The family in A Quiet Place (2018) lives a life marked by incessant trauma. Invisible to the hunters who are far more powerful than they are, the family remains safe from direct assault as long as they remain unheard by the hunters, who can’t see them. But that same invisibility means the everyday mundanities of life become a constant struggle marked by the terror of the horrific death that will claim them should they make an errant sound. A trip to the pharmacy could prove fatal; a hungry child could summon the hunters and put in danger the entire family. When sketched out in these broad strokes, A Quiet Place, as Kathryn Adams Burton pointed out to me when we left the theater, summons terror from its viewers by depicting the kind of institutional surveillance and violence that endanger Black lives in the US, without one person of color in the entire movie. Thinking with Simone Browne’s Dark Matters (2015), Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line (2016), and Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes (2008), I argue here that A Quiet Place places white characters in a non-white relationship with surveillance, which they overcome in a way that projects white ingenuity and strength and reinforces the centuries-old notion that those who live under the eye and ear of hyper-surveillance tactics do so because they deserve to and because they are not exceptional enough to evade those tactics.
The Quiet family’s invisibility is literal: the creatures who hunt them have no sense equivalent to human vision and instead track their prey using hyper-developed listening abilities. They remain vigilant for the audible traces of their victims; sound is the thing that can put the family in trouble. Simone Browne highlights in Dark Matters the significance of visibility and invisibility in the history of antiblack surveillance in the US. Lantern laws in 18th century New York City stipulated that enslaved black and indigenous people must carry a lit lantern if they were in the streets after dark, a regulation that Browne understands as an act of “racializing surveillance,” a “form of knowledge production about the black, indigenous, and mixed-race subject” (79). Specifically, the knowledge created through the lantern laws marked bodies of color as “un-visible,” in need of illumination in order to be properly seen. And here “seen” slips into a couple of different meanings, encompassing not only the ocular but also the notion of “seeing” that connotes understanding and discernment.
The early technology of lantern surveillance, as well as the boundaries delineated by sundown towns, marked black, indigenous, and mixed-race bodies as untrustworthy, scheming, and therefore in need of ongoing surveillance that would make these bodies visible to the eye. At the heart of Dark Matters is Browne’s contention that the history and techniques of surveillance cannot be understood separate from their racializing work: “surveillance…is the fact of antiblackness” (10). So while the Quiet family is white, their relationship to the powerful beings that hunt them–an existence unseeable and unknowable apart from heightened measures of surveillance–appropriates signifiers of racialized surveillance in order to heighten the stakes of the movie’s characters.
While Browne focuses primarily on acts of looking as mechanisms for violently enforcing the color line in Dark Matters, Jennifer Stoever traces the history of that same color line through listening practices. Stoever isn’t explicitly engaging surveillance studies the way Browne is, but her theorization of the “listening ear”–the social and political norms that shape how we hear race–includes surveillance acts that, like lantern laws, mark voices perceived to be non-white as always already ready to be monitored, bounded, and eliminated should they exceed their boundaries (13). For both Browne and Stoever, the act of surveilling uncovers a racializing sleight of hand: non-Whiteness is held up as that which stands out, though this racialization is proven backwards if we look and listen a bit closer. US looking and listening norms condition people to organize blackness and brownness and noise as aberrations against natural, invisible, inaudible whiteness, but it takes a good deal of white supremacist work to create this illusion (by “white supremacy,” I mean the social and political practices and institutions that reify and reward whiteness). Looking through brighter lights and sharper camera lenses at non-White subjects and listening through amplification devices and ubiquitous bugs to non-White subjects are both ways of drawing attention away from whiteness–the racialized construct that fuels US social, legal, and political praxis–and toward non-whiteness.
Stoever opens The Sonic Color Line by considering the violence visited upon Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and a Spring Valley High School student when each was considered too loud and unruly by white listening ears trained to surveil blackness. The Quiet family is listened to in the same way Davis, Bland, and the Spring Valley student were, in the same way non-whiteness has been surveilled in the US: with dire consequences for being too loud. But, by erasing black and brown bodies and histories from the screen, A Quiet Place divorces these surveillance tactics from their real-world context, where they work as tools of white supremacist systems to “fix and frame blackness as an object of surveillance” (Browne 7). Part of the fantasy of A Quiet Place involves “fixing and framing” whiteness as the objects of sonic surveillance practices that have historically worked to preserve and reward whiteness, not target it.
