After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul, a Drrty South banger dropped by SO! Regular Regina Bradley, and a screamtastic meditation from Yvon Bonenfant, our summer Sound and Pleasure series serves up some awesomeness on a platter this week with the return of Steph Ceraso, who makes us wish all those food pics on instagram came with recordings. Take a big bite out of this! --JS, Editor-in-Chief
Lightly I tap the burnt surface with a cold metal spoon until it cracks; it fractures like a fine layer of sugary glass; silent, smooth custard mixes with the sticky sweet crunch of the caramelized shards.
An otherwise bland and unmemorable dessert, crème brûlée is always my go-to treat. The sonic pleasures of this indulgence keep me coming back: the tapping, cracking, crunching.
Though the taste and visual presentation of food usually get most of the hype, it’s no secret that sound can amplify the enjoyment and delight of eating. Indeed, sound has become an increasingly important ingredient in the design, advertising, and experience of food: from “junk” food to gourmet dining. What is especially fascinating and disconcerting about this strategic use of sound is the powerful connection between pleasure and sensory manipulation. To my mind, the myriad ways sound is employed to manipulate perceptions of food underscores the need to pay more attention to when, how, and why sound influences our thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences.
* * *
Food engineers and marketing teams have been taking advantage of the pleasures of sound for years. Rice Krispies’ “Snap, Crackle, Pop” trademark has been around since the late 1920s. And of course there are Pop Rocks, my favorite sounding retro product. The carbonated sugar crystals were invented in the 1950s, but thanks to commercials that celebrated the candy in all of its sonic glory, Pop Rocks’ popularity reached a fever pitch in the 1970s and it’s still going strong today. The official Pop Rocks website boasts that the product continues to be the “leading popping candy brand worldwide.”
Sound is a crucial part of the pleasurable experience of food’s packaging, too. Consider Pringles’ famous “Once you pop you can’t stop” slogan. A neatly stacked chip cylinder with a pleasant-sounding lid is marketed as a refreshing alternative to crinkly chip bags.
Designing sound for the things that contain food may seem like a silly marketing gimmick, but the sounds of packaging can make or break the product. For instance, in an attempt to make its SunChips brand more environmentally friendly, in 2010 Frito-Lay introduced a compostable chip bag. Consumers found it to be ridiculously noisy and complained. The bag had so many haters, in fact, that a facebook group called “SORRY I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUN CHIPS BAG” attracted nearly 30,000 fans. Sales fell, and the financial loss caused Frito-Lay to go back to the un-environmentally friendly bags. Just this year, the company introduced yet another version of the compostable bag. It’s too early to tell if consumers will deem its sound acceptable.
While many companies strive to hit the right note when it comes to the pleasurable sounds of food and its packaging, recent research on taste and sound has been more focused on how external sounds affect the experience of eating. In a noteworthy study, the food company Unilever and the University of Manchester found that the experience of sweetness and saltiness in food decreased in relation to high levels of background noise (perhaps one of the reasons that airplane food generally sucks). They also identified a correlation between the increased volume of background noise and the eater’s perception of crunchiness and freshness.
Additionally, the Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University run by professor Charles Spence got a lot of press for discovering that low-pitched sounds tend to bring out bitter flavors while high-pitched sounds heighten the sweetness of food. Go grab a snack (chocolate or coffee work best) and you can try this experiment for yourself.
Armed with scientific knowledge, many chefs and entrepreneurs have been teaming up to put these ideas into practice. For a limited time London restaurant House of Wolf served what they called a “sonic cake pop.” The treat came with a phone number that presented callers with the choice of pushing 1 for sweet (to hear a high-frequency sound) and 2 for bitter (to hear a low-frequency sound). The experiment was a success. People seemed to want to hear their cake and eat it too. The same Guardian article reports that Ben and Jerry’s plans to put QR codes on its packaging so that customers can use their smartphones to access sounds that compliment the flavor of ice cream they are eating.
