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

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

https://www.dukeupress.edu/hush

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. Continue reading

Martijn Oosterbaan on his new book, Transmitting the Spirit

Cover image for Transmitting the Spirit: Religious Conversion, Media, and Urban Violence in Brazil By Martijn Oosterbaan

https://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-07843-4.html

Interview by Jessica Rivers

Jessica Rivers: In your book, you argue convincingly that it is important to understand the Pentecostalism of Rio’s favelas as governmentality.  Based on your research, do you believe the sound practices of the evangelicals in Visionario and Roda do Vento effectively extended the reach of Pentecostal governmentality to non-evangelicals?

Martijn Oosterbaan: In the book I analyze what it means for people who live in dense favela spaces to be enveloped in the sounds emanating from churches, and the sound of carioca funk and samba music. Broadly speaking, I analyze conversion through the lens of governmentality, and not only because Pentecostalism is concerned with bodily discipline and with the government of self. Conversion in this context cannot be wholly understood without including the politics of favela life. Conversions are not definite moments of transition in a favela.  Instead, they are processes in which people come to understand themselves and their environment differently.  If we see sound practices as part and parcel of these process, we might also see that even for those who do not describe themselves as converted evangélicos these sound practices – in combination with assertive evangelization techniques – are re-ordering their perceptions of space and power in the favela. By and large, many people who are not considered evangélicos regard Pentecostal churches and church leaders as legitimate authorities within the favela – not in the least because many of these leaders (loudly) promise the possibility of salvation, prosperity, and protection to people who live in precarious situations. Approaching this question from a different angle, I argue that the sanctuary spaces of churches are extended by means of amplified church sounds and by means of gospel music. We should not see Pentecostalism as the only bundle of techniques and representations that informs governmentality but it has become a very important element of it in the context of Rio’s favelas.

Jessica Rivers: Are there instances in which the Pentecostalism you witnessed could be interpreted as operating (aspirationally) as sovereignty (p. 42)? I’m thinking, for instance, of their creation of absolute spaces and their reclamation of public spaces with the trificante exorcisms?

Martijn Oosterbaan: When we regard sovereignty as tentative form of authority grounded in physical violence, as some do, such an argument might be harder to make. There are, however, Pentecostal practices such as the performative evangelical crusades (cruzadas) that I describe in the book that are presented as rupturing moments in public favela life. These performances could be conceived as acts that aspire towards sovereignty. During these crusades, which are highly mediatized and ritualized events that involve musical performances, pastors, preachers and singers narrate the possibility of personal and collective liberation by way of the works of the Holy Spirit and the exorcism of demons. In the context of favela life such events are presented as breaching the politics of daily life, in which people are bound by the machinations of the devil, often without their own knowing. Testimonies of former drug gang members during these crusades reveal that they no longer abide by the rules of the comandos whose leaders are the informal sovereigns of the favelas but by God’s laws that grant protection in this life and salvation thereafter. These events generate exceptional moments of rupture that sustain the notion that a different life is possible. Nevertheless, Pentecostal groups do not take the informal sovereigns head on and generally do not interfere directly with their businesses.

Jessica Rivers: Your research intervenes in the conversation on the relationship between religion and violence. You argue scholars should not assume Pentecostal practices are merely soothing since, in constantly presenting Pentecostal churches as a powerful counterforce, they necessarily (re)produce their own forms of anxiety about the city as an evil place (83). Do you think this means the Pentecostalism of the favelas has a sort of hopelessness built into its strategic long-term planning? Would you go as far as to say that the manifestation of Pentecostalism described in your book, in fact, depends on seemingly continuous, otherwise uncontrollable violence?

