The text from a talk I gave on Friday 8th June at Goldsmiths, as part of the GLITS Sound and Silence conference. I might post a more thorough response to some of the great questions I received, but between this and Consciousness Razing on the 9th, I’m feeling a little worn out. But thank you to Stian for sharing the panel with me, and thank you to the GLITS team for organising and thank you to the audience for being so brilliant and responsive to what I had to say! Was the confidence boost I needed after a rough first year of my MA… Not everything is properly cited, but feel free to ask…
Hello everyone, first I want to thank the organisers for putting together this event.
Today I am going to speak about tinnitus as a process of protest.
In The Five Senses by Michel Serres, he outlines ‘three kinds of audible’, the body, the environment and the collective. I will be using these three types as a framework to structure the first section of this paper, beginning with the body, then environment, then collective.
I shall then move on in the second section to speak about the privatisation of stress and the media. And I will close with the third section by opening the question of new political compositions that resist appropriated life.
Serres is a French philosopher, who has been working at Stanford University in close proximity to Silicon Valley since 1984. An online article describes his writing as “like a slow night of constant drinking, taking us irreversibly to places we didn’t know we were heading towards.” The Five Senses has the subtitle, A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, and he writes of the complex tapestry of the body, whose underside is riddled with knots, joins, planes, loops and bindings. Thresholds, interference and transitions are all integral to the mixed sensations that Serres speaks of. It is through this that the richness of sensation is experienced.
But let’s begin with the first kind of audible, the body.
Section one: Serres
Serres writes that the primary source of noise is within the body, the murmurings of which the ear sometimes strains to hear, stimuli produced and perceived within the organism, connected to the position in and movements of the body. Serres writes that there are “billions of cells dedicated to biochemical reactions, the likes of which should have us all fainting from the pressure of their collective hum.” (5S,106) Using Serres’ framework, the neurological sounds of tinnitus are the bodily source, the body reformatted into hearing hums of synaptic agencies, geological residues, ordinarily imperceptible. To hear the bodily sounds is to be sick.
Tinnitus is commonly understood as a ringing in the ears. It is known as a phantom sound, a sound heard without the presence of an external noise. Tinnitus is a recurring trope on the animated spy show Archer, from which I’ll play a very short clip:
I chose Archer, because the sound effect of high frequency ringing they use is the closest to what my own tinnitus sounds like, although there are many different sounds and forms.
This paper will focus on subjective tinnitus, where the head or ear noises are only perceivable by the sufferer and are typically traced to auditory or neurological reactions to hearing loss. Other forms exist, such as objective tinnitus, where the tinnitant sounds can be heard both by the sufferer and someone else, for example the pulsing of excessive blood flow in the ear or the clicking of bones, however this objective form is extremely rare.
Many of you may be familiar with temporary tinnitus, which is a common occurrence after a loud concert, for example, or other exposure to what would be understood in medical terms as acoustic trauma, such as a sudden loud noise, and the ringing in your ears may last from a few minutes to several days. However the impact of a sudden noise trauma can be permanent, for example shellshock can cause permanent damage, such as hearing loss and tinnitus.
As a symptom, tinnitus is not a recent phenomenon. Although the particular reasons for its widespread affectation are historically contingent, shifting with the material conditions of the times. Tinnitus has numerous triggers and forms, and a UK specialist named David Baguley says he believes “there are about as many triggers as there are people with tinnitus.”
Evading clear diagnosis, it is a nuisance for sufferers and the scientific establishment alike. The statistics for those who suffer from chronic tinnitus make it an astonishingly common condition. In the UK, just under half of adults will have experienced some form of tinnitus, with around 10% suffering from chronic or prolonged tinnitus, and around 1-3% finding it negatively impacts their everyday activity, beyond the common complaints of disturbed sleep and annoyance. To give a figure, that’s around 6 million people in the UK who hear tinnitant noises almost consistently.