For some, making sound a more prominent feature of eating experiences is more than a fun experiment or savvy marketing strategy: it’s a full-blown artistic performance. World-renowned chef Heston Blumenthal uses sound to draw attention to the holistic sensory experience of dining. His dish “Sound of the Sea,” for example, consists of seafood, edible seaweed, tapioca that looks like sand, decorative shells, and an iPod so that diners can listen to the sounds of the ocean.
Blumenthal has also performed sound experiments while eaters spooned up his bacon and egg ice cream (Yep. That’s a thing!). When the sound of bacon frying in a pan was played, people rated the bacon flavor of the ice cream to be more intense than the egg flavor, and vice versa when the sound was clucking chickens.
In a similar vein, Boston chef Jason Bond and composer Ben Houge have paired up to create food operas, or what they call “audio-gustatory events.” They use real-time musical scoring techniques based off of Houge’s work in video games to design eating experiences that explicitly link sound and taste.
Clearly, when it comes to the pleasures (and displeasures) of eating, sound matters. I’ll admit that I’m a fan of the more imaginative, experimental uses of sound in experiences like the food opera or Blumenthal’s edible sonic creations. There is a sense of play and discovery in these designed experiences; and, people know what they are signing up for and willingly choose to participate. Such endeavors have the potential to heighten participants’ sensitivity to how sound figures into eating and other kinds of everyday activities.
Yet, along with the sonic branding and marketing of edible products, these experiments raise some troubling questions about the relationship between pleasure and sensory manipulation: When is it wrong or unethical to use sensory manipulation to create pleasurable experiences? At what point does manipulation become pleasurable? Is all pleasure a form of manipulation?
Perhaps more significantly, the ways that people are applying scientific knowledge about sound and taste opens up another can of worms: What are the implications of trying to standardize pleasurable sounds via commercial products? What kinds of bodies are invited to participate in pleasurable sensory experiences, or not? I’m thinking particularly of individuals who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, or who have different cultural cues when it comes to recognizing a sound as “pleasurable.”
The sounds of food do not necessarily have to be engineered to be pleasurable. However, because new information about the relationship between sound and other senses is being used to explicitly and implicitly manipulate our experiences, it seems that there is a real need for cultivating a keener, more critical sensory awareness. This means questioning when, how, and why sound is being employed to create pleasurable experiences in a range of products and environments; it means paying careful attention to the ways that sound interacts with all of our senses to influence everyday experiences. So, the next time you’re having what seems to be a simple “feel good” eating experience, be sure to open your ears along with your mouth.
Featured image by Flickr user Wizetux, CC BY 2.0
Steph Ceraso received her doctorate in 2013 from the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in rhetoric and composition, pedagogy, sound studies, and digital media. In addition to being a three-peat guest writer for Sounding Out!, her work has been featured in Currents in Electronic Literacy, HASTAC, and Fembot Collective. She is also the coeditor of a special “Sonic Rhetorics” issue of Harlot. Her current book project, Sounding Composition, Composing Sound, examines how expansive, consciously embodied listening and sonic composing practices can deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production. Steph will be joining the faculty in the English department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County this fall. You can find more about her research, media projects, and teaching at http://www.stephceraso.com.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonenfant
After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul–a three part “Inside the Game Sound Designer’s Studio”– and a post on sound and black women’s sexual freedom from SO! Regular Regina Bradley, our summer Sound and Pleasure series keeps doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well, this week with a beautiful set of meditations from scholar, artist, performer, and voice activist, Yvon Bonenfant. EVERYBODY SCREAM!!!--JS, Editor-in-Chief
What I have to say about sound and pleasure can mostly be summed up this way: everyone deserves to take profound pleasure in their body’s sound.
Not only this, everyone deserves to both engage passionately with social sound and negotiate the exchange of social sound on pleasurable terms.
