Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control - Mack Hagood. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019


by Alexandra Supper


“Self-control through sound control” (p. 55). This slogan neatly summarizes the promises made by the media devices that are brought together in Mack Hagood’s book Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control. Spanning a selection of case studies of American media technologies between the 1960s and today – such as white noise machines, nature recordings, and noise-cancelling headphones – Hush investigates the roots and consequences of a neoliberal concern with sonic control. To make sense of what he finds, Hagood coins a new term for the specific type of media that he is interested in: “orphic media.” Named after Orpheus’ mythical encounter with the Sirens and his strategy of drowning out their mesmerizing song with sounds of his own, Hagood poses that a similar strategy of “fighting sound with sound” (p. 16) is characteristic for the media practices of our contemporary (neo)liberal, capitalist, infocentric society. 


Hagood’s approach is primarily situated in the fields of sound studies, media studies, media theory, affect studies, and disability studies. Throughout the book, but especially in the introduction and the later chapters, Hagood’s approach to the orphic “technologies of the self” is explicitly critical, exposing their ideological foundations and drawing attention to their effects of social isolation and the suppression of differences: “These devices encourage us to hear private problems of sonic self-control and noise-making others where, in fact, a shared social dissonance affects us all” (p. 17). 


Orphic media, argues Hagood, challenge and defy the traditional conceptualization of media because they have no stories to tell or information to convey; they are empty. Hagood develops this idea at the hand of six case studies of orphic media, grouped in three parts. Each of the book’s three main parts is dedicated to one of three mechanisms according to which orphic media operate: suppression, masking, cancellation. While these three mechanisms thus serve as a structuring device, the book does not develop a theoretical apparatus for understanding the differences in how they operate. What the book offers instead is both a wealth of empirical data on specific orphic media (sometimes based on ethnographic research, sometimes on archival sources and documents such as advertisements and patents) as well as a critical analysis and reflection of the workings of orphic media, regardless of their mode of operation. Indeed, the book occasionally seeks out common ground not only within the category of orphic media but also within the wider media landscape. In doing so, Hagood suggests that the existence of orphic media should make us rethink our conception of “media” more generally and posits – without fully developing this argument, beyond briefly postulating three “concentric circles” (p. 23) of orphic media – that, in some way, all media function as orphic media. The core of the book, however, focuses on a set of case studies of orphic media that, in the literal sense, use sound to suppress or transform unwanted sounds.


The first part of the book, “Suppression,” consists of a single case, focusing on a set of sonic remedies against tinnitus. Drawing on ethnographic materials collected in tinnitus support groups and audiological research and treatment facilities, Hagood explores the mediated practices through which tinnitus sufferers try to – in the absence of treatments that make the unwanted sounds disappear – habituate to the sounds of their tinnitus. While later chapters in the book all focus on one particular medium, the approach here is deliberately less media-centric and covers a plethora of devices, from mp3 players to white noise machines and apps. It is not the media in and of themselves that capture Hagood’s attention; rather, Hagood seeks to understand the way in which these devices can be used as part of a training regimen in which tinnitus sufferers learn to adopt new techniques of listening, so that the sounds of their own tinnitus are transformed from fearful sounds, in need of constant monitoring, to something altogether less dominating and harmful.


The second part of the book, “Masking,” is by the far the lengthiest, consisting of three chapters. A chapter on “sleep-mates and sound screens” details the invention, production, and marketing of the white-noise generators that are used for the purposes of improving sleep and concentration – integral to helping individuals function as productive members of a capitalistic, info-centric society. Drawing on scholars such as Emily Thompson and Don Ihde, Hagood reflects on how media do more than just communicate, inform, or entertain; rather, they “sonically reconfigure the spatial and affective relations between subjects and objects in the environment” (p. 78). Among the rich wealth of material collected from business archives for this chapter, what stands out is Hagood’s exploration of advertising materials and patents. Patents, he argues, contain not just the technical working of the device, but also rhetorically invent “a self that needs such a device” (p. 101). 


