Jennifer Hsieh takes the page 99 test

Jennifer Hsieh Page 99 Test

Media scholars, philosophers, and anthropologists have all written about noise—that mysterious sonic object that can be grating to the ear at the same time that it becomes a celebrated call to human action. “Let’s make some noise!” is a phrase that unleashes a liberatory self, daring the addressee to break away from the “same ol’, same ol’,” of everyday life. In other instances, noise is unwelcomed. News reports over the past few years have covered the case of US diplomats’ exposure to a high-pitched, screeching sound that may have caused neurological damage. This linkage has not yet been proven, but that has not stopped researchers from weighing in on the case.

Given the mercurial ways in which noise captures the social and political imagination, I took a radical commitment towards the empirical in my dissertation, Noise Governance and the Hearing Subject in Urban Taiwan (2017). An ethnography of environmental noise control in Taiwan, I investigated the technological and material efforts of citizens, bureaucrats, and acousticians toward incorporating hearing and listening into the social and political domain. I examined the interplay between a technocratic definition of noise and the individual experience of noise by shadowing noise inspectors to a variety of sites, including construction zones, restaurants, and apartment buildings.

At first listen, the everyday sounds of Taipei exist multiple worlds apart from the effervescent noise at protests, or the weaponized noise of political affairs. Nevertheless, these different registers exemplify ways in which noise participates in and produces social worlds. As I found in my research, the symbolic and metaphorical treatments of noise were not wholly separate from a mechanical approach to noise and, in fact, informed one another.

On page 99, I delineate the interests of different stakeholders in Taiwan’s noise control system: “While government agents utilized health and environmental discourse on noise to exercise political and social control over Taiwanese subjects, individual citizens called for increased noise control as a form of civic activism to hold the government accountable for managing the people.” Continuing on, I trace the double-bind of noise control that attends to the social and political needs of both citizens and the state: “On the one hand, noise control supported environmental rights from a liberal progressive view by advocating for a healthy and safe living environment. On the other hand, these social movements were used as substitutes for continued social and political control by a regime with roots in authoritarian forms of governance. In other words, both liberal progressive and authoritarian agendas utilized environmental and public health in the service of conflicting discourses: one for civic activism in advocating for citizens’ rights; the other for the continued justification of government oversight over everyday life.” Given the divergent, contradictory accountings of noise in Taiwan, it is difficult to determine whether noise is celebrated or unwanted; instead, noise is that which keeps the conversation going, producing political subjects by way of the sounded environment. By considering the multiple agendas held by various parties around noise control in Taiwan, I examine how the object of noise remained an enduring social and political phenomenon precisely because of the way it exceeded both official and civic efforts to systematize it.

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Hsieh, Jennifer. 2017. Noise Governance and the Hearing Subject in Urban Taiwan. Ph.D. Dissertation. Stanford University.

Jennifer Hsieh is an LSA Collegiate Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her current book project is a study of the scientific, bureaucratic, and audiovisual practices underlying the production of environmental noise from early twentieth-century Taiwan to the present. She has previously held research fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Vossius Center at University of Amsterdam, and Fairbank Center at Harvard.

 

Mack Hagood’s “Sonic Technologies of the Self”

The core idea of the “page 99 test” – that a part of the work reveals the whole – proves true in my dissertation, with a bit of a twist.

In Sonic Technologies of the Self, I examined the history and present of what I have come to call “orphic media,” devices used to fabricate a preferred sense of space through sound. Like Orpheus, who protected himself and his fellow Argonauts from the Sirens’ fatal song by playing his lyre, orphic media users fight sound with sound to remix their social-spatial entanglements. Examples of orphic media include noise-canceling headphones, white noise generators, and digital apps that create the sounds of waterfalls and bird-filled forests.

Orphic media give the lie to any simple equivalence between “media” and “communication technology.” Rather than facilitating communication, orphic media are often used to generate a simulation of silence so that the user can sleep, concentrate, or relax on their own. In orphic media use, sound becomes a technology of the self, creating a space in which users can be the self they think they are supposed to be. As a rule, this is a better-sleeping, more-efficient self that can meet the demands of a neoliberal economy by severing sonic ties to others.

But on page 99, I discuss an exception to this sleep/concentration binary, one that shows this rule is neither natural nor technologically determined. This page concerns a pioneer of orphic media—an audio producer, photographer, and marketer named Irv Teibel, who put all of his skills to use in a series of records called environments (1969-79).

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A bit of a snake-oil salesman, Teibel was the first to create field recordings such as “Psychologically Ultimate Seashore,” and “Wind in the Trees” and market them as self-improvement tools. Teibel’s records, however, had a countercultural, communitarian vibe and were pitched as technologies to fight noise pollution, induce “mental trips,” and get people together:

Through his textual and pictorial framing of manipulated natural soundscapes, Irv Teibel succeeded in fabricating spaces of possibility through mediated sound. These spaces of possibility could be the outdoor imaginaries of lone listeners, but they could also be spaces of interpersonal connection and exploration—liminal spaces where ego boundaries could be weakened and transgressed, be it through talk therapy, encounter groups, or sex (99).

In today’s headphone/earbud culture personalized sound bubbles predominate, but Teibel’s work reminds us of other social-spatial possibilities for mediated sound.

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Mack Hagood. 2013. Sonic Technologies of the Self: Mediating Sound, Space, and Sociality. Phd dissertation, Indiana University.

Mack Hagood is the Robert H. and Nancy J. Blayney Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies at Miami University, Ohio. His research on digital media, sound technologies, disability, and popular music has appeared in American Quarterly, Cinema JournalPopular Communication, and The Atlantic. He is the producer and cohost of the podcast Phantom Power: Sounds about Sound. You can reach him by email at hagoodwm@miamioh.edu.

Mack’s dissertation was turned into a book recently published by Duke University Press, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (2019).