Dec/Jan 2010

Bad Vibrations

Hua Hsu


"A Noiseless Flash" is how journalist John Hersey titled the first chapter of Hiroshima, his much-praised 1946 account of the detonation of the atomic bomb. Though witnesses some twenty miles away claimed that the explosion was as loud as thunder, none of the survivors interviewed by Hersey recalled hearing "any noise of the bomb." Rather, they experienced a blinding flash of light and sudden swells of pressure.

Destruction has its ready-made catalogue of images, but we rarely think about the acoustics of a mushroom cloud or falling towers. Steve Goodman's Sonic Warfare is a vital contribution to how we theorize the relationship between sound and politics, and its central argument echoes Hersey's reportage: You need not hear a sound in order to feel it. Dissatisfied with traditional examinations of politicized sound pegged to music—a catchy protest song, a discordant blast of countercultural noise—and the role of human perception, Goodman focuses on frequencies, rhythms, vibrations, sonic-boom-inducing "sound bombs," and in-audible, high-frequency repellants used to quell rowdy teens. For Goodman, discussing the politics of sound demands that we move beyond conventional ideas of audience and reception. Even the ugliest song is recognizable as music—good or bad.

Goodman is interested in sound as force. Is it still music when it's played at unsafe volumes, aimed at the stronghold of a dangerous enemy? Is it still music when its intention is to irritate or cause physical illness? Do the politics of amplitude—the schism between music and subversive "noise"—still apply when we feel but can't hear something?

Sonic Warfare is not merely a call to listen closely, for one can't hear many of the frequencies Goodman writes about—from emergent "earworm" technologies, wherein tunes get stuck in our head, to ripples of "bad vibes," or waves of nauseating vibration. Goodman describes the use of "infrasound," or sub-bass frequencies below the auditory threshold, to thicken the tension during the opening scenes of the brutal 2002 French film Irréversible (a movie that is gruesomely disturbing even when muted). It's creepy enough in a theater, but Goodman's suggestion that sub-bass could be harnessed for policing crowds is downright terrifying. Perhaps we're not far off: In September, Pittsburgh police used a "sonic cannon" on G-20 protestors.

On a very basic level, the book is a chilling encyclopedia of almost-unbelievable sonic machines. The names alone are stunning: concrete ears, the Vortex ring generator, the Mosquito Anti-Social Device. In the 1960s, a French robotics researcher created a vibratory, organ-rattling "envelope of death" that allegedly caused internal spasms. The Urban Funk Campaign (the name of a terrible band waiting to happen) was an "audio harassment" operation deployed by the United States in Vietnam and Laos in the early '70s. Who cares about a neat logo when "sonic branding"—the placement of earworms in advertising jingles—promises more viral effects?

That many modern high-tech devices were forged at the intersection of science and militarism no longer shocks us. But Goodman is compulsive in his need to theorize beyond the tried-and-true idea that war "expresses an ontological condition." He labors in the dense, grad-level middle section of his book to guide us toward spaces of hope, ultimately settling on a philosophy of rhythm: "It is rhythm that conjoins the discontinuous entities of matter," he writes. All matter vibrates—people, buildings, plants, and everything in between.

This attentiveness to the political possibilities of rhythm provides context for Goodman's thrilling alter ego, which goes unmentioned in the book: In addition to being a lecturer at the University of East London, he is also the heralded underground DJ known as kode9, who produces "bass-driven electronic music." Goodman's skepticism about deciphering music melts away toward the end of the book, and he uses "rhythmanalysis" to discuss the resistant and alternative rhythms embedded deep within dance music. He asks, "What vibrations are emitted when slum, ghetto, shantytown, favela, project, and housing estate rub up against hypercapital?" It is the possibility of "affective collectivity"—a throb uniting the dispossessed—that animates Goodman's final hope.

Goodman's attempts to wage sonic warfare against the hypercapitalist state make for a bracing read, even if his arsenal—portable sound systems and the resourceful genius of DJs, producers, ringtone hackers, and subversive programmers—seems a modest one. Perhaps this kind of supercharged, broad-ranging imagination offers the best defense against the coercive techniques currently being honed in the labs of militaries and corporations. From "silent" repellants that target frequencies perceptible only to teenage ears to "holosonic control" research that aims to create moments of listener déjà entendu, the future of sonic warfare will be, as Goodman calls it, "unsound." It's enough to make you wish you were merely hearing voices.

Hua Hsu teaches English at Vassar College.

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