Like other expressive systems, however, these inalienable sonic human rights are mostly ignored, curtailed, or otherwise ‘disciplined and punished’ in the Foucauldian sense by our social systems. So, we are mostly neurotic, or otherwise hung up on, what kinds of sounds we make, where and when. We fetishise sound, particularly virtuosically framed sound, because it is part of a series of sublimated impulses, or we repress it because we think we aren’t supposed to emit it, or we ignore it.
In any given human relationship within which all parties can vocalize, the voice is an evident, key relational tool. It is full of gesture and meaning and text and sends rapid-fire, complex, layered, even self-contradictory or oxymoronic messages. It is a truly tangled web, and of course, for those who can use speech, transmits language.
However, I’d like to disentangle our sound from our language for a moment. Indeed, sound is not necessary in order to develop and transmit linguistically carried ideas, information and impulses. It has long been accepted that sign languages are fully developed languages, with intricate grammatical systems, vocabularies, and all of the other features of spoken languages. It is thus not necessary to use sound as a carrier of language. Yet if we have a voice, we almost always use sound to carry our language. And we force deaf people to try to fake having a voice and to fake listening to voices through lip reading and gesturing.
The last twenty years has seen a real boom in speculation and even scientific experiments that theorise why human bodily sound – the most evident aspect of which is our vocal sound – is so important to us. Musicology, biomusicology, evolutionary psychology, neuropsychology, and cultural studies of many kinds have tried to account for this. I have my own favorite reason, one I’ve tried to describe in a number of scholarly articles. This is that sound is much like touch. Like, yet unalike. It reaches and vibrates bodies, but at distance. It voyages through space in other ways, but it evokes haptic responses.
Sound isn’t solid, but it takes up space. This is expressed by Stephen Connor within his concept of the vocalic body. When we sound, there is a resonant field of vibration that moves through matter, which behaves according to the laws of physics – it vibrates molecules. This vibratory field leaves us, but is of us, and it voyages through space. Other people hear it. Other people feel it.
I’ve said that sound is like touch. However, one key way that it is not like touch is that it can do this thing. It can leave our bodies and travel away from us. We don’t need to grip it. We don’t need to hold on. And once emanated, it is out of our control.
More than one emanation can co-exist within matter. Their vibrations interact with one another, waves colliding and travelling in similar or different directions, and the vocalic bodies that they represent are morphed, hybridized: they intersect and invent composite bodies.
We hear the resulting harmonies. Historically policed into ‘consonances’ and ‘dissonances’, we have the power to let the negativizing connotations of either of these words go and simply hear the results of the collisions. Voices sounding simultaneously create choreographies of gesture that can be jubilant, depressing, assertive, aggressive, delightful, morose… or many of these simultaneously and in rapid alternation.
The fields of human sound in which we bathe are a continually self-knitting web of sensation. They are full of gestures pregnant with intention, filled with improvisatory spontaneity, success, failure and experimentation. They are filled with a desire to act upon matter, and to reach and engage one another.
My Ukrainian-origin mother was ‘loud’, I guess, at least by Anglo-Saxon standards, and her voice was timbrally very rich. And my father was a radio announcer (he disliked being called a DJ immensely, even though he worked in commercial radio and worked on shows that spun discs – he preferred being associated with talking). His voice was also very rich, as well as extremely crafted. It could be pointed and severe: a weapon. He had professional command of its qualities. We were not a quiet family; none of us were vocal wallflowers. But were our soundings pleasure-filled? Certainly, we were allowed to make lots of sound in some circumstances. However, just being allowed to be loud – though it might sometimes be a pleasure – does not necessarily lead to a pleasure-filled dynamic. Weightlifting makes us stronger, but it doesn’t necessarily feel good.
The amount of sound and whether ‘lots’ of it, or heightenings of its qualities – lots of amplitude, or lots of other kinds of distinctness, let’s say things like pitch or emotional timbre – are key variable features of family life in our cultures. Sound takes us directly into the meatiest of interpersonal dynamics – the dynamics of space and gesture, the dynamics of who takes up space with their sound and when. Families are, of course, microcosms of this sonic dynamic, but any group within which we generate relationships and encounters is subject to this dynamic, too. Our very own bodies end up developing what Thomas Csordas might call a ‘somatic mode’ that embodies our experience of these dynamics.
