the micro-politics of noise and the challenge of being-with-others

Sometimes the noise other people make bothers me. I mean really pisses me off. The kind of irritation which makes it impossible to ignore the noise, leaving your attention locked in and your perceptual field narrowed until there is only you and that noise. On those occasions where I talk myself out of it, I often realise there’s nothing particularly egregious about the noise in question. It’s just that a particular confluence of circumstances has conspired to make the noise enormously disruptive to me. The problem of the noise is both relational and emergent. It’s not a problem in and of itself. This is reflected by the fact that on other occasions, similar noise barely registers, maybe eventually prompting me to wonder “has that been audible for a while?”

This is a useful thing to register when learning to live with noise. But there are limits to personal adaptation. It doesn’t follow that disruptive noise is subjective, simply because our experience of it as subjects has an obvious range that is in turn modulated through our responses as subjects. I used to live in between two pubs, literally in between them, one of which attracted what, to me at least, was the most obnoxious clientèle imaginable. It’s in Earlsdon in Coventry, for those who know the area and are wondering. There were particular characteristics of the venue, as well as the area itself, which contributed to the production of disruptive noise on the weekends. I might be able to modulate my response to that noise but the circumstances were generative of it, not my own perceptual capacities. Likewise the cockerel who lived in my neighbour’s back garden at the same flat. I didn’t get much sleep that year.

I find ‘disruptive noise’ ontologically interesting because it’s hard to have a substantive discussion about how to regulate it which doesn’t fall into an objective/subjective dichotomy. Subjective prescriptions are inadequate (“why do you let it bother you so much? just try and put it out of your head”) when there’s drunken fights outside your door at midnight and a cockerel crowing outside your window at 5am. I’m very glad I don’t live there any more. Objective prescriptions also seem inadequate to me because of the potentially open-ended character that’s lent to the problem by the subjective dimension, for lack of a better word. If noise becomes disruptive whenever any particular person at any particular time finds it disruptive then interventions become rather disturbingly authoritarian, allowing fleeting whims of irritated (and sometimes irritating) people to lead to the suppression of activities which most people would find reasonable.

If you google for stories of noise complaints, it soon becomes obvious quite what a range of circumstances councils are called upon to deal with. In some cases, people’s lives are literally destroyed by the noise of others. A couple of minutes down my ex-partner’s street was a house which, for 6 months, had (bad) techno playing constantly at high volume whenever I passed. Living so close to each other, yet not together, I passed that house at all hours of the day and night. The music was always playing. It must have destroyed the lives of the people living next door. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve found people online complaining that they can hear their neighbours talking after 10pm. From the report, it seems their neighbours are talking at normal volume in their house in the evening. But for whatever reason, the complainers are unable to tune this out and become fixated on this utterly everyday life noise at the expense of their own lives.

This raises the question for me of whether this inability to live with the noise of others, something which I’ve occasionally recognised in myself but learnt to dismiss as unreasonable through my internal conversation, might be on the rise? If we conceive of ourselves as bounded and autonomous, experiencing life through the constraining prism of our own imagined independence and isolation, involuntary exposure to noise takes on an ambivalent status. It both undercuts our imagined atomism, revealing the interdependencies through which sociality is constituted, as well as appears as an attack upon it. It feels like an intrusion of other isolated individuals upon our own isolation, while leaving us inclined to fight it off in order to restore the hermetic seal which perceptually props up our imagined a-relational nature.

When I talk about a-relational here, I mean it in the Thatcherite sense of ‘individuals and their families’. I’ve often wondered about the Tory fixation on council refuse policies and suspect there’s a similar mechanism at work. If an English Man’s home is his castle then what does that make the bins outside, the people who come to collect it each week and the organisational structure this routine presupposes? The politics of bins are a messy and quotidian instance of the politics of individuality.

I’m suggesting that changing policies for bin collection is threatening to this imagined individuality in the same way and for the same reasons that intrusive noise is experienced as an assault upon it. We imaginatively deny our inviolable being-with-others, the fact we are always already placed within a network of relations, such that recurrent reminders of it becomes fetish objects: they take on power and significance far beyond their literal meaning and consequences, challenging us to either fight off this threat to how we conceive of our place within the world or learn to live with it as something other than a threat. Crucially, I don’t think the challenge of being-with-others entails subjective adjustment. It might involve telling yourself that on this particular occasion you should let something lie but it might equally involve taking action, trying to establish a new common ground through which interdependency can be something conducive to flourishing rather than a threat to well-being.