Article — From the March 2001 issue

Sound and Fury

The politics of noise in a loud society

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In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamour. Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in council, “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind.
—The Epic of Gilgamesh

In this way begin the earliest written version of the Great Flood myth, which reappears in altered form more than a thousand years later as the biblical story of Noah and the Ark. The Sumerian origins of the Gilgamesh epic may help to explain why the gods are so incensed. Sumeria is generally considered the world’s first civilization; that is, the first place where human beings create a distinctly urban society. It seems that by at least the third millennium B.C.E. the world has begun to grow noisy, at least for those living in the mud-brick cities of the Fertile Crescent, the first people on earth to hear the shake, rattle, and roll of turning wheels. The city that never sleeps is born here, memorialized in a story about angry gods who cannot sleep either. The twenty-first-century tenant who some nights would like to strangle his noisy neighbor lives no more than a story up from some literate Mesopotamian who apparently imagined drowning his.

Human noise is political from its inception, not only because it emerges with the polis—that artificial forest where the tree that falls always makes a sound—but also because it lends itself so well to political conflict. Noise is both an objective and a subjective phenomenon: it comprises both common and uncommon ground. On the one hand, a decibel is a decibel is a decibel. The fact that the human ear can endure about two continuous hours of a power drill but only thirty minutes of a typical video arcade before sustaining permanent hearing loss and the related fact that eighty-year-old Sudanese villagers hear better than thirty-year-old Americans are just that: facts. On the other hand, the reasons why an airport will affect its neighbors in different ways, leaving some depressed or hypertensive and others relatively unfazed, are as variable and invisible as sound itself. Even the gods who confer with Enlil are not of the same party on the noise issue. At least one of them objects to eliminating human commotion at its source, and consequently a chosen few are able to step blinking from the ark into a temporarily quieter world.

By the time we get to the monotheistic universe of Genesis, the flooding of the earth is presented as the result of God’s moral indignation. Wickedness, not noisiness, is what starts the rain. Yet I can think of few symbols more suited to wickedness than noise, usually defined as “unwanted sound”—like defining an assault as “unwanted attention.” Loud noise hates nature and nurture alike. Certain species of birds fail to learn their mating songs, and therefore to reproduce, in noisy environments; as early as 1975, researcher Arline Bronzaft found that children on the train-track side of a New York public school were lagging a year behind their classmates on the other side of the building in learning to read. Even relatively low levels of noise can interfere with conversation (at 55 to 60 decibels); the price of making ourselves heard is a loss of nuance, inflection, vocal stamina—in every sense a “loss of voice.” Noise has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, low birth weight, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, fatigue, insomnia—in short, to nearly every known by-product of stress. (Anti-stress medications are actually tested by exposing experimental subjects to loud sounds.) Noise deafens us, aurally and there is strong evidence to suggest-morally as well. People subjected to high levels of noise are less likely to assist strangers in difficulty, less likely to recommend raises for workers, more likely to administer electric shocks to other human subjects.

Noise speaks danger; it both threatens and invites aggression. It triggers the physiological chemistry of the “fight-or-flight” response. Before we were even human, noise signaled the approach of the carnivore, of lightning and lava. More recently it became the alarm of invasion, first of the barbarian outside the gates and increasingly of the barbarian within. The audio-terrorist turns into decibels the dynamics of every relationship based on unrequited power: My noise can penetrate your quiet, but your quiet can never penetrate my noise. “My noise is my right” means “Your ear is my hole.”

To this little rant of mine the Roman philosopher Seneca offers a censorious tut-tut. “I cannot for the life of me see that quiet is as necessary to a person who has shut himself away to do some studying as it is usually thought to be. Here am I with a babel of noise going on all about me.” He is living over a bathhouse; the noises rising from downstairs include all manner of “grunting,” “hissing,” and “pummeling,” as well as “the hair remover, continually giving vent to his shrill and penetrating cry in order to advertise his presence . . .” Seneca boasts that he takes “no more notice [of] all this roar than . . . of waves or falling water.” To be distracted by noise, he claims, is to succumb to one’s own inner disquiet. I believe him, somewhat. But let us credit Seneca’s stoicism for enduring the 50 decibels of a very loud hiss and estimate the cry of the hair remover at, say, 65 decibels, 75 if he has a very loud voice. Today Seneca would be living over a gym where the amplified music might be cranked to 100 decibels in order to produce the adrenaline rush that keeps the iron pumping. (And for every increase of 10 decibels, the volume of sound doubles.) If Seneca were one of the quarter million New Yorkers living within 100 yards of an elevated train track, he might be able to test his fortitude with a screech of 115 decibels, as measured at the front step of his apartment building. At these levels philosophical detachment is almost a joke. What do you call a stoic who lives near the el? Deaf.

City ordinances aimed at noise date roughly from Seneca’s time; Caesar is said to have banned nighttime chariot riding from the streets of Rome. Fiorello La Guardia tried to outlaw organ grinders; New Yorkers, to their lasting credit, told him to back off. Noise not only confers power; it is silenced by power. As anti-noise activists are quick to point out, the traditional noise ordinance has usually been aimed at and enforced against the individual. The kid with the boom box is one thing; the Federal Aviation Administration, which virtually regulates itself, is quite another. Indeed, the most effective noise ordinances I’ve found were gag agreements imposed as “compromises” on the critics of noise-making companies: in exchange for ninety “mufflered days” at the auto racetrack, your citizens’ group will hereby withdraw its litigation; in exchange for an offer to purchase your soon-to-be-worthless house, you agree not to oppose the permit application of our soon-to-be-opened quarry. Ronald Reagan’s shutting down of the Office of Noise Abatement and Control in 1982 and the failure of any president since to reopen it may go down as the most effective “noise ordinance” in American history. At the time there were 1,100 local and state programs monitoring noise; now there are about 20. Has anybody ever said, “Turn that damn thing off!” with greater success? One should always be wary, then, of equating quiet and silence. In the politics of quiet and noise, silence sides with the winner.

“I shall shortly be moving elsewhere,” Seneca writes at the end of his essay on noise. “Why should I need to suffer the torture any longer than I want to . . .” Then, as now, stoic resignation was good, but an aggressive realtor was even better. From the first wheel that rattled through the streets of Sumer, the story of noise has always been tied to the story of human mobility—not least of all in America, arguably the world’s first nomadic civilization. If there are any fundamental principles to the relationship between noise and mobility, I can discern at least two. The first and simplest goes like this: People move to escape noise, and by moving they always find it.

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is the author of No Place but Here and A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. His novel, God of Beer, was published by HarperCollins in 2002.

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