Whether we start from psychodynamic, neuropsychiatric, or even habitus-based models, it’s clear that repressing the expression of bodily sound regulates breathing impulses and other metabolic processes in ways that might become, well, habits.
Let’s put this in other ways.
The classic, Freudian, psychodynamic model of neurosis – as disputed as it is, and with all of its colonial, sexist, homophobic, racist and even abuse-denying overtones – did at least one thing for our understanding of what repressed emotion does. Repressed emotion affects the body.
Today, a popular understanding of this kind of emotional repression from a biophysical perspective might be: the use of the conscious mind to hold back emotional flow, and along with it, the emotional qualities of certain associations, memories, or even the content of the memories themselves.
Repressing this thing we might call emotional flow represses the voice. The literal, physical voice. Now, this kind of repression of the voice can become what Freudians would call unconscious. To allow it out isn’t any longer a choice that can be made, because we’re so used to holding back, that we don’t realize we’re doing it any more.
Somatics have taught us, through the contended practices of the body psychotherapies descended from Wilhelm Reich’s work, or Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s Body-Mind Centering, or any numerous other somatic practices – from certain styles of yoga through to Zen meditation and beyond – that emotional flow is at least partly dependent on how we breathe. And neuropsychology and physiology bear this out.
Whatever might ‘cause’ an emotion – and the roots of the causes of emotion are a source of debate – once it gets going, it isn’t just a thought process. Emotion is meaty and full of pumping hormones and breath pattern alterations and gestures and rushes of fluid. Chemicals get released. Chemicals get washed away. Heart rates speed up and slow down. Our breath rises and falls and its patterns change. Digestion patterns speed up or slow down or get interrupted. What happens in the body affects the body. What happens in the body affects the voice. Ever heard that kind of voice that seems hardened against the world? Or that media voice – the voice that is carefully shaped to invoke reason? Maybe these vocalisers can never let go of that sound: maybe it’s the only sound they can do, now. It’s just too habitual to let it change.
So, these habits can become so habitual that we don’t notice them anymore. We might change our breathing in some way to modify our expressive states. Because the exact nature of the sound our voices make is exquisitely dependent on how we breathe, and on everything else we do with our bodies, it then changes as well. Our choices to not let impulses flow – and the breath is only one bodily impulse among many – get caught up in this web. What were once choices can become embedded, difficult, and stubborn. To go far beyond the psychoanalytic and neurophysiological models, we can end up embodying a culture of these choices, and invent together a cultural body that regulates vocal sound based on groups of people making similar choices or playing by similar rules of sonic exchange.
This can end up perpetuating itself within our very tissues, and it can be an incredibly subtle dynamic to identify and shift. The way we embody the complexities of how we structure our physical and psychological engagement with the world – the ways we breathe, look, move, gesture… the ensemble of these is how Bourdieu defined the habitus. Where these complexities start and end is perhaps an infinite loop, a continual cycle of turning and exchange and influence flowing from ourselves to our culture and back again. Our bodies are cultural, counter-cultural, infra-cultural, extra-cultural bodies: we react to culture; we interact with it: we take positions.
Sound – who gets to do it, and when and how – is negotiated, with others, but also, within our own bodies. The traces that others leave there, the things we might call sonic and vocal inhibitions, tensions, these held-back-nesses, eventually become ours to carry, live with, and/or dissolve. They are gifted to us by our culture…. by our environment… by our experience … and by our bodies themselves.
We negotiate sounding.
Pleasure is negotiated, too.
We do this to our children: we shut them up. Oh, of course, we also facilitate their sound, and some do this more than others. But even if we give them sonic liberty at home, someone will shut them up, somewhere. We all know and we all remember being silenced as children by somebody, or at least, made to raise our hands in a classroom to ensure one speaker at a time, chosen by the authority in question. Later, teenagers, more often girls than boys, are called mouthy. The mouth: implicitly loud, and if too active, implicitly offensive. The term has been used against feminists, every identity we might include within LGBTI+, African-Americans, and the list goes on.
