The further micro-politics of noise

By Jeff Vass in response to this post 

Firstly, in view of the way you have problematised the individualistic vs relational self in connection with the noise issue I’d like to make a distinction between ‘descriptive and prescriptive ‘selves’ in the same way that linguistics makes the distinction between describing the actual practices of people and their own ideal, prescriptive rules for governing those practices.  In linguistics one has to make a distinction between the grammar that teachers prescribe for ‘Good English’, say, and the actual English(es) that are spoken/written in the myriad contexts in which they occur. The latter are variable, pragmatic, subject to change and variation and, from a prescriptive view, look like an erosion of principles etc.  To enforce prescriptive principles seems anti-progressive and most of us tend to live with the linguistic ‘mission drift’ as English evolves.  We might argue that the ‘rules’ of grammar should simply follow fashion.  Similarly, I see this latter argument in the view that the relational self, by virtue of the fact of its relationality, should simply drift along with any change of conditions in custom and practice in the civic space which embeds it: if the majority uses mobile phones in the quiet carriage on the train I should go with this.  By extension, to try to assert my ‘individual rights’ to quietness seems like I am not respecting the relational interdependence that selves have with others if I go against the grain.

However, a relational ontology of the self, if I may, does not mean that we must necessarily impose on ourselves a ‘contingent interdependence’ at all points in civic space.  That is to say, if a particularly noisy gizmo comes to market and there is a sudden trend to use it ubiquitously that i find irritating or harmful to my well-being or quality of life, I don’t have to abandon my relational self position in asserting an ‘individualist’ right to be gizmo-free.  In other words, from a descriptive sense of the self as relational we are not, by that fact, prohibited from prescriptively taking the self in other ways that we can reasonably sustain as a community.  The problem with the Tory view (sic) of individualism is, I think, based on arguing from the apparent empirical outcome, that because we just see individuals everywhere then the ontological basis of social life must be simply collections of individuals.  Mrs. Thatcher’s viewpoint seemed to be, derived from her empirical finding, that she could only see individuals on every horizon she cared to look.  From this she reasoned that  (I paraphrase) the basic ontology of selves was as primordial individualities.  Hence, she did conclude that what seemed to her to be the case ought to be the case.  Marx argued that practice was fundamentally ‘co-operative’ in form and that individual productivity is a kind of illusion.  I assume he is right.  My labour is interdependent.  It is dangerous only when we allow the illusion to obliterate the cooperative basis of everything we do.  Like Mrs Thatcher he argued that cooperation should form the basis of polity.  However, cooperation and relationality do not, in themselves, proscribe ways of organising selves that allow individuals to exercise rights provided that we do not misrecognise the basic interdependencies on which they are based.

I think noise ‘creep’ is harmful and does impact on people’s well-being and does make us forgetful and misrecognise the needs of others.  I think it is unlike the problem, say, of the ‘dark sky’ movement (which I also support!).  I think we have had light creep from urbanisation and street lighting on a massive scale in the west such that there are parts of the night sky we can now no longer see as a consequence of light pollution.  This is sad, but I realise that I have to balance this against the safety of people walking home late at night etc.. Noise I think does adversely impact on well-being, health and the quality of life of people who cannot sleep, cannot concentrate on the things they want to do etc.. Noise also creates new dependencies.  In London I lived above a man who had the TV on all waking hours; it was fairly tolerable except that for every news programme he would turn it up to maximum volume. 6AM news, midday news, 6 pm, 9pm and 10pm – the news would go to maximum.  I queried this with him.  Though he had the telly on all the time he wasn’t always watching it, “but you’ve got to have something on haven’t you?” he said.  So, I asked why he had to have every iteration of the news on every channel when basically you get the same stories all day, “well, in case something happens” he said.  Since then I’ve lived next to people who likewise need constant noise.  One woman found construction noise from pile drivers “comforting”. She had the radio on constantly at home and in the car, why was this?: “my brain goes haywire otherwise”.  Another couple I lived next to did DIY every night and weekend for years.  I asked: “why don’t you just sit and watch the TV?” the answer was “We can’t. After 20 minutes we notice something on the wall and out come the tools”.  After 8 years they sold up.  Why?  “There’s nothing more to do on the house”.

So I realise I may be in a shrinking minority who think that it’s good to be able to sit in the garden and read a book.  Many of my neighbours seem to think of their gardens as ‘power tool playgrounds’.  But they do let me sleep at night, I am grateful for that!

I think we can sustain a descriptive account of the relational self, but also sustain a prescriptive set of ‘rights, duties and obligations’ that we wish to attach to ‘individuals’ in a civic sense without compromising an account of them from the standpoint of relationality.  I would promote a concept of ‘sonic footprint’ alongside ‘carbon footprint’.  Unlike ‘rights to dark skies’ that are infringed by light pollution I think  sonic footprints do impact on others’ rights.  On the whole I need to be made aware that my carbon footprint shows up a kind of gross negligence that is harmful to others in ways I didn’t intend.  Likewise I believe that that, in pursuit of our own enjoyments, we corrode public and private spaces and the quality of life of others, often unintentionally, when we generate noise. We do it without extending a due ‘care’ to others. I think that if one wants the civic individual to be informed by their fundamental relationality as social beings then the care principle might be invoked – at least just as easily as the somewhat generous proclivity to learn to live with one’s neighbours’ growing sonic footprints!! I believe that in Germany it is prohibited to use power tools on a Sunday, lawn mowers etc. in residential areas.  There has often been a Sunday when I’ve wished that to be the case here!


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