Mack Hagood on his new book, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control

Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (Sign, Storage, Transmission) by [Hagood, Mack]

Interview by Jacob Smith

Jacob Smith: Hush offers a strikingly original take on the history of devices and practices that offer control over the sonic environment. As a framework for your analysis, you coin the terms “orphic media” and “empty media”: what are these?

Mack Hagood: In its narrowest sense, the concept of orphic media refers to the ways people use audio media to create a safe space for themselves. In Greek mythology, Orpheus saves the lives of the Argonauts by neutralizing the Sirens’ song with a song of his own, pacifying the treacherous environment of the Siren Strait. Over the past sixty years or so, a number of media devices that operate on this principle have arisen: bedside machines that generate white noise or nature sounds, commercial recordings and smartphone apps that do the same, wearable devices that counteract tinnitus, noise-canceling headphones, and others. All of these technologies fight sound with sound to control one’s environment, thereby allowing the user to control her own subjective state. If we think of these disparate technologies as the products of a single industry, it generates billions of dollars by promising control over how we feel, sleep, and concentrate. But up until now, we haven’t thought of orphic mediation as a media practice—and, in fact, we haven’t thought of most of these technologies as media at all, because they don’t have “content” in a traditional sense. They are “empty media” that challenge our scholarly and lay notions of media as technologies that inform, entertain, or transmit messages. In fact, these media aren’t meant to be paid attention to at all, which is what allows them to be so effective!

Now, this might seem to be simply a quirky and overlooked product category or a lacuna in the field of media studies, but I argue that it’s much more than that. In the book, I use these technologies as a way to explore the way listening has become difficult, painful, and even paranoid in the era of the attention economy, which equates the liberal subject with controlled attention while also flooding consciousness with voices, information, enticements, and distractions, undermining any possibility of self-control. This personal, sensory conflict fuels our politics of filter bubbles, right-wing echo chambers, campus safe spaces, and other contemporary controversies around listening. Studying listening is useful because a similar reactivity and even physiology are at work when we recoil from a sound we find uncomfortable and when we recoil from a social situation or even an idea that we find uncomfortable. So, in its widest sense, the concept of orphic media is about more than sound technologies. It claims that the most fundamental purpose of all media use is not to transmit information, but rather to navigate our affective relationship to our environment. And it’s the misguided ways we try to stay in control of that relationship that drive our current conflicts.

Jacob Smith: Your first chapter concerns the use of orphic media by the sufferers of tinnitus. What is distinctive about these practices in the broader terrain of orphic media? What methodological challenges did you face when writing this chapter?

Mack Hagood: In the course of studying orphic media, I quickly realized that people with buzzing, ringing, or other putative phantom sounds in the head or ears were among the most committed users of these technologies. During my ethnographic study of tinnitus and the roles that media play in its diagnosis and treatment, I came to understand just how high the stakes of orphic media use can be. Many of us experience tinnitus to some degree or from time to time and are relatively unbothered by it, but for a small minority of people, tinnitus is a deeply disturbing experience that interferes with personal relationships and the ability to work or enjoy life. And as an invisible disability, inaudible to others, tinnitus can often be met with skepticism and impatience. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression are strongly associated with suffering from tinnitus in this way.

By visiting audiology clinics, research centers, and tinnitus support groups, as well as volunteering with the American Tinnitus Association for a number of years, I met many people with tinnitus and learned a great deal about the nature of aural suffering. And, indeed, almost everyone I met used white noise or other orphic technologies either as digital folk remedies or as prescription media, under the guidance of an audiologist or other clinician. They used media as what Foucault called “technologies of the self” that help us bear the burdens of liberty, the requirement to be free of hindrances and limitations that a liberal society places upon us.

