Sound Cannons: Acoustic Imperialism and the Power of Noise
An essay by S.D. Jowett
“Wherever Noise is granted immunity from human intervention, there will be found a seat of power.”
– R. Murray Schafer
A few short weeks ago, during the G20 Summit in Toronto, many Canadians were outraged at the presence of both protest and police. In the wake of those events (which saw more Canadians summarily arrested than did the October Crisis of 1970) the corporate broadcast media has played its usual spin game, while the alternative internet media has shared photographs and videos that seem to belie many of the media’s claims. The growing clamour for an official inquiry into the gross abuse of police power has silenced a smaller – but no less relevant – debate that emerged just prior to the event. This was the debate about G20 security forces using an untested new weapon against the protesters: the sound cannon.
Ah, the cannon. Ubiquitous throughout the history of militarized confrontation, the thunderous canon has returned – with a decidedly sonic projectile: ear-piercing noise, designed to drown out human speech and to temporarily deafen anyone within close proximity. Now, while I have some serious concerns about the way in which this new and largely untested weapon has been given swift approval under the heavy shadow of our government’s G20 protest paranoia, that is not exactly what I’m going to talk about here. Instead, I want to talk about how and why the State has militarized noise, and turned the power of sound against its own people.
The association between the sound cannon and the G20 in Toronto is not a coincidence – nor should we forget that there is a link here with American militarism: the device may have first been used in the United States at last year’s G20 in Pittsburgh. Check out the youtube vid below for a demonstration of how the cannon’s noise drowns out all other sound and forces the dispersal of the crowd.
This video can help us understand why the debate about this sound cannon actually strikes at much deeper issues than simply the physical effects on hearing – it touches on two of the fundamental rights of democracy: the right to free speech, and the right to assembly. In a nutshell, it is a demonstration of acoustic imperialism versus the voice of the people.
Using R. Murray Schafer’s quote at the beginning of this article – “Wherever Noise is granted immunity from human intervention, there will be found a seat of power” – we can now ask a very important question: where does power lie in our society? With the people? Which people? Or does power lie instead with the security state?
What I’m suggesting here is that the idea of ‘the sonic’ can help us ‘hear’ dimensions of power, culture, and society that we often take for granted. One of the most systematic studies of this relationship was undertaken by Canada’s own R. Murray Schafer, a composer and urban ethnographer associated with Simon Fraser University. In 1977, Schafer published a book that has since become a cornerstone text in the field of sound studies. It was called The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Schafer was interested in that aspect of the environment that we so often take for granted: that of sound, and our sense of hearing. He and his team of researchers recorded the sonic environment of Vancouver, testing the relationships between soundwaves and the physical surroundings of the city. Like all good scientific researchers, the team recorded their findings in series of graphs, charts, lists, and other statistical sorts of things.
And yet despite all the technical skills required for the competent handling of sophisticated audio equipment and the mathematical calculation of auditory algorithms involving decibels and hertz, Schafer’s project was decidedly social scientific: concerned with the relationships between our sonic environment and the perceptions and behaviours of the people in it.
One of the fundamental ideas in The Tuning of the World was that of Sacred Noise. The basics of this idea were simple: noise (read “any big sound”)= power. Loud sounds always evoke fear or respect. What’s more, until fairly recently in human history, loud noises were always associated with the power of the deity. Thunder was produced by the Gods, whereas “God’s presence was first announced as a mighty vibration of cosmic sound.” In reflection of this process, the loudest sounds often heard in the village were those of the church bell – signalling the Divine rule of society, and the power of the Church. Later on, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and a rapidly secularizing society, the Church lost much of its power. In place of the church bell and the church organ came the machine, the factory, and the railroad. Now commerce and industry was the new God.
Another area where loud noise is associated with power is, of course, warfare. As Murray points out, from battlecries to the clashing of metal, from drumming to gunpowder to the Atomic Bomb, noise has always been a deliberate military strategy, designed to frighten and overwhelm the enemy. Another, more recent example: authorities at Guantanamo Bay used painfully loud music to torture detainees.
As R. Murray Schafer put it:
“The association of noise and power has never really been broken in the human imagination. It descends from God, to the priest, to the industrialist, and more recently to the broadcaster and the aviator. The important thing to realize is this: to have the Sacred Noise is not merely to make the biggest noise; rather it is a matter of having the authority to make it without censure.”
Silence & Submission
The last sentence of the quote above is the most crucial aspect of Murray’s argument, because it’s not just anybody who can make Noise. Have you ever had a neighbour call the cops on you for making too much noise? Maybe you had to put a new muffler on your car, or were told to turn down the stereo. Ordinary citizens are generally not at liberty to make loud noise. Indeed, the association between silence and submission is deeply entrenched in our culture.
Mark M. Smith, in an article about the “heard worlds” of Antebellum America, discusses some of the ways the loudness or quietness of society was perceived by both the industrialising North and the slave-holding South. To citizens in the North, the loudness of the factories signified the power of their modernity, while the boisterous volume of the crowd signified the vibrant health of their new democracy. In the South, things were different. Here, it seems, silence was valued by plantation owners as a symbol of control over the plantation – and thus of the slaves’ submission.
But it was not only slaves who were expected to hold their tongues – and society in general is full of aphorisms reminding us that “silence is golden”. Take for example the old saying that “children are to be seen but not heard”. Youth are supposed to defer to their elders. And what about the fact that for centuries women were expected to be mindful of their tongues, letting their husbands, fathers, or brothers speak for them? In analysing how the perception of ‘noise’ was shaped by both race and gender, Smith points out how the woman who fulfilled the expectations of her gender was considered a proper woman “not least because she was quiet and submissive”.
