Hillel Schwartz – Noise and Emergency

SONIC ACTS RESEARCH SERIES #4   On 25 October 2014 the cultural historian Hillel Schwartz will speak at the A Day of Noise event in Eindhoven. Hillel Schwartz is the author of the impressive study Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011). In this book he traces the cultural history of ‘noise’, from the fall of the Tower of Babel and the uproar of the Gods in Babylonian epics to crying infants heard on baby phones, the static of shortwave radio, the Big Bang, amplifier feedback, and announcements over public broadcasting systems. It covers an astounding range of cultural material, from the significance of the word ‘noise’ in 16th-century poetry to ideas about noise abatement. In 2012 we invited him to speak at the Sonic Acts festival. On 26 February 2012 he delivered a talk structured as a series of non-rhyming sonnets: Emergency in 17 Sonnets. It centred on the questions: ‘In emergency, what do we hear, and how? / When time’s of the essence, what sounds keep us honest?’ We present it here as Sonic Acts Research Series #4 (text below, audio on the right).

Emergency in 17 Sonnets

Sonic Acts have summoned you here under the call sign of Emergency, though some may have wandered in this late afternoon of a Sunday when, hours ago and centuries past, canals would have been fast awake with a banging of church bells ringing in a patient heaven or warding off an impatient hell in repeated acts of incomplete confession and long prayers, docile or desperate, for evading or escaping a fate worse than death, or finding ways out of immediate perils of loss, pain, doubt.   ‘Emergency,’ the word, oddly compounds the gradual, and the urgent, emerging slowly out of noun toward demanding verb, impudent and insolent in its imminence and power, its instant jeopardy and intimidating glower. Evoking the hullabaloo of foretokened crisis and the indrawn-breath of consternation, in its calculation and its breathlessness Emergency is itself an oxymoron of forces practiced and well-arrayed, yet masses stunned, bewildered, betrayed. It is the sound of time compressed and a time of sound distressed.   We’re too familiar with these sounds: sirens, buzzers, hooting, screams; horns, yodels, shouts, and gongs; the shrieking screech of steam. All societies, many of them animal, have their own Emergency calls to flee, hide, freeze, scatter, don a life vest, climb a tree, duck and cover, dive to deep water, pretend you’re invisible or large-and-mean; cling to your mother, run to a shelter, be still as a button; dash helter-skelter; flash-mob; riot; all together, rush; raise a hue-and-cry; hush, hush...   In places industrial or densely peopled, our Emergency calls lose their urgency to the verve, flare, boom, and sweep of sounds intense or electric – a quotidian insurgency so loud, close, penetrating, or persistent we cannot make out the bearings of an instant. Urgency thus diminished, such calls don’t alarm or incite; if we hear them at all through tumult and drone they seem insubstantial; we do not take flight, nor do we shake and tremble in anticipation. Cacophony is less about sound than time, less about noise than loss of rhythm and rhyme. How differently then do we hear amid turmoil (or beroering), amid commotion and turbulence (or woeling)?   That’s the question I address in this set of sonnets. In emergency, what do we hear, and how? When time’s of the essence, what sounds keep us honest? What roils our ears in the imperative ‘now’? If sound at heart is nothing but a commotion of air, what happens to hearing when all is upended, in despair? Mine is no technical ramble on auditory display or how to crank up signals scrambled by static; no spiel for anti-terrorist wargames or annuitising the statistics of risk. Nor is’t a tirade on the banality of emergency where all news is rated according to urgency. Rather, I am asking: when push comes to shove, how do our ears vibrate, neurons stretch, minds move?   Few are neatly insulated from sonic intrusion. Those whose wealth affords them the retreat of soundproofed offices or bedrooms may still be haunted, like Proust and Pulitzer, by street tubas, low-flying planes, a bubbling sump pump. Even fewer escape the common comeuppance of tragedies unexpected, sudden reversals, twists of chance inbred in human happenstance. The thing about emergency is that, despite rehearsal, there are ever unintended consequences, loose ends, vari-ontologies, timefull incontinences. So too with hearing in extremis, how we hear is tremulous, stutter-step, uncertainly ajar.   