When I hear a really loud noise, Im pretty sure the world is ending. My senses stop working, as if too much data in one circuit provokes an emergency shut down order for all the others. And I cant think. My wits are scrambled.
Clearly, cats have the right idea. The sensible thing to do is to hide under a bed until someone spends 20 minutes persuading you its dinner time. But let me warn you that taking refuge under a parked car is a lot less comfortable, and no one ever comes to talk you out.
One thing I resent about motorcycles, especially Harleys, is that they make the heavens tremble as if before the approach of a God. But the “god in question sometimes turns out to be a greasy, 50 year old, biker with a prison record, a meth problem and a history of wife abuse. Unless of course he is one of those boomer executives who have taken to riding Harleys, in which case you can scratch the meth problem.
If we were to do the ethnography (to discover what the Harley sound means to the biker), some bikers say a hog makes them formidable, tough, and dangerous. That big, rolling sound makes them look and feel like outlaws. But the sound breaks the soft law of social convention, not the hard law of the penal code. So these bikers can commit an act against the community without actually going to jail. (Babies.)
If we were to do the anthropology (to discover what the Harley sound means to the rest of us), we could say it’s a weapon of class revenge. For this thunder has the ability to cut through the boundaries designed to exclude and diminish an outlaw biker. It cuts through the great leafy hedges and gigantic masonry of the club and the suburb.
The Harley sound goes right through. For a second, it says: I am here, you are mine. In a 60 minutes ride through a city or a suburb a Harley owner can interrupt and antagonize thousands of people, a welcome break from beating your wife or a fellow club member. The Harley sonically amplifies the rider, and sonically disarms the rest of us.
Clearly we need a new noise abatement policy and I was heartened recently to hear that Mayor Bloomberg has passed new by-laws. This is good. But we must go further. The trick here is to reengineer the cultural meaning of Harley or hot-car sound. We need to make it mean something that diminishes the “speaker, not the listener.
Heres what I propose, that henceforth we recode the sound of a hot car to mean: “I have very real emotional problems and the sound of the Harley to mean: “I am sexually inadequate. Clearly, both things are true. Why else would they protest too much? With this act of cultural re-engineering, we are not so much recoding as decoding the Harley sound.
What you can do. The next time a hot car or Harley intrudes upon your sonic space, give the driver/rider one of those really sympathetic gazes, the ones that say, “I feel your pain. I really do. We know you have a problem. But what you must know is that we are here for you. Practice with me. Try the international signal for sympathy. Arch your eye brows upward, and tuck your chin to one side. Smile ruefully. Nod sympathically. By golly, I think youve got it.
Naturally, what these bikers are hoping for is a look of awe or irritation. If we send another signal, we interfere with this “social construction of the self. We hold up a new mirror. Naturally, these people are not the brightest creatures on the planet. If they were, they would have seen through their behavior a long time ago. So it will take lots of people engaging in lots of sympathetic nods to have the desired effect.
But one day, with the blessing of George Herbert Mead and the other gods of the social sciences, we may once more walk down the street without fear of sonic infringement or the temptation of taking refuge beneath a parked car.
Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The political economy of music. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.