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There Is No Return to What Is Lost

by Sean Higgins

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer. 400 pgs. PublicAffairs, 2010. $27.95.

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
—J. G. Ballard, What I Believe

Over the three lengthy chapters that make up The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, Garret Keizer argues that life in our post-industrial era is the playground of the economically powerful, who carelessly inflict their refuse on the weak: “marginalized people, small creatures, and simple pursuits.” Noise, or “unwanted sound,” is the vector for this extended case study, and along the way it becomes something more than simply “unwanted.” It becomes an elegant cipher for the abundance of violence our civilization has not yet quelled or fully recognized. He reads a terrible richness in the ecological, social, and economical dynamics of machine noise’s interaction with life: small creatures terrorized by the din of a highway cutting through their habitat, airport workers forced to live under the flight path of the planes they service, and soldiers in the military “exposed to weapons fire and explosive devices that may produce sound levels as high as 185 dB.”

Keizer believes an understanding of noise pollution in all its gravity gives the lie to any notion of a cleanly won modern world. “The extent to which we regard noise issues as ‘precious,’ in the pejorative sense of the word,” he writes, “is the extent to which we will squander those things we ought to hold precious in the positive sense of the word: fragile ecosystems, manual skills, local cultures, neighborhoods, children. Even if noise is not killing us—though compelling evidence suggests that it can—noise offers a way to understand the attitudes that are” (italics added). Noise, the noxious overflow from all the machines we use to juice the speed, power, and ease we want from modern life, is what Keizer calls “the sound of unsustainability,” the audible signature of a system breaking down: our post-industrial death knell.

Keizer is the latest in a rich vein of writers who have weighed in on a soundscape filled with the clanking, whirring, and sputtering of the industrial world. He situates himself deliberately within this continuum, surrounding the presentation of his own research and insights with references to thinkers as disparate in temperament and time as the Victorian John Ruskin (who complained of the difficulty of working within earshot of the “accursed omnibus” in Fiersole, which passed by “with noises like breaking wind”) and the twentieth-century German philosopher Theodor Lessing (who believed that hyper-rationalized cultures used noise as a tool to blunt themselves back to “unconsciousness and oblivion”). Though these references help to illustrate and historicize Keizer’s argument, they sometimes make his work feel less like the polemic it wants to be and more a catalog of anecdotes.

Remarkably, The Unwanted Sound is able to present noise as a prickly conceptual ambiguity without losing sight of its physical power. Keizer manages this by reading noise as not only a distraction to the conscious mind, but also as a force capable of damaging the physical body, a brutal fact that puts us “in touch with our nature as physical beings.” Outside evidence supports this characterization: noise’s effects on people—it can cause ear pain, concentration troubles, cardiovascular damage, and social withdrawal—have been weaponized, used to stun, terrify, and injure enemy combatants. The effectiveness of Keizer’s argument is compounded by noise’s reach:  the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton was quoted by The Los Angeles Times in 2005 as estimating that there are only seven or eight places in America “where the sounds of nature are unbroken for intervals of at least 15 minutes during daylight hours.” Even the least-touched wilds of the American landscape are blighted by the sounds of air travel and machines. Our cities are saturated.

Keizer’s solution to this tremendous problem is minimal: try harder, be quieter, abate with ordinances. “One way to imagine an alternative is to think in terms of a quieter world: quieter habits of consumption, quieter interactions between powerful and less powerful nations. . . .” If noise is the sound of war and conflict, then quiet is that of accord and healthy community. A Dutch campaign to reduce neighborhood noise, mentioned briefly in the book, encapsulates this idea when it entreats, “Let’s Be Gentle with Each Other.” Keizer apparently hopes such a plan would produce a world dominated not by noise but by what he calls “the most beautiful sound in the world: the sound of a human being trying to do his or her best.”

If we accept the book’s argument that noise is an inescapable consequence of a technologized world, that “we can take noise out of our civilization with about the same ease as we can extract an egg from a cake,” then “doing one’s best” feels like an anemic response.

But The Unwanted Sound is less concerned with offering solutions than with pleading for empathy, making an argument that our survival as a species requires putting aside the modern obsession with self and attempting to understand other lives. It is as Susan Sontag wrote about Virginia Woolf in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others: “And, she is saying, we are not monsters, we are members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy. We have failed to hold this reality in mind.” Keizer’s insistence on always holding the realities of noise sufferers in mind accounts for his most notable traits as a writer, for better and worse: his honesty and intensity, but also his sanctimony and curmudgeonliness.