For Serres, “what the deaf hear are neither signals nor voices, but tinnitus; hellish shrieks; high-pitched, strained, monotonous cries that drive you mad. This dreadful torture condemns them to a life of music. Their lives become a tricky balancing act, as they strive to maintain an equilibrium between the layer of music and the chaotic bombardment of noise.” (5S,106) This characterisation of tinnitus as torture is a common across philosophical, medical and media discourse – a description I believe to not be particularly useful for the lived experience of having a condition such as tinnitus, in its chronic temporality. Shifting away from this characterisation is a necessary step in order to make the tinnitant experience less isolating and to open out to new affects and creative compositions.
The second source of noise, for Serres, is that of the environment. These sounds are “spread over the world: thunder, wind, surf, bird, avalanches, the terrifying rumbling that precedes earthquakes, cosmic events.” (5S,107) These sounds are resolved into information by the ear, and subsequently these environmental sounds become analogical, the projected and folded sounds of the world mapped in, upon and beyond the synaptic. The information taken in from the world through the ear, becomes translated into language, an attempt to find a way of passing on information and describing the sounds coming from within. Passing from reality to language.
Literary and sound studies scholar Steven Connor outlines some of historic sonic analogies for tinnitus, saying that “Writers on tinnitus rarely fail to be impressed by their range and variety. [Adam] Politzer included sounds that resembled waterfalls, ringing bells, the buzzing of a swarm of bees, the swish of leaves in a wood, the rumbling of a train, the chirping of crickets and twittering of birds.” Connor goes on to say that in 1853, William Wilde put forward the popular idea that descriptions of tinnitant noises were influenced deeply by their environment, proposing: “a class-inflected atlas of tinnitus referents. Thus, country folk will draw their similitudes from falling or flowing water, the sounds of birds and bees and the rustling of leaves, but urban sufferers will hear their tinnitus echoed in industrial noises and the rolling of carriages.”
The way we describe and experience our bodily sounds is closely linked to our social situations and lived environments, in an attempt to make a relation with, to name and to communicate something we do not yet know. For example, I have always thought of my tinnitus as sounding like various electronic sounds, from electrical hum, the ping of a CRT television turning on and the high pitched fuzz of the static, or even the low quality sound of rain when illegally streaming a film online. I also wear earplugs at night, this dam creating an inner, inland sea with an oceanic hum and the crashing of waves. This further interference influenced by the compression of my jaw, the pressure of my ear on the pillow and the vibratory movements of housemates in the interlinked hallways and bedrooms.
A BBC Radio 4 show called The Digital Human has an episode titled Silence. In this episode, the use of environmental noise in order to achieve ‘mental silence’ is advocated for those with tinnitus. One section of the show features Scottish sound artist Cavan Campbell who records natural silence
– conjuring up images of Andy Serkis as Martin Hannett in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People (1min) –
Campbell does this in order to create natural soundscapes from across Scotland. He campaigns for the protection of natural silence in the face of increased man-made noise pollution. On the show, Campbell claims that “silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” I will return to this a little later.
Cavan Campbell’s final point on the show is he speaks of how, for example, the low frequencies produced by Atlantic waves resonate in our bones and that busy environments also have lots of low frequencies. This means that our bodies can feel the difference. Our skin and bones becoming part of the auditory system, vibrating from the touch of the environment. The skin is a generalised eardrum.
The last source of sound comes from the collective, noise being what defines the social for Serres. Being part of the group means that we don’t hear its noise. Serres writes that this noise: “surpass[es] the others by far, often to the point of cancelling them both out: silencing the body, silencing the world. […] society makes a colossal noise, the latter increases in direct proportion to the former, the town rat can be distinguished from the country rat by its immunity to this din.” (5S,107)
In The Five Senses, the collective is established as something intoxicated with communication. The collective notices little outside of itself, devoting itself to its own noise and revelling in it. Serres writes that “It resembles a sick body, rumbling from the clamour of its own organs.” (5S,89) But then going on to confirm that the collective is not sick, but intoxicated. Veiled in language, the world is silenced and the collective is immune, its developed tolerance meaning it cannot hear itself.
