A Joyless NoisePrint
Two pleas for making life a whole lot quieter
By Jon Zobenica
June 1, 2010
The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, by Garret Keizer, Public Affairs, 384 pp., $27.95
Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, by George Michelsen Foy, Scribner, 196 pp., $24
My wife and I were once treated to a 20-minute car-horn solo outside our house. When I finally went and tapped on the driver’s window and asked how much longer I should expect this to continue, the tough-as-nails Latina behind the wheel warned me to mind my own [expletive] business and not get all up in her [expletive] face. I’d barely had time to parse her response when two men (one of whom was the real target of her importuning) attacked her car. As they jumped on the hood, kicked at the windshield, and roared profanely, I called 911 to save the woman who’d filled my night with noise and insult. I won’t say these are normal sounds in my neighborhood, but they aren’t uncommon, and there’s been worse.
So I feel like I know what Garret Keizer is talking about in The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want when he refers to living tolerantly together in diverse neighborhoods. I’m just not sure Keizer himself knows what he’s talking about. It’s not just that he offers instructions on urban diversity from the verdant hills of loosely populated, relatively homogenous Vermont, although I think this remove does lead to a certain anthropological—not to mention analogical—excitement on his part. In a mere two-page stretch, Keizer cites noise as everything from a sublimation of masculine aggression and a tool of Euro-American empire to a disabler of children and a dissuader of altruism, and then he trails off with anecdotes about wedding guests tapping champagne glasses and zookeepers banging metal lids to dampen the ardor of bears. Later, while visiting the Sturgis motorcycle rally, Keizer also observes that a gathering of flamboyant bikers is much less egalitarian in spirit than the Islamic hajj, which is fair enough. Arranged marriages and honor killings are less egalitarian than a Sadie Hawkins dance, too, though such facile juxtapositions are a poor way to get at the heart of anything.
The real problem, however, is that Keizer’s book ultimately isn’t about sound, or the cultural dynamics of noise. It’s about global warming, the carbon-based economy, and Western profligacy, for which noise as he defines it is merely a unit of measure. He admirably doesn’t spare himself from his own critique, talking of the noise produced in the making and selling of his book: the cutting down and pulping of trees, the clattering of presses, the hum of delivery trucks, even the whir of a power generator far from the electric bulb that burned quietly over his nighttime labors. But his noise equation is so rigged that to make a detrimental sound you almost have to be a white American male, a beneficiary of the “forces steamrolling the world and crushing the weak, the master schemes concocted to benefit the master minds.” If you’re white and on the receiving end of minority-made sound that you dare to not appreciate, Keizer will see you (as he does one woman in his narrative, whose home is subjected to continual boom-car noise) as a mix of activist, busybody, model citizen, and crank before finding traces of cultural insensitivity, racism, class prejudice, or xenophobia in your attitude.
But Keizer has ideas for bringing us all together, not just spatially in those denser, more diverse communities, but also temporally, by getting us off our round-the-clock carbon habit and returning us to a more natural, diurnal schedule, marked by peaceful cessations at night and a generally slower pace. Ideally we would work with hand tools, sing work songs together, and organize fests to which all our neighbors would be invited. Keizer even mentions a Maypole. Carried away with visions of rustic togetherness, he can imagine no unwanted sound fouling such an existence. It’s an absolutist’s dream, free of human quirk, temper, even biorhythmic variety. Scheduled, come-one-come-all merrymaking, wonderful though the idea is, won’t change the fact that humans don’t always want to make merry at the same time, in the same fashion, for the same duration, or with the same people. Some within earshot might even have good reason to want precious moments of peace at the appointed time. We’re going to get all up in each other’s [expletive] faces once in a while, Maypole or not. It’s part of the discordant music of human existence.
George Michelsen Foy has written a similar if much more charming and understated work, Zero Decibels, inspired by the unnerving sound of New York City trains—public transportation usually being considered by the likes of Keizer as an unqualified good. (It should surprise no one that to be at all effective, public transit has to serve a significant number of people going every which way and hopping on and off at every which stop. This necessitates sizable vehicles that frequently brake, accelerate, and possibly turn, creating noise in the process. Foy even measures an idling city bus at 90 decibels.) While taking us on his journey to the end of sound, Foy, like Keizer, spends some time bemoaning our consumer culture, whose media invade nearly every corner of our public existence, and much of our private lives as well, with piped-in sounds and blinking visuals and all manner of attempt at catching, holding, and monetizing our attention. True though this is, the dire prognostications about the effect this is having on our national health are by this point decades old and starting to seem a tad exaggerated. Twenty-five years ago Neil Postman had us amusing ourselves to death with television, and 50 years ago Norman Mailer saw threat in the mass media, with its “domination of leisure time” and its “empty words, dead themes, and sentimental voids” that pervert us with “the lust of the economy.” Prophetic as their words may sound, particularly in the age of wireless broadband, the collapse that was apparently nigh has somehow remained ever in the offing. Furthermore, there’s something condescending and self-congratulatory about continually asserting the learned helplessness and utter docility of the masses before this pop onslaught. Is it not possible that a lot of people freely like this stuff, and aren’t lesser beings in need of rescue from it?
Foy’s book is much more a meditation on pure silence—its elusiveness, its implications, its function. During philosophical flights, he sounds like a modern-day Lao Tzu contemplating the Tao of the empty: “[Death’s] emptiness defines life the way silence at the beginning and end of a sentence gives shape to the words between,” he writes. This brings to mind my late tap-dance instructor, who would remind us that even untapped beats are every bit a part of the rhythm, no less essential—no more quiet, really—for being silent. She also had a very likable habit of correcting us whenever we spoke of the “noise” we were making with our tap shoes. “Sound,” she would say. “We make only sounds, not noise.”
Jon Zobenica is a former senior editor of The Atlantic.
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