The wet, open, loud, loud mouth, just ready to mouth off, just ready to make trouble with its irritating, nasty, and above all, bothersome noise – bothersome because it makes us have to react – to have to consider the existence, the needs, the demands of those we might otherwise ignore – that moist orifice can be a source of great pleasure.
And on the score of that poor mouthy mouth, let’s consider some other colloquial terms, like ‘sucker’. Sucking is bad, apparently. It expresses need. Thumb out of the mouth! Stop wanting intimacy, reassurance, warmth, contact, and above all stop wanting to satisfy your hard-wired, biological need to suck for comfort and food (my little child). And you there, you sexually active adult! You fucking cocksucker. You ass-licker. That gaping mouth should shut itself up: its gooey pleasures are disgusting. These pleasures involve direct skin-to-skin contact.
Perhaps there is a revolution to be had, in the simple facilitation of gape-mouthed drool.
The vocal tract – that long tunnel surrounded by tongue and palates and teeth and various bits of throat, with at its bottom, the resonant buzz of elastic membranes, through which air is squeezed – also grips the world with direct contact. It’s not just a resonating and sound-shaping cave.
I’m making some artworks for children and families right now, and I group them together under the project moniker “Your Vivacious Voice” [See SO! Amplifies post from 6/19/14 to learn more about the free Voice Bubbles App aspect of YB’s project—ed]. I’m collaborating with some scientists and clinician-scientists on this project. They all work with the voice – in psycholinguistics, in understanding infant language acquisition, in voice medicine, and even in laryngeal surgery. We interview these scientists, and use inspiration from our conversations as sources of metaphors for art-making.
One of these is the head Speech and Language Therapist at the Royal National Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital in London, Dr Ruth Epstein. She sees and/or oversees some of the most difficult cases of vocal problems in the whole of the UK. When we asked her what concerns she’d most like us to address in artworks for children and families, she responded along the lines of: please, find a way to get through to them that voice is contact, human contact. She has begun using communication skills, such as eye contact and turn-taking exercises, in addition to vocal skills, in families with children who have injured voices – because she realized at some point that in many of these families, the near exclusive modality of contact was yelling: yelling without contact – without relationship.
The contactless yell is the thrashing arm that somehow remains alone in a void. It’s a yell that might strike if it lands on other flesh, but somehow doesn’t grip, and can’t convert to a caress. It can’t hold… it only punches.
This reminds me of a rockish tune by Carole Pope and Rough Trade from the Canadiana of my childhood – the refrain went:
It hit me like, it hit me like, it hit me like a slap, oh-oh-oh, all touch…
All touch and all touch and no contact…..
Back to our children, and to us.
Bodily sound can be a pointed weapon. It can be violent, in that it can frighten, dominate, attack, evoke deep fear, and engage other mechanisms of terror and control and subjugation, and that it can attempt to annihilate our ability to recognize the existence of others. We can drown out others’ sounds. We can drown out their gesture. We can drown their vocalic bodies in our own through amplitude and clashes of timbral spectra. We can shut them up.
Let us consider, here, the desire for amplification and how amplified sound represents an exaggeration of this power, a cybernetic enhancement of the ability to dominate with our emanating waves. We can drown out the social ability for whole groups to hear anyone but ourselves.
However, if, in our cultural environments, everyone is allowed to sound – if, indeed, we facilitate social environments in which everyone’s sound is welcome, then those who are subjected to vocal and sonic violence have an incredible counter-power to this power: they have the power to make sound too.
Although making sound back to violent sound, back to annihilating sound, is not always easy, possible or permitted, it is a power that can’t be easily erased. And we can almost always feel, if not cognitively hear, our own sound vibrate within our own skulls and through our own bones, no matter what is coming from the outside, no matter what waves of vocalic body are streaming toward us. Our sound waves continue to exist, even if transformed.