Tinnitus is bodily sound made audible, an apparent consequence of collective noise. (In a book called The Glands that Regulate Personality, Louis Berman writes that “the outcries of the wretched and miserable, the gray-and-dreary lived din an unmanageable tinnitus in our ears.” Another rather grim example comes from Jimmy Savile, who says that his tinnitus doesn’t bother him in the slightest, he calls it a friend that reminds him of all the girls and the discos). Collective noise cancels out environmental noise and tinnitant sounds cancel out environmental silence. The amplifications of the body being mistaken for environmental sounds may be a timid desire for serenity. If, as Cavan Campbell says, the equilibrium of environmental silence is to hear the presence of everything. This means to hear everything without its cancelling out or disturbance by the collective din or tinnitus.
Silence is then yearned for as something lost. For those with tinnitus, things such as silence and birdsong can become obsessive fixations. I want to be careful here to not make or romanticise the separation between culture and nature. Silence, the serenity of silence becomes both poison and cure. Serres speaks of the restorative qualities of silence, for Serres silence is healing. However, what of those like myself who cannot hear silence as it is understood? The fixation on the ability to be able to hear silence becomes poison, when not being silence-hearing means that for the tinnitant individual there may be the loss of the feeling that life is worth living – to follow Bernard Stiegler. The desire to not be sick, to not be listening in new ways, to not be listening in ways that can annoy one or make one uncomfortable under current political conditions. This can lead individuals, such as the suicidal Essex pensioner whom I will speak about later, to take permanent action in order to achieve “some peace and quiet”.
Although yes, perhaps environmental silence, in its eeriness, can be a “detachment from the urgencies of the everyday.” Tinnitus chronically cancelling out the environmental sounds as an apparent consequence of collective noise, can increase stress, disturb sleep and cause annoyance. In extreme, it is reactively acknowledged as the loss of the feeling that life is worth living. When taken in its popular understanding that it occurs because of an individual failing to protect their health or as the loss of ability, the differential listening of tinnitus can be hard to reconcile.
For the conservative organism, life is expected and managed by the attachment to the ‘natural’ and normal, securitising itself against the unknown and the uncomfortable. However what we understand as natural and normal is a construction. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan diagnoses a tendency that with each new environment, there is an act of collective cannibalism, because the
“previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible. Thus, Nature was succeeded by the mechanical environment and became what we call the “content” of the new industrial environment. Again and again the old environment is upgraded into an art form while the new conditions are regarded as corrupt and degrading. […] More timid people prefer to accept the content, the previous environment’s values, as the continuing reality of their time. Our natural bias is to accept the new gimmick (automaton, say) as a thing that can be accommodated in the old ethical order.”
For example, to cope with this collective tinnitant-pollutant, the commodity form of synthetic ‘environmental silence’ is developed instead. These recorded ‘sounds of nature’ are amplified in order to ironically manage and cancel out the collective din, pumped through earbuds and lounges. In the cacophony of the collective new environments are built, building a new construction of the self when the old is undermined by tinnitus.
For people who are first faced with the weirdness of tinnitus, which disrupts the known, psychologists such as Laurence McKenna praise the benefits of projection into the mundane, “[people] who may initially even think [tinnitus is] the noise of the central heating, are easier for us to treat, because they aren’t panicked.” This minimises the disruption, tries to make it mundane and controllable. Although arguably, this is a mundane process, an amplification of synaptic rhythms that were always already occurring. Why are we so fearful of tinnitus? What produces the noise that makes you feel uncomfortable? What generates the noise that troubles you?
I do not intend to enter into a reformist narrative of how we should make friends with tinnitus without changing the conditions that have brought it about, or rather without challenging the neoliberal demand to control tinnitus within environments and structures that increase stress, annoyance and depression. The demand to hear silence, to be normal, is a reduction of the possibilities that tinnitus may present us with. Partially this is because of how it has been framed by medical discourse and the media and the subsequent therapeutic imaginary of self-transformation purported by these. How can you rely on yourself when your sense of self has been undermined by tinnitus? How can we compose ourselves differently to shift from perceived neurosis and make use of other procedures (following Felix Guattari) that are more collective, more social, more political?
