Hush: Media and Sonic Self Control
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2019
288 pp., 61 ills. b/w. Trade, $25.95
Over the past half century, our world, collectively and individually, has grown increasingly impacted by sound(s). The beeps and dings of our electronic devices and appliances, the array of mechanical sounds filling contemporary capitalistic spaces, and shifting racial, gendered, ableist, and class ideologies overwhelm us with sound(s), both real and imagined, even as technology has provided ways of controlling our personal aural experience.
This is the context for Hush: Media and Sonic Self Control, a new book by Mack Hagood, which seeks to explain the "impasse of mediated control in literal and figurative listening" (223). Hagood traces media technologies, from bedside white noise machines, tinnitus maskers, LPs that play ocean sounds, apps that play nature sounds, noise canceling headphones, and in-ear technologies, to argue that the purpose of such technologies is not information transmission, but rather control, how we might create sonic safe places for ourselves.
The pursuit of happiness through control can provide freedoms, says Hagood, but also new assaults and sensitivities. For example, media technologies responding to tinnitus, hyperacusis (sound sensitivity), and misophonia (sound phobia) represent how the desire for freedom from maladies of the body and world can turn our listening into aversion, fear, anger, and suffering.
Hagood calls media devices that control our engagement with the environment “orphic media,” a nod to Orpheus, known to Greeks and Romans as the first poet, and who, through his poetry and music was said to enable social, physical, and sensory entanglements (23). He describes orphic media as occupying three concentric circles. In the first, smallest circle, are tinnitus masking devices, LPs, headphones, and hearables, all designed for sonic control of one's affective state and environment, and usually employed in utilitarian practices like promoting sleep, concentration, and keeping one unaffected by surrounding sounds. The second circle contains music and film and other media technologies that modulate the degree to which one may be affected by the surrounding sonic environment. The third, largest circle, includes all media—but specifically film, radio, television, and digital media—that "channel affective desires and modulate our sensory and attentional engagement with our environment and one another" (23).
Orphic media do this work by altering the "modes," the virtual possibilities of affectivity in a given moment, emerging from preceding actions of bodies upon one another and conditioning actions that may follow. Media thus, argues Hagood, alter modes by enabling, or not, capacities that shape and reshape encounters between ourselves and others (24).
Hagood explores these ideas throughout Hush, detailing examples of suppression (Chapter 1, Tinnitus and Its Aural Remedies), Masking (Chapter 2, Sleep Mates and Sound Screens; nature sound recordings; and nature sounds apps), and cancellation (mobile production of quiet space through the use of headphones). Throughout this examination, Hagood highlights the cultural, economic, and material contexts that have encouraged control through orphic media practices.
The results, he says, are both good and bad. Good in that in what Hagood calls a noisy world of haters, trolls, and information overload, we must guard our listening as part of our self-care. But, to the bad, our efforts to shield ourselves from what we consider unwanted sound(s) may decrease our awareness and acceptance of sonic and social difference.
With the future of audio technologies focused on wearable computers for our ears offering new, prosthetic means of controlling our personal aurality, we arrive at the threshold of an augmented reality that changes our affective possibilities for acting and being acted upon by sound (225). With features like noise cancellation, language translation, and selective filtration, we will be able to change what and how we hear. At stake is the battle for autonomous control through the consumption of good information and the avoidance of noise (that which we do not wish to hear).
The risk is that listening becomes hypersensitive and noise omnipresent. "Ironically, reason and agency diminish as we tend to either turn away from discomforting inputs or fixate on them obsessively as threats that need elimination," says Hagood. "Oddly enough, the latter option provides a sense of comfort too, as technology feeds our confirmation bias, presenting a filtered world that never requires us to recalibrate our senses, opinions, or reactions" (228).
Concluding at this point, Hagood leaves us rethinking media theory, sound studies, and the definition of media. But, in a coda-like final section of his conclusion, Hagood says the orphic technologies he describes in Hush, while promoting informatic listening, diminish our abilities to explore the complex aural world in which we live. There is, however, no reason that these same technologies cannot support and expand a practice and ability of deep listening. There is no easy remedy for our self-defeating attempts to be free of one another, but perhaps, says Hagood, we can "recalibrate our expectations toward practical, experiential, and critical engagement" (234). Perhaps we, and our orphic technologies, rather than further engineering the narrow freedom to hear what we want, can develop and use technologies that free us from aversion and indifference that shape our listening and provide sonic technologies for a listening freedom beyond control, wanting what we hear rather than hearing what we want.