We can give voice to ourselves. We can change our habits. We can expand away from them.
It isn’t even necessary to fight back. It’s only necessary to vibrate.
And we can take it further.
We can actively encourage each other’s sound. We can actively encourage our children’s sound. We can actively encourage social sound. We can actively encourage a dance with others’ voices. We can facilitate, make space for, enjoy being touched by, the uniqueness of other voices. We can play with how our voices collide and create children with the vocalic bodies of others. After all, our composite vocal bodies are the products of our intensive exchange. We can jublilate in the massages we receive by making our own sound, by vibrating our own skulls, flesh, blood, lymph, interstitial fluid, and the air near us, and we can make it so that we can engage in passionate exchange with the vibrations of others.
This might be something like music. Or other kinds of art. Or it might be simple conversation. Or it might be cooing with a baby. Or it might be making comforting sounds while a toddler cries. Or it might be screaming with rage together.
What it always is, though, is focusing on, opening up to, enjoying the dynamics of the dance of individual, idiosyncratic, messy, fleshly, bodily, sonic emanations reacting with one another.
In the end, the policing of our sound is under our control. We can find ways to unpolice, and enjoy the unbridledness of our sound.
Our bodily sound is a means of engaging passionately with relationship and of glorying in its results.
Featured image: “Faces 529″ by Flickr user Greg Peverill-Conti, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Yvon Bonenfant is Reader in Performing Arts at the University of Winchester. He likes voices that do what voices don’t usually do, and he likes bodies that don’t do what bodies usually do. He makes art starting from these sounds and movements. These unusual, intermedia works have been produced in 10 countries in the last 10 years, and his writing published in journals such as Performance Research, Choreographic Practices, and Studies in Theatre and Performance. He currently holds a Large Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust and funding from Arts Council England to collaborate with speech scientists on the development of a series of participatory, extra-normal voice artworks for children and families; see www.yourvivaciousvoice.com. Despite his air of Lenin, he does frighteningly accurate vocal imitations of both Axl Rose and Jon Bon Jovi. www.yvonbonenfant.com.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
This Is Your Body on the Velvet Underground– Jacob Smith
The London Sound Survey website went online in 2009 with a couple of hundred recordings I’d made over the previous year. For a long time I’d wanted to make a website about London but couldn’t think of a good angle. When I got a job as a storeman in the British Library’s sound archive I became interested in field recording. There were the chance discoveries in the crates I hauled around of LPs like Murray Schafer’s The Vancouver Soundscape and the Time of Bells series by the anthropologist Steven Feld. I realised that sound could be the way to know my home city better and to present my experience of it.
Fast forward to last week: It is a warm June afternoon and the marsh is alive with the hum of the Waltham Cross electricity substation. I am a few miles to the northeast of London in the shallow crease of the Lea Valley. It’s a part of the extra-urban mosaic of reservoirs, quarries, industrial brownfield sites, grazing lands, nature reserves and outdoor leisure centres which has been usefully named “Edgelands” by the environmentalist Marion Shoard.
[Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Folks Not Caught Up with Season 7, Episode 5!]
In one of the more memorable – and squirm-inducing – scenes of this season of AMC’s Mad Men, brilliant but eccentric copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) presents his colleague, agency copy chief Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) with his own severed nipple, placed carefully in a gift box. Ginsberg explains to the understandably horrified Peggy that the gift is both a token of his affection and a means of relieving pressure caused by the arrival of Sterling, Cooper & Partners’ (SC&P) newest acquisition: a humming, room-sized IBM System/360 mainframe computer. Explaining his enmity for the machine and his increasingly erratic behavior, Ginsberg tells Peggy that the “waves of data” emanating from the computer were filling him up, and that the only solution was to “remove the pressure” by slicing off his “valve.”