It also accounts for his portrayal of soundscape artists as disengaged at best and callous at worst. Keizer takes up the “negative and narrow topic of noise” rather than the “richer and more inclusive topic of auditory culture,” he writes, from a desire to keep faith “with the people who cannot move away, hire a lawyer, or ‘contextualize’ their noise annoyance in some abstract theory of the soundscape.” Sound art, from this perspective, is a diversion for those who can afford the luxury, a practice concerned only with itself: “the sound artist performs a useful office for the rest of us: first, by holding out the hopeful if tenuous possibility that we might find something salvageable in sonic refuse; and second, by distinguishing art from life.” These pursuits are abstracted from life and incapable of eliciting empathy—they show imagination, but the wrong kind.

Some imaginations are more self-obsessed than others. The Italian Futurists, artists who fawned over the noise of conflict and treated the machine with erotic reverence, operate within The Unwanted Sound as a sort of worst-case scenario for an “abstract theory of the soundscape.” Indeed, with their gleeful enthusiasm for the aesthetics of WWI, the first conflict mechanized on a large scale, their project makes for a strong illustration of Keizer’s point about “the historic relationship between noise and violence, between the arrogance of power and contempt for the weak.”

In 1910, after Italy’s industrial revolution had gathered speed, F. T. Marinetti issued a manifesto for the nascent Futurist movement. Keizer quotes: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers . . . and scorn for women.” And: “we will sing the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards  . . . deep-chested locomotives . . . planes whose propellers chatter in the wind.” Luigi Russolo later took up the Futurist cause for music in his Art of Noises, an equally nervy manifesto calling attention to the musical possibilities offered by the machine age’s new palette of noises. This document infamously divides his ideal “Futurist” orchestra into six categories, beginning with the sounds of machines: “1. Rumbles, Roars, Explosions, Crashes, Splashes, Booms,” and ending in an especially cold treatment of death: “5. Noises obtained by percussion on metal, wood, skin, stone, terra cotta, etc.” and “6. Voices of animals and men: Shouts, Screams, Groans, Shrieks, Howls, Laughs, Wheezes, Sobs.”

Keizer must have shuddered to read the ultimate goal of Russolo’s manifesto: to “renew everything” and create a future from the refuse of the present by turning his art of noises loose on the world. “In this way the motors and machines of our industrial cities will one day be consciously attuned, so that every factory will be transformed into an intoxicating orchestra of noises.” With the German Luftwaffe equipping its bombers with “devices that enhanced their noise as they descended upon libraries, museums, academies of every kind, moralists, feminists, and children,” Keizer writes, “The Futurist future had arrived.”

He reacts more politely but no less negatively to others who propose radical changes to the soundscape, even those who would eliminate noise: R. Murray Schafer, whose book The Soundscape pioneered the noise–modernity coupling central to Keizer’s own work, fares little better than Russolo. In The Soundscape, Schafer makes the gentle suggestion that we eschew noise abatement and make “environmental acoustics a positive study program,” asking, “Which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply?” In this way, he hopes we will develop a more sophisticated aesthetic understanding of our sonic environment, that we will then be prepared to organize the sounds of the world and set about “tuning” it like a “macrocosmic composition.” Keizer dismisses the idea, noting that he is “made uneasy by any ‘Thou shalts’ that seem overly prescriptive” and that “the notion of an ‘acoustical designer’ or a ‘utopian soundscape’ makes [him] nervous.”

Why does this careful plan also make Keizer nervous? Schafer’s acoustical designing shows few of the characteristics Keizer derides in Russolo’s art of noises, neither the violence of Russolo’s materials nor any hint of his callous disregard for human life. Both thinkers, however, abstract sound from the soundscape and speculate on how it might be re-arranged in the future. If we follow to a logical conclusion Keizer’s implication that soundscape abstractions are without empathy, we see a possible reason for his dismissal of speculative projects built from those abstractions: a belief that their execution would be without a total understanding of the complex realities they alter, that they are suffused with a risk of force and violence.

A stubborn aversion to speculation runs deep. Even when projects are not by nature forceful and violent, for Keizer the very fact that they posit sound brings them into an ethical grey area. In the concert hall, he notes, speculating on the future and introducing alternative soundscapes is fine and good, because here audiences are willing. “The essential difference between music and noise,” Keizer writes, “is neither acoustic nor aesthetic but ethical.”  In contrast, sound “imposed on me against my will is noise, no matter how ‘pure’ its tone or ‘classical’ its pedigree.”

