possession’ of the medium itself.

If Blackmetal presents us with a decaying medium, then Japanese Noise presents us with a grotesque medium, a medium that is excessive and overflowing. What Blackmetal is to heavy metal, Noise is to electronic music.9 Emerging in the 1970s out of the Japanese improv scene and influenced by industrial music in Europe, Japanese Noise (alternately ‘Japanoise’) also evokes a technology that is possessed and operating beyond any human control (Hegarty, 2004). In fact, the preferred live set up for many acts includes an elaborate ‘tablecore’ set-up of electronic gadgets reminiscent of John Cage and David Tudor’s 1965 performance ‘Variations IV.’ For instance, the performances of Merzbow – the project of artist and writer Masami Akita – often take place without any direct intervention by the performers, the electronics operating by feedback structures alone. Merzbow recordings such as Akasha Gulva, Metalvelodrome, Venereology, and Pulse Demon each feature over one hour of loud, swirling, dense, and rapidly shifting swaths of electronic sound. Other Japanese Noise acts such as C.C.C.C., Incapacitants Monde Bruits, and MSBR achieve a similar sound, and often evoke the demonic, mixed with references to death, eroticism, and the occult.10 The influence of the Japanese free improvisation scene is important for Noise, but here the mastery of musicianship is exchanged for the chance glitches, errors, and failures of the technology itself. Japanese Noise is commonly referred to as an extreme manifestation of expressive presence, and indeed the performances of Hanatarash and Masonna do emphasize this element. But the tablecore strand of Japanese Noise – and arguably all of Noise as well – is less about an unmediated free expression or improvisation, and more about this idea of a kind of animated or possessed technology. It is as if pushing the technology past its limits allows for a kind of agency to take over that is neither that of the expressive performer nor that of the instrument-as-tool.

We can return to our question: are swarms the ‘content’ of music, or are they the music itself? Our two examples are united in that they both wed formal innovations with a use of technology beyond its limits. But they are also opposed in the way in which they do this. If Blackmetal pushes recording technology past its limits to achieve a ‘necro’ sound, a sound of decay, then Japanese Noise pushes electronics past its limits to achieve a sound of pure excess, of hyper-technology. If Blackmetal strips away its sound in favor of a kind of dirty minimalism (too much structure), then Japanese Noise relinquishes control to the gadgets in a kind of nonhuman, electronic improvisation (too little structure).

One important element has been left out of this typology, however, and that is the question of what exactly a swarm as pure sound would itself sound like. One problem with popular music examples such as Blackmetal is that the song structure – itself linked to the expectations of the extreme metal market – limits the sound to a more linear format, despite the use of repetition and a ‘wall of sound’ effect. Similarly, Japanese Noise, in radically loosening all compositional constraints, often tends to be polarized between a static ‘field’ sound and a more dynamic ‘phase’ sound. Ironically, the sound becomes either ambient or a more linear cut-up of processing and effects. The temporal aspect of sound therefore raises the problem of multiplicity – or, in the context of sound, the concept of multiplicity is rendered not just as a spatial problem of number or counting, but as a temporal problem of dynamic change.

In this light, it may be useful to consider contemporary experiments in classical music. Avant-garde composers such as Iannis Xenakis, Iancu Dumitrescu, and Giacinto Scelsi have in different ways explored the problem of multiplicity in and as sound. The Greek composer Xenakis, for instance, was also trained in architecture and mathematics, and has, over the years, developed a number of techniques for investigating the relation between number, sound, and swarming. His earliest influences derived from what he referred to as stochastic and probabilistic phenomena (e.g. the cicada example mentioned by Ligeti earlier), as well as the mathematics of chaos – both of which are not unrelated to the sound of war, another formative, personal experience for Xenakis (Varga, 1996). Xenakis also developed a computer-based compositional system (known by the acronym ‘UPIC’) which uses stochastic principles to transform drawings into sound compositions. While Xenakis’ electronic works bear some surface comparison to Japanese Noise, it is arguably in his chamber and string-based works that his formal interests in swarming are most evident. From early works such as ‘Syrmos’ (string orchestra, 1959), to later works such as ‘Shaar’ (orchestra, 1983) and ‘Tetaros’ (string quartet, 1990), Xenakis’ ongoing interest in the composition of chaos is evident. Despite this emphasis on mathematics, Xenakis’ works are far from being rigid or predictable; indeed, they do sound like the chaos of swarms. But this is not a chance-effect so much as it is a product of a nonhuman system that is itself geared towards the generation of multiplicity. For Xenakis, the concept of number is not simply a ‘numbered number,’ nor that which is reductive or predictive; instead the use of stochastic principles opens onto a ‘numbering number’ that proliferates and innovates – all with minimal input from the composer (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 484-85).