The arrival of the IBM 360 in the idealized 1960s office space inhabited by Mad Men is obviously an unsettling presence – and not only for Ginsberg. Since its debut in Episode 4, commentators (e.g. WaPo’s Andrea Peterson, Slate’s Seth Stevenson) have meditated on the heavy-handed symbolism surrounding the machine – both in terms of its historical significance and its implications for plot and character development. Typically cued through noise (or lack thereof), it is worth reflecting upon the role of sound in establishing the computer as a source of disruption. Between the pounding and screeching of installation and the drone of the completed machine’s air conditioner and tape reels, the sonic motifs accompanying the computer underline tensions between (and roiling within) SC&P staffers grappling with the incipient digital age. Likewise, the infernal racket produced by the installation and operation of the IBM 360 adds an important dimension to the tensions resulting from its presence, which can be read as allegories for the complexities and contradictions of our relationship with technology.
The tone of the conflict is set even before we meet the IBM 360 toward the end of Episode 4: The Monolith – a reference to Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Slate’s Forrest Wickman ably discusses the references). Like the unnerving silence used with such great effect in that film, the absence of sound frames our first encounter with the computer – or at least its promise. Early in the episode, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), newly rehabilitated from his forced exile from the agency, arrives one morning at SC&P to find the office deserted. The ghostly sequence is clearly meant to symbolize Draper’s detachment from the firm. But as the episode progresses and tensions mount over the possibility that the IBM 360 will render jobs obsolete, the desolate office suggests a more ominous meaning – a once lively space muted by cold, impersonal automation.
In following scenes, successive stages of mainframe installation are marked by convergences of conflict and cacophony. First, there is the din of the creative team as they evacuate their beloved lounge – now earmarked as computer space – and during which a distraught Ginsberg projects his indignation onto art director Stan Rizzo, who appears more accepting. “They’re trying to erase us!” Ginsberg exclaims bitterly. Later, Draper lounges on his office couch as a clop clopping of hammers outside signifies tangible change. As if this weren’t enough of a distraction, two men in the corridor begin to chat loudly over the noise. Going out to investigate, Draper strikes up a conversation with one of the men, Lloyd Hawley, installation supervisor and founder of a small technology company competing with IBM. “Who’s winning?” Draper asks innocently, “who’s replacing more people?” Clearly irritated by Draper’s tone, Harry Crane – SC&P media director and the computer’s lead cheerleader – offers Draper a condescending apology for the loss of his “lunchroom,” assures him the change was “not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal,” Draper retorts. Unabated, the pounding and screeching of construction work emphasizes his point.
For the remainder of the episode, the raucous noise of construction acts as a leitmotif underscoring tensions between characters – between Peggy and Lou Avery (Draper’s priggish replacement at creative director), and between Draper and the interloper Lloyd. Finally, the end of construction is punctuated by a return to silence, as Peggy arrives one morning to see workers glide mainframe components noiselessly into the office.
With this emphasis on technology as a source of symbolic, physical, and sonic disruption, Matthew Weiner and the creators of Mad Men draw upon a rich literary tradition. A relevant example contemporaneous with the show’s “present,” is literary critic Leo Marx’s 1964 text The Machine in the Garden, which examines the complicated relationships between a “pastoral ideal” and technological progress within American literature and popular imagination. Marx’s analysis reveals that sound is often used to convey the disruptive presence of technology within the bucolic landscape of the American continent. In Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow for example, it is the interrupting shriek of a locomotive whistle that breaks the author’s harmonious reverie: “Now tension replaces repose: the noise arouses a sense of dislocation, conflict, and anxiety” (15). In the decidedly un-pastoral modern office space, the noise of the computer installation nevertheless signifies a momentous social change and irrevocable loss. Picking out these tensions has always been one of the show’s strengths – whether it is the computer, Draper’s double identity, or the quiet endurance of women to the misogyny of midcentury work and domestic life.