Under these draconian limitations, the problem of consent becomes intractable; even a falling rock could be accused of noise pollution if a foul mood strikes, and Schafer risks visiting violence on the population simply by introducing designed sounds into the world outside the context of a performer-audience relationship. And so Keizer’s personal bias tends toward subtraction. He seems to believe we can ameliorate the situation only by being gentler, quieter, trying harder, passing and enforcing ordinances that limit sound. Surely all of these are necessary for a better future (how else to combat the physical violence of noise?), but in positing them as the only adequate responses, Keizer cordons off too many potential avenues of advancement. The Unwanted Sound can barely suggest a future spent otherwise than mitigating the effects of our technology.

This need for the future to sound like the past pervades the book. Though a great many reviews (and more than a few portions of the book) are quick to argue that Keizer does not outright hate the noise he writes about, it is clear where his heart lies whenever he evokes the pre-modern quiet: “I am reminded of that whenever the power goes out in the nineteenth-century farmhouse where I live. The refrigerator, the furnace, the computer, the washing machine, the air purifier, the stereo—the fish tank filter in the days when our daughter kept fish—all die. And then, like a rush of heavenly music into the void: the songs of birds.” The Unwanted Sound reads, in another of its registers, as a record of Keizer’s handwringing about the way things used to sound, a record of his futureshock.

Futureshock, a distortion of perspective not unique to Keizer, is an impediment to progress. The Italian Futurists, who have had such great influence despite their many faults, have done so because they illustrate a small measure of the potential available to those who stubbornly resist dwelling in the past. Keizer and, to a lesser extent Schafer—men whose writings detail parallel histories beginning in the idyllic soundscapes of Nature and ending in the noisy soundscapes of the modern day—place us at the wrong sonic end of history. Their projects are held back by fantasies of reversion.

The true failure of those suffering futureshock is not their inability to think of a future but a failure to consider the present on its own terms. This paralysis, after all, is an inability to deal with futures that have already arrived. Keizer’s futureshock is characterized by an inability to keep faith with the sensibilities of a population raised in a time saturated with post-industrial technology. He remains ignorant of those for whom a certain level of noise has become naturalized, unaware that a city dweller might find more comfort or joy in the whirring, busy sounds of traffic than birdsong. Even Schafer, who encourages sound rather than restricting it, remains proscriptive about which sounds should be encouraged.

Some speculative projects have already avoided this pitfall, underscoring our very real need for them as agents of a continuous re-invigoration. The three-year-long Positive Soundscapes Project in the UK, for instance, applied a “positive” strategy very much in keeping with Schafer’s innovations, but proceeded without the same nostalgic hangups. In addition to encouraging natural sounds or quiet, or both, the project instigated a “move away from a focus on negative noise” and so greatly increased the variety of acoustic materials available to the designer.

The Positive Soundscape Project smartly avoided auditory proscriptions by combining cultural and scientific practices in their “evaluation of the relationship between the acoustic/auditory environment and the responses and behaviorial characteristics of people living within it.” If tests and surveys showed that the residents of a neighborhood liked the sound of car “rubber on the pavement” or “skateboards in the park,” then this could be taken into account for the acoustic design of that neighborhood. Under this rubric, even machine noise could be incorporated, alongside wind and rushing water. Designers could use them all to tune and sweeten the neighborhood’s sound.

That Keizer would dismiss this admittedly imperfect project out of hand illustrates the contradictory nature of The Unwanted Sound: ultimately, the roots of its greatest successes and greatest failures are the same. Though Keizer’s wariness allows him to keep faith with those who suffer, it prevents him from considering new or untried options. His seriousness helps him map the contours of a problem that few have accepted in all its scope and gravity, but, coupled with his palpable sense of futureshock and a resulting bias toward subtraction, it saps his writing of daring, of epiphany or hope.

Perhaps it is too much to ask of nonfiction about noise pollution that it should keep a place for imagination. But we need imagination, too. We need to engage the soundscape with some sense of play, to speculate on how we might construct a future worth living in. So with all due respect to Garret Keizer’s mostly wise and sobering book, let us dare to take those dangerous, shaky steps into the unfamiliar, toward lives and a world we cannot yet recognize.


Sean Higgins’s work on philosophy, architecture, and sound has appeared in Triple Canopy, TheState, and elsewhere. “Volumes and Territories,” his irregular column on sound art, can be found on BOMBlog. (6/2012)

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