While the Quiet family is subjected to antiblack surveillance techniques, they are otherwise marked as white–and not just based on what their skin color looks like. Farmers in a rural, hilly region of Upstate New York, the Quiet family navigates the apocalypse with a libertarian aplomb. They’re stocked and loaded when the government fails to protect its citizens, and they’re also aware of but not in collaboration with other survivors in the surrounding area. Operating outside the bustle of urban noise, which Stoever notes is marked as non-White by the listening ear, the Quiet family likely boasts generations of working class whites who benefited from the kind of social safety nets built by the New Deal, only to mistake the wealth those social programs built to be fully the fruits of their own hard work.
The independence and autonomy that the Quiet family demonstrates is not on its own a marker of whiteness, but the kind of wealth accumulation that makes non-collaborative survival possible is the kind that’s historically been more readily available to white folks in the US. It’s a history that is flattened, as is the history of the surveillance that shapes their lives. Their wealth simply exists, and viewers aren’t meant to wonder where it came from or at whose expense. Likewise, viewers learn very little about what the hunters are, where they came from, and why they’re here. The hunters just appear, terrifying sonic surveillers who carry signifiers of antiblack listening practices but who remain detached from the antiblack history of surveillance.
The racialized terror at the heart of A Quiet Place grows from the fear of being denied one’s whiteness, being subjected to the same controlling surveillance measures that have helped maintain the color line for centuries in the US. It’s a standard white sci-fi nightmare scenario where technologies spin out of control and subjugate all of humanity, white people included. It’s also a white exceptionalist fantasy, where whiteness–not just white people but the wealth and freedom created for white people by white supremacist systems–conquers the unconquerable. Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes can prove helpful here, as he outlines the way racial ideology has shifted in recent decades to permit multiculturalism so long as it preserves whiteness. While systems like slavery and segregation were buttressed by explicit white supremacy, where whiteness = good and non-whiteness = bad, contemporary racial hierarchies are maintained by conceding that multiculturalism = virtuous and race-based solidarity = problematic. Here, white supremacy cloaks itself in diversity, hybridity, mixedness and points to any group that coheres around racial identity as regressive.
Flattening history is crucial to that ideological shift. In order to maintain a racial hierarchy that tips in favor of whiteness, past violence and kleptocratic seizures of money, resources, and lives must be removed from the equation so that the kind of multiculturalism that Sexton critiques can proceed as if all who participate do so on a level playing field. Whiteness becomes “something equivalent to the…ethnicities and cultures of nonwhite immigrants and American Indians” (Sexton 66). The field, of course, isn’t level when white supremacy has funneled centuries of ill-gotten gains to whiteness, so this kind of multiculturalism is a way of gaming the system, mixing up racial signifiers so that white folks can take on just enough racial signifiers to blend into a racially diverse society without giving up the power and privilege that continues to give them a leg up.
A Quiet Place follows a calculus similar to the multiculturalism Sexton describes. First, the movie extracts emotional responses of terror and dread through a mixture of racial signifiers, subjecting white characters to forms of surveillance rooted in antiblackness. With no historical context to explain the forms of surveillance the hunters use or the characters’ previous relationships to surveillance, the Quiet family’s whiteness becomes just another ethnicity, a flattened way of being in the world divorced from the white supremacist context that funnels resources their way. Their privilege and power become as invisible to viewers as they are to the hunters. By masking that privilege, A Quiet Place clears space for a fantasy world where the white heroes have survived by virtue of being simply more clever, more resourceful, more brave, more everything than all the black and brown people who have, by implication of their absence from the film, been killed off by the hunters.
A Quiet Place, then, takes a family of multiculturally white characters and positions them in roles white characters have become accustomed to occupying: that of world saviors–some of them even martyrs. Here, hyper-surveillance is simply a fact of life, and those who are able to live life free of the dire consequences of that hyper-surveillance are able to do so because they are exceptional. By this logic, what protects you from the police is either your innocence or your guile, not your whiteness. What guarantees your safety when you publicly challenge government policies is the righteousness of your cause, not your whiteness. What allows you to move in the dark without a lantern or to listen to your music loudly in public spaces without being shot or to cross borders without fear is your inherent virtue, not your whiteness. And when surveillance is positioned as a fact of life, and when those who avoid the crushing consequences of surveillance are understood to do so because they are virtuously exceptional, then those who are targeted, hunted, and killed using hyper-surveillance tactics are understood to be deserving of their fate because they are not virtuous or exceptional enough to avoid it. This is the logic that frames slavery as a choice, that cages children at the border, that influences and fixes elections across the globe but takes umbrage when subjected to the same tactics.
