Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #12: Sound and Surveillance

Sounding Off2klatsch \KLAHCH\ , noun: A casual gathering of people, esp. for refreshments and informal conversation [German Klatsch, from klatschen, to gossip, make a sharp noise, of imitative origin.] (

Dear Readers:  Today’s Sound Off!//Comment Klatsch question comes to you from Aaron Trammell, Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out!

J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

What makes a sound private and what makes it public?

Comment Klatsch logo courtesy of The Infatuated on Flickr.

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9 responses to “Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #12: Sound and Surveillance”

  1. Robin James (@doctaj) says :

    This is a great topic, Aaron, thanks for kicking it off!

    I guess I always thought sound is too leaky for public/private distinctions, at least as they are classically conceived. For example, walls stop light from passing through, but they don’t always stop sound from passing through. I’m also thinking about how the philosophical history of the concept of “privacy” is deeply tied to concepts of private _property_. Our notion of privacy was developed in the enlightenment, at a time centuries before sounds could be recorded and owned as property. That suggests to me that sound and listening weren’t really pertinent to the original conception of privacy. But I’d have to go back and look at the texts more carefully.

    The idea of a “private” sound also makes me think of sounds that ought to be made in private–like noisy bodily functions. It also reminds me of my anxieties as a first-year oboe major over having to practice in a space that, though nominally private (nobody could see me) was actually totally public (everyone could hear me fuck up). Eventually I got over the anxiety, and realized there was an etiquette to it: you generally tuned everyone else out as you sat in the lounge doing music theory homework or eating lunch; you only criticized something if you knew it was somebody you didn’t like who was practicing, lol.


  2. Aaron Trammell says :

    For me, one of the big reasons that I really wanted to ask this question was because of the ways that I feel there is a controllable and tangible nature to the sounds that we make. As Neil suggested here, as we move toward a society that is increasingly digital, I wonder if we lose the intuition behind how we are surveilled, and its rich history in sound.

    This is not to say that surveillance doesn’t also have a visible component as well, but I would argue that we hear ourselves more than we see ourselves, and that it is exactly this sense of self-consciousness that we are losing.

    Any thoughts on this?


  3. Sean Leavey says :

    This is a very interesting question, as it depends on how you are defining the public and private, and how one is thinking about surveillance.

    However, on a fundamental level, one would have to think through two questions. First, what is one’s expectation of privacy in the space where the sounds are made? Second, what measures is one taking to prevent their sounds from being heard or captured? This is a very juridical manner of approaching the question, though it is a broadly applicable approach.

    If I am in a public space, and choose to keep the sounds I am making with my body or some type of device private, I have to understand that I have no real reasonable expectation of complete privacy. Therefore, I would need to move away from any people who may be nearby, and/or drastically reduce the volume, and/or utilize another device to keep the sound from travelling, such as a set of headphones.

    Now, even taking such measures may not prevent one’s sounds from being captured with surveillance equipment. Sophisticated listening equipment is available on the commercial market, and as all of us know, the security/intelligence apparatus has access to surveillance equipment which is even more sophisticated than we may be able to imagine.

    For sounds in the private space, it is similar. When thinking about state surveillance of sounds, according to Fourth Amendment legal precedent based on Silverman v. United States, one can have an expectation of privacy within “constitutionally protected areas.” This is essentially the confines of one’s own home, or the equivalent, such as a hotel room.

    If a constitutionally protected area is not breached, there is no violation. This is all being said without consideration of the Patriot Act and the NDAA, which has created a state of exception in which constitutional protections can be/are conditionally suspended. In terms of ordinary people, such as one’s neighbors hearing sounds meant to be private, one clearly needs to take measures to suppress those sounds

    When I first saw that the theme of this klatch was sound and surveillance, I did not think about the public and private. Protest is what immediately came to mind. For many, when thinking about the sounds of protest, these thoughts are likely restricted to the sound of people chanting or speakers addressing participants.