When you ask about methodological challenges, I think perhaps you are referring to my own struggle with tinnitus during my fieldwork, which I discuss in the book. Hush is based on my dissertation and shortly after my research proposal was approved by my Ph.D. committee, I accidentally overfilled a bicycle tire at a gas station and it burst right next to my left ear, leaving me with very loud tinnitus. I was quite upset by this and now I had to begin my fieldwork on the subject of tinnitus, interviewing people about it and thinking about it every day. It was really challenging and I found myself dealing with similar anxieties and depressive feelings as my interlocutors, which not only heightened my empathy for them, but also added a visceral, lived dimension to my analysis. It made me understand the intimate relationship between fear and control, the way that refusing to accept what wasn’t freely chosen only amplifies suffering and, conversely, the way that opening oneself up to sounds we didn’t choose can actually diminish our suffering. Truly, the only way I was able to stop suffering from tinnitus was to gradually accept that it was part of my body and my experience, whether I wanted it or not. In the end, my experience and study of tinnitus was the key to understanding the impetus for all orphic media and to formulating the critique that evaluating life only in terms of the freedom to choose actually instills more fear and suffering into life.

Jacob Smith: The Marpac “Sleep-Mate” of the 1960s is positioned in your book at a crossroads between mid-century military and domestic contexts. Can you sketch your argument about how the Sleep-Mate was integrated into postwar American culture?

Mack Hagood: The Sleep-Mate is the classic white noise sound conditioner that you might use in your bedroom or see used in a therapist’s waiting room to create acoustical privacy (although it’s since been rebranded by Marpac as the Dohm). The machine is just a little fan housed inside a plastic dome that creates broadband noise, masking other sounds. One of the things I find interesting about the sound conditioner is that it takes fan noise—an unintended industrial byproduct—and rehabilitates it for use in the home. During and after World War Two, noise was spreading along many different vectors, as the American landscape was transformed to speed the circulation of subjects, objects, and information. There is an exponential relation between speed and noise: doubling the rotation of an airplane propeller leads to a sixty-four times increase in the sound pressure level, for example. The spread of the American interstate highway system lead to the spread of automobile noise and the rise of the suburb in the former countryside, full of people escaping the noise of the city. And Claude Shannon’s information theory gives scholars a new definition of noise as entropy, leading people to understand noise as a kind of omnipresent and existential threat, while also facilitating the spread of noise as “too much information,” as well as 24/7 capitalism, which has no time for quiet.

So, the perception of noise is an unintended byproduct of the capitalist proliferation of choice. The sound conditioner then takes this unintended byproduct and deploys it as yet another choice, the option not to hear, fighting noise with yet more noise to fabricate a kind of silence. But there was still the challenge of marketing noise for use in the home. In its early years, Marpac was careful not to use the word “noise” and it used images of sleeping women in its ads to feminize and domesticate noise. Eventually, some users requested a rebranding—they found the product useful in the office but didn’t find the Sleep-Mate badge on top of the dome to be professional enough. Marpac soon spun off a second product called the Sound Screen. It was identical in every way, but marketed for the opposite purpose of sleep, concentration. This utilitarian sleep/concentration binary would become the basis of most orphic media use.

Jacob Smith: The “Environments” recordings made by Syntonic Research, Inc (SRI) in the 1960s and ’70s reveal another set of social uses for “orphic media” – can you explain?

Mack Hagood: Yes, Irv Teibel’s environments record series was the rare exception to the sleep/concentration binary. Teibel imagined his recordings of English meadows, seashores, and Alpine blizzards as a kind of countercultural “head music,” a way of connecting rather than disconnecting. Listeners could connect with the natural world and with each other, as Teibel claimed the recordings could be used to enhance sex and facilitate “mental trips.” Indeed, during the 1970s, environments recordings were used by interpersonal “encounter groups” such as est, as well as by psychologists and psychiatrists in talk therapy settings. It was even said that the records made plants grow faster! Solid sales figures are hard to come by, but these records definitely sold in at least the hundreds of thousands and received a lot of media attention. Teibel had little in the way of legitimate research to substantiate his claims and he may have been something of a snake oil salesman, but I have such a soft spot for this moment in American history when people were excited to experiment and connect through orphic media in this way!

Jacob Smith: In Part Three of Hush, “Cancellation,” you offer a fascinating comparison of two approaches to noise cancellation, enacted by the Bose and Beats companies. What are the similarities and differences between these two approaches? 

