The saga of mysterious sounds afflicting US diplomats in Cuba—and more recently China–has appeared in the US news cycle intermittently over the last couple of years. Since 2017, news organizations have reported that officials working at the US Embassy in Havana were experiencing hearing loss, dizziness, and possibly brain injury as a result of exposure to high-pitched, grating sounds. The State Department described the phenomenon as a sonic attack, believing that officials were purposefully targeted by an “acoustic element.” Cuban officials have denied the allegations by citing the failure of US officials to identify the source of the sound. Other details surrounding the incident have added to the mystery, including the fact that not all individuals who exhibited symptoms reportedly heard the sound, and those who did may not have been hearing the same sound.
Experts in engineering, otology, and neurology weighed in on the issue and attempted to offer scientific explanations for the phenomenon. Some supported the theory of a sonic weapon while others considered psychological factors. The guess-work around the incident reached a turning point in October 2017 when the Associated Press released an audio recording of the sound in question.
For the first time, the public had the ability to hear a recording of the alleged sound that has been described as “a high-pitched whine.” Experts thereafter turned their focus to the acoustic properties of the sound, including the more than 20 frequencies and peaks that were discovered through spectrographic imaging. Needless to say, the “acoustic element” captivated audiences and presented a puzzle to be solved.
The recording of the mysterious sound in Cuba, and others like it, warrants scholarly attention because the original sound took place entirely outside of linguistic comprehension. The sound was not something that people could articulate; it manifested through symptoms in the body. When the symptoms became subject to public scrutiny, the recording was released as evidence that a sonic problem existed. That the recording was intended for the public to hear the sound for themselves, however, presumes that people knew what to listen for and how to listen. In actuality, a recording of a sound does not guarantee that the sound is comprehensible to others, and efforts to make it representational suggest a misrecognition between the biological act of hearing and the capacity to derive meaning. Instead of providing an answer to the puzzle, the audio recording acts as a material, technological substitute in the absence of an indexical relationship between a sound and its meaning: we cannot tell you about the sound, but we can show you that it exists.
What are the implications for language and communication when something lacks meaning but can be evidenced? How might technological mediation propose materiality as communication in and of itself?
Mechanical Reproduction Revisited
While the above example of an audio recording might be used by some critics to decry the problem of schizophonia, or the anxiety resulting from the separation of a sound from its source (Schafer 1993), as an anthropologist of sound and the senses, I am interested in technologically mediated efforts toward sense-making; in this case, the communicative practices produced through mechanical reproduction.
Audio recordings have a history of bringing people together through a shared experience. Before digital technology, music was recorded onto mixtapes and circulated among friends, thereby “facilitat[ing] the dual imagination of a shared experience with the medium and of a collective past” (Bohlmann 2017:122). In an ethnography of Islamic media, Charles Hirschkind describes how cassette sermons circulated throughout Muslim communities in the Middle East (Hirschkind 2009). The ubiquity of the tapes made them widely recognizable to the public, and the mere sounding of a cassette sermon was enough to foster an ethical disposition among listeners in Cairo. Taking a different approach, Stefan Helmreich has touched upon the propensity of YouTubers to post videos of themselves’ imitating the chirping sound of a gravitational wave using their own voice. The vocalization of the gravitational wave sound is what Helmreich calls a “human-nonhuman articulation,” or a way of getting closer to the sound by way of mimicry (Helmreich 2016:484). The recording of the sound heard by US officials can be understood in a similar way, as an attempt to communicate something through efforts to reproduce it. While scholars have drawn attention to the physicality of sound that “coerces bodies into involuntary vibration” (Daughtry 2015:165) and has the capacity to harm (Cusick 2006; Parker 2019; Goodman 2012), audio recordings are a reminder that people are not merely susceptible to sound and its negative effects. They engage in social and technological practices in an effort to transform a phenomenological experience into a shared encounter. By transducing soundwaves in the air into various media, recordings bracket off an audible moment for inclusion in a social context.