    The first thing that I think of is the sound of helicopters doing aerial surveillance. There are days where I heard the drone of helicopters for hours, and went to sleep hearing them, like some kind of temporary auditory imprint—much like the somatic sensation one has after getting off of a boat, where they continue to feel a residual rocking.

    This is a great theme and question, the first post was great, and I look forward to what other people are thinking.


    • Aaron Trammell says :

      Great response, Sean!

      What techniques do protesters use to obscure the noises that they make? And how can sound be used to produce a sense of public or private community?


      • Sean Leavey says :

        Those are great questions, Aaron.

        On the first question, the only thing that comes to mind in terms of how noise or sound is obscured is the use of code for the purposes of tactical communication. Otherwise, protesters commonly use forms of noise or complete silence in their actions.

        Regarding silence, there are the familiar silent vigils, and similar events called die-ins, during which participants maintain silence. In terms of using sound, protestors do so for straightforward mobilizing purposes, creating a carnivalesque atmosphere, calling attention to on-the-ground events (such as police brutality or to warn other demonstrators), and/or disruption.

        Here is a link to a video of Reverend Billy and the Golden Toads at a Chase Bank doing some guerrilla theater/performance art. Here the private and public collide, as they use silence and sound to disrupt everyday business and the corporate aesthetic/environment, while communicating a direct message about Chase Bank’s culpability in environmental degradation.

        On the second question, sound is absolutely a part of creating community. I would suggest reading Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. The introduction is perfect for becoming familiar with the aural as a part of cultural composition, with Hirschkind’s work focusing on politics, religion, and community, in terms of public life, ethics, and epistemology.

        Bringing this back to protest, the aural is a part of creating temporary security zones in public spaces. The sound of helicopters, sirens, buzzers and police bullhorns, and even weapons such as the Long Range Acoustic Device (see the link below), all come together, engaging the sensory in the formation of securitized spaces, and the management of unruly subjects.


  4. nkhverma says :

    One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that sound is made public (that is, subject to power) by being desonified. Most surveillance of interactions that start out as sounds fall under state scrutiny when they are turned into a residual digital transcription of some kind. We have this picture of government eavesdroppers as if they are seedy men in the basement of nearby abandoned buildings, listening to a phone line they’ve physically tapped, like the Stasi. But nowadays, actually, “eavesdroppers” are usually algorithms sorting through codes in servers. It’s a kind of listening in that isn’t listening, is my point.


    • Aaron Trammell says :

      This is really interesting point for me! I keep wondering what it means to take sound out of surveillance in this way. I definitely agree that algorithms now police us and information. Do you think the metaphors and language of sound is still relevant to a discussion of information surveillance? Do we lose something in the translation? If so, what is it?


      • nkhverma says :

        Good questions to ponder, no easy answers. There’s an interesting disciplinary problem. For a long time the surveying gaze was associated with two forms of critique – Foucauldian theory of power and Freudian theory of male subjectivity. Auditory surveillance never had quite the same configuration (it’s hard to fit its experience in to Freudian models of lack, to panopticons, although people like Manuel De Landa tried), and its critique tended to be centered on privacy law.

        But now things are different. Whether a private act is visual or auditory, chances are it will be surveilled through a digital format and examined with automated systems. Under that circumstance, is there a difference between visual and auditory information, particularly when it comes to subjectivity and its relation to power? Maybe not. One thing that’s lost in both domains is the fleetingness of our transactions. Auditory events are made to persist in databanks, which necessarily changes their ontology, and does so without us even knowing it’s happening.


      • Robin James (@doctaj) says :

        I think the language/epistemology of sound becomes even more important when surveilance isn’t panoptic gazing, but algorithmic monitoring. Statistics draws a lot of its metaphors from acoustics (Nate Silver’s “Signal and Noise,” anyone?). So it seems like this data-surveillance works more like sound does than more traditional concepts of panoptic surveillance do–they’re optical/visual.


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