Noise in the Hood: Raising the Volume and Losing Our Bodies

The fact that I live in a neighborhood and a nation where each person’s right to celebrate Independence Day as noisily as possible is held sacred gives special piquancy to reflecting on a book about noise on such a day—right under the rocket’s red glare, as it were.

Garret Keizer, best known for the powerful essays he contributes to Harper’s, is a passionate and pugnacious thinker with a strong aversion to concealment and cant. I admit that I expected (with relish) a clangorous jeremiad against noise pollution when I opened this marvelous new book; I was delighted to have that expectation upended. Yes, there is plenty of passion and outrage—expressed at an appropriately modulated pitch—from time to time. But there is more of gentleness and good humor and old-fashioned deep humanism.

This is a book to read carefully for its many subtleties and aperçus, as when Keizer observes how the English word “volume” refers to both physical space and aural presence: “The major political and environmental issues of our generation all come down to the basic question of how much sustainable ‘volume’ a single human being can and should occupy in his or her society and on his or her planet.” Elsewhere he notes that we can only treat noise issues as “precious” in the pejorative sense if we are also willing to sacrifice many things we can and should hold precious in the positive sense: “fragile ecosystems, manual skills, local cultures, neighborhoods, children.”

In fact, the animating premise of the book is the way in which noise as a relatively “weak” issue provides an opening to fresh consideration of the major “strong” issues: class, race, power, war, terrorism, torture, sustainability, and the nature of human being itself. Keizer argues that wishing to live in a less noisy world is a way of saying that you want your body back and that you also want others to enjoy bodily contentment. Too much noise—and too much noisy oppression—results in part from the pretense that persons can live as disembodied beings.

Keizer is exquisitely sensitive to the ways in which the history of noise expresses class relations and class consciousness. He shows his contempt for smug middle- and upper-middle class types demanding silence as their natural right providing a hilarious account of Thomas Carlyle’s frustrated efforts to build himself a soundproof study in a raucous 1850s London. Keizer also has little patience with academic elites who wish to celebrate noisy outbursts of peasants and workers as “subversive.”

For readers who value finely-wrought social history, this book yields many delights. In recounting the major inventions that added to aural overload in the industrial age, Keizer duly notes the obvious ones: Ford’s assembly line, the Wright Brothers’ flying machine, Marconi’s radio, Edison’s phonograph. But then he lights up the subject by pointing out that the real winner, “standing mutely in the wings,” is probably the partially deaf Edison’s most famous contrivance: the incandescent light bulb, which from 1879 onward “may have done more than any other invention to make the world a noisier place.”

Keizer also has much of value to say about the use of intrusive sound in creating and sustaining fascism and terrorism and in enabling torturers and torture. He develops a wonderful juxtaposition of prisons as places of extreme noise and parks as places of presumed peace and quiet. His discussion of John Coltrane’s amazing journey toward a new plane of expression by raising “noise” to the level of music is nothing short of exhilarating.

But it’s Keizer’s comments on noise and religion that RD readers will find especially compelling. In noting the irony of a Buddhist text being blared continuously from loudspeakers in Burma, Keizer observes that amplification destroys more than silence; it destroys intimacy

by drowning out conversation, or else it counterfeits intimacy by making physical proximity irrelevant to social intercourse. This is glaringly at odds with the classic, nearly universal religious tradition of a teacher imparting wisdom to pupils who sit, literally, at his or her feet. Yeshivas can be noisy places, but I have not encountered any anecdotes of rabbis teaching Talmud with megaphones. A religion of microphones and loudspeakers is a religion of leaders and followers, which is not the same thing as a religion of teachers and disciples. The goal of the latter is to raise the disciple to the level of the teacher; the goal of the former is to keep the followers ‘informed,’ and in formation.

For this reader, however, every dimension of this trenchant book touches deep religious concerns inasmuch as any religion worth honoring is inseparable from an enlightened social ethic. Keizer convinces us that noise is no small or “weak” issue but must instead be regarded as a decisive marker issue for whether the human race is capable of becoming the human family in time to avert total ecological catastrophe. Every aspect of the turn toward sustainable living necessarily involves living more quietly: living with more density, more diversity, and more alternative energy sources.

Keizer writes that the world is divided between people who believe that meeting the sustainability challenge is mainly a matter of technology—of “chemistry”—and those who believe, with Rilke and with Keizer himself, that “you must change your life.” The good news for those of us who agree that we must really change—that we must repent our disordered way of living in the deepest sense of what repentance means—is that a quieter world won’t have to be the least bit dull or deadly. Where Keizer is at his most profound—and most humane—is in contemplating the connection between scaling down and showing respect for one another and the potential for more festivity and more everyday pleasure.

I could tell you how he draws this connection; but then I would be depriving you of your own pleasure in discovering it for yourself. That would defeat the whole point of learning to both give and get more pleasure while learning to be a better neighbor. I don’t want to spoil your fun. Suffice it to say that having a blast doesn’t have to mean raising the decibel level. Shhh! Start spreading the news.