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Silence Isn’t Sexy – It Is Actually Very Reactionary (2014)


This text was originally published on Medium. Please refer to the original text when citing it (see below for info).

On silence as property, commodity and instrument of oppression.

I am sitting in a room. Much like Alvin Lucier’s text, different from the one you are right now. I am sitting in an auditorium, watching a mixture of performance and lecture, in a half-full venue somewhere in Berlin. I like to take my sketchbook with me because very often I have ideas — and very often completely disconnected from what I am experiencing at the moment. I write some rough notes down with a pencil. The room is filled with artificial fog, and a faint sound comes from the speakers. A couple of Germans are sitting in front of me; the woman turns to me and says, very impolitely, that I should stop writing on my notebook because the sound of my pencil writing on the paper is disturbing her. The lecture/performance is about sound.

Cut to a train ride in Germany — very German indeed. A brazilian friend of mine sits in a room — this time a so-called “silent room”, much admired and cherished by the travelers (usually they are the first to run out of free seats). She is editing some pictures from a recent trip, and the passenger in front of her, very impolitely, tells her to stop doing that because the click of her mouse is annoying.

As a South American living in Germany for quite some time, I have often heard how “latinos” are loud. Usually this is meant as a kind of weird compliment of sorts — we are loud because we are passionate. Sounds like an old-fashioned cliché? Not quite, because that is exactly what my landlord told me when we moved into this apartment, when talking about the arguments my neighbours downstairs — two Argentinians — would often have. Many stories from expats living in Germany or other northern countries go somehow like those I have just wrote, and they are so ridiculous they actually become funny. But only among us, mind you.

As a South American researcher within Sound Studies I often find myself sitting through lectures, symposia, presentations, performances and conferences about silence. After all, there can’t be sound without silence, as a myriad of composers including John Cage would say. In all of those instances where ideas of silence as opposed to noise are discussed, I end up hearing variations of the same accounts, that is, how silence is to be valued, how silence is the goal, how cities could be more silent, how people could be more silent, how home appliances, rooms, trains, cars, you name it — could just be quiet. People assume that there is a “right to quietness” but more often than not forget to ask whose quiet is meant in this right. Last time I sat through a lecture on silence, many of the presenters were claiming that silence is just more civilized, and that researchers in sound should educate people that silence is a must.

Yes. I had to swallow deep when I heard that.

As you move through these instances observing how closed these communities may eventually become, you start to notice those patterns. Most of the scholarship assessing sound and silence comes from countries and societies for whom silence means politeness. They may overlook that quietness is but an appropriation of an alleged “oriental” concept, mystified and deemed as the ultimate solution to education, etiquette and peace. Coming from a culture where talking is cherished, music is ubiquitous and people engage in conversations with strangers just because “yes, why not?” I cannot help but feel that there is a very paternalizing and colonizing factor in that assessment. If you understand the power of sound as territory, it is but natural that a search for imposing silence on the other draws interesting perspectives. Sound, far more than written language, defines group identity. Communities define themselves through oral rather than written cultures. However, the distinction between what is noise and what is silence in society is a political, social and gendered practice. As Bruce Johnson (2009, p.42) writes in Dark Side of the Tune — Popular Music and Violence,

[…] In western Europe, the authority of the oral was challenged by the advent of print and the spread of literacy from the late fifteenth century. The new technology achieved two things. First, it enabled the widespread dissemination of information in standardized form far beyond the radius of the human voice. […] The other outcome was to create a new marker of class: those who could read and those who could not. As London Commerce, with its peripatetic pedlars and their street cries demonstrated, everyone could shout, but not everyone could write.

He continues later on:

Feminization was only one way in which the untrustworthiness of sound became inscribed in the language that produced the axioms ‘Don’t believe everything you hear’ and ‘Seeing is believing’ […] It is a language in which […] we announce an idea with the words ‘apparently’ or ‘it appears that’, and we ask our interlocutor ‘do you see what I mean?’ and where a doctor about to probe and listen to the body begins by saying ‘let’s take a look at you’. Conversely, a word such as ‘hearsay’ describes a form of hitherto respectable information which suddenly becomes suspect in the seventeenth century with the decline of oral custom and the consolidation of the written contract. The repertoire of words describing orally/aurally transmitted knowledge are now markers of (often feminized) unreliability: gossip, tittle-tattle, sounding off, chatter, whingeing, rumour, lip service, scolding, nagging, blab, babble, prattle — a network of the untrustworthy other: Chinese Whispers. (ibid., p.46)

Now think about all those silent rooms in trains, noise-cancelling headphones and loud music blasting in one’s ears as to isolate oneself from the world around — all it does is to sell silence as a commodity. Silence is not the same concept or idea all around the world — and it is not by creating “hi-fi soundscapes”, as Murray Schafer would very conservatively argue [1], that the world will be a better place. A Napalm Death album is not noisy for me, but it definitely is for my grandma, pretty much in the same way she thinks of a blender. Fair enough. Coming from a noisy city in a “noisy” country, I have a very different notion of what silence means than the Finnish teenager who lives in downtown Helsinki. A citizen of Delhi, Istanbul or Mexico City may have total different notions of what is noise and what is not. The amount of “stress” or other physiological illnesses it allegedly causes is as relative as Decibels are.