If Xenakis represents an approach to sonic swarms based on number (or a ‘numbering number’), the Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu represents an approach to swarms based not on the discrete number, but on the idea of a continuous spectrum. Dumitrescru and others of the so-called Romanian avant-garde (Ana-Maria Avram, Horatiu Radulescu, Costin Cazaban) demonstrate an interest in sound as a continuous phenomenon. Trained in both phenomenology and composition, Dumitrescu’s pieces constantly search for the sliding point between or across notes. This is most evident in chamber or solo works, such as ‘Medium III’ and ‘Gnosis,’ where every possible sound is extracted from a single bass or a trio of cellos. A single line twists into a field of activity, and then back into a condensed line again. Sounds are emanated but their sources tend to be diffused or even cloaked. If Dumitrescu’s works are ‘spectralist,’ it is because they evoke the durational quality of the swarm. The spectralism of these works is less to do with the continuous ‘space’ between discrete notes, and more with the relationship between ‘line’ and ‘field,’ unity and massing, singularity and multiplicity. One recalls Bergson’s example of the church bell in Time and Free Will – duration is not so much the relative space between chimes, but rather the relation between the individual bell chime and their aggregate effect as multiple entities.

But does swarming always imply multiplicity, whether via mathematics or the spectrum? This is the question posed by the enigmatic works of the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. A recluse for much of his life, Scelsi remains for many a mystery – the composer who refused to be photographed, who signed his name with a simple circle, and who, in the 1950s, composed a symphony of sorts based on a single note (‘Quattro pezzi su una nota sola’). In many ways Scelsi’s work seems the antithesis of the idea of a swarm-as-sound. But one of the paradoxes of the concept of swarming is that the swarm always bears some relation to individuation, despite all its other characteristics of internal inconsistency and a multiplicity of relations. In contemporary film, ‘a’ swarm approaches or attacks. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante hears ‘a great many’ voices, but nevertheless individuates it and identifies it as such. Perhaps Xenakis and Dumitrescu give us the perspective from within the swarm – the phenomenological perspective of sound swirling around and in all directions. However, Scelsi’s works are no less affective than Xenakis’ or Dumitrescu’s; they are not the calm of a distance from the swarm. Often sounds emerge from silence that are indistinguishable, either as one or many notes, or as a single line or many lines. Scelsi’s chamber works excel in this regard; the fourth and fifth String Quartets present a ‘One’ that is indistinguishable from the ‘Many.’ A single note is indistinguishable form many single notes, and these from many different notes. In this way Scelsi approaches the phenomenon of swarming as a univocal phenomenon, at once singular and multiple.

We can return again to our opening questions. Are swarms and swarming ‘represented’ in music, or are they in some way the music itself? In Xenakis, Dumitrescu, and Scelsi we see formal innovation closely tied to a conceptual interest in multiplicity and sound aggregates. While their methods and approaches range from the mathematical to the spiritual, they at least open the possibility of thinking swarms as unrepresentable, and therefore isomorphic with the organization of sound itself.

5. Swarm and Spirit

The simple shift that we have been tracing – from a visual to an acoustic perspective of swarms – really opens onto a set of concepts that have to do with the relation between the topological (the abstract, discrete pattern) and the phenomenological (the concrete, continuous affection). Swarming is a case of spatial organization, this is clear. It is also clear that, because of this, our concept of ‘swarming’ is more often a visual or representational one. But it is also the case that what we commonly call ‘swarms’ are such because they are polysensory phenomena. In some cases (e.g. the cicada example) swarms only announce their presence through sound.11 One cannot account for this topologically without reducing sound – a dynamic, temporal phenomenon – to quantized and spatialized sound ‘notes,’ and then representing these notes as so many atoms flying through the air. On the other hand, to simply take the sound of the cicadas as a continuous, non-quantized affect seems to require that we locate a point of origin for the sounds. In short, the affect must become an effect, and the effect back-tracked to a cause.