Martijn Oosterbaan: This is a very pertinent question in this post-Olympic moment in Rio’s history. Surely I don’t mean to argue that Pentecostalism is only popular because Rio de Janeiro is witnessing uncontrollable violence, nor do I argue that the anxiety that certain Pentecostal practices and ideologies reproduce is of the same kind as the anxiety that traumatic physical violence might cause. In the context of Rio’s favelas, there are other socio-material circumstances that are enmeshed with the persuasive emotional practices of Pentecostalism (dreams of material wealth for example). Nevertheless, I do indeed argue for an understanding of its popularity in context and violence, unfortunately, is a pervasive aspect of favela life. Moreover, the testimonies that I documented and church services I attended featured many accounts of people’s experiences of urban violence. Having said that, in the book I aim to counter arguments of people who describe Pentecostalism in a reductionist fashion as making up for uncontrollable violence – a discourse that several Pentecostal churches also employ themselves. Pentecostal groups generally do not oppose the criminalized comandos directly or interfere directly with their businesses but these groups do present themselves as the only way out for those people that feel that they are in the grip of the comandos and that presentation remains a very powerful selling-point, I argue.

Jessica Rivers: It is intriguing that your informants felt conflicted about watching telenovelas and reality soaps because of their salacious content and decidedly unconflicted about watching the spectacularized violence of news programs.  Do you believe it was merely a question of genre that made them feel they could read and judge the material of (semi) fictional programming and not the selective narrative packaging that went into the nightly news?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Not merely, but genre is very influential. In the book I try to show how different modes of Pentecostal self-discipline overlap or clash with media genres. As I argue, the notion of factuality is very important in the unconflicted reception of spectacular news programs. The presentation of ‘news’ as unmediated representation of ‘how it is’ in the world distinguishes the genre from others. Producers appear to go at length to sustain the myth that ‘what you see is how it is’. Moreover, there is something quite definitive about physical violence – especially with regard to cases where people are mortally injured – and sharp distinctions between heroes, villains and victims are sustained easier in cases of spectacular urban violence than in the case of juicy soap operas (telenovelas). As I relate in the book, my Pentecostal interlocutors frequently characterized perpetrators as possessed individuals and pictured violent urban encounters as manifestations of the cosmic battle between God and the devil. The genre of the telenovela, on the other hand, hinges on moral ambivalence. Protagonists are hardly ever entirely upright and the attraction to watch telenovelas is related to the possibility to ‘watch and judge’ the behavior of the lead characters. Such a spectator-position overlaps well with certain Pentecostal discourses in church services and informal talk. Gossip (fofoca) about the behavior of neighbors or even fellow church members often revolved around the question if this or that person was ‘of God’ or not. Nevertheless, some evangelical spectators despised the moral ambivalence and argued that this was exactly how people were lead away from the straight path.

Jessica Rivers: Your informants disliked and distrusted Rede Globo; were they more likely to notice the aesthetics and read its programs against the grain (like in the U.S., conservatives do with MSNBC and liberals do with FOX news)?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Certainly, but not with all the programs. Rede Globo is the biggest media-imperium of Brazil. By way of its news-programs and several of its fiction programs it has criticized and ridiculed Pentecostal churches – predominantly the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (the Igreja Universal). In the nineties, it set out to unmask the leaders of the Universal Church as greedy businessmen that employed the prosperity gospel for personal benefits. The Universal Church and several other Pentecostal churches have reacted fiercely against these accusations. They stressed that TV Globo was broadcasting lies because Globo’s leaders perceived the rise of the broadcaster Rede Record – owned by the leader of the Universal Church, Edir Macedo – as a threat to their media-hegemony. As I show in the book – many of the adherents of Pentecostal churches living in the favelas of my research attached these clashes to prevalent interpretations of Globo’s telenovelas as degenerate. In addition to the genre specific critique I just described, evangelical spectators told me that Globo’s spread of immoral content by way of its novelas was related to their support for Afro-Brazilian and Roman Catholic traditions and their dislike of evangelical values. Some even told me that Globo had made a pact with the devil to air demonic programs. Such suspicions definitively influenced people’s perceptions of Globo programs.

Jessica Rivers: You group the lived religious practices of the people who attended the Igreja Universal and Assembleia de Deus together. Did your informants ever take issue with this grouping? I was surprised to see that you did not describe the Igreja Universal as Neo-Pentecostal.  And could you elaborate on how you made that decision and what difference, if any, it makes (and to whom) to designate a church: Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, Charismatic, or otherwise.