Mack Hagood: Like all the technologies in Hush, noise-canceling headphones fight sound with sound, but they don’t generate noise or nature sounds. Instead, they use tiny microphones to pick up the sounds of the world and circuitry to play back those sounds “out of phase” through the headphones, so that the peaks and valleys of the replicated sound waves cancel out those of the original. The inventor of this technology, Amar Bose, had theorized that “there must be a way of separating things that you want from things that you don’t want.” Bose was thinking in terms of acoustical engineering, but when it comes to the marketing and actual use of these headphones, this logic of choice becomes social as well. In the separate chapters on Bose and Beats headphones, I study the marketing of noise-cancellation by asking: Who are the imagined users of these technologies and what are the “things they don’t want”? What is the perceived noise? Who are the perceived noise-makers?

In this sense, noise functions as an emic category in these chapters, found in the ears of its perceivers. Noise is not the root problem—it’s a symptom of systemic problems. But orphic industries don’t encourage us to think of the problem in a systematic way. Instead, we are to blame one another—especially those who are different from us and those whose sounds are the least familiar—and to use orphic media to tune this noise of difference out. And so, the introductory marketing of these headphones generally appeals to our different identity groups.

At first, it’s the most powerful and privileged identities who are conceived of as the users of these technologies. Bose offered the promise of tuning out what we might call “white noise”—noise from a white, affluent, male perspective. These early-2000s advertising images were mainly of business-class “road warriors” in airports and airplanes, where these privileged men used their headphones to tune out the discomforts of deregulated air travel. The surrounding (male-written) media discourse of news and reviews focused not only on the noise and discomfort of air travel, but also on women’s and children’s voices, which connects to a long history of middle-class men using audio equipment to fabricate a defeminized space in the home.

Ten years later, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s Beats Electronics decided to market noise cancellation to a younger and browner demographic. These commercials conjured “black noise” as the sound of racism, presented from the perspective of lone, exceptional black athletes in America. We see these men not on the field or court, but before and after the game, when they are hounded by haters and doubters using racially charged language. In order to be the stars we see on TV, these ads tell us, black athletes must first contend with this hate and doubt on their own. The commercials refashion orphic technology for black users, while still maintaining Bose’s masculinist road warrior trope. They are very powerful, but we can also notice how they position racism as something to be defeated through individual consumer choice, rather than as a structural problem to be overcome politically.

Jacob Smith: Hush not only makes the reader rethink the history of sound media, but notice a host of emerging phenomena that could be placed in the “orphic media” category. What recent devices or practices have appeared on the cultural stage since you finished writing the book that you might have included in it – any updates on the culture of “orphic media” since Hush came out?

Mack Hagood: Well, there are a number of phenomena that I gesture toward in the conclusion, which are continuing to grow in reach and complexity. The way streaming services organize music according to moods and activities shows how music is conceived of as a utility for all-day affect management. And so-called “hearables,” in-ear technologies with their own onboard computing power, have seen their first big hit in Apple’s AirPods. We’ve also learned this month that Amazon is moving to produce hearables as well, as they hope to get Alexa out of the house, so to speak. These technologies allow users to be continually connected to computer networks and digital content via sound and voice—and I’ve noticed that people who own AirPods often leave them in for hours at a time. The dream is that you’ll be able to block out any specific sounds you don’t like, hearing only what you want, while also accessing a virtual world at will.

Now, I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here. I don’t believe that experiences or connections are inauthentic simply because they are digitally mediated. I love sound technologies and have had many rich experiences through them! However, I am often dispirited by how these technologies are used. If you can control your engagement with your environment, that means you’ve inserted an interface between yourself and the world, which by definition shrinks the set of possible interactions. If you habitually interface with your world instead of engaging it as-is, you are getting a thin version of life. In the past year or so, I’ve started to see students attempting to wear earbuds or headphones during my classes. Virtually overnight, this phenomenon seems to have gone from nonexistent to something I’ll have to explicitly forbid in my syllabi. Now, there’s always the possibility that I’ve simply become a more boring professor over the past year, but I’ve asked around and my colleagues have seen the same thing as well. I worry that we are all becoming more boring to one another, as the logic of choice necessitates the freedom to control what we hear at all times. After all, why leave anything to chance if you don’t have to? Why even risk the onset of boredom, the embarrassment of misspeaking, the frustration of being misunderstood, or the pain of being ignored by your always-connected peers? Better to stay in your safe space. This is the seductive promise of the orphic bubble.




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