If we are to think swarms in a way that does not privilege the visual, it seems that two possibilities immediately present themselves to us. One approach is essentially that of atomism – it takes the sonic swarm as an independent entity in itself, composed of quantized sound particles moving through space within which a listener is located. Another approach is essentially Neo-platonic – it takes the swarm as sound, yes, but as a sound emitted or emanating from a set of locatable sources. We might say, not without some sarcasm, that the former approach is often preferred by scientific fields such as ‘swarm intelligence,’ while the latter approach is the one often taken up in the arts. While the former designs algorithms, the latter builds sound installations.

The atomistic approach has the benefit of thinking the sonic swarm as something in itself and not relying on a visual support – it suggests to us that swarms are phenomenally immaterial. But this makes it difficult to account for the ongoing self-generation of the sonic swarm, since it is abstracted from both causality and environment. By contrast, the Neo-platonic approach privileges causality, and a causality that is multiple and relational (and, in turn, dependent on environment, or, ‘world’). It suggests that swarms function through an emanative inversion (from the material-corporeal to the immaterial-ethereal). The problem is that this emanative model implies that complexity is gained simply by a massing effect – ‘more’ equals ‘complex.’ What we are missing here is a way to think the intrinsic complexity of the swarm itself, dissociated from the causal, emanative agents that announce the swarm.

Perhaps one way of describing this relation between the topological and the phenomenological is to think about sound as incorporeal but not immaterial. That is, the fact that we first register the sound of cicadas before ever seeing them in no way suggests that the ‘complexity’ of this swarm is indissociable from its context. Sound is material because it is phenomenal. This is taken for granted, certainly in much sound and installation art. What is interesting in the case of sonic swarms is the way in which the incorporeality of the swarm as a phenomenal entity in itself is tied to a materiality that is unseen, unbodied, and only reductively localizable.

Before making a last point, a brief recapitulation is in order. The particular case of swarms as sound-based or acoustic phenomena is markedly different from the concept of swarms as a visual and/or representational phenomenon, which dominates popular conceptions of the swarm in film and digital media. These sonic swarms raise the question of how to think swarms as both organizationally complex and polysensorily affective. This challenge can be divided into two basic ways of thinking – the topological approach, in which swarms are considered in terms that are discrete, and spatial, and the phenomenological approach, in which swarms are considered in terms that are continuous and temporally-based. We’ve characterized (or perhaps caricatured…) these two approaches as ‘atomistic’ and ‘Neo-platonic,’ respectively. Each presents a different ‘image of thought’ related to the swarm. The atomistic approach suggests that our registering of the swarm by hearing it is correlated to a field of interacting sound atoms that is not visible to us. The Neo-platonic approach gives us an image of incorporeal sound emanating from corporeal entities into a kind of phenomenal density in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Both of these ways of thinking give us an image of the sonic swarm that is at once everywhere – in the air, all around us, pervading the very space itself – and yet which must ‘emerge’ from somewhere – even if this ‘somewhere’ lies in the multitude of emanating sources of sound. It seems to me that this everywhere-somewhere dichotomy is really about the relationship between immanence and emanance – that which is everywhere equally and that which unfolds from the eminence of a creating source. (Let us use this mis-spelled term ‘emanance’ here as a portmanteau of emanation and eminence.)

This is, of course, a long-standing debate in philosophy. But it takes a particular, political-theological turn in the Middle Ages, when any strong statement concerning immanence risked accusations of either pantheism or heresy (or both). But it is also a central concern of modern philosophy – in particular that of Spinoza and Leibniz. Deleuze, writing on Spinoza, was acutely aware of this. In Expressionism in Philosophy Deleuze suggests that Spinoza was the one who posed the real question of immanence. The issue is not immanence vs. transcendence (or today we might say bottom-up vs. top-down). Rather, for them the real issue is between immanence and emanance. For Deleuze, it is Spinoza who most strongly puts forth a theory of immanent causes in opposition to all notions of either transcendent or emanative causes:

We are now already able to determine the characteristics by which emanative and immanent causes have something in common logically, as well as fundamental differences. Their common characteristic is that neither leaves itself; they produce while remaining in themselves… But their difference relates to the way the two causes produce things. While an emanative cause remains in itself, the effect it produces is not in it, and does not remain in it… A cause is immanent, on the other hand, when its effect is ‘immanate’ in the cause, rather than emanating from it. (Deleuze, 1990: 171-72, italics de-emphasized)

The case of swarming in general – and especially the case of sonic swarms – asks us to think this relation between immanence and emanance. In particular, swarming puts forth the challenge of thinking immanence without emanation, or, put another way, an emanation without center.