While children, women, and slaves learned that “a still tongue makes a happy life,” this adage has also been adopted in the name of national security – just think of those old war-time posters warning that “loose lips sink ships,” “careless talk costs lives,” “the walls have ears,” and that “enemy agents may be listening.” Today, we are all supposed to keep our voices down in church, in school, and at work, leaving the vocal imperative to those in charge: our parents, our deities, our teachers, our bosses and – perhaps most significantly – our elected representatives to government.
So what alternative is there but for citizens themselves to speak up when their elected representatives are not voicing their concerns – when the people and the politicians are not ‘speaking the same language’?
Voice of the People
Part of the problem here is that while the state has a tightly coordinated ‘public voice’, ‘the people’ rarely speak as one. In our society the mass broadcast media serves, in many ways, as a substitute for the collective voice. Indeed, the power of broadcasters was identified by Schafer as one of today’s ‘loudest’ noises – although perhaps it is best to understand this ‘loudness’ not in terms of qualitative volume, but rather in terms of quantity of volume, or mass – the mass media is everywhere.
It may be worth remembering, at this juncture, that it was only fairly recently that the ‘public’ broadcast media became ‘public.’ Up until the late 1950s and early 1960s the mass majority of broadcasting in the West was state controlled. Think of the BBC or the CBC, which are both overseen by arms of the government. Both are broadcasters who professed to speak for ‘the people’ of ‘the nation’ while maintaining a very narrow definition of just what kinds of ‘people’ make up that ‘nation’. In Canada, the idea of the mass media as state-controlled and driven by a handful of ‘cultural caretakers’ has been widely explored by historians such as Paul Litt, Mary Vipond, and, more recently, Ryan Edwardson. It wasn’t until the 1960s (a particularly cacophonous period where the freedom cries of the rabble were raised against those in power) when the privatization of the airwaves afforded a brief window of opportunity for a truly democratic form of radio to emerge – when small FM broadcasters, owned and operated by ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) citizens dared to take the position of cultural critic. The famed period of ‘freeform Fm radio’ didn’t last too long before the corporate media conglomerates got their sticky little fingers all over the dials, toning down the radical criticism (usually by firing people), and fitting the playlists and news items into a strictly controlled corporate format. This is the state of radio today – a small handful of mass media giants own the vast majority of public broadcast airwaves. The few precious holdouts: campus and community radio stations, often with very limited transmission ranges; and pirate radio, broadcasting illegally from various secret locations. I should also mention the rising promise of podcasting and blogging – still in their infancy as tools for cultural critique.
As Smith argues, in a democracy the vibrancy of debate signifies health. But what happens when there is a silencing of certain voices? What happens when voices are appropriated and mimicked – when disharmonious elements are made to harmonize with the grand narrative? What happens when we are all made to speak with the same voice, as so often happens with the pervasiveness of the generic ‘voice of the media’, which is really just a corporate approximation of and substitute for ‘the voice of the people’. What happens when our politicians don’t voice our concerns with enough stridency to be heard above the din of petty politicking? What recourse do the people have but to take to the streets in an attempt to raise their own voices in unison – citizens together in the public places where they dwell?
Streets Are For The People
Marshall Berman, in his beautifully written classic All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, traces the intricate history of how the street became place where the modern subject would learn to assert his presence – individually at first, then in number, finding power in the unity and harmony of the collective voice. Berman tells the story of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man – a new kind of Russian citizen, a man whose rebellion begins in the silence and cover of darkness, then finally comes to light on the Nevsky Propect (one of Imperial Russia’s first ‘political’ spaces) when “he stands up to his social superior and fights for his rights in the street.” Throughout the book, Berman paints the street as a place of encounter and sociability between the atomized units of modern existence – the street is a place with the potential to “transform a multitude of urban solitudes into a people, and [to reclaim] the city street for human life.”
And so we arrive at the importance of the right to free speech, to free association and assembly: where else in our society can voices of critical concern come together as one but in the street – the public thoroughfare? “Streets are for the people,” is a popular rallying cry at public protests, and this sort of sonic resistance, the voice of the people raised loud, is key to being ‘heard’ by both the general public and the powers that be. (Indeed, noisemaking has always been a key strategy for public protest and display: bells, drums, and singing in particular). We all have the right to use the street – and when masses of citizens come together in the street, to reclaim it from their consumer capitalist and neo-liberal overlords, they are clamouring to be heard. No wonder, then, that the state responds with a show of force. Drown out the voices of dissent, disperse the crowds, round them all up, take names. This is the criminalization of dissent. But don’t you ever forget that dissent, the right to a contrary opinion, is a vital part of healthy democratic debate.
Now, it seems that the sound cannon was not actually put to use in Toronto during the G20. I doubt that the rationale for this decision had anything to do with the theories of sonic power I have outlined here. But it is interesting, nonetheless, that the state now has the option to use militarized sound against its citizens – and not just any sound: a hyper-modern high-frequency pulse, specifically designed to reach the threshold between hearing and pain, to drown out dissent, and to dominate public space in an act of acoustic imperialism.
The state is silencing voices of dissent under the guise of security – but this process helps expose the importance of speaking up. After all, “silence gives consent,” and in maintaining its hegemony the state negotiates your cooperation through processes of coersion and consent. So speak up, Canada. Be heard. Let’s make some noise to rattle the windows of this so-called ‘peaceable kingdom.’