For almost sixty years, media technologies have promised users the ability to create sonic safe spaces for themselves-from bedside white noise machines to Beats by Dre's "Hear What You Want" ad campaign, in which Colin Kaepernick's headphones protect him from taunting crowds. In Hush, Mack Hagood draws evidence from noise-canceling headphones, tinnitus maskers, LPs that play ocean sounds, nature-sound mobile apps, and in-ear smart technologies to argue the true purpose of media is not information transmission, but rather the control of how we engage our environment. These devices, which Hagood calls orphic media, give users the freedom to remain unaffected in the changeable and distracting spaces of contemporary capitalism and reveal how racial, gendered, ableist, and class ideologies shape our desire to block unwanted sounds. In a noisy world of haters, trolls, and information overload, guarded listening can be a necessity for self-care, but Hagood argues our efforts to shield ourselves can also decrease our tolerance for sonic and social difference. Challenging our self-defeating attempts to be free of one another, he rethinks media theory, sound studies, and the very definition of media.
About the Author
Mack Hagood is Robert H. and Nancy J. Blayney Assistant Professor of Comparative Media Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
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Tinnitus and Its Aural Remedies
In the ruins of tragedy, I wish to tune out my own static.
— Michel Serres,The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies
When I woke up from the ear surgery there was a low-level humming or electricity in the air. Some kind of crackling or something. It seemed strange to me — I thought, "What the heck is that?" I'd never heard anything like that before. I asked my wife, "Can you hear that?" and she said, "No, I can't hear that." When I went back to the doctor for a post-surgical checkup I asked about it and that's the first time I heard the term "tinnitus." We didn't have a long discussion and I had the impression it would go away. But then I kept going back to the doctor and saying, "It's not going away," and then that's when I heard that sometimes it doesn't go away.
And that was pretty scary. I had been married for about two years and we had a new baby, so I was involved with that. So, I had a lot of things to take my mind off of it, but there were times that I would sit and I would just cry. And I would tell my wife, "I don't know if I can live with this forever."
Terry was thirty-eight when his unsuccessful ear surgery left him with a reduction in hearing acuity accompanied by tinnitus; he was sixty-three when I met him at a Midwestern tinnitus support group meeting. During the intervening twenty-five years, he had been haunted by phantom sounds. There was a sound "like gas escaping from a cylinder" and "a hard insect-type sound like clicking or cicadas." Eventually, he started hearing his own pulse in his ears. Sometimes the pulse would go away, but the hissing was always there.
Tinnitus changed the way Terry listened to his world and navigated his days. In an interview we did some weeks after we first met, he told me that he had come to realize "we live in a loud society" where "people take hearing for granted." His world had become a patchwork of what he called "loud environments" to avoid or pass through as quickly as possible, in fear that loud sounds would make his tinnitus worse. Terry used to be a microbiologist, but now he works in information technology because the laboratory fans were too loud. He used to enjoy going to the movies, but there are so many explosions in them. He would love to go ballroom dancing with his wife, but the music is so loud. He tried going out to bars with his college-age daughter, but he just can't any more.
Sometimes, he won't realize a place is too loud until he leaves and his ears are screaming. "I'm an emotional guy and I get depressed and very anxious," he told me. "I can't be outgoing and go places with other couples." Terry pays someone else to mow his lawn now.
On the other hand, sometimes the world is not too loud, but instead all too quiet. Terry is not a fan of libraries, for example: "It's not easy to sit in a quiet chair and read." Quiet spaces are where the phantom sounds materialize most viscerally and haunt Terry most fearsomely. Quiet spaces like his office: "I've broken down crying at work when I have to think and I can't."
Then there are all the other, non-sonic aspects of Terry's environment that become charged with potential danger because of his tinnitus. Sleep had always been a refuge from the noise, he told me, but twice in the last two years, his tinnitus was "so loud it invaded my dreams." Since this had never happened before, he tried to identify the cause: "Did I eat something too salty? I cut caffeine out entirely already. Sometimes I think vitamins make my tinnitus worse. I tried antidepressants a couple of months ago and that seemed to make it worse. Problems at work when IT systems aren't talking to each other can be stressful — that can make the tinnitus worse too."
