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the sound and the fury
Agnes says that the reason sirens have been getting louder is that cars are getting quieter, engineered to provide their inhabitants with ever more serenity, insulated from the incursions of life outside your floating metal chassis. We are walking from Williamsburg south to Bed-Stuy, a 2.4-mile walk says Google Maps. There’s a crowd at Qahwah Coffee, then hipsters perusing vintage shops, Hasidic Jewish men in suit sand little girls in neat cardigans and heavy black shoes, the giant Hatzlacha grocery, finally the Stonefruit Espresso + Kitchen where I go to the adjoining florist to use the toilet and wash my hands over a white ceramic sink filled with potting soil and plant clippings. The noise we hear changes street by street. I check the time a few blocks south of Stonefruit and say, I’ll turn back around to catch the G, we hug goodbye, I take the stairs under the earth.
The whole day I feel clobbered by the events of the previous: dancing, yelling to be heard in a crowded bar, drinking. Celebrating my newfound health after an interminable (non-COVID) cold that kept being over and then coming back. Now, my breath snags on something in my throat when I talk. I keep moistening my mouth with sips of water. At the 8 PM concert in a dimly-lit club where you can’t hear yourself think, I shout some more. When my friend sings, her skin radiant and purply in the stage lights, I scream along the words I know and drink a vodka cran, a whisky sour. Be on hold, I tell my throat, one of many bargains I’ve made with my body. A trade of tonight’s joy for tomorrow’s pain. Sometimes you just have to keep going. Put it on layaway. I’ll pay it the next day and the day after that.
Tomorrow comes and I can’t speak. What comes out is a low rasp that goes completely silent for some syllables. When I laugh or make other involuntary noises it sounds deep and phlegmy. I’m freaking out, because I have to present about my research at an event at the business school the next day. Hot tea, honey, oregano oil in water, elderberry syrup. I put menthol cough drops in my pocket. The internet says caffeine might be good for a lingering cough. The internet says caffeine might be bad for laryngitis, drying out your throat. Another COVID test to make sure. Negative. R. and I eat jalapeno sweet potato soup for lunch on the wooden tables outside the upscale market at the end of my street. We overhear two professors we recognize and a Big Man on Campus-type who studies environmental justice bedecked in what looks like a strange hybrid between cowboy and shamanic gear. I hate that we live in such proximity to recognizable faces, worrying someone might see me and say hello, hear me rasp in response. I whisper to R. until I realize the internet says whispering stresses your larynx, and then I try to keep quiet altogether.
Sound is political: who gets to make it, where, how much, when and for how long. In the 1500s women in England and Scotland whose husband, family, or city authorities deemed to be overly talkative could be disciplined with the branks: an iron muzzle with a plate, sometimes spiked, to slide into the mouth, depressing the tongue and causing pain and laceration if the victim were to speak. Here noise is used to justify regulation in a way that troubles the neat distinction between the public and private spheres; a woman who was a nag at home might be put in the branks and paraded in the street. The complaint of too much noise is also used to call for policing of urban space, spatial governmentality, in ways that push out certain groups. Phil Hubbard and Teela Sanders write in “Making Space for Sex Work” of how in postwar Britain, “periodic ‘crackdowns’ on street prostitution were carried out in response to complaints from residents who objected to the nuisance caused by conspicuous sex work — most notably the noise caused by kerb-crawlers at night.” The Berkeley Geography professor Brandi Thompson Summers writes in “Reclaiming the chocolate city” about how Black residents of Washington, DC responded to complaints about go-go music with “#DontMuteDC,” an anti-gentrification movement that seized on the auditory landscape as its battleground.
Sound is a confounding thing because it defies neat encapsulation within the framework of consent. It’s not something Person A does to, or with, Person B. Person A isn’t thinking about Person B’s existence sometimes, doesn’t know Person B can hear. My party makes noise my neighbor hears through the walls. So does his conversation, your fucking. Is one kind of noise better than another? There’s not just one principle of utility everyone shares: one person likes their music loud, another is neurodivergent and highly sensitive to loud music. Another person is uncomfortable with how race and class regulate who can turn it up. A parent doesn’t want their kid hearing explicit music. A parent wants their kid feeling joy in a loud and visible community of beloveds marking their territory with sound. An elderly person is trying to go to sleep. It’s too damn early for the street to shut down like this, the Uber driver who used to bartend says, then: we need the law to change, to let the bars stay open until 3 AM — it’ll be good for the economy.
Sometimes all those different voices, clamoring for different things, compete inside of the individual too. My friend and I once got shushed in an old Berkeley institution, Moe’s Books, by an older white woman. Could you please quiet down? she asked, obviously displeased. We had been loud and gregarious; I was ecstatic with my friend, forgetting myself. It’s not that loud = happy perfectly for me, just that there are times I lose conscientiousness (in the Big 5 sense of the word) and those times are usually when I’m happy, maybe chemically produced. Inhibitions or care make me move a different way: softly up the stairs, lightly on second-story hardwood. I shut a door of a room where there’s an open window (or really any door) holding the knob the whole swing through, to keep the latch retracted and to slow its meeting with the strike plate and jamb. If you just pull it shut, it slams. Do you think about that?
When you love someone, or are scared of them, or just around them a lot, maybe all of the above, you become very good at recognizing their specific footfall, maybe the way their house slippers strike the floor as they get out of bed post-nap. I wonder what a happy family sounds like, if Tolstoy’s aphorism applies. There must be homes that are happy and loud, friendly chaos, cross-talk and interjections, and so too ones that are happy and sparser, considered words and long pauses, reading at dinnertime. I spend a lot of time in a house that isn’t mine, where a bunch of men play Mario-Kart and scream desperately at their little characters zooming along racetracks in a land where the lights are always on. When I retreat from the living room to take calls in the corner bedroom the people I’m speaking with have sometimes looked up and asked if everything is OK. Apparently an impassioned wail of I don’t deserve to live anymore and Fuck! is concerning. This loud house is more joyful than my quiet apartment, though occasionally I resent the voluble explosions for probably increasing my blood pressure and stress levels. Volume is an important part of how we react to information: being yelled at, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (on a page advising you not yell at children), increases the activity of the amygdala and stress hormones in the bloodstream. But I also feel twitchy in too much quiet, sometimes eschewing libraries for coffeeshops. There’s a profound loneliness to the kind of silence you pay good money for, in a carpeted luxury hotel room or corner office at the end of the day. In rooms like these you float above a skyline like the last person in the world. People are a little like the sirens and the cars, too. The more impermeable your world, the more I bang on your window.
Image credit: “Gossip,” Giovanni Baldini (1873), the Met Collection.
Things I’ve been reading:
Of course I read the Agnes Callard profile in the New Yorker academic Twitter is blowing up about. (She is not the Agnes mentioned in the first sentence here.) I recognize there’s much to critique here; I don’t love all of Callard’s politics, but she has moxie, I really enjoy when academics don’t draw artificial lines between their personal experiences and the ways they think about their work, and I relate pretty deeply to her belief in the spiritual and philosophical seriousness of love. (See: that line “I thought that I would become sort of corrupted by staying in a marriage where I no longer felt like I was aspirational about it.”)
If there’s something of value to take away from the piece no matter what your personal opinion is of her, perhaps it’s that you should question what your moral commitments about romantic love are and how you arrived at them. Are you following certain tracks because you want to, or because they’re the well-worn ones? Can you talk about this with your partner in a spirit of openness?
And various essays about love in Red Love: A Reader on Alexandra Kollontai.