Suggestion for Sound Scholars

What is considered to be ‘noise’ in any given society, defined as “any unwanted sound” by Hillel Schwartz, is shaped by wider cultural, social, economic and political factors.[1] Since the so-called ‘Industrial Revolution’ at least, societies in industrialising cities have complained of some sounds and celebrated others. [2] As Karin Bijsterveld puts it, to understand definitions of noise, “we must invoke the cultural meaning of sound”. [3]

In particular, relations between ranks of society in European cities during the second half of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century are argued by Bijsterveld to have shaped perception of noise.[4] Bijsterveld argues that most complaints of noise during this period came from intellectuals such as James Sully and Theodor Lessing, for whom noise was primitive, anti-intellectual, and an attack on mental refinement. This image took the form of class antagonism, with noise as the ‘’vengeance’ of the labourer working with his hands against the brainworker who laid down the law to the former.’ On the other hand, silence was associated with justice and wisdom.[5]

This use of sound to help in the construction of differing societal ranks as ‘others’ to each other can be linked with how dirt and uncleanliness, whether imaginary or actual, has also been used to signify ‘others’ (in this case to signify different ranks and classes of society). Another connection between dirt and noise can be made. Mary Douglas’s famous notion of dirt conceptualizes it as “matter out of place”.[6] Similarly, noise could be thought of as “sound out of place”: whether or not the sound or matter are perceived as being “out of place” or as belonging to any given scenario would be shaped by wider cultural concerns, as demonstrated by the work of both Shwartz and Bijsterveld.

The connection between Douglas’s notion of dirt and the idea of noise as sound out of place does not seem to be one explored in the current scholarship, despite the very wide circulation of Douglas’s concept in academia outside her field of anthropology. It is therefore a possible avenue of further research.

Secondary Sources:

Bijsterveld, Karin. ‘The Diabolical Symphony of the Mechanical Age: Technology and Symbolism of Sound in European and North American Noise Abatement Campaigns, 1900-40,’ in Michael Bull and Les Back (eds.) The Auditory Culture Reader (Oxford, 2003) pp. 165-189.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: an Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. (London, 1988).

Schwartz, Hillel. ‘On Noise’, in Mark M. Smith (ed.), Hearing History: A Reader (Athens, 2004), pp. 51-53.

[1] H. Schwartz, ‘On Noise’, in Mark M. Smith (ed.), Hearing History: A Reader (Athens, 2004), p. 52.

[2] Schwartz, ‘Noise’, p. 52.

[3]  K. Bijsterveld, ‘The Diabolical Symphony of the Mechanical Age: Technology and Symbolism of Sound in European and North American Noise Abatement Campaigns, 1900-40,’ in Michael Bull and Les Back (eds.) The Auditory Culture Reader (Oxford, 2003), p. 165.

[4] Bijsterveld, ‘Symphony’, p. 166.

[5] Bijsterveld, ‘Symphony’, p. 167.

[6] M. Douglas, Purity and Danger: an Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London, 1988), p. 44.

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