Change, however, has significant consequences for Ginsberg, the young copywriter and Holocaust survivor who, as CBS’s Jessica Firger observes, has been deteriorating psychologically for some time. The proximity of the IBM 360, and the incessant drone of its mind-controlling waves eventually puts him over the edge. As Draper and Peggy enter the office early in Episode 5, Ginsberg glowers into the room housing the IBM 360. “Stop humming, you’re not happy!” he explodes. As Peggy attempts to soothe her colleague, our perspective shifts to look out at them from inside the glass-encased computer room. From here, the mainframe’s ambient noise muffles Peggy’s words, suggesting isolation between human and non-human. This play of speech and silence reoccurs later in the episode as Ginsberg, working alone on a Saturday with tissues wedged in his ears, spies Lou Avery and SC&P partner Jim Cutler inside the computer room, their voices made inaudible by the droning computer in a delicious homage to 2001 (see Vulture’s amusing gif). But the noise is clearly affecting Ginsberg. “It’s that hum at the office! It’s getting to me!” he tells Peggy later that evening. He even claims the computer has affected his sexuality.
Ginsberg’s noise complaints would have resonated in 1969 New York. In November of that year, the New York Times ran a feature on the city’s nerve-shattering noise pollution, calling it a “slow agent of death.” In addition to the myriad construction projects, subways, car horns, jet planes, and standing machinery populating the city soundscape, office workers found scant respite indoors where phones, air conditioners, “computers and typewriters and tabulators” whirred, whined, and clacked throughout the day. The article went on to report that scientists studying the impact of prolonged noise exposure on the human body had concluded a variety of ill effects on the heart and nervous system. Though no connection was made between computers and sexuality (as Ginsberg claimed), the article reported that laboratory rats under prolonged noise exposure had indeed “turned homosexual,” an opinion that underlined deterministic associations between sexuality, psychological disorder, and external stimuli.
As SO! editor Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued, noise in midcentury New York also signified a sonic-racial politics, in which the mainstream “listening ear” recoiled at the “noise” created by Black and Puerto Rican others. In terms of Mad Men’s computer however, it is technology, economic anxiety, and mental illness, rather than ethnicity that frames sonic disruption. The basis of these tensions are similar however, and various interactions with SC&P’s IBM 360 demonstrate, as Stoever-Ackerman writes in SO!, “the ways in which Americans have been disciplined to consider some sounds as natural, normal, and desirable, while deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant [and] dangerous.” Though similar, the conflict with technology on Mad Men does not suggest a clear us/them, or us/”it” binary. The banging of construction may be at first antagonistic, but it’s finite – eventually the computer is normalized within the SC&P office space to the extent that Peggy chides Ginsberg’s exasperation in Episode 5 by insisting “it’s just a computer!” Ginsberg’s reaction is more complex however, implicating a contradictory relationship with technology: once fully installed, has the droning computer become “natural, normal, and desirable” despite previous ambivalence? Is the keen awareness and anxiety towards technology symbolized through Ginsberg (albeit in a extreme form) suggested as the “aberrant” listening practice, or could it be Peggy’s apparent acceptance?
Like most cultural texts set in the past, it is possible to read Mad Men allegorically, as suggesting a certain ordering of meaning and values. From the perspective of those who have long since domesticated computers, the controversies and tropes activated by SC&P’s IBM 360 might strike us as familiar, even quaint. As the sociologist Bruno Latour has argued however, we would be wise to consider how technology exerts a kind of social agency that structures and impacts our daily lives. As historical symbolism, the sounds and noises of the IBM 360 on Mad Men should remind us that technological progress is not teleological, but a struggle over meaning in which anxieties (about jobs, mind-control, surveillance, subjectivity, etc.) may be variously accommodated, suppressed, or dismissed as irrational.
Featured image: An IBM 360 Mainframe. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0
Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013), and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled “The Play of History.”
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past” -Andrew J. Salvati
“The Noise of SB 1070: Or Do I Sound Illegal to You?”- Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
“DIANE… The Personal Voice Recorder in Twin Peaks” -Tom McEnaney