The City of Noise: An Approach to the Multiple Senses of Sound in Buenos Aires



Facundo Petit de Murat and Martina Di Tullio



In 1919, the Dama Duende wrote the first of many articles dedicated to women, parties, nightlife, and foreign visitors to Buenos Aires. In one column, published in the magazine Caras y Caretas, she analyzes a chronicle written by the Spanish writer Cristóbal de Castro in which he defines, after a brief visit, the city as the “most luxurious and frivolous of America, and perhaps of the world,” adding: “It is known that, half French, half Yankee, it adores elegance like Paris and craves for money like New York.”[1] In answer to this, the Dama Duende both compliments the visit and criticizes the sayings of this “poet of silence [...] acclaimed in the city of noise” (1919, emphasis added).


In this article we will delve into the different meanings given to noise in Buenos Aires during the first half of the twentieth century. To accomplish this, we will focus on analyses of historical documents addressing the relationship between the city and its citizens. We intend to generate a dialogue among the subjects of the archives in order to interpret the ways in which imaginaries regarding the city’s sonority were shaped. In our analysis, multiple divergent dimensions of noise are interwoven in relation to progress, health, culture, silence, space, and time; this allowed us to connect accounts of sonic practices and urban listenings with the dynamic production of social limits of what is acoustically tolerable.

The historical documents are basically two regular publications from the beginning of the twentieth century focused on Buenos Aires. One is the magazine Caras y Caretas, published between 1898 and 1941,[2] which emerged within a social context in which the traditional elite’s legitimacy was being questioned. It took part in the process of an “expansion of the public field, accompanied by a society that was broadening its base and that was prone to take more interest in public affairs” (Rogers 2008: 17). The magazine had a strong ironic tone but an informational function for a learned public. The second one is Automovilismo, the official magazine of the Automóvil Club Argentino (A.C.A.), published between 1918 and 1959. This publication was centered around mobility, as the A.C.A. was in charge of managing urban changes to ease transport circulation and national integration through roads.[3] In contrast to Caras y Caretas, which addressed the concerns of the general citizen, Automovilismo was specifically for drivers, offering information regarding the infrastructure supporting the linkage between them and the city. 


Our analyses derive from the conviction that practices and imaginaries[4] must be historically contextualized to be understood in their complexity. However, this essay is not a historical work sensu stricto. As anthropologists, we conceptualize history as an ethnographic place:


An ethnography of the past would assume that, instead of space transformed into place or an ethnographic place by a research practice, the key locus would be time transformed into history sensu lato by the research practice and the agency of the social actors of the past. Therefore, this field-time is the ethnographic place of an anthropology that produces an intersubjectivity between the researcher and their remote interlocutors. (Wright 2012: 175, emphasis in the original) 


We propose, therefore, an anthropological inquiry into the different meanings given to the perception of noise by the social actors of the past, in this way involving ourselves in an intersubjective listening to history as present. In other words, we attempt to interpret the “acoustemology” (Feld 1996; 2015) of noise in Buenos Aires. Thus, this essay is part of a branch of sound studies that interprets the aural world from the study of historical documents (Corbin 1998; 2019; Ochoa Gautier 2014; Bieletto-Bueno 2018). Historiography is useful for understanding the process through which sonic imaginaries (because imaginaries influence the way we hear) of a particular world are created. It is not possible to listen to the sounds of the past (if they are not recorded in an audible format). Nonetheless, it is possible to reconstruct the imaginary around urban sonority through inquiring into different stories that link sound, urban practices, and the city. As with the contributions to the Anthropology of Experience (Turner and Bruner 1986), these stories are expressions of sonic urban experiences as contemporary manifestos, with ideas from the past and expectations of the future. The corpus that we have investigated includes interviews, opinions, official propaganda, advertisements, news, and researches. We interrogate these different voices “not as signs, supposedly literal and/or transparent, but as symbols” (Wright 2012: 176). Ethnographic interpretation explores the meanings that are emitted from the social imaginaries of a specific time and space. 


In the development of this research, the emphasis was placed on the different meanings – often contradictory – that comprise the concept of noise. Far from innocent, this term synthesizes the dynamic and changing relationships between urban sound and listening. For that reason, this essay mainly aims at the identification of tendencies in the ways of describing noise, of the people that produce noise, and the demarcation of the boundaries between what is acoustically tolerable and what is not.


The main argument is that, at first, modern imaginary associated noise to progress. However, this view rapidly changed in the search for an ideal of relative silence. This process is influenced by a colonial matrix of power (Quijano 2007; Mignolo 2009) through which specific sonic practices began to be classified as uncivilized.[5] In this sense, modern imaginary sets the boundaries for what is acoustically tolerable and produces human subjects who are regarded as morally inferior and whose practices must be legally regulated. This is the context for the emergence of different devices aimed at controlling and mitigating urban noise: legal norms and measuring systems that intend to regulate (albeit inefficiently) a sonic habitus (Bourdieu 2015), i.e. the dialectic relationship between sonic practices and structures of significance. We argue that these processes, articulated in time, shape the paradigm of modern sonority in Buenos Aires.