The audio recording released to the public from Cuba was initially believed to offer acoustic analysts streamlined access to the original sonic event while circumventing the variable, individual testimonials of embassy officials. Instead of identifying the source of sound, however, the recorded object took on a life of its own, distinct from the original sound. On a technical level, the audio recording was fundamentally different from the actual sound that people heard. The AP disclosed that they enhanced the volume in the recording and removed background noise, and they were quick to assure listeners that playing the sound through various devices would not cause bodily harm. The recording also had a practical use, as it became a reference tool for US embassy workers in order to know what sound to listen for in the case of another sonic attack. In this way, the recording took on an anticipatory character that presupposed future episodes. And although the transductive properties behind a recording means that any audio recording can never be an exact copy of the original sound, scientists have analyzed the recording, with limited success, in an attempt to uncover the truth about the sound. University researchers found the recording to have comparable acoustic features to the sound of a specific species of crickets. Others tried to reverse-engineer the sound and attributed the sound to electromagnetic interference. Rather than offering clarity about the events that took place, the recording spurred a sociality around specific ways of documenting, analyzing, and hearing sound and produced a new set of material-discursive relationships around a “high-pitched whine.”
Taiwan’s Noise Control System
I began to take an interest in the case of US embassy workers in Cuba following my own research on the problematization of noise in Taipei, Taiwan. As part of my fieldwork, I spent time at the noise control office that manages citizens’ day-to-day complaints and shadowed environmental noise inspectors at all hours of the day and night. Taiwan’s noise control system was originally implemented in the 1980s following the country’s democratic transition, and served as a way for the government to prioritize citizens’ quality of life. As I quickly learned, however, many of the sounds that residents complained about were not loud enough to legally qualify as noise. The sounds did not violate the noise control standards, in terms of decibels, meaning that residents were unable to have their noise problem verified by the noise management system.
I later learned that noise complainants in Taipei made audiovisual recordings of problematic sounds as a counterpoint to the quantitative measurements produced by environmental inspectors. Many of the recordings depict humming or knocking that are typically ignored in day-to-day life, brushed off as an inevitable part of urban life. However, the mediation of a sound through an audio recording articulates the sound as more than something that is merely heard. These sounds are not identical to the sounds in Cuba, but the audio recordings are similar in that they are instructive of what one party deems worthy of documenting. And similar to the audio recording that was released to the public by the AP, Taipei residents would send the files as email attachments to case workers at the noise control office, save them on their smartphone, and post them online in ad hoc digital archives for anyone who would listen. While the sounds heard by residents eluded authentication by the noise control office, residents relied upon audio recordings as a way to incorporate the sounds into a discursive field: if you don’t recognize that this is noise, at least know that it exists.
The Sociality of Sound
The role of audio recordings in Cuba and Taiwan takes place on different scales; one has altered foreign diplomacy between two countries with already fraught relations, while the other exists in quotidian form between citizens and the state. In both cases, however, audio recordings have been used as a communicative tool to shift the discourse from questions about meaning to questions about ontology. That the sounds are all inconclusive in terms of what they are and whether they cause harm adds another area of consideration to the use of audio recordings in mediating sound. Recordings imply an emerging sociality around sound, in which efforts to articulate a sound as something more than a bygone moment has opened up new areas for political engagement. Do you hear what I hear?
Bohlman, Andrea F. 2017. “Making Tapes in Poland: The Compact Cassette at Home.” Twentieth-Century Music 141: 119–34. https://doi.org/10.1017/S147857221700010X.
Cusick, SG. 2006. “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon.” Transcultural Music Review 10: 1–9. http://rigorousintuition.ca/board2/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=19096.
Daughtry, J. Martin. 2015. Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof.
Goodman, Steve. 2012. Sonic Warfare. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Helmreich, Stefan. 2016. “Gravity’s Reverb: Listening to Space-Time, or Articulating the Sounds of Gravitational-Wave Detection.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (4): 464–92. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.4.02.
Hirschkind, Charles. 2009. The Ethical Soundscape. New York: Columbia University Press.
Parker, James E. K. 2019. “Sonic Lawfare: On the Jurisprudence of Weaponised Sound.” Sound Studies 00 (00): 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1080/20551940.2018.1564458.
Schafer, R. Murray. 1993. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.