The mingling of the senses, the complex layering and implications of the sounds that are audible to us is our lived experience. In the noise of the media, these minglings are reduced, formalised and spectacularised in order to portray discourses that are typically unhelpful and exercise power over people. I will outline some moments that have stood out to me now.
What generates the noise that troubles you? (D.Bauer)
I should be more specific when I say media, which for now I mean radio and more specifically BBC Radio. I have heard shows about tinnitus on Radio 2, 4 and 5 live.
Radio 2 is perhaps the most bizarre because it was a segment on the Jeremy Vine Show. For those that don’t know who Jeremy Vine is, he hosts a call in show every weekday lunchtime where members of the public as well as experts can chime in on particular topics. For this particular broadcast, Vine reels off the discussion topics: “today we’ll be discussing immigration, tinnitus, whether the private sector is prejudiced against the public sector and comedy”. I don’t think anything exposes the state of British popular media more than that list. Anyway, the second segment opens with Vine’s characteristic brashness of which I will play you a clip:
“A pensioner from Essex was so tormented by the sound of screaming in his ears that he shot himself in the head. […] his wife told the court that ‘all he wanted was some peace and quiet.’ […] listen to this and see how long you can bear it before you want to turn the radio down. – noise – Now that white noise is what someone with tinnitus may hear every minute of the day. And if that wasn’t bad enough, this is another […] – noise – Or can you imagine this incessant banging in your ears, like the neighbours are doing DIY, when you are trying to sleep? This is tinnitus as well – noise – The British Tinnitus Association provided us with those sounds […] It’s, it’s almost like torture.” (Clip is about 1:15min)
Like Serres, we have this characterisation of tinnitus as torture. In his typically derisive tone, Vine presents, with a sad irony, the Essex pensioner’s suicide as mere foible; stresses ‘abnormal’ experience as torture.
Later in the show, Vine attempts to incite a standard-blame game when speaking to Crystal Rolfe from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), he barely listens to what she is saying in order to get the soundbite answer he wants. He asks repeatedly, “if a young person is listening to music with earphones and you can hear it, is it too loud?” This characterises Vine’s debate around tinnitus as a surface-level criticism and lacking depth, not only this but being outright dangerous in its reporting of suicide.
Getting a yes from Crystal, puts into public discourse that tinnitus is just the fault of irresponsible young people with loud music. Those who listen to earphones too loudly apparently lack the capacity for self-care, and this attempts to shame and discipline them publicly. Although wearing earphones could be seen as a mark of survival in the midst of semiotic pollution.
A dialogue between Mark Fisher and poet Sam Berkson published on the Quietus engages with thoughts on earphone wearing. Fisher names the number of adverts on the London tube and buses, ‘semiotic pollution’ to which Berkson says that the only sensible response is to put earphones on, to not look at the surroundings and to shut your senses off. Berkson believes this to be a terrible position for people to be in, to be unaware of your surrounds, however to be present in the space is simply to be surrounded by what Fisher terms the ‘massive cyber-blitz of adverts in London’. Fisher remarks that “It is not that people tune out of public space – there is no public space for them to be in anyway. It is either a case of a certain kind of immersion or in this babble – the babble of competing mobile phone voices, or the babble of capital, shouting at you to buy something. […] I think certain kinds of disconnection are needed now. Unplugging from certain kinds of networks.”
Holding this in mind, I want to play you the clip of Vine speaking to Crystal Rolfe. (9:40ish to about 10:33)
(Sounds more like Vine had an issue on the tube this morning.)
In such discourses, there is a privatisation of stress. People have to securitise themselves against tinnitus in the first place, a fear of becoming permanently damaged instilled in the public imagination. Then if tinnitus does occur, it has to be contained and managed lest it be ‘unmanageable’. Much of the medical or therapeutic literature speaks of tinnitus management. Because of this discourse, I think of Mark Fisher’s business ontology, “in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.”