Often, people don't understand his condition and the ways it affects his life. Terry says his sister asks him why he doesn't just put some cotton in his ears. But he also told me that people were what had gotten him through twenty-five years of tinnitus — people, as both a support and a responsibility. Terry has his marriage, church community, tinnitus support groups, and empathetic others who exchange their stories on the internet. "People talk about suicide, but am I going to leave my wife and daughter? So I go to meetings and online and I see how other people deal with it."
The other thing that helps Terry is the same thing that torments him, sound: "I like being near pools, running water, wind, birds ... we like vacationing in tropical places. I like these quiet background sounds. I use a space heater in the office with a blower and it's soothing." Terry also uses the sound of the TV or radio to keep the tinnitus from dominating his attention. And most importantly, since he turned forty-five, he has used hearing aids to compensate for his declining hearing ability. Besides amplifying the speech of others, he says, the hearing aids have the added benefit of turning up the volume on the "normal" sounds around him, giving the tinnitus some competition. In fact, Terry now dreads the times when he has to return the hearing aids to his audiologist for repair.
Interestingly, while Terry's hearing loss is significant enough to make communication challenging at times, he seems unconcerned by this in comparison to his distress around tinnitus. When he says, toward the end of a phone conversation, "I feel a little bit like I'm living with a handicap," he is referring to having tinnitus, not to being hard of hearing.
Fear and Phantom Sound
Brian Massumi describes affective intensity in terms of sound and vibration: an echo within the sensory walls of the body, "resonation and feedback that momentarily suspend the linear progress of the narrative present from past to future" (2002, 26). As Terry's story indicates, tinnitus is a type of perceptual and affective feedback that sometimes suspends the lives of those who experience it. "Tinnitus," derived from the Latin tinnitus (jingling or ringing), is the term used to describe the experience of sounds in the head or ears that have no external physical source. While it is the most common of auditory disorders, affecting some forty million people in the United States alone, tinnitus is also the most enigmatic and elusive — in fact, neuroscientists refer to it as a "phantom auditory perception" (Jastreboff 1990).
Epidemiological and clinical research indicates that, as in Terry's case, sounds that issue from subjects' own auditory systems are most often signs of damage to the hair cells of the cochlea and/or nerve cells in the auditory neural pathways — damage that results in hearing loss (Hoffman and Reed 2004). Tinnitus is thus "comparable to phantom pain felt in an amputated limb," as "in both cases, the firing of central neurons in the brain continues to convey perceptual experiences, even though the corresponding sensory receptor cells have been destroyed" (Rauschecker, Leaver, and Mühlau 2010). But while this relatively new neurological conception has dispelled some of the mystery around tinnitus, it has yet to lead to any established medical treatment for the condition.
This lack of proven medical interventions has made tinnitus sufferers among the most dedicated users of orphic media. While noise has often been considered the bane of modern health care and convalescence (Schwartz 2012), tinnitus sufferers like Terry desire more noise to suppress and/or to draw their own attention away from tinnitus. Many people with tinnitus use white noise and nature sound machines and apps as a kind of media folk remedy. Others are prescribed the use of these or other, more specialized sound devices by their audiologists, often as part of a "sound therapy" program designed to change their emotional and physiological reaction to tinnital sound. In both cases, these orphic practices are reflexive moments in which people listen to their hearing and then use media to remediate the body and its ability to hear what it wants. And because the sound being masked is perceived to be attached to the very self that needs saving from it, the emotional, social, and even financial stakes of this orphic mediation become very high.
From one angle, the fact that people resort to media as treatment seems to support tinnitus sufferers' claims that the medical community has been slow to take tinnitus seriously. For the people I've met when visiting Midwestern U.S. audiology clinics, attending tinnitus support groups, participating in online message boards, and answering a tinnitus telephone support line, tinnitus is serious. Some of them, like Terry, trace the buzzing, ringing, whooshing, or other phantom sounds they hear to a specific source — an illness, medical intervention, or acoustic trauma, such as a gunshot. Others simply noticed the sound of tinnitus one day and were left to wonder what it was, why it came, and whether it would ever go away. Many of my interlocutors, like Terry, describe it to me as a disability. For those seeking help, the phenomenon is a profound and life-altering crisis. Yet often, medical doctors shrug it off as harmless and tell patients to "learn to live with it," leaving tinnitus sufferers literally to their own devices.
