Hyper-stimulating Environments, Urban Cultures, and Zones of (In)Audition


In a short video that circulated on the Internet in 2017, journalists from the NGO Voz das Comunidades (Voice of the Communities[2]) ask residents of Rio de Janeiro and tourists on the sidewalks of Leblon beach, south of the city, to identify the geographical origins of real audio recordings of shootings, based on the question: where were these recordings made? Answers such as “Syria” and “Afghanistan” highlight the detachment of the population and pedestrians from one of the wealthiest areas of the city from what was happening just a few miles away: the sounds were recorded in Complexo do Alemão, a conglomeration of slums that had recently struggled through two weeks of intense conflicts, with nine people shot in just four days. The video was intended to show and draw attention to the plight of low-income communities living daily in a warlike situation.


As it shows how desensitized city inhabitants can be to what happens in other parts of the urban space, the video elicits how sonorities and listening can mediate this insensibility, an issue pointed out by Daughtry’s discussion of zones of (in)audition in wartime Iraq. He conducted field work carried out in the Iraq War and compared service members and Iraqi civilian listening practices to propose four zones in which different listening practices establish the “degree of attention people gave to the sounds of weapons” (2015: 76). The boundaries between these zones present several variables, including techniques that enabled listeners to ignore, identify, or enhance certain sonorities; technological resources available to muffle nearby noise or enable remote communication; time spent in war territory; social and cultural positions; and, above all, proximity to the sound source.

Daughtry calls the first zone, furthest away from the war, the audible inaudible zone. This is a region where the intense sounds of combat are at a safe distance, so that they are perceived as background; they are far enough not to pose a danger to the listener or those close to him. In this zone, the listener allows himself to abstract from the war sounds, as paying attention to the omnipresence of blast and gunshot sounds could lead to an overly exhausting experience for those in conflict zones.


The next zone is the narrative zone in which the sounds of conflict approach, stimulating the listener’s imagination, which begins to interpret them as signs or clues to the location of particular weapons. The distance, however, still offers a measure of security large enough to allow those who are in this zone to imagine and tell the story of a battle that is not seen but only heard. Sounds work as clues offered to skillful listeners for the deduction of the position of the elements involved in the confrontation.


Closer to the war is the tactical zone, where the combat approaches to the extent that the risk of being targeted becomes real and imminent. “When gunfire was nearby, the richness and detail of the audionarrative collapsed into the briefest tactical assessments: run this way; shoot in that direction” (Daughtry 2015: 88). In this region, the cognitive aspects of sound begin to crumble in favor of its drastic qualities, so that listening turns its attention to the prediction of the danger to come. The situation is a state of sensory overload in which bodies must make immediate decisions in the face of new audiovisual stimuli that continuously bombard the senses and make it difficult to maintain alertness within an experience that already enters the haptic field.


Finally, there is the trauma zone, where these bodily states reach their limit. When one’s body is shot or a bomb explodes inches away, the sound hits it as a force and can produce paralysis, concussions, tinnitus, and definitive or temporary deafness. “At the heart of the zone of physical trauma, when one is exposed to a nearby detonation of an IED or other explosive device, the distinction between the sound of the explosion and its destructive force breaks down completely” (Daughtry 2015: 94).


Daughtry points out that, although the sound dynamics of war zones bear a strong resemblance to those of daily urban situations – especially due to the relation between the sensitization and desensitization of pedestrians to high levels of noise in the city – there is an ethical dilemma due to the context of war that differentiates this sound dynamics from the sound dynamics experienced during everyday life in big cities. Daughtry argues that the acoustic armor needed to shape the audible inaudible zone presupposes an ethical vacuum in which the listener must suspend humanitarian concerns for those in the region where combat is actually taking place. Such suspension is possible because the individual who is far from the battle knows that there is no beloved or close family or friend there. This fact highlights the relational aspect of those listening zones which shift not only with the sonic aspects of the environment and the distance from sounds but also with the listeners’ social, cultural, and affective positions and involvement. In any case, “this is one of the subtle ways in which belliphonic sound incrementally dehumanizes its auditors: they must create a zone of the audible inaudible in order to survive, but in doing so they move themselves into an ethically impoverished space, a world of ethical deafness” (Daughtry 2015: 80).


Although Daughtry argues that sonic conditions on the battlefield present specificities that would make it difficult to simply apply his zones of (in)audition as a model of analysis to other contexts, at a conference held in June 2019 in Brazil he reviewed some aspects of what he wrote and admitted that certain elements of listening in warfare are also present in everyday life. We claim that the sounds of urban spaces and the techniques of listening applied while living there also pose certain other ethical dilemmas that configure different zones of (in)audition based on other distances of the listener from the source and even on different levels of sound intensity. This is especially true in peripheral regions of the world, where the economic and social contradictions of capitalism are accentuated and exhibited more clearly, leading to conflicts of a different nature than those on the battlefield.


