Caufield Schnug: Sonic Torture, Everyday Listening

Caufield Schnug

Sonic Torture, Everyday Listening

After the news broke that U.S.-run detention centers used music as a method of physical and psychological torture for detainees, both academic circles and popular presses have been investigating the continuing critical relevance of the topic. In popular media, responses to accounts of sonic torture in secret prisons like Guantánamo swerved between moral outrage (recall the agitational rhetoric of the Zero Db campaign’s silent protests), aesthetic indignation (think Pearl Jam, The Roots, and other musical headliners joint-filing National Security Archive records requests in hopes of uncovering the extent their music was used during interrogations), and a kind of categorical dismissiveness. Some discourses surrounding the ethical status of “intero-tunes” in the ambiguous milieu of so-called “no-touch” torture methods — other methods including waterboarding and hooding — propagated a fantasy of humane coercion, a tamed and civilized torture-lite predicated on the manipulation of psychological ambiences. Eschewing torture’s more explicit instruments of bodily harm (instruments that have become synecdoches of pain: thumbscrews, hammers, pliers), the use of loud music as an interrogative weapon has been said to commit a lesser order of violence if only because sound’s material effects on prisoners’ bodies are less easily identified.


Other writers and thinkers — our Sawyer Seminar speakers Suzanne Cusick and Thomas Y. Levin figured prominently among them — have sought to give non-reductive accounts of sonic torture in view of war, musicology, and human rights advocacy. Both Cusick and Levin’s papers are unique within these discourses for their insistence on shifting the sound and torture discussion away from the removed socio-political space of the detention camp towards general acoustical regimes at home. Their arguments entail a philosophical reckoning with everyday soundscapes and civilian listening practices. Questions emerge on a macro scale: how might general listening practices today condition a Western culture that permits sonic torture? And can we somehow attune ourselves to the torturous soundscapes of Guantánamo and Bagram by working through our own auditory atmospheres?


This latter question resonates provocatively in Cusick’s paper, which mobilizes Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of re-sounding as an experimental premise for thinking about everyday sonic practices in tandem with sonic practices of wartime detention and interrogation. Such re-sounding entails conceptual reverberation, dislocation, a dispersive spread of sympathetic vibrations. In Nancy’s formulation of resonant listening subjects, the auditory self comes into being as it responds to sonorous objects in an involuted curl of mutual sends and returns; sound becomes “tendentially methexic (that is having to do with participating, sharing, or contagion),” blooming in space “where it resounds while still resounding ‘in me'” (Nancy 7). Blending phenomenological reflection and a kind of Nancyean listening, Cusick navigates re-soundings between her own experiences in the world and acoustical events and regimes “coterminous with the so-called ‘war on terror'” (Cusick 2). The result is a deeply textured movement through experiential sonic spaces, a haptic mapping of auditory vignettes. Among acoustical scenes, Cusick’s paper lends a critical ear to the interruptive sounds of the JFK airport, the immersive choral space of Janet Cardiff’s 40-speaker installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the orderly Enlightenment rhythms of Vivaldi or Mozart drifting in the white noise of Penn Station. Cusick’s meditations on everyday acoustic modernity resonate with notions of ruptured subjectivity, bodily immersion, and audial control, soundings that blend, however fugitively, with ex-prisoners’ accounts of sound torture.


Echoing Cusick’s close attendance to quotidian soundings, Levin routes his analysis through popular tech phenomena and commonplace auditory practices. The acoustical regimes in question here, again bearing some resemblance to Cusick’s murmuring non-places, involve mood management architectures and instrumentalized soundscapes: muzak-droning malls and elevators, ear-budded wanderings through city streets, airplane flights made sonically tolerable by noise canceling headphones. This is modernity under the sign of the iPod shuffle, overflowing in ‘curated’ ambient spaces and overlapping noises. Levin’s polemic against listening culture’s instrumentalized soundscapes — in which shopping soundtracks train better buyers and ‘pump-up’ playlists rouse soldiers’ fighting spirits — makes its relation to sound torture clear: “Are we justified in our moral outrage that music — imagine actual music!! — is being used to harm people against their will when we are ‘using’ music ourselves all the time to achieve certain ends?” (11).


The critical efficiency with which Levin structurally links audio torture with a general regime of ‘using’ sounds diverges in tone from Cusick’s more personal and embodied meditations. Although both papers comment on sonic weaponization by hearing civilian acoustical practices in some crucial way, interesting tensions emerge between the papers’ investigations of the auditory quotidian. Overall, it seems to me the ‘difference in degree’ argument endorsed by Levin chimes ambiguously with Cusick’s re-soundings. My impression is that for Cusick everyday acoustic practices may resound with sonic torture not for some entwined cultural logistics or structural uniformity, but rather in weirder cases of sympathetic vibration, fleeting and experimental, mediated by a hearing body. Of course, this could be a question of approach, a difference in critical stylings. Levin’s polemic manages a radical maneuverability between cultural anecdotes, technologies, and ephemera; his provocation invites further inquiries into cultural listening and sonic violence. Cusick’s main provocation, at least to my mind, lies more in her wager that a haptic mode of acoustic reflection will resonate in us, readers, opening shared spaces of contemplating torture with re-sounding objects.


Despite these methodological divergences, both papers strike a tricky balance between the limitations of written expression and other modes of scholarly demonstration. Perhaps revealing his investment in curatorial and exhibition projections (see “additional materials” list below), much of Levin’s argument is relayed through image-based examples: film stills, ads, stock photos, and screen grabs. The paper plays at a kind of rhetorical show-and-tell, a slideshow or panorama of shuffle culture and all its audiovisual accruements. Cusick’s paper also constructs a kind of expanded architecture of the digitized academic article, as it combines embedded mp3 files, interviews, and poeticized phenomenological passages in a dynamic argumentative terrain. I wonder if there isn’t a quality endemic to the topic of sonic torture — some value stretching our critical imagination and testing the limits of our means of expression — which encourages this type of verbal expansionism, prodding novel types of academic writing and presentation. Such formal experimentation anticipates questions of scholarly representation. To what extent, for instance, is it fair to ask of a paper presentation to capture, relate, and examine extreme acoustical experiences? It seems to me that this session’s articles are promising in this regard. Levin and Cusick’s writings encounter sonic torture’s weighty subject matter with an admirable open-endedness and stylistic verve, expansive modes of critical engagement that implicitly invite further work within the discussion.


If you are interested in exploring some more sources pertaining to this Sawyer Seminar session and other issues in sonic weaponization and torture, I have added a very brief “additional materials” section below.


Additional Materials/Readings


A link to Levin’s exhibition CTRL [SPACE], Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to

Big Brother that opened at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Technology.


Cusick, Suzanne. “’You are in a Place that is Out of the World’: Music in the Detention


Camps of the ‘Global War on Terror,’” Journal of the Society for American Music


            2, no. 1 (2008).


Ibid; Joseph, Branden. Across an Invisible Line: A Conversation about Music


and Torture. Grey Room, No. 42 (Winter 2011).


Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge:


MIT Press, 2010.


Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. New York: Fordham University


Press, 2007.


Volcler, Juliette. Extremely Loud: Sound a Weapon. Trans. Carol Volk. The New Press:




Worthington, Andy. A History of Music Torture in the War on Terror. Counterpunch,


December 15, 2008.





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