Noise

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July 28, 2017 by Andrew W M Smith

It’s the sound of rolling thunder that really lets you know it’s summer. That was my principal grump as I lay awake in bed listening to the sound of a storm the other week.

I was thinking again about noise on the train into work this morning: earphones in, listening to another podcast, when the shrill sound of a child screaming cut through everything and an entire tube carriage looked up in shock.

As it turned out, it was simply a toddler objecting to having a jumper put on, but it had a startling effect on everyone around us. I smiled, thinking about my own daughter (now just over 1), and her own little foibles and predilections (jumpers broadly fine, nappies not favoured). The shocking and invasive noise seemed different to me than it might have a year ago, without similar experiences to connect it to in my own life.

I thought then about noise, about what we screen out, and about what it takes for something to startle us.

It’s been a strange summer for me, starting a new post after 4 years in the old one. That’s also meant some odd arrangements: as part of my handover (as an agreement for starting early at the new post), I’m looking after 4 MA dissertations at my old institution whilst also working the new job. That means frequent trips back to my old office, which is empty until September (and I mean really empty). Shorn of all my mementoes, posters, and the junk I accumulate in any space I occupy for longer than an hour, the office feels full of echoes.

Echoes of the past four years, echoes of my voice as I chat with dissertation students, echoes of summer school students downstairs learning the alphabet through acrobatics, and echoes of the building works happening a few metres away as UCL builds a new student centre. So, today, I find myself with meetings scheduled for later in the day, trying to do some writing as the room vibrates to the sound of pneumatic drills.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Engraving by J. June after William Hogarth. CC BY 4.0

I’ve learned to tune out that noise, however. After all, the works have been ongoing outside this office since last summer. In a less glib way, I think that I screen quite a lot of noise out. I wonder sometimes if I find myself too ready to do so.

Musing on noise and screening it out brought me back to some books I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’ve been taken for a long time with Peter Hennessy’s book Distilling the Frenzy, which I think makes valuable reading when thinking about contemporary history and the noise that surrounds us. It talks about the need to sift through a mountain of different documents to unearth some sense of the heart of the matter. I suppose I thought also of China Miéville’s The City and The City, about two communities which share physical space whilst studiously ignoring the other’s existence in mental space (a sort of neo-noir clash between ordinary physical geography and psychogeography). This necessarily invites comparison to Spivak’s influential piece, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in which she famously stressed that “it is important to acknowledge our complicity in the muting”, and Drayton has more recently echoed this by counselling contemporary historians to speak “to and for those outside the tribe.” One of my favourite things I’ve ever written came from listening to voices I would ordinarily have screened out, and immersing myself in all the noise that comes from individual sources.

There’s a danger in that isolation on the tube carriage, eyes closed and insulated from the world. It stretches beyond those moments into our socialisation, into the people, views, and experiences we surround ourselves with, so that our understanding of noise is only as a confusing or invasive force. At the time, I was taken with Adam Curtis’ short video essay on ‘Oh dearism’, which described how a constant stream of conflicts and horror, framed through a post-Cold War media climate, rendered events incomprehensible and merely shocking and dreadful, like a child screaming on a train.

It reminded me of the continuing pertinence of considering our Echo Chambers, and ensuring we go beyond them. It spoke also to the discussions we had at the panel on Gender and Diversity at the SSFH Annual conference in Strathclyde. There, we spoke about the need to go beyond the first person we’d ask to speak or do a task, to deliberately break out of our own networks (and their replicated inequalities), and invite in diverse voices for a fuller, better view of the world.

At my new job, I manned an Open Day a few weeks ago, and I was talking to students about why they should study Contemporary History and Politics. I spoke to them about the fact that we wanted to teach them not only how to answer questions, but more importantly how to pose them. How to sift through the myriad sources of information that they receive every day and find some signal in the noise – to distil the frenzy. Yet I also think we must ask them to consider their own stand points: where are they writing from? How does their situation inflect their analysis? That, I think, is one of the most important things we can teach our students – how to meet material and impose on it some structure – in order that it can be analysed – but always to question the means by which they do so.

When thinking about this message, I had firmly in mind the Paper Trails workshops that I ran a month or so ago, in which we asked students to sift and analyse documents, including some less relevant pieces which we included in the packs. Their job with this unfamiliar material was to find the relevance, intuit the narrative, and analyse the implications. It was new to them, and fascinating to see happen, as they discussed categories, assumptions, and intent alongside ideas of historical agency. Yet it was also a physical challenge for them, as most of the class were fasting for Ramadan. Before I met the class, I had prepared food for all the workshops and studiously ensured it met dietary requirements, though although the noise around me must have featured some awareness of Ramadan, I must have screened it out, and let it slip amidst a busy schedule. I had a lot of sandwiches to eat that night.

So, I guess, as summer storms continue, as building works rumble on, and as tube journeys remain resolutely unpleasant, I’ll continue to screen some of that noise. Though perhaps, if I am to be thoughtful and perceptive of its importance in my professional life, I need also be aware of it in my daily existence. The stories (and the noise) that invades our little bubbles is sometimes shocking, but I guess it can also be meaningful. Maybe I’ll leave the headphones out on my way home.

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