This is followed neatly by the case of the so-called environments: a series of sound recordings (better conceived of as multimedia artworks, encompassing nature photography, extensive liner notes, feedback cards, and listening tests) released in the late 1960s and early 1970s by an entity called Syntonic Research. Despite the grandiose name, Syntonic Research was really the brainchild of one man, Irv Treibel. Treibel marketed his looped sound recordings of settings such as a beach, a forest, or a beating heart – produced through cutting-edge digital production techniques facilitated by a Bell Labs computer – as an “applied psychology device” that would create spaces for self-exploration in an increasingly noisy world. Unlike the white noise machines of the previous chapters (or indeed the chapters that follow), the intended use of these devices were framed in communitarian rather than individualistic terms; more than helping individuals to sleep or work, their purpose was to facilitate “a less fragmented and more open, inter-connected self” (p. 119). In his perceptive analysis of the rhetoric and business practices of Syntonic Research, Hagood builds strongly on Fred Turner’s work on the “New Communalism” of American counterculture to make sense of this short-lived, but vibrant, attempt of connecting orphic control with communitarian spirit. 


After two case studies that trace, in minute detail, the cultural contexts in which specific orphic media have been created and circulated, Hagood switches gears for the final case study of the “Masking” section, in which he considers the digital descendants of the previously discussed technologies: smartphone apps designed to help users sleep and relax by masking noise through looped sounds of their choice. Relatively light on empirical content compared to the previous chapters (although Hagood does make use of ethnographic materials, such as his own listening experience, conversations with an app developer, and some website screenshots), this chapter develops some of the theoretical discussions in relation to media theory, affect studies, and information theory that have previously been touched upon more fleetingly. Hagood considers the orphic apps as an opportunity to reflect on the contradictions that arise when the utilitarian informational logic is pushed “beyond human limits, amplifying the spatial, temporal, and economic pressures” (p. 150) of the capitalist system in which they have emerged and which they take for granted. As Hagood concisely states, the apps “might help us sleep, but they never address what keeps us up at night” (p. 162). Yet in stark contradiction to the ideologies that they are founded upon, argues Hagood, these orphic apps are embodied and affective rather than informatic: “We use orphic apps because we are not autonomous, informatic subjects – and because we try to live as if we were” (p. 151). 


The third and final empirical part of the book turns to “Cancellation” – specifically, to the technology of sound-cancelling headphones, which make use of orphic techniques by creating sound frequencies that are carefully calibrated to drown out environmental sounds. The two chapters here are dedicated to two different brands of headphones: Bose QuietComfort and Beats by Dre. Drawing primarily on a critical analysis of headphone advertisements as well as newspaper reports and reviews, the chapters consider how noise-cancelling headphones shape interpersonal relations in an individualistic, neoliberal society in which “the other” is in need of being blocked out and suppressed. In doing so, both chapters pay attention to the significance of hierarchies of race, class, age, and gender – which are implicated in both brands of headphones, albeit in different manners. Whereas the marketing and coverage of Bose QuietComfort positions them “as essential gear for the mobile rational actor of the global market, the business traveler” (p. 180), Beats by Dre instead sells images of black masculinity, primarily with the help of black athletes and hip-hop stars, in its marketing efforts. Despite all these differences, Hagood argues, the devices are connected not just through their technology but also through the narratives used in their marketing: “They both sell a similar conception of a neoliberal male hero preserving himself in a noisy world through technological progress” (p. 218).


After such a rather bleak account of how orphic media are involved in “fabricating the sensation ‘that there is no such thing as society’” (p. 234) and sustaining the indifference and isolation of neoliberal capitalism, Hagood does build towards a more hopeful note in the conclusion. Suggesting the need for a neo-cybernetic “affective ontology that helps us reflect upon the closed nature of our listening abilities while also emphasizing the ability – and necessity – of listening through that closure” (p. 224), Hagood advocates for a form of orphic media that would affectively listen to, rather than tune out, sounds that are unfamiliar and uneasy on the ears.


As should be clear from the account above, Hush gives readers interested in sound studies a lot to chew on. Some readers may be interested in it primarily as a rich trove of fascinating media-historical detail; others may prefer to focus on its thoughtful ruminations of the ideological underpinnings of 20th- and 21st-century media technologies; and others, again, may welcome it primarily for its efforts in rethinking conceptualizations of media and information. Since the chapters vary considerably in theoretical density and empirical detail, none of these ideal-typical readers are likely to be equally satisfied with every single one of the chapters, but all of them should find something that captures their interest on these pages.