Noise has its place

August 10, 2007

As a serial offender in the commission of various auditory crimes, I confess that I was moved to ask for sundry instances to be taken into consideration on reading Stuart Sim's indictment of " le vice acoustique " ("Time to listen and hear the footprint", Opinion, August 3).

Please forgive my addiction to Marshall amplifiers, bagpipes and the roar of a V8 engine. The case for the prosecution, however, was a little unbalanced. It would seem only fair to admit, for example, that enforced silence has always been used as a form of punishment, and even, in political interrogation, a form of torture just as much as, if not more, than noise.

What seems taken for granted in this thesis is the nature of pollution, pinned on the usual suspects - the car, the consumer, the city itself. But is that self-evident? Mary Douglas addressed these issues in her classic studies of the relation between pollution and social relations. Dirt, she famously concluded, is irremediably social and symbolic, a category arising from a particular cultural order. It is, in brief, "matter out of place", and the danger or disgust we feel from contact with particular materials derives not from their intrinsic properties but how they relate to us and our location within the social nexus. Eating your mum's leftover sandwich is fine, scooping up the end of a stranger's hamburger is disgusting. It is pretty clear that noise has a similar ontogeny.

One person's music is another's racket. Techno or the pipes of the Black Watch become noise only in the wrong place, suggesting that these issues relate to regulation of spaces rather than noise in itself. It is extremely dangerous to assume that those things some of us consider self-evidently desirable will find a welcome in every way of living.

Douglas pointed out that we need to grasp the degree to which our institutions think for us. The idea of a "footprint" in relation to carbon emissions may be a useful metaphor, but when it starts to become an inappropriate and inflexible way of shaping how we think about the regulation of quite disparate areas of human life, then we risk far too much of real value in our lives. As George Santayana remarked, about one form of noise: "Music is useless, as is life."

Leslie R. Gofton
Durham University

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