I wanted to note that the white noise that appeared towards the end of the clip I just played was not part of the original broadcast. I recorded the audio because I didn’t trust BBC iPlayer to work, using a programme called Audio Hijack in order to record Jeremy Vine’s show. Very fittingly, when the free trial runs out – which it did about halfway through the programme – it layers white noise over the recording. The use of noise in this context is to interfere with public access, causing enough annoyance (like spotify ads) in order to encourage you to purchase the full software, which means the white noise is removed.
This is noise used to deter theft. Noise used in the service of capital. Noise that expands in the space, unwanted noise filling the recording. Noise you cannot edit or tune out, only mask. The disciplining noise of a mosquito tone. Noise as deterrent.
In this world of self-management and business ontology, we invest in ourselves, we practice self-care both through consumption and cutting back. Desire is filtered into products that simply mask our noise, this self-belief and apparent autonomy is individuated, made serial and purchasable. The individual capacity to care or to enjoy is obscured by tinnitus. And the collective capacity to care and enjoy is obscured by capital. Tinnitus presents a challenge to how we compose ourselves under neoliberal capitalism.
For example, to return to the BBC Radio 4 show Digital Human, the show uses statements such as “how people feel about silence depends on who they are” and “silence is the absence of sounds we don’t like.” This individualising discourse which suggests silence is both a given and a choice over which we have autonomy, peaks in Isobel Anderson’s improvement story. Belfast based musician Anderson learns to manage her tinnitus and subsequently begins denouncing people as feeling ‘entitled’ to silence which she understands as because of the availability of curated sound environments. However, her concurrent claim is that tinnitus is a problem of the nervous system and that for anyone who is angry, stressed or upset then there is no such thing as silence.
Anderson’s turnaround is symptomatic of a therapeutic imaginary under neoliberalism, as outlined in Mark Fisher’s writings. As the public sphere privatises stress, the management of illness and emotions is under duress by the claim that such issues can be solved through individual self-transformation with the assistance of a private therapist. Fisher’s text, ‘No Romance Without Finance’ states that, “where consciousness-raising pointed to impersonal and collective structures” – which Anderson vaguely acknowledges with her comments on stress – “neoliberalism sees only individuals, choices and personal responsibility” – demonstrated by Anderson’s condemnation of ‘entitlement’ which forecloses the material struggles around mental and aural health as well as Vine’s earphoned scapegoats.
Fisher writes of how austerity insists that the lower classes manage their desires, to take pride in self-management and in a supposed independence from others. Yet the working classes are also depicted as apparently incapable of self-determination, as lacking the capacity for self-care, and are subsequently subjected to intensive disciplining in popular discourse. This shows that knowledge and awareness in itself does nothing to change the structural issues which fix the subject within the double bind of self-realisation and absolute dependence engendered by the proliferation of therapeutic and medical orthodoxies. It’s worth noting here you can have CBT for tinnitus.
In an article by Mack Hagood titled Listening to Tinnitus: Roles of Media When Hearing Breaks Down, Hagood explores his realisation that the experience, discourse and treatment of tinnitus is bound up in mediation, and subsequently how and where aural media studies could go with this. In Hagood’s text I was surprised to read the following: “In the process of externalizing their experience for others to hear, people with tinnitus can make their own perception of the sound grow stronger. They may also generate anxiety in others, encouraging them to notice and problematize their own, previously benign tinnitus.”
The consensual reality is one where silence can be heard, proven precarious by tinnitus. Hagood’s comment reminds me of a post I saw on the TinnitusTalk forum with the heading “Can You Create Your Own Tinnitus?” Other forum users responded with claims such as “tinnitus is contagious” and that “everyone can hear these sounds if they listen and then when they label it it becomes permanent.” Reactive fears of tinnitant infection and contagion are formed through a rejection of the sick body teeming with imperceptible agencies. Hearing the body in this way, beyond consensual reality of silence-hearing and wellbeing, agitates fear understood as a subjective deficiency rather than difference, morphing into guilt and inferiority or hatred and resentment.
