This aural history surveys two parallel developments in the postwar United States: the commercial popularization of the white noise or “white sound” machine in the 1960s and ’70s; and the raising up of “noise pollution” as an environmental ill. Finding that marketing around the white noise machine cast it as an antidote to noise pollution, I query the paradox underlying the device’s “solution” to the noise problem, observing, as did its contemporary critics, that it proposed to fight noise with more noise. Examining advertisements, legislative documents, and the popular press, I argue that the device exploited the confusion surrounding attempts to define noise and classify it as a pollutant. I show that new anti-noise measures, far from clarifying the nature of noise for the public, rendered it more ambiguous; and I suggest that the rhetoric buoying the white noise machine leveraged this ambiguity, manufacturing distinctions between the purportedly ameliorative noise of the device’s “white sound” and the noxious noise of “noise pollution.” Finally, I locate noise pollution and the white noise machine relative to postwar race relations in the United States, and particularly, the “flight” of white city residents into suburbs. Observing that the newly trumpeted noise problem was localized in cities, I reveal the latent racism of noise pollution discourse and reexamine the commercial imaginary of the white noise machine in connection with racial and spatial politics. I conclude that these entwined narratives constitute an instructive episode in noise’s cultural history and pose still-relevant questions regarding privilege and environmental justice.
Unsound Judgments: Noise Pollution, the White Noise Machine, and Sonic Color Lines
Walker Downey is a historian of art and media interested in contemporary sound art and its roots in postwar music, and cultural techniques and technologies of listening and silencing. He is an assistant teaching professor in the Art Education, Art History, and Media Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Walker Downey; Unsound Judgments: Noise Pollution, the White Noise Machine, and Sonic Color Lines. Resonance 1 March 2023; 4 (1): 39–68. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/res.2023.4.1.39
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