We know that hearing can be undone by stress, whether of overweening wariness or utter shock, of hours slowly unbearably unwinding or days compressed, of waiting for what’s coming, on tenter-hooks, or slaving to a relentless schedule, listening for the least off-tick or miscue. We know that hearing is undone by stresses physical and psychic, muscular and emotional, at work or adventure, in prison under duress... domestic, professional, or environmental. Stress itself may be silent or nearly so; the ear finds where it cannot go. Stress not only limits the range of what we hear; it damps and distorts, shears and veers.   Men in the Great War under mud, blood, and bombardment, told apart the brrr, fftt, and wheeze of different guns, learned the soft sucking gargle of friends gassed at the front, the moaning of those buried alive, the groaning of cannon hauled by whinnying mules, the murky grrr of tanks, ‘the sharp little sound of jingling mess-tin chains.’ But how were they hearing when they heard ‘a rain of maggots, all through the night, above our heads, making a noise like rustling silk as they gnawed their way through some dead man’s guts’? How did acoustic simile take hold on such and so many a night in cataclysms of trenches, where you could never tell one shell from the next, though you listened with all ‘that peculiar intentness that concentrates all thought and sensation in the ear,’ your heart (as we say) in your throat?   Generals supposed it was the sheer benumbing noise, ‘one terrific tornado of noise,’ with barrages so strong that ‘head and ears ached violently,’ that turned the boys in their divisions into walking corpses, mute headlong shivering bodies unable to sleep, unwilling to dream for fear of slipping back to battle – but what triggered nightmare was often a click, thump, squoosh, bump, or dark silence that foretold concussion, before ‘the power of logical thought and the force of gravity seemed alike to be suspended.’ The acoustics of emergency lie as much with the slipknots of still small voices as with screaming horses or ‘long-drawn howls.’ So though we know, by frequency, the chartable harm of decibels, we don’t know quite how sounds register in emergency or how they re-sound in the aftermath of catastrophe.   We do know that severe stress, especially sonic, can cause a roaring in the ears, a storm of noises ostensibly self-produced, atmospheric or chthonic – noises orange or black that physicians call tinnitus. We know that sudden shrill blasts or piercing strains cause seizures in rats and, in people, migraines, with an acuity so painful it’s better not to hear at all, and a vestibular nausea or soundsickness so oppressive the inner ear cannot bear the fall of a single note, hum, or whisper, and revulses as well at psychomachia, interior debate, as if unspoken syllables could seal one’s fate. When we dare not even listen to ourselves think, how do we hear the voices of others on the brink?   Dazed or wounded, bruised or frightened, people take to opiates, tranquillisers, anxiolytics, and home-brewed nostrums to dull the pain. These also dull the hearing; over time, they’re ototoxic, killing off hair cells, prompting hallucinations as vivid in their sounding as in our image-ination. In fact, our modern arsenal of common medicines for conditions of the heart, lungs, blood, bones, veins, arteries, muscles, and intestines saps our sensitivity to higher tones, and gradually we lose our finesse at discriminating s’s, t’s, th’s and f’s. The humdrum of medicalised lives itself prepares us ill for listening when in peril.   And for those millions who’ve stood earward of quakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and typhoons, how differently must they hear the ‘natural’ sounds out beyond our windows, on prairies, in forests, by calving glaciers or cataracts, wherever the placid and tempestuous make their compacts. So emergency in sonic terms is not starkly contingent on weather or topography; it’s how we hear ourselves through time, from one to another predictably unpredictable event, more or less devastating, more or less or nowhere near sublime. How we hear when agitated is framed by where we’ve been at moments past, at other trying and traumatic instances. We hear what we have heard, and what we’d hoped never to hear again, and what we say we cannot remember.   This last is the human predicament, wrote Freud; at myth-historical root, our trauma is acoustic, sounds of that intemperate primal joy of mutual orgasm, overheard as caustic violence by the young, uncomprehending child who cannot elsewise make sense of cries so wild and sounds too of an indelible primal crime whose patricidal screams will out, one or another way, through glitches of talk and displacements of dream. With Sigmund or without, there’s a sense of sonic replay in emergency, our worst fears echoing in sounds we’d thought we’d never hear again. A split-second, and in that emergent time noise come into its own, a tell-tale, deep-time coda.   