Features | Jericho

Jericho / IV :: Noise, Trauma, and Resistance (Pt. 1)

By Joel Elliott | 14 November 2011

“If the Iraqis aren’t used to freedom, then I’m glad to be part of their exposure.”
-James Hetfield, on the use of “Enter Sandman” in Guantánamo Bay detention camp

I always wake up to CBC Radio, and am usually still half-asleep by the time The Current starts at 8:30am, bringing all the detritus of the day from around the globe and into my bedroom, interfering and intermingling with my dreams until I wake up with a thousand problems that make whatever I have to accomplish that day seem insignificant. This particular morning fell about a week before the tenth anniversary of 9-11, and the program replayed the live on-air reactions to the second tower being hit, that eerie pull every newscaster faced between reacting to the horror and trying to narrate the events to the audience, to meet both the requirements of being human and the requirements of being a journalist. Radio being the best conduit for false panic (remember Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds fiasco?), I was convinced this was happening in real time, the spontaneous moment of visceral reaction reliving itself over again, like an Alzheimer’s patient suffering through the death of a spouse day after day.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, later in the day I was standing in my kitchen when I felt my entire third-floor Toronto apartment shake. Not being overly familiar with protocol in these situations, I jumped into the corner behind the fridge and put my hands over my head. As it turns out, the Canadian National Exhibition wasn’t going to let a little bad timing interfere with its annual airshow.

As ridiculous as these responses were, I feel like the last decade has been one of similarly manufactured trauma—a parody of fear, though I wouldn’t tell that to anyone with a poor heart condition unfortunate enough to be living somewhere near the flyover, or someone with a good reason to be traumatized by that kind of display of military strength. I wondered if my Afghan neighbours from my old house out on the Danforth felt that roar, and what their reaction might be, especially if they hadn’t lived here long enough to fully absorb the unique way terror and entertainment serve as reflections of each other in our culture.

Louis Althusser wrote that one of the chief characteristics of ideology was that of masking its own operations, so that its perspectives seemed natural. In the same way, the replaying of those towers falling was made to seem natural—stoic even, part of our collective responsibility—rather than compulsive, as two deeply-embroiled wars needed to be continually re-cast as retaliatory and urgent. Thus even those far removed geographically from the disaster were allowed to share in its collective trauma.

Ironically, the event would stimulate a war where noise became a guiding principle. The concept of “shock and awe” went from a vague principle of intimidation to a coherent strategy. The idea that the military needed to use less overtly physical, subtler weapons was built into both the technology of modern warfare and the nature of counterinsurgency. Retired US Air Force Lt-Col Dan Kuehl, who teaches psychological operations at the National Defence University in Washington DC, even referenced the battle of Jericho when talking to the St. Petersburg Times: “His men might not have been able to break down literal walls with their trumpets, but the noise eroded the enemy’s courage.”

The use of music as torture at Guantanamo Bay became the most notorious instance of organized noise in the last decade, though probably more than anything as a result of the variety of music used: everything from Metallica and Deicide to the “I Love You” song from Barney. Bob Singleton, the writer of “I Love You,” seemed more incredulous (if perhaps slightly embarrassed) than outraged: “A song that was designed to make little children feel safe and loved was somehow going to threaten the mental state of adults and drive them to the emotional breaking point?”, he wrote to the LA Times. His designation of “music is just music” ignores the fact that music played at excessively loud volumes for hours and days at a time induces an incredible amount of psychological damage.

Former Gitmo inmate Binyam Mohamed told human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith that he had faced a razor blade to his penis continually for eighteen months while incarcerated in Morocco, and American “psyops” were worse, because you could anticipate the end of physical pain in a way you couldn’t with psychological damage. Elaine Scarry defines torture as an attempt to “unmake the world” of the detainee: in this case, by exposing Middle Eastern inmates who might otherwise have little direct experience of American culture to the most vacuous and grating music it has to offer. The irony may have been lost on the guards responsible for “breaking” prisoners: it’s not difficult to imagine the same heavy metal records scoring treks into warzones, adrenaline and fear being similar emotions with similar triggers.

The difference is context, and to ignore context is to ignore that point where music becomes noise (of the deleterious kind), where not only is the music beyond the recipient’s control, but its entire function is to make the recipient aware of his own helplessness. Incidentally, loss of control is central to definitions of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly as defined by Judith Herman in her landmark study Trauma & Recovery, linking trauma and noise in an eternal braid of despair and helplessness. There’s even a yet-to-be-officially-recognized term for the type of prolonged exposure to traumatic situations constituted by torture: “complex post-traumatic stress disorder,” which distinguishes itself from ordinary PTSD mainly by a level of psychological fragmentation that results in a loss of a “coherent sense of self.” In addition to music, the guards apparently also employed recordings of babies with colic. A convenient metaphor: the sound of helplessness, of inexplicable, pertinacious suffering, to produce the same effect in the prisoners.

The above quote is a succinct reminder that the culture which confuses a fourteen-year-old boy annoying his parents by blasting “Enter Sandman” with a prisoner in a cell being forced to listen to the same at ear-splitting volumes for days on end (and often followed by equally agonizing sensory deprivation and silence) is the same one which imagines “freedom” to be a set of rigidly-coded values and symbols as opposed to a condition of being. It reminds me of the ’50s when the CIA funded concerts featuring the work of serialist composers like Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt for an ideological war against the Soviet Union that was nearly as phantasmal as the belief that a severely damaged psyche produces good intelligence. I like Serialism and I don’t care for Metallica, but stuffing twelve-tone-rows down the shirts of Eastern bloc composers seems like a milder precursor to audio torture.

Then there’s Steve Ashiem of Deicide whose “Fuck Your God” was a Gitmo favourite: “If I was a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay and they blasted a load of music at me, I’d be like, ‘Is this all you got? Come on.’ They are warriors and they’re trained to resist torture.” It’s a similar argument used on our own traumatized soldiers: it seems blaming the victim is as old as trauma itself, from rape victims to the Armenians who suffered genocide under the Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago. Herman explicitly positioned her definition of trauma as a challenge to the social and political status quo: “the most traumatic events…take place outside the realm of socially validated reality.” But the effects of noise and trauma, while invisible, are as real as physical wounds: I met an ex-Canadian Forces corporal whose entire platoon suffered PTSD after a tour in Bosnia, as if a psychological land mine had gone off in the middle of them. Its triggers are often aural, and occasionally unexpected: the same veteran told me another soldier had complained to him about his counsellor clicking a pen repeatedly, which brought back memories of an IED being set off.

What is the relationship between