Following this contagion thought, Hagood writes of how incorrect information can induce bothersome tinnitus, information being something circulated through media. He proposes that it may be productive to think of tinnitus as a ‘communicable dis-ease’, which he understands is “strengthened in circulation through networks of neurons, discourse and media.”
Although Hagood does goes on to write that “there is both a need and an opportunity in tinnitus for an applied sound studies, one that intervenes in this mediated public discourse, works against moral panic and hyperawareness, and suggests the quieting possibilities that open up when we grasp the constructed nature of our aurality. Listening to tinnitus as a networked coproduction highlights the ways in which our most subjective aural perceptions are also social, cultural, and mediated”
If tinnitus is, as Hagood says, “hard to objectify as subject of research and treatment or worthy of empathy and activism”, then how do we enter into a relationship with it and step into the unknown, in order to shift our whole relation to the body and the world, rather than simply writing ourselves off as faulty? If tinnitus cannot be silenced, how can we respond and compose with its affective differential tones?
Barbara Streisand talks about her tinnitus: (2min)
Section three: Political Compositions
An Editor’s Note from The New Inquiry issue titled Sick reads:
“Being sick changes your relation to your body and how you inhabit it. As an experience, it is stubbornly untheoretical, even though it oozes theory, infecting concepts of cleanliness, system, and body with its disorder. Mutated understandings proliferate from sickness that lance falsely clear categories, revealing the orderliness of the world to be a form of disease.” 
Medicine and media reduce the complexity of the mingled and unmanaged relations that occur between the body, the collective and the environment. Taking biological so called ‘anomalies’ as the sole source of distress is an effective way to erase the structures that impinge on our lives.
Tinnitus is an emerging protest from the collective: the low level whine, a bodily protest. When the tinnitant subject tries to contain itself through isolation, the tinnitant sounds could be, to lend from Mark Fisher, “the sound of the loneliness that happens when consciousness is deflated, and the conditions for raising it are absent.”
Tinnitus destabilises subjectivity, fronting impersonal affects which current conditions mark as a personal deficiency to be managed through methods such as; therapeutic imaginaries (the double bind of self-realisation and absolute dependence), heroic discourses (see: 2017 film Baby Driver), securitising logics, sustaining corporate economies, metrics of improvement, access to use value, erasing bodies from economic considerations. All brutally narrow the forms that health can take, instead promoting momentary relief through consumption, or, through constant surveillance and self-management.
This protest needs more than Vine’s individualised earphoned scapegoats; it needs creative commons. Others will be interrupted and invited to join in the unmanageable rupture of the endemic, to not listen as we know it. Breaking from economical self-management may open out to sounding creative sites of care where the original subject is (dis)integrated; re-insisting on (in)appropriated life and composing in chronic temporalities with others and their intense investments in a particular historical, political and social field.
In order to develop this potential commons, processes of consciousness raising are required. This is not in order to become aware of an already-existing state of affairs, but to shift one’s whole relationship to the world in order to create, to quote Mark Fisher, “a new subject – a we that is both the agent of struggle and what is struggled for.” Rather than fixing it in a single image, sound, language, or rhythm that can be managed through intolerant abstractions, the body is to be increasingly defined, openly and intensively, by the set of affects of which it is capable. The contagious dis-ease of tinnitus is not a terminable limit but intensive communicable potential, because, as radical therapist Viviane Maximino says, “When this body contacts others subjectivities affected by similar forces, they manage to sustain themselves in the destabilization, amplifying the creative processes.”
These creative processes are political processes, establishing care as the common stake in the flourishing of life, replacing securitising logics and the imperatives of profit in favour of sustained experimentation and composition. A new tonal, or rather, tinnitant consistency – an emergent adventure – composing and layering remarkable intensities and affects. Listening, but not as we know it.
Thank you for listening.