1. Perhaps the most familiar example of this appears in one of the special features on the Lord of the Rings DVDs, in which a battle swarm animation is demonstrated where each character is given a great deal of freedom as to its movement. It shows how, during a battle scene, many of the characters will actually flee the battle itself, a characteristic that is neither coded nor wished for.

2. Ligeti also composed a piece scored for one hundred metronomes, entitled simply ‘Poème Symphonique.’

3. The scene at the shores of Acheron precedes another striking scene of swarming, the ‘Circle of the Lustful’ in Canto V. Numerous other scenes from the Inferno also depict swarming, including the burning sand in middle Hell and the episode with the Malebranche demons in lower Hell.

4. The affective ambiguity of swarms should also be underscored here, for swarms are far from simply being a stand-in for a liberating or revolutionary force. As Genosko (2005) notes, in many cases they are a source of disturbance; a pestering and pestilential negativity that at once fractures and proliferates the subject from within.

5. Badiou is not the only thinker to have identified these aspects of number – one could quite easily trace his comments back to Newton, Leibniz, and Pascal. But what is interesting about Badiou’s statements is his framing of number as an ontological problem of the One and the Many, which arguably links his project with the Presocratics more than scientific modernity.

6. The phrase is also spelled ‘Black Metal’ and ‘blackmetal’ (lowercase). The former is used often since it also references an album of the same name by Venom.

7. Not all Blackmetal is fast-paced, however. Some bands prefer a heavier, ‘sludgy’ sound, while others opt for a more operatic, epic quality that incorporates synthesizers.

8. A more recent resurgence in the ‘old school’ Blackmetal has also occurred, based mostly in the U.S., and has pushed this formal minimalism to new extremes, sometimes resulting in either abstract noise or ambient music. This is best demonstrated by the groups Leviathan, Nachtmystium, Urfaust, and Xasthur.

9. Though there is no ‘history’ of the Japanese Noise scene in English, in 1999 Extreme Records release a mammoth, 50-CD box set of Merzbow recordings, which include a hardcover book of documents, chronologies, and essays. There is also some cross-over with other forms of contemporary music in Japan, including the Japanese free-improv, psychadelic, and independent music scenes.

10. It should be noted that these references often occur in a significantly different way than in Norwegian Blackmetal. In fact, in the cultural studies of music this interest in death and the occult in the Japanese and Scandinavian contexts is an interesting issue that invites further analysis.

11. An interesting early naturalist text on cicadas is that of J. G. Myers, who emphasizes the singing behaviors of the insects. There are numerous books and websites, both specialist and non-specialist, dedicated to cicadas, including the popular Cicadamania website (cicadamania.com). While cicadas often ‘sing’ in a stationary position by contracting their diaphragm, the difficulty in spatially locating them has to do with the mass or aggregate effect of their collective singing. Additionally, many species produce more than one type of sound, so that a mating call will produce a different sound than a distress call.


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Badiou, A. (2004) ‘The Being of Number,’ in Theoretical Writings, R. Brassier & A. Toscano (eds). London: Continuum.

The Book of Luke. New International Version. Biblegateway.com.

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Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Genosko, G. (2005) ‘The Bug’s Body: A Disappearing Act,’ in The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, M. Smith & J. Morra (eds). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hegarty, P. (2004) ‘Full With Noise: Theory and Japanese Noise Music,’ in Life in the Wires: The CTHEORY Reader, A. Kroker & M. Kroker (eds). Victoria, Canada: NWP Books.

Kahn-Harris, K. (2004) ‘The Failure of Youth Culture: Reflexivity, Music, and Politics in the Black Metal Scene,’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 7.1: 95-111.

Kant, I. (1951) Critique of Judgment. Trans. J. H. Bernard. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Kelly, K. (1994) Out of Control. New York: Perseus.

Moynihan, M. & Soderlind, D. (2003) Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. Los Angeles: Feral House Press.

Myers, J. G. (1929) Insect Singers: A Natural History of the Cicada. New York: George Routledge & Sons.

Preston, C. (2006) Bee. London: Reaktion.

Sleigh, C. (2004) Ant. London: Reaktion.

Varga, A. (1996) Conversations with Iannis Xenakis. London: Faber & Faber.

Watts, D. (2003) Six Degrees. New York: Norton.

2 Comments on “# PHILOSOPHY /// Pulse Demons by Eugene Thacker

  1. Pingback: # LIBERTY SQUARE /// Arthur Rimbaud + Swarms, Multitude, and Activism in a Time of Monsters | The Funambulist

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