Martijn Oosterbaan: Thank you for raising these questions. I struggled with the question if I should separate or group together the people who attended the two churches but eventually decided not to distinguish the people in relation to the questions I was attempting to answer. I think we are severely mislead when we start from the assumption that because there are different churches with contrasting doctrines, people who attend different churches have fundamentally different experiences of their mediated surroundings. That can be the case for sure but it is something that can only be confirmed by research. Not long after I started, I decided not to write a ‘church ethnography’ but to explore favela spaces as shared life-worlds in which boundaries are produced in flexible fashion. In the book, I discuss the lives of people of one household and several of their family members who also lived in the favela. Many of these people frequented different Pentecostal denominations, yet quite a number of them had attended both services of the Igreja Universal and of the Assembleia de Deus, eventually picking one that suited them better (at that moment). More importantly at the time of research – people from different Pentecostal and Protestant churches generally identified with each other as evangélicos in opposition to Catholics, Umbandistas and Spiritistas. These people often share mediated spaces where Pentecostalism is broadcast. This not only meant that they heard each other’s preferred sermons or gospel music, they also regularly connected to the messages of fellow Pentecostal churches beyond church boundaries. They were shaped by their shared understanding of the dangers posed by the media that surrounded them on a daily basis (carioca funk, samba, telenovelas), so many people of both churches voiced the same suspicions and experiences regarding demonic powers. Certainly, boundaries were drawn when people disagreed with each other’s doctrinal positions at times. Nevertheless, I really wanted to foreground the shared, mediated Pentecostal life-world created in the favela space instead of the differences between people who attended churches of different denominations at the time of my research.

Jessica Rivers: You apply Gershon’s concept of media ideologies to your Pentecostal informants’ television viewing practice but not to their listening practices.  Was it a difference in the modes of consumption available to them that guided this aspect of your analysis? Did your informants find it harder to experience music critically than they did television? Could they only allow themselves to be critical of worldly media? If so, why do you think that was?

Martijn Oosterbaan: You rightly point to something that I did not spell out explicitly in the book and which is related to the fact that people generally presented music’s mediation as less intricate than the mediation of audio-visual content via television. Music itself was certainly regarded critically and Pentecostal listeners often discussed who and what could transmit spiritual force and which marvels and dangers were involved. Music as mediating technology was thus very important and people’s evaluations of music feature prominently in the book. As I explain in detail, people’s evaluations were closely related to perceived differences between music genres and the associations between genres, life-styles and communities in the favelas. In my opinion, Ilana Gershon’s concept of media ideology can be applied very well to music and the critical appraisals of evangelical listeners, and though I did not explicitly refer to her concept with regard to listening practices, I do refer to the work of Webb Keane, whose concept of semiotic ideology is very close to Gershon’s work. So why did I refer explicitly to the notion of media ideology when discussing television? In contrast to television-broadcasters, evangelical radio-broadcasters played only recognized evangelical (gospel) music, made by people who identified themselves as evangélicos. Other ‘worldly’ radio stations played no evangelical music at all – at least not music of self-identified evangélicos. Tuning in to an evangelical radio station gave the evangelical listeners a sense of ease since they did not have to worry about the possibility of hearing sinful music. Television broadcasters that broadcast evangelical programs, on the other hand, also aired worldly content. Even TV Record, the channel owned by Edir Macedo, leader of the Igreja Universal, aired programs that could be considered worldly (yet not necessarily immoral). As a consequence, television (the device) demanded much critical attention according to the people I spoke to. Evangelical programs could be followed by worldly or even demonic programs. People generally remained vigilant to see what would be aired next. The notion of media ideology helped me to describe the problems of evangelical television viewers a bit better than the concept of semiotic ideology. Television presented my evangelical interlocutors with bundles of related ideologies that included semiotic ideologies but also appraisals of the medium as it works in the context of Rio de Janeiro. And television confronted them with several questions: Which programs are available on each television channel at what moments during the day and how is each program related to Brazil’s intricate religious field? When believing that television can transmit demonic powers, which programs should be considered harmless and which not? And when they are potentially harmful, can one still watch them in an effort to test oneself as firm Christian or should one turn off the television? As I describe in the book, one Pentecostal viewer recounted how he had tried to watch an erotic television program – believing he would be able to withstand its demonic seduction – to find himself powerless in the face of its lure and then quickly turned it off.

 

 

 

 

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).

attachment

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.

it.images

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