Posted by: kaleidophonic | December 4, 2011

Occupy: the Amplification of Dissent

Well, the Occupy Movement has been booted out of their camps and into the underground.

As my friend Gloria pointed out in a recent guest post, sound occupies space like nothing else, and the sound of protest (chanting, singing, drumming, critical voices in intense discussion, and the busy buzz of protest organizing) occupying public space is always going to be a problem for the powers-that-be.

This is not the first time that I’ve blogged about a phenomenon I’ve labelled ‘acoustic imperialism’ – i.e. the use of sound to dominate and conquer space. (Check out my long essay on sound cannons and the militarization of noise here). While many people, including myself, would argue that the Occupy movement is liberating public space rather than dominating it, this does not mean that there isn’t an imperialist game being played here.

The state’s use of militarized noise, especially in the form of sound cannons, is just one of the more disturbing ways that security forces use sound to reinforce or regain control of ‘public’ spaces such as streets and parks. I use the scare quotes over ‘public’ to remind you all that the idea of ‘public’ is highly contested, and that in our society what is often called ‘public’ is in fact highly circumscribed. Public spaces are supposed to be used in a very specific way: for shopping, for having a quick coffee, maybe playing a pickup game of soccer. The use of public space to protest, to voice critical dissent, or as a relatively safe space for the homeless, is usually discouraged if not outright prohibited.

The danger of the Occupy movement comes not only through their presence, taking up room in the physical space of the city, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because their protest takes up room in the city’s soundscape as well. The amplification of critical voices and dissent presents a threatening alternative to the usual urban drone created by cars and consumers.

In New York, police forces fought fire with fire, deploying an LRAD (Long Range Acoustical Device), aka sound cannon, against the protesters as part of their efforts to rid the city of the physical and sonic presence. This is perhaps a direct response to the protesters’ own use of amplification, i.e. bullhorns, microphones, and voices raised in unison, and to my mind the deployment of the LRAD actually helps legitimate the importance and the power of the voices coming from the Occupy movement.

Murray Schafer, a key figure in the field of sound-studies, once said: “Wherever Noise is granted immunity from human intervention, there will be found a seat of power.” In other words, wherever loud sound is allowed to exist, that sound is sanctioned by the powers-that-be. The converse of this is also true: wherever loud sound is NOT allowed to exist, will be found a perceived threat to those same powers. The deafening din of modern urban life is allowed to continue, even despite sporadic attempts, through the years, at noise abatement campaigns. Yet the din created by people when they gather to vocalize criticism or dissent is perceived as being against the state, and therefore limited or downright prohibited.

It is important that Occupy continues to occupy the media and the urban soundscape with its own sounds, noises, and voices. Occupy is a vital sonic alternative to the usual talking heads and 30-second sound-bites of the media, as well as a vital intervention into the tranquillizing buzz of our neo-liberal capitalist cities.

The sounds and voices being raised as part of the Occupy movement are, for the most part, not new. These are critiques that have been leveled against power before. What IS new is the magnitude of these voices, their numbers, and their unity. Occupy is the amplification of dissent. Going forward, stripped of its ability to occupy physical space, Occupy needs to carve out a space in the modern soundscape.

So if you feel so inclined, I encourage you to grab a microphone, a megaphone, or a musical instrument, (or for that matter, your own voice) and start making some noise. Lets amplify dissent until it shakes and shatters the plate-glass windows of empire.

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