From another angle, however, the use of orphic media as medicine has much to tell us about the relationship between media, the body, and experiences of disability. Because of tinnitus's contested, phantom position as both "harmless" and (in Terry's words) "a handicap," and because it is treated less with medication than with media technologies, it provides a unique auditory opportunity to explore ideologies and enactments of ability and disability — and media's roles in these dynamics. Recent years have seen the emergence of the field of "disability media studies" (Ellcessor and Kirkpatrick 2017), including important research occurring at the intersection of disability studies, media studies, and studies of technology (Ellcessor and Kirkpatrick 2017; Ellis and Kent 2010; Goggin and Newell 2005; Mills 2011a, b). This research needs to be done not only to illuminate underrepresented and underserved aspects of disabled people's media use — though this would be reason enough — but also because scholars have so much to learn about media from studying disability. Historically, scientific and social standards of "normal" bodily and sensory function have coevolved with the technologies we use to explore, represent, alter, and extend the body's sensory-functional capacities — an interplay between media and lived embodiment I refer to as "biomediation" (Hagood 2017). As the ethnographic study of tinnitus in this chapter will show, media technologies are often implicated in the emergence of bodies as "able" or "disabled" in a given moment.
Orphic technologies remediate tinnitus by leveraging the fact that the human auditory system operates affectively, altering its activity in homeostatic relation to its environment. As sound that cannot be heard by others — one that doesn't ride on pressure waves of molecules in shared physical space — tinnitus might seem to be as unmediated as human experience ever gets. But in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth: tinnitus becomes louder in quiet spaces and quieter in loud ones, a fact that allows for the affective suppression of tinnitus by orphic media. More generally, tinnitus is a profoundly relational phenomenon, the specificities of which emerge in and through sonic, spatial, social, and technological mediation.
There are several questions about tinnitus that I believe open a path to a better understanding of the processes and mechanisms that constitute aurality, affect, and dis/ability in our era of electronic media: Why does tinnital sound like Terry's emerge in one sonic space and not another? Why is tinnitus a harmless apparition to one listener and a terrorizing phantom to another? How do clinicians objectify a subjective sound found only in their patient's head? Under what circumstances is tinnitus experienced as a disability — or denied that status by those who cannot hear it? And how are electronic media implicated in each of the foregoing questions? Answering these questions will shed light on current debates over the instantaneity of affect and the influence of ideology, revealing the neurologicalmechanisms through which a homeostatic and enculturated body begins to listen in terror.
To answer these questions, I have done what Stefan Helmreich calls "transductive ethnography," identifying and tracing moments and processes of transduction, in which sound is converted from one materiality into another, to produce an ethnography "animated by an auditorily inspired attention to the modulating relations that produce insides and outsides, subjects and objects, sensation and sense data" (Helmreich 2007, 622). Selves, as Helmreich asserts, emerge at sensory boundaries where materiality is transduced into sensed meaning. Sites and technologies of transduction, therefore, present opportunities to study what gets listened to, what gets ignored, what can't be ignored, and what kinds of selves emerge in these mediated listening practices.
To trace the transductive practices and experiences through which tinnitus emerges and is remediated, I conducted fieldwork at American audiology clinics and conferences, at the research facilities of audiological device manufacturers, and in online and face-to-face tinnitus support groups over the course of two years, 2011–13. Additionally, since 2013, I have served as the support liaison for the American Tinnitus Association in a midsized Midwestern city, in which capacity I occasionally talk to distressed tinnitus sufferers, usually for about an hour. More than anything else, it was my experiences of listening to people with tinnitus — and listening to my own tinnitus, which has been a source of suffering for me at times — that led to the conceptions of orphic media and biomediation laid out in this book.
