A Word for Inescapable Noise

Total Noise • noun • (toe-tull noy-ze)

Definition: the cacophony of sounds, distractions, experiences and infinite possibilities that consume our daily lives as we exist and make choices in the world.

Origin: English


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The other day, an SCL team member who is a big fan of the writer David Foster Wallace requested that we use “Total Noise” as one of our weekly words because our previous words had given this phrase additional levels of nuance.

Wallace coined the phrase “Total Noise” in his essay Deciderization 2007 - A Special Report in which he compared the different fears that consume writers of fiction and nonfiction: 

“Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.”

Total Noise is both the cacophony of sounds that can disturb our peace within our increasingly technological and industrial world, but also the presence of infinite choices and possibilities that can feel overwhelming and confusing as we attempt to make the right decisions.

Wallace’s concept of Total Noise extends beyond the writing process. The Total Noise of nonfiction writing morphs into the cacophony of sounds and distractions that consume our daily lives as we live in a nonfiction world. The near-inescapability of noise and distractions has also made silence a rarity for many of us. The abnormality of silence has strangely made it into something that many of us fear. Countless people do not want to be left alone with their own thoughts and imagination, and often prefer to fill up that silence with noise or music to focus their attention on.

America’s culture of Total Noise has made many of us both fearful of the artificial noises that consume us and the absence of this audible consumption. The seeds of fiction and nonfiction struggle to grow, both on paper and in our daily lives, due to the artificial noises that imperil humanity.

Stille & Total Noise

Stille was one of the first words featured in The Word. It is a German and Dutch word that is often mistranslated as “silence,” but it actually means “stillness.” When Germans and the Dutch request the English equivalent of “silence” they are actually requesting “stillness,” and this subtle linguistic shift cultivates a dramatically different relationship between noise and the natural world.

Stille speaks to an absence of artificial sounds and the presence of the sounds of nature: fewer car horns, lawnmowers, and construction; more birds chirping, wind blowing, and water flowing.

By using “silence,” instead of “stillness” or Stille, English speakers have linguistically erased our connection to nature. When the absence of artificial, inauthentic sounds equates to an absence of sound, we have now decided that the sounds of existence that exist beyond humanity equate to a nothingness.

Nature has become a nothingness or an abyss that we have been taught to fear. Instead of escaping into nature as a liberating journey that cultivates peace and calm, Americans often prefer the curated distraction of our favorite music. Our curated noise shields us from Total Noise while also preventing us from forming an authentic connection to the sounds of nature.

As Americans struggle with anxiety and incessant distractions ranging from near-constant phone alerts to the debilitating sounds of industrialization, we also struggle to articulate what we need to liberate ourselves from Total Noise.

Requesting stillness instead of silence is one method for transcending Total Noise. When we ask for stillness we are no longer reactionarily requesting an absence of sound but are proactively requesting that ourselves and others engage in actions that cultivate calm and stillness. Meditation, yoga, walks in the park, going on hikes, and practicing niksen are some of the many ways that we can cultivate stille instead of succumbing to Total Noise. 

Stillness enriches our imagination and this can also empower us to write enriching fiction.

Angest & Total Noise

In the 1800s, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard popularized the Danish word angest, which in English translates into “angst,” “anxiety,” or “dread.”

Kierkegaard’s book Begrebet Angest was published in 1844 and it first spoke about the relationship between anxiety and freedom, and this book was not translated into English until 1944. Back then it was translated under the title The Concept of Dread, but now it is called The Concept of Anxiety.

According to Kierkegaard, anxiety is a natural result of freedom, but this does not mean that anxiety is good per se. People become anxious as they become more and more aware of their environment and the infinite possibilities of existence that are beyond their control.

We can become anxious when we feel that existence is beyond our control, but we only become aware of our lack of control due to our freedom. A key aspect of freedom is figuring out how we can cope with our inevitable anxieties, which can also manifest as Total Noise.

One way many people aspire to cope with anxiety is by limiting their world to only the things they believe they can control. Foreign ideas and foreign people create anxiety in them because they do not know how to control them. The existence of these ideas and people shatter their finite hold on existence as they aspire to ignore the infinite possibilities of existence.

Their desire to eradicate anxiety creates less freedom and encourages them to extinguish the freedom and existence of life that exists beyond their control. America often confronts a “white anxiety” as some white Americans grow anxious due to America’s diversifying population and the increasing influence of people of color. For some Americans, the inability to control a person of color creates anxiety, or angest, that destroys an oppressive status quo that they perversely call “freedom.”

For a very long time, America has embraced a debilitating status quo that embraced the nothingness of a silence that exists within our control. America’s Total Noise equates to the frustrations we encounter when we attempt to forge a vibrant existence beyond the silence.

We have created a cacophony of sounds related to industry and business development that, for far too long, we have described as progress. We are slowly beginning to recognize that they are actually impediments to existence. 

Stille helps us articulate the importance of connecting ourselves to the nurturing sounds of existence instead of the debilitating artificial, inauthentic noises created by humanity.

Angest helps us understand that we must have an active and not passive or complacent relationship with the anxieties that come with knowledge, awareness, and freedom. The Total Noise and infinite possibilities of existence can be debilitating, but we must remember that we can cultivate the words, ideas, and actions to turn our angest into an enriching relationship with the world around us.


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