When walking through a large Brazilian city, especially during an economic crisis, the pedestrian is constantly forced to ignore requests for assistance issued by beggars or homeless people. It is not that the pedestrian does not listen, but rather that he prefers to pretend he doesn’t in order to avoid the embarrassment of denying help. An audible inaudible zone is thus created with different components: it is composed by the proximity to the source and the often babbling and soft sounds, which are less intense than the others surrounding and competing with them. The pedestrian is forced to give up possible empathy with the other person who asks for help. Including the beggar in the audible inaudible zone can also prevent the situation from moving into a trauma zone, also reconfigured at other levels of sonic intensity. The cry for help can quickly turn into a robbery attempt that, in turn, can trigger a memory of past experiences of urban violence arising from a sound at voice level.


We would also like to call attention to how constant noises of gunfire or fireworks make up a kind of sonic language in some regions of large cities in which militarized groups – such as drug dealers, militias, or corrupt police agents – assume local territorial control in ways that sometimes include explicit physical violence. In these places, where public services are scarce or absent, it is necessary to know when to ignore or when to give meaning to those sounds, as they draw upon sound codes that regulate the daily life and movement of the population. Thus, in the city, a certain degree of “ethical deafness” – albeit in a different context than in a war situation – is necessary to maintain personal security and control stress levels. Power relations are thus expressed, exposed, configured, and negotiated through sonorities, their occupation of the urban space, and the established zones of (in)audibility. The result is a sonic politics that acts affectively in the individual dimension, using sounds to render the “partition of the sensible” (Rancière 1996): beggars cry; gunfire and fireworks speak a certain sonic language; and precarious people escape invisibility and become heard by citizens who put some effort into ignoring their existence. Such social dynamics also point to the ways in which the workings of Brazilian citizenship flows in and out through two different instances: a legal structured state and networks of local solidarity that often distribute violence unequally. As Holston writes Brazilians perceive their unknown peers as


[…] neither friends nor enemies, but citizens who for some matters are equal. I insist that this representation of a new citizenship did not replace the old principle of privilege for some and degradation for many […] but that the two formulations coexist painfully and dangerously, creating the mixture of contradictory elements that constitute the Brazilian public space today. (Holston 2009: 153)


This paper does not intend to map the zones of (in)audibility within urban contexts. This task would not only require a greater volume of field data collection, it would also prove exhausting and perhaps impossible to accomplish, due to the particular nature of each urban situation. That being said, the studies we have concluded on city sounds indicate that much of the listening experiences in public space take place in the tactical zone, something similar to what the military calls “situational awareness.” Therefore, pedestrians ignore distant loud sounds while focusing their attention on proximal sounds to make immediate decisions to guide themselves or to avoid accidents.


One example of an urban cultural dynamic that illustrates what we just described is nightlife. It produces a warlike state of conflict by employing and opposing sonorities quite intensely, producing what we might call “sonic trenches.” In Brazil, it is common to use live and electronically reproduced music in bars, restaurants, and cafes in order to create an environment that affords sociability and at the same time expands their territory to include the adjacent sidewalks (Garcia and Marra 2016). A study carried out in Praça da Savassi (Savassi Square) in Belo Horizonte confirmed how the local establishments played relatively soft music, putting the speakers on canopies with the intention of creating nightlife places that afford conversation, and louder music from speakers on the ground, for aquecimento (warming up), that is, in preparation for going to a concert or dancing in a nightclub. The research was conducted immediately following the renovation of Praça da Savassi: the streets were closed to cars, and a wide promenade was built and occupied by local bars with tables for customers.


As these bars neighbor one another, this creates audible topographies with invisible but real boundaries that can be traversed on foot. Yet, during the fieldwork, it was possible to be in the sonic range of one bar and not be disturbed by the sounds coming from its neighbors: the space of one remained sonically individualized and partitioned. The situation began to change in mid-2016: new bars and restaurants opened and also began to use music – played either live or through loudspeakers – at high levels in order to expand their space into the promenade. By mid-May 2017, the situation had dramatically worsened. On a Sunday afternoon, there might be a live samba band playing in a bar, a restaurant screening the preliminary remarks for the live TV broadcast of a regional football tournament, and pubs playing loud contemporary and Brazilian pop music. They fought each other and vied for customers by means of a hellish sound, the product of competing emissions arising from neighboring bars. This seemed to scare customers away, as most of the tables were empty. Nowhere in the square was it possible to sonically demarcate a single bar or restaurant. From any point in the square it was only possible to hear the competing sounds of the other bars, resulting in a kind of “crossfire,” targeting pedestrians with sounds seeking to seduce them to enter and stay. This tactic backfired, however, with the intensity scaring possible clients away. The sonic occupation impacted their bodies with a disconnected, divergent, and disruptive audible mass, producing a region where everything was heard but little was distinguishable.


This is a very common nightlife experience in Brazil, where groups of friends meet in a noisy epicenter. They arrange themselves at a table, taking care to sit close to those with whom they are most interested in talking to. They regularly get up and switch places to interact with others present. They move their heads at specific angles to better direct their ears toward their conversation partners. They often ignore homeless people and street vendors who walk around the tables and ask for charity or offer delicacies such as roasted peanuts or candies. They remain bodily and situationally aware of the myriad of sounds of different intensities bombarding them, making decisions in the moment to keep the interaction active within the dense sound. They are immersed in a hyper-stimulating environment, full of intense forces that can drag them out of the sociability they were seeking, and yet they keep chatting. Parodying Ingold, place confinement is also selective listening.