Historically, ‘noise’ comes into its own as Towers of Babel struck down, as Sanskrit rawa and raba, ‘to make a noise,’ which in English may empower the ‘rabble’ in their Brownian commotion, their éclat. Strange how we turn to noise to warn of impending crisis: a discomfitingly universal onomatopoeia of ruckus that enlists bells and drums against lightning and thunder. Sound distressed may become new music, new harmony, but our dramas are old with dissonance and blunder, and at each recurrent upheaval we bray like donkeys believing somehow that the louder we shout, the less threatening the world at our mouth. Discombobulated, we hear noise always as more than noise—as prophecy or judgment, as time at war.   At war with itself, with us, with Nature: we’re not sure. At such unstable moments, are we more upset by loudness or chaos? By sounds foreign or all-too-familiar? By words unmeaning, half-articulate, or loudly blatant? Or by sounds drastically ambiguous: a murmuring purr that could be kittens, swarms of locusts, distant bombers? Do we hear more sounds as noise, because distraught, unable to focus, unwilling to sit still and listen, or do we mistake static as strategic message, caught as we are between times, where nothing is golden and what once was linear or cyclical is now awry, awaiting some new acoustics, a magical syllabary. Terrorised, displaced, do we listen inward or outward or not at all? Are we beside ourselves with our beating hearts?   ‘State of emergency’: such a harrowing term, and when prolonged, under tyranny or famine, assassination, coup, or gang war, it poisons the ear. When a person or polity is hypervigilant for long stretches, what one hears becomes contraband or distortion, each backfire gunfire, each question a command. When emergency is vacated of its urgency and made instead an eco-political condition, listening is cowed or compromised by uncertainty and noise absorbs all that cannot be undone. People no longer know where to attend, where not, so try as best they can to keep out of earshot. Prolonged emergency, doubly oxymoronic, may be as sonically deadly as murderously ironic.   What do you hear here, in this composition called ‘Sooner or Later’? [Play fragment from Bob Ostertag: Sooner or Later (1991)]   Ostertag, I think, is asking us to hear emergency emerging from sounds of buzz and shovel, mosquito and weeping, toward an imperative, an urgency of intervention more radical than empathy. After all, isn’t this what sound is, and what sound does – arising out of the blue and fading away, coming at us as if one emergency after another, even with subtone and reverb, echo and dub, insisting on a present where each of us must let some basslines go as we choose what to follow... and so, intent, what will follow, what we hope must follow, each moment almost a crisis of the ear, that hollow never empty of prospect and potential, of rustle and rumour that must arrive at resolution: later or very much sooner.   At the end, though, whatever we know as closure must be an empty set, for it’s through emergency that our sounds, noises, and silences, conjoint, define caesura, that… pause... in ongoing beats that, slow or swift, marks how we survive to hear, and how we hear, or feel, alive. Between the Far Continents of Long Time and No Time, at the walled perimeter of gardens and silver screens, Emergency waits, more endemic than sublime, where what we hear is what we cannot clearly see, where seeming is not-wanting-to-believe, and the noise of almost nothing is more persuasive than the bells and tongues of Pentecost. So these sonnets cannot come to full conclusion, must resolve to – Hillel Schwartz (US) is a poet, cultural historian, and, currently the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He is the author of the 928-page Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone, 2011). As a medical case manager, he has published Long Days Last Days: A Down-to-Earth Guide for Those at the Bedside (2013). As a poet and translator, he has published, with Sunny Jung, a translation of the work of the poet Kim Nam-jo, one of Korea's leading poets: Rain Sky Wind Port (Codhill Press, 2014). Schwartz’s other books include The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles (Zone, 1996); Century’s End: A Cultural History of the Fin de Siècle from the 990s through the 1990s (Doubleday, 1990); Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat (Free Press, 1986); and The French Prophets: The History of a Millenarian Group in 18th-Century England (California, 1980). Schwartz has taught in departments of history, humanities, religious studies, literature, and communication at the University of California at San Diego, San Diego State University, and the University of Florida. His current research concerns the changing nature and notion of ‘emergency’ since the late 18th century.

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