— Cultural Sources of Newness

Immaterial waves & transatlantic reflections

Last week, I finally read a paper by our colleague Ignacio Farías. This was both surprising and inspiring. I was surprised because it seems that Ignacio and I have both, independently of one another, sat down—Ignacio in Boston, Massachusetts and I in Berlin—to think about urban sounds and noises. Ignacio is interested in urban ‘anti-noise activities’ and how they relate to ‘new ways of practicing citizenship and democracy’ in European cities. He considers these policies as ways of ‘governing urban conviviality’. My interest in urban sound studies was triggered by my research on urban lighting. Can methods for monitoring urban sounds inform social research on the impact of city lights? Despite the differences? ‘The issue of noise is a more sensitive one when compared to light’, said one of the experts I interviewed. According to his experiences, people are more aware of problems with noise.

Since Ignacio is still abroad we cannot exchange ideas over coffee I use this blog as an archive for some fugitive thoughts on the material problems posed by immaterial waves.

Sound overflows and light trespass

In his paper, Ignacio looks at the local implementation of the 2002 European Noise Directive (END) in Berlin, London and Barcelona. He argues that ‘following sound as a material thing allows us to trace different urban topologies; topologies that do not comply with socio-spatial boundaries or with legal separations between private and public […] Sound overflows the spatial boundaries organizing urban conviviality.’

It seems, this notion of ‘conviviality’ exceeds the idea of a friendly get together. It rather refers to everybody and everything living together (Latin: convivere) in a city: neighbouring people and artefacts, material, virtual and immaterial things, bodies, buildings, ideas, beliefs, sounds and light…. As Ignacio points out, conflicts over noise shape neighbourhoods and, at the same time, ‘also problematize what is a neighbour.’ Public controversies over traffic and aircraft noise (Berlin), partying crowds (Barcelona) and ‘even seagulls that seem to wake up residents living close to the Thames River’ (London) can ‘create new, hitherto non-existing, political actors’ or ‘issue publics’.

The same is true for city lights. In the 20th century, the new noise of motorised traffic coincides with the new light of neon signs and light bulbs. Like noise, the so called ‘light pollution’ questions the spatial and material boundaries of cities. Sky glow, i.e. light reflections that illuminate the night sky, is also an immense vertical and airy expansion of urban space. Glare raises our awareness for light sources as annoying non-human neighbours. Last but not least, light trespass questions the distinction of public and private spatial boundaries causing controversies that are difficult to end.

Voiceless or speechless?

In contrast noise, light nuisance has not made it on the European agenda yet. Only few EU member states have developed national strategies. It seems there is less public pressure and concern about that issue—despite dark sky movements and increasing scientific interest in the loss of the night. Some light experts argue that laypeople do not voice their opinion because they lack the words to talk about light. They also perceive less than experts.

However, the gap between specialists and amateurs, experts and laypeople is also relevant when looking at urban sound. As empirical studies have revealed, laypeople tend to distinguish sources of sound and noise on the basis of qualitative rather than quantitative criteria. The noise of people is perceived as less disturbing than the sound of machines, cars or public transports. Sounds in visually appealing environments are more positively assessed.  Therefore, measurable physical values cannot fully account for the perceived quality of urban spaces. Like the perception of light, our perception of sounds is part of a multisensory urban experience, which is shaped and sharpened by personal experience and knowledge.

So, how can experts act on behalf of citizens, if they see and hear differently? Ignacio addresses this problem of articulation as a question of citizen participation: Reinventing democracy? In his conclusion, he highlights ‘the potential of noise itself to actually create new, hitherto non-existing political actors […] Challenging expert knowledge is in part becoming possible thanks to new technology.’ They are the emancipatory tools of ‘citizen science’  and public laboratories as they facilitate unprecedented ways of collecting data, monitoring and mapping in urban spaces bottom-up. There seems a real chance that these new do-it-yourself technologies actually provide citizens with a new and engaging organ of speech.

Critical perspectives on the performative political power of technical devices have a long tradition in studies on science, technology and society (STS). I think that ‘citizen science’ should not be exempt from such critical analyses, only because it has an emancipatory and democratic potential. I therefore think that we should widen our critical perspective in order to also recognise alternative political articulations, which do not mimic the language of evidence-based policy.

In the beginning of his paper, Ignacio rejects the notion of ‘soundscapes’ because they ‘remain mostly imagined as yet another environmental layer besiders landscapes, smellscapes, foodscapes, etc. leading to a compartmentalized understanding of the urban environment.’ I agree (with nightscapes and lightscapes in mind). But I would still like to further explore ‘-scapes’ as an analytical tool. Raimbault and Dubois argue that ‘the soundscape […] accounts for the relationship between the individual experience and subjectivity with a physical and socio-cultural context’. So why not analyse the various ways in which experts and laypeople produce all sorts of ‘-scapes’ as a source of information? Comparing such representations might offer insights about how and on what scale urban actors perceive and relate phenomena like sound and light in and to the city.

Provisional conclusion

There is more to be said and our papers are still unpublished. Ignacio presented his study on April 3 at the East Coast during his stay at the Center for European Studies (CES) in Harvard. Around the same time, I presented my ideas at the West Coast during a geographers’ conference in Los Angeles. So I hope that these transatlantic reflections will echo around for a while…