One terrible irony of a movie like A Quiet Place is that its flattened hyper-surveillance context makes it incapable of seeing and hearing the deep and rich history of black and brown evasion of hyper-surveillance. There’s an ingenuity coursing through activities of evading surveillance–“looking back,” marronage, and fugitivity chronicled by writers including Sylvia Wynter, Franz Fanon, Katherine McKittrick, and Simone Browne, among others–an ingenuity that evades hyper-surveillance and simultaneously exposes hyper-surveillance as antiblack while arguing against the notion that it is simply a fact of life and signalling avenues to freedom. Instead of those stories, though, the white Quiet family whispers to us a familiarly unsettling refrain: the white Quiet family, alone, can eradicate these terrors. The white Quiet family, alone, can fix this. The white Quiet family, alone, are exceptional.
Featured image, and all images in this post are screenshots from “A Quiet Place ALL TRAILERS – Emily Blunt & John Krasinski 2018 Horror Movie” by Youtube user Flicks And The City Clips.
Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
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It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.
Moving on from cybernetic games to modes of surveillance that work through composition and patterns. Here, Robin James challenges us to consider the unfamiliar resonances produced by our IP addresses, search histories, credit trails, and Facebook posts. How does the NSA transform our data footprints into the sweet, sweet, music of surveillance? Shhhhhhhh! Let’s listen in. . . -AT
Kate Crawford has argued that there’s a “big metaphor gap in how we describe algorithmic filtering.” Specifically, its “emergent qualities” are particularly difficult to capture. This process, algorithmic dataveillance, finds and tracks dynamic patterns of relationships amongst otherwise unrelated material. I think that acoustics can fill the metaphor gap Crawford identifies. Because of its focus on identifying emergent patterns within a structure of data, rather than its cause or source, algorithmic dataveillance isn’t panoptic, but acousmatic. Algorithmic dataveillance is acousmatic because it does not observe identifiable subjects, but ambient data environments, and it “listens” for harmonics to emerge as variously-combined data points fall into and out of phase/statistical correlation.
Dataveillance defines the form of surveillance that saturates our consumer information society. As this promotional Intel video explains, big data transcends the limits of human perception and cognition – it sees connections we cannot. And, as is the case with all superpowers, this is both a blessing and a curse. Although I appreciate emails from my local supermarket that remind me when my favorite bottle of wine is on sale, data profiling can have much more drastic and far-reaching effects. As Frank Pasquale has argued, big data can determine access to important resources like jobs and housing, often in ways that reinforce and deepen social inequities. Dataveillance is an increasingly prominent and powerful tool that determines many of our social relationships.
The term dataveillance was coined in 1988 by Roger Clarke, and refers to “the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons.” In this context, the person is the object of surveillance and data is the medium through which that surveillance occurs. Writing 20 years later, Michael Zimmer identifies a phase-shift in dataveillance that coincides with the increased popularity and dominance of “user-generated and user-driven Web technologies” (2008). These technologies, found today in big social media, “represent a new and powerful ‘infrastructure of dataveillance,’ which brings about a new kind of panoptic gaze of both users’ online and even their offline activities” (Zimmer 2007). Metadataveillance and algorithmic filtering, however, are not variations on panopticism, but practices modeled—both historically/technologically and metaphorically—on acoustics.
In 2013, Edward Snowden’s infamous leaks revealed the nuts and bolts of the National Security Administration’s massive dataveillance program. They were collecting data records that, according to the Washington Post, included “e-mails, attachments, address books, calendars, files stored in the cloud, text or audio or video chats and ‘metadata’ that identify the locations, devices used and other information about a target.” The most enduringly controversial aspect of NSA dataveillance programs has been the bulk collection of Americans’ data and metadata—in other words, the “big data”-veillance programs.
Instead of intercepting only the communications of known suspects, this big dataveillance collects everything from everyone and mines that data for patterns of suspicious behavior; patterns that are consistent with what algorithms have identified as, say, “terrorism.” As Cory Doctorow writes in BoingBoing, “Since the start of the Snowden story in 2013, the NSA has stressed that while it may intercept nearly every Internet user’s communications, it only ‘targets’ a small fraction of those, whose traffic patterns reveal some basis for suspicion.” “Suspicion,” here, is an emergent property of the dataset, a pattern or signal that becomes legible when you filter communication (meta)data through algorithms designed to hear that signal amidst all the noise.
Hearing a signal from amidst the noise, however, is not sufficient to consider surveillance acousmatic. “Panoptic” modes of listening and hearing, though epitomized by the universal and internalized gaze of the guards in the tower, might also be understood as the universal and internalized ear of the confessor. This is the ear that, for example, listens for conformity between bodily and vocal gender presentation. It is also the ear of audio scrobbling, which, as Calum Marsh has argued, is a confessional, panoptic music listening practice.
