After a two-week hiatus, ettg is back!
Wayne Marshall over at wayneandwax and Ben Tausig over at Weird Vibrations have both recently taken up the role of sound in U.S. military and police operations. While I checked out the role of music in torture a while back, these gentlemen are investigating another, potentially more-harmful phenomenon: the use of sound as physical force to control protesters and crowds–not to mention warfare. Just as Joshua was able to bring down the walls of Jericho with ear-splitting trumpet blasts (see the incomparable Mahalia Jackson’s explanation below), the vibrations that are the essence of sound can cause severe damage at high decibel levels.
During the recent G20 protests in Pittsburgh, police used sound cannons (aka LRADs, Long Range Acoustic Devices) to disperse and control the protesters. These weapons are capable of producing sound that is intensely focused and well above the human threshold of pain, thus running the risk of producing permanent hearing loss in those targeted by the weapon. Weird Vibrations breaks down the questionable use of these devices:
This is something of a loophole in the ethical treatment of protesters – the human body cannot tolerate sound in excess, but exposure leaves no (visible) scars. Perhaps in a wiser moment, we’ll take stock of the emotional distress such conditions can produce, of the long-term hearing loss that can occur with misuse of the machines, of potentially dangerous levels of stress, and of the disturbing political asymmetry such technology facilitates between a government and its citizens. But for now, sound cannons are perfectly legal.
LRADs operate in the threshold between normal listening, where vibration is mild enough that we experience sound as essentially immaterial, and where we can readily pay attention to communicative and aesthetic content (music, language, texture), and extreme sonic exposure, where vibration is felt as a force throughout the body. The sound cannon is far enough along this spectrum that we react involuntarily to its painful volume, but not so far along that we lose life or limb. It’s pretty brilliant, in a mad scientist kind of way.
wayneandwax expands the conversation by reminding us that sound is an inherently physical medium, though we do not always perceive it that way under normal conditions–that extreme frequencies and decibel levels can pass right through us, moving us (and not in the metaphorical sense!) and shaking up our insides until we’re severely messed up.
These two concepts taken together–torture music and sound as weapon–will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to folks who think music is just about aesthetics and emotional expression: though we’d like to think some things are incorruptible and without inherent meaning, that’s just not the case. Keep your eyes open for how music can be used in questionable ways–and bring a pair of these along to your next protest in case they bring out the LRADs.