The problem for me is that researchers are talking about silence in a very patronizing, eurocentric and northern-centred way — and because of that, creating a very dangerous dichotomy between “silent” and “noisy” societies. This assumes, as Steve Goodman would say in Sonic Warfare, a very reactionary character [2] in which the blame is to be put upon those “uncivilized”, “illiterate”, “acculturated” citizens of the world. You don’t need much of a mental exercise to imagine that this naturally extends to immigrants, women, people of color and whatnot. Take, for instance, this very unsettling quote found on Michael Bull’s study on iPod use, Sound Moves:

In America people are often loud and rude. In Phoenix we have a lot of Mexican immigrants. They don’t learn English and they have no control over their children […] It was becoming increasingly difficult for me to shop without encountering a bombardment of Spanish or screaming kids. The iPod lets me filter them all out.” (user “Tracy” cited in Bull 2007, p.36)

This quote is the perfect example of the otherness attributed to notions of loudness. She assumes that people are loud and rude, not her — even though she is a US American citizen. Then she proceeds to separate herself — through language and through a bit of xenophobia. It is for these sort of attitudes that noise-cancelling headphones are designed. Once confined to pilots and industry workers, active noise-cancelling technologies are now flooding the market. Patents are being filed on techniques for the perfect noise cancellation in consumer products. Silence can be purchased, and it costs as much as you need to separate yourself from the “uneducated” other, who probably cannot afford it.

Exerting auditory control over oneself, be it by actively crafting one’s own soundscape or passively by silencing the other, is a strong form of aggression and oppression. Mieszkowski et al. write, on the introduction to their bookSonic Interventions, about a Muslim community in the Netherlands who requested the use of loudspeakers for its prayer calls. Even though Muslims are called to prayer several times a day, the community was asking permission to occupy the soundscape of the city only once a week, only for the Friday afternoon session. They tell of a right-wing party’s response, which was to pose questions such as whether or not the call to prayers would “create a climate that is alienating to a lot of Dutch people [and] increase the tension between the different cultural and religious communities […]” (2007, p.22). By immediately ignoring the omnipresence of church bells all around the western world, it instantly creates a sense ofotherness to the sonic presence of a muslim community, which defies their already imposed silence.

For these societies built on practices of colonization of the other, and yet very fearful of them, silence is not only a commodity but a private property, and as such protected by the capital. In one of those lectures I’ve been to, during a presentation of an app for “spotting silent places in a city”, a German asked the presenter/developer if the act of sharing these locations with the world would not immediately erase its silent qualities, for “a lot of noisy people would come looking for silence too”. I would normally dismiss this commentary as a one-shot, but due to the amount of stories I know of, it really speaks volumes (no pun intended).

All in all, my point here is that we should celebrate sound, because your silence might be my noise and vice-versa. I want to believe that we have moved beyond 4’33” — even acknowledging that Cage’s piece is in fact about non-silence. There cannot be a conversation about noise and silence if the attitude and perspective is still centered on a very conservative, idealized notion of silence as the ultimate resort of the modern, middle-class man.

In free-form, improvised music, silence is the best quality a musician can explore — not because it is valuable but exactly because it means to stop and listen to the other. This would have been a notion of silence I would be glad to discuss. “Silent” must always mean a respect for what the other has to say. I refrain from my thoughts or my occupation of the soundscape so as to make room for yours, so we can both enjoy a collective construction of the acoustic environment around us. More often than not, however, it means respecting my space and silence as private property, while cancelling the “noisy other”. In that regard, what these conservative notions of silence want for themselves is very far from “education” or “civilization” and more towards exclusion and oppression.

So sorry my dear Blixa, but silence isn’t sexy. Silence is an utopia, and in my opinion it must remain so, for silence always means silencing the other.

  • [1] For more information on “lo-fi” versus “hi-fi” soundscapes, please refer to Schafer, R. Murray. Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Destiny Books: 1994
  • [2] Goodman’s full quote reads as follows:

The politics of silence often assumes a conservative guise and promotes itself as quasi-spiritual and nostalgic for a return to a natural. As such, it is often orientalized and romanticizes tranquility unviolated by the machinations of technology, which have militarized the sonic and polluted the rural soundscape with noise, polluted art with sonification, polluted the city with industry, polluted thought with distraction, polluted attention with marketing, deafens teenagers, and so on. Its disposition is almost always reactionary. (2010, pp.191-2)


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