Therefore, when President Obama argued that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he was correct. But only insofar as nobody (human or AI) is “listening” in the panoptic sense. The NSA does not listen for the “confessions” of already-identified subjects. For example, this court order to Verizon doesn’t demand recordings of the audio content of the calls, just the metadata. Again, the Washington Post explains:
The data doesn’t include the speech in a phone call or words in an email, but includes almost everything else, including the model of the phone and the “to” and “from” lines in emails. By tracing metadata, investigators can pinpoint a suspect’s location to specific floors of buildings. They can electronically map a person’s contacts, and their contacts’ contacts.
NSA dataveillance listens acousmatically because it hears the patterns of relationships that emerge from various combinations of data—e.g., which people talk and/or meet where and with what regularity. Instead of listening to identifiable subjects, the NSA identifies and tracks emergent properties that are statistically similar to already-identified patterns of “suspicious” behavior. Legally, the NSA is not required to identify a specific subject to surveil; instead they listen for patterns in the ambience. This type of observation is “acousmatic” in the sound studies sense because the sounds/patterns don’t come from one identifiable cause; they are the emergent properties of an aggregate.
Acousmatic listening is a particularly appropriate metaphor for NSA-style dataveillance because the emergent properties (or patterns) of metadata are comparable to harmonics or partials of sound, the resonant frequencies that emerge from a specific combination of primary tones and overtones. If data is like a sound’s primary tone, metadata is its overtones. When two or more tones sound simultaneously, harmonics emerge whhen overtones vibrate with and against one another. In Western music theory, something sounds dissonant and/or out of tune when the harmonics don’t vibrate synchronously or proportionally. Similarly, tones that are perfectly in tune sometimes create a consonant harmonic. The NSA is listening for harmonics. They seek metadata that statistically correlates to a pattern (such as “terrorism”), or is suspiciously out of correlation with a pattern (such as US “citizenship”). Instead of listening to identifiable sources of data, the NSA listens for correlations among data.
Both panopticism and acousmaticism are technologies that incite behavior and compel people to act in certain ways. However, they both use different methods, which, in turn, incite different behavioral outcomes. Panopticism maximizes efficiency and productivity by compelling conformity to a standard or norm. According to Michel Foucault, the outcome of panoptic surveillance is a society where everyone synchs to an “obligatory rhythm imposed from the outside” (151-2), such as the rhythmic divisions of the clock (150). In other words, panopticism transforms people into interchangeable cogs in an industrial machine. Methodologically, panopticism demands self-monitoring. Foucault emphasizes that panopticism functions most efficiently when the gaze is internalized, when one “assumes responsibility for the constraints of power” and “makes them play…upon himself” (202). Panopticism requires individuals to synchronize themselves with established compulsory patterns.
Acousmaticism, on the other hand, aims for dynamic attunement between subjects and institutions, an attunement that is monitored and maintained by a third party (in this example, the algorithm). For example, Facebook’s News Feed algorithm facilitates the mutual adaptation of norms to subjects and subjects to norms. Facebook doesn’t care what you like; instead it seeks to transform your online behavior into a form of efficient digital labor. In order to do this, Facebook must adjust, in part, to you. Methodologically, this dynamic attunement is not a practice of internalization, but unlike Foucault’s panopticon, big dataveillance leverages outsourcing and distribution. There is so much data that no one individual—indeed, no one computer—can process it efficiently and intelligibly. The work of dataveillance is distributed across populations, networks, and institutions, and the surveilled “subject” emerges from that work (for example, Rob Horning’s concept of the “data self”). Acousmaticism tunes into the rhythmic patterns that synch up with and amplify its cycles of social, political, and economic reproduction.
Unlike panopticism, which uses disciplinary techniques to eliminate noise, acousmaticism uses biopolitical techniques to allow profitable signals to emerge as clearly and frictionlessly as possible amid all the noise (for more on the relation between sound and biopolitics, see my previous SO! essay). Acousmaticism and panopticism are analytically discrete, yet applied in concert. For example, certain tiers of the North Carolina state employee’s health plan require so-called “obese” and tobacco-using members to commit to weight-loss and smoking-cessation programs. If these members are to remain eligible for their selected level of coverage, they must track and report their program-related activities (such as exercise). People who exhibit patterns of behavior that are statistically risky and unprofitable for the insurance company are subject to extra layers of surveillance and discipline. Here, acousmatic techniques regulate the distribution and intensity of panoptic surveillance. To use Nathan Jurgenson’s turn of phrase, acousmaticism determines “for whom” the panoptic gaze matters. To be clear, acousmaticism does not replace panopticism; my claim is more modest. Acousmaticism is an accurate and productive metaphor for theorizing both the aims and methods of big dataveillance, which is, itself, one instrument in today’s broader surveillance ensemble.
Featured image “Big Brother 13/365” by Dennis Skley CC BY-ND.
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism will be published by Zer0 books this fall, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
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