I believe tinnitus catalyzed these insights because of the clarifying power of fear. Fear not only heightens the stakes of tinnitus sufferers' orphic media use; it also deepens their attention to their own hearing and practices of listening. Indeed, as I will discuss shortly, my own fear of tinnitus played an agentive role in the production of this chapter. This fear was so agentive, in fact, that I hesitate to call it "my own"— instead, it functioned as an autonomous affect (Massumi 1995), making its own contributions in the field whether I wanted them or not. My transductive ethnography will therefore account for fear's affective role in the experience of tinnital suffering, as well as its role in my own ethnographic efforts to transduce the sound and effects of that suffering into these words before you.
Although I opened this chapter with the story of Terry's fearful listening, I could have selected practically any tinnitus sufferer I interviewed or tried to help on the support line. While the specific circumstances surrounding the onset of each individual's tinnitus are unique, I learned in these conversations that certain dynamics emerge in every case, making a tinnitus sufferer out of someone like Terry, as opposed to someone who merely experiences tinnitus. At some point in these cases, an affect of fear emerges and attaches to the phantom sound. Once this happens, the tinnitus sufferer's audible world becomes akin to "an ecology of fear" (Goodman 2010). Tinnitus sufferers realize they inhabit and navigate a vibrational matrix of loud presences (which threaten to trigger future tinnitus) and quiet absences (which reveal phantom sounds lurking in the background, waiting to make themselves heard). As Hasana Sharp writes, summarizing Spinoza's concept of fearful affects, "Nature suddenly appears to be seething with signification. Everything and anything can seem to have a message, of either hope or doom, for the fearful" (2005, 599). To Terry, quotidian objects such as a cup of coffee or a vitamin become potential sonic threats, while a heater fan, birdsong, or hearing aid can offer the hope of a tinnital respite. Similarly, Terry's social world is reconfigured by the fear of tinnitus and its effects on his own performance, as he tries to live up to his responsibilities to others while haunted by a sound that none of them can hear.
In the remainder of this chapter, I will present several case studies and interviews to show how tinnitus emerges and is remediated, not only through material relations but also through subjects' beliefs about the location, nature, and causality of the unwanted sound. First, I will discuss the condition's vexed position as a "phantom disability," of uncertain social and ontological status, invisible and inaudible to all but the sufferer. What disability theorists call an "ideology of ability" — a fear of nonconforming bodies and minds — is implicated both in subjects' tinnital suffering and in the skepticism and aversion it can inspire in those around them. However, the stubborn presence of tinnitus cannot be reduced to ideology alone, so I will also draw on the neurophysiological model of tinnitus to transductively trace its emergence, providing insights into the nature of affective cognition and the biomediation of all listening bodies.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hush"
Copyright © 2019 Mack Hagood.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii Introduction. Hearing What We Want 1 Part I. Suppression 29 1. Tinnitus and Its Aural Remedies 31 Part II. Masking 73 2. Sleep-Mates and Sound Screens: Sound, Speed, and Circulation in Postwar America 75 3. The Ultimate Seashore: Environments and the Nature of Technology 116 4. A Quiet Storm: Orphic Apps and Infocentrism 148 Part III. Cancellation 175 5. Bose QuietComfort and the Mobile Production of Personal Space 177 6. Beats by Dre: Race and the Sonic Interface 198 Conclusion. Wanting What We Hear 220 Notes 235 References 245 Index 261
What People are Saying About This
“A fascinating study of our efforts to control sound and, through it, our emotional and political lives. As Mack Hagood shows, the sonic and the social are never far apart and are best thought together.”
“Mack Hagood retunes the field of sound studies, boosting the prominence of environmental and ambient sounds—rain, heartbeats, the hum and whir of white noise—that can now be mobilized as electronic tools. Hagood offers a series of riveting case studies for what he calls orphic media, which ‘fight sound with sound’ to sculpt personal space. The first book to foreground these astonishingly pervasive technologies of sonic self-control, Hush inserts sound into critical debates about affect, ‘filter bubbles,’ and productivity apps. By the end of the book you wonder how sound could have previously been so overlooked in these arenas.”
“Steering a path between ethnography and history, Hush considers the strange status of sounds to be heard but not listened to. Throughout, Mack Hagood wonders at the affective power of sound as a presence or absence and as a tool for listeners as they negotiate their embedded existence in the world with the social demand to be autonomous, self-managing subjects. Hush is challenging and imaginative; read it and you will learn to think differently about sound, noise, silence, and meaning.”