Q&A with Mack Hagood, Author of Hush

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Mack Hagood is Robert H. and Nancy J. Blayney Assistant Professor of Comparative Media Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His work on digital media, sound technologies, and popular music can be found in such publications as American Quarterly and Cinema Journal, and he co-produces and hosts the podcast Phantom Power: Sounds about Sound. In his new book, Hush: Media and Sonic Self Control, Hagood explores what he calles “orphic media”: noise-cancelling headphones, tinnitus maskers, white noise machines, nature-sound mobile apps, and other forms of media that give users the ability to create sonic safe spaces for themselves, showing how the desire to block certain sounds are informed by ideologies of race, gender, and class.

Explain what you mean by “sonic self-control”? What kind of sound are you investigating?

I study activities as simple as using a white-noise machine to sleep better at night or using noise-canceling headphones to work or enjoy a movie on an airplane. I am interested in how we use personal media technologies to change sensory experience, thereby managing how we feel and controlling our connection to our surroundings and others. These acts of sonic self-control are among our most common everyday media practices—millions of apps that generate nature sounds have been downloaded, for example, and headphones are now a multi-billion-dollar industry. These technologies’ prevalence alone makes them worthy of research; yet aside from a body of cultural studies work on personal music technologies like the Walkman and the iPod, very little research has been done on them. The kind of practice I’m describing here can involve music, but it can also be completely non-musical. I’m really focusing less on media content and more on how we use our devices to remediate how—and how much—the world affects us. I call these devices “orphic media,” named after the mythical Orpheus, who counteracted the fatal song of the Sirens by playing a song of his own, fighting sound with sound to create a safe space.

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In the book, I’m bringing together a diverse array of technologies that are used for this kind of sonic self-control: white noise machines, LPs of natural sounds, mobile apps, noise-canceling headphones, wearable devices that suppress tinnitus, and the evolving category of in-ear wearable computer technology, or “hearables.” Most of these orphic technologies have been ignored by my academic field of media studies, so I’m providing a history and asking why these practices have evolved over the past sixty years. Why do they feel so necessary today? And what can we learn about sensory experience and our cultural moment from them? Is our new ability to (in the words of a Beats headphones slogan) “Hear What You Want,” providing us new levels of freedom or is it making us ever more sensitive to what we don’t want to hear? In this way, I’m using the material and physiological experience of sound as a different way to think through contemporary debates about media echo chambers, filter bubbles, safe spaces, fake news, “snowflakes,” and so on.

Why do you think media studies has overlooked these technologies?

I think there are certain habits and ideas around media that affect scholars and laypeople alike, making some kinds of media practices harder to identify and analyze. For one thing, we tend to think about media in terms of discrete genres and technologies. In the academic world, the attainment of disciplinary expertise demands that you drill down on a specific medium, so you become a film scholar or a radio scholar or a social media scholar, despite the fact that we all know that these different media are converging in our iPhones. I wanted to approach things from the opposite direction, saying, “Here’s something interesting I see people doing on one device—are they also doing similar things with other devices?” So, I’m trying to think across media rather than within these categories that ultimately derive from the industries we are supposed to analyze and critique. This approach has led me to study audio technologies that are marketed as “sensory therapy devices” at the Home and Housewares Show, or prescription devices at the American Academy of Audiology conference—not just the familiar devices you’d find at the consumer electronics tradeshow, CES. My line of inquiry pushed me into some strange and interesting spaces where media scholars don’t often venture.

Then there are two common-sense definitions of media that exclude the technologies I study: First, media are information-transmitting devices. Second, media are communication devices. These are both partial truths that obscure some of what we really use media for—and even though a number of great media theorists have challenged these notions from different angles, they continue to dominate. In my view, media studies, like American culture, lives under the thumb of cybernetics and information theory, which were developed over seventy years ago—now more than ever, in fact! In the book, I argue that the pressures of living in an “information economy” are some of the main reasons we hate and fear noise so much today. What I call “infocentrism” places impossible demands on our attention and makes orphic media feel like necessities. Trying to analyze this dynamic as a scholar while using an informatic notion of media would be like using the Invisible Hand to critique neoliberalism.

My alternative definition, which is inspired by the Spinozan lineage of affect theory, is that media are devices used to control how we affect and are affected by the world. Information technology can facilitate this process, but the embodied, material, and affective aspects of media use just can’t be reduced to immaterial patterns of information or the transmission of messages. Take, for example, a mobile app like White Noise. Say you work in an open-plan office and your co-worker’s sales calls are distracting you from writing a memo, so you use your smartphone to generate noise and block out their voice. Noise is literally the opposite of information, right? You’re using your phone not to communicate, but rather to render communication impossible. In practice, you have contradicted the notion that media are solely technologies for the transmission of information and the facilitation of communication. Sure, your phone is constructed on an information architecture, but we shouldn’t confuse the architecture with the nature of the human practice, which is to remediate the external environment and thereby reorganize our interior experience.

What sparked your interest in sonic self-control? How did your experiences with tinnitus influence this project?

I lived in Taiwan for several years and there I encountered these little boxes that looked like transistor radios and played audio loops of chanted Buddhist sutras. I was completely fascinated by these things and started collecting them. (Years later, a pair of musicians in China commissioned their own version of the device filled with ambient music loops and branded it as The Buddha Machine—it became something of an underground music hit.) My imagination was captivated by the idea that a sound machine could create a sacred space and I recalled how, as a child who had trouble sleeping, I used a radio to make my bedroom feel safer. Years later, in graduate school, I read the passage in A Thousand Plateaus where a frightened child in the dark sings a song to create what Deleuze and Guattari call a milieu, a temporarily pacified space—a little wall of sound to keep the monsters out. I immediately thought back to the sutra boxes and my childhood radio and that’s when I began to wonder if there were other media technologies that sonically pacified space in this way. And yes, it turns out there are a lot of them!

As for tinnitus, I have had it for as long as I can remember—perhaps resulting from a bout of scarlet fever I had as a child. Tinnitus became part of the project when I realized that people who suffered a lot from it were the most avid—and sometimes, desperate—users of orphic media. In fact, audiologists prescribe wearable sound-generators as part of tinnitus therapies. This is because tinnitus grows louder in quiet spaces. Just as the pupils dilate in low light, the auditory system “turns up the volume” in silence, revealing or exacerbating tinnitus. The chapter on tinnitus shows how high the stakes of orphic mediation can get. In my ethnographic research, I met people who couldn’t work and even attempted suicide. A combination of sound enrichment and counseling is the main tinnitus treatment today.

And in fact, the stakes became very high for me as well. By a strange twist of fate, a bike tire burst right next to my ear right before I started my fieldwork, creating tinnitus to a degree I’d never experienced before. So, I was struggling with my own fear and dismay about tinnitus as I was going to clinics and support groups to observe and do interviews. I could deeply empathize with tinnitus sufferers whose bosses or families thought they were flakes or neurotics or malingerers. The tinnitus research soon became the centerpiece of the project. It provided me with a neurophysiological model of how an affect of fear can attach to sound, reshaping sensory experience and social life. It also forced me to study humanistic theories of disability, something that really wasn’t on my radar before. In the end, disability theory helped me resolve my own fear and aversion to tinnitus, which actually may be the only “cure” at this point. I realized that my own ideology of ability—Tobin Siebers’ term for the belief that the body should be perfect—was fueling my flight-or-flight reaction to tinnitus, making it worse. This helped me turn a corner. In time, I came to embrace my tinnitus as a part of myself. In fact, I came to realize that every sound we hate or fear is really part of ourselves, because we are the ones who experiences it. No matter what noise we are fighting, literal or figurative, embracing our experience is the secret to transcending it. Ironically, a lot of human suffering comes from our self-defeating attempts at self-control.

You use the image of Orpheus fending off the sirens’ deadly song with his own as the basis for your concept of “orphic media.” Why Orpheus? How does this myth let you touch upon other themes in your book?

Orpheus fascinates me, especially the Orpheus of the epic poem Argonautica. Here we have an adventure with a boatload of burly heroes, but this sensitive poet-musician-priest guy is an essential member of the crew. This should be not only an inspiration to nerds everywhere, but also a reminder of the power of sound and music. Orpheus keeps the brutish Argonauts from fighting by playing his lyre and singing. He sets the rhythm for the rowers, allowing them to travel with speed. He performs important religious rituals. And, of course, he saves the Argonauts lives by musically fabricating a safe space in the Siren Strait. So, Orpheus allows me to talk about how sound can be instrumentalized as a powerful vibrational force. This is what we see today in all orphic media.

However, Orpheus also exhibits something we have somewhat lost our ear for today. His power comes from the fact that he is exquisitely sensitive to the sacred and unifying power of sound. He is the son of a Muse, and he can hear even the vibrations of spiders spinning their webs. His music can change the course of rivers and move the Earth because he understands that sound is a medium that interconnects us all. So, sound can be utilized to separate and defend, but it also reminds us that we can never truly be separate from one another. Musical rituals are spaces where people give up individuality to sing and move as one. This is the opposite of the instrumentalized and individualized use of music that is so common in the streaming era with its mood- and productivity-focused playlists. Or the utilitarian use of white noise as a protective wall of sound.

In your discussion of different kinds of orphic media, advertisements serve as important examples of how companies have defined sound in terms of race, class, gender, and disability. What are some of the most unexpected ways in which capitalism shapes sound and orphic media?

Well, my broad-stroke answer is that neoliberal capitalism functions sonically the same way it operates generally: structural problems are personalized and made the responsibility of the individual to solve, using products conveniently supplied by the market. Going back to the open office plan, it’s a highly cost-efficient architectural strategy that just happens to drive workers to distraction because of noise. But when a worker has spent a lifetime in spaces like these, they probably aren’t going to blame the economic and built structures of capitalism for their misery, right? They’re going to blame their neighbor with the “annoying voice” or “braying laugh” or whatever. And those personalized perceptions of noise are going to emerge within our culture’s familiar hierarchies of race, class, gender, and ability.

I learned of this dynamic by studying the advertising strategies of the companies that sell orphic media, as well as by reading reviews and news articles in the popular press. These products are marketed around certain identity types: we’ve seen attempts to domesticate and feminize white noise for use in the home through the use of images of sleeping women, while Bose noise-canceling headphones were first marketed to white, male business travelers, and Beats uses a younger, African American perspective to market its headphones. These products are very similar—or, in some cases, basically identical—yet the identities they are portrayed to protect from noise are very different. I mean, there’s often a No Exit, “Hell is other people” discourse at work in the promotion of these media practices. Hell is other people who are different from you. That’s something that surprised me and it predates the “filter bubbles” of the internet by many years.

Hush includes the histories of many sonic technologies, from Beats by Dre headphones to white noise machines. What was the most interesting piece of technology to research and write about?

It’s hard to choose but one stands out from the others because it presented orphic media’s potentials in a different way from all the others. A series of records called environments was quite popular in the 1970s and early 80s and its album sides were dedicated to sonic spaces such as the seashore or a meadow or a country stream. These records are not only beautifully recorded and produced, but their creator, Irv Teibel, also heard a potential in these sounds that Orpheus would recognize. He thought his records could bring people together to go on mental trips, enhance sex, and commune with nature. These are the same kinds of sounds that are marketed today in a very utilitarian and isolating way: you use these sounds to relax alone, fall asleep, or be more productive at work or in your studies. But Teibel heard them as a sonic force of countercultural communalism and resistance to the alienation of modern life. And people agreed with him: his sounds were played on independent radio stations, in “encounter groups” like est, and in the offices of psychotherapists. Sadly, this communitarian usage of orphic media fell away, and today the marketing revolves around an efficiency-enhancing sleep/work binary, as well as individual escape from an anxiety-causing world.

How do you see orphic media evolving in the present moment? What do you think are the implications for our lives in the future?

Through the miniaturization of computer technology, orphic media are becoming increasingly powerful and refined. Augmented reality had been assumed by many to be a visual phenomenon, as exemplified by Google Glass; but arguably more progress is being made in the sonic domain, as in-ear “hearables” allow one to access the internet via voice assistants and block out sound via noise-cancellation. The dream of many developers seems to be the complete customization of hearing, so that, for example, you can simply eliminate specific sounds that you hate while still hearing others. Perhaps in the future, no one will ever hear a crying baby on a plane again! We’ve also seen the weaponization of orphic media—specialized earplugs that offer soldiers a combination of enhanced hearing and protection from gunfire and explosions. I think the implications of these technologies is that they encourage those with enough wealth and power to treat the sonic world like a database of content to selectively access and manipulate. But the history of control also tells us that there can never be enough it, that the more we customize our world, the more sensitized and in need of control we become. And if we do manage to silence the world, we’ll be stuck listening to the noise of our own tinnitus. Noise never sleeps.

How do you hope Hush will change the way readers think about listening?

You know, John Cage used to say that when he heard a sound he didn’t like, he would listen to it more closely to find out why—and almost always, he would learn that there was no reason. Now, I’m not a complete social constructionist when it comes to noise. There are sounds that damage hearing and sounds that are bad for human health. However, a lot of the sounds we recoil from may deserve a second hearing. If we challenge the auditory defensive crouch we go into and challenge ourselves to breathe in the offending sound and really listen to it, we may find that a lot of our reaction is just a habitual reaction to difference. In fact, the sound might even be interesting and informative. I don’t begrudge anyone their noise-canceling headphones—and I myself use a white noise machine to sleep—but there’s value in noticing when and where and why we use these things—and in exploring what we habitually tune out. Who and what are we leaving unheard? Careful listening can reveal the societal at work in the personal, as well as tuning us into the music of life.

Read the introduction to Hush free online, and purchase the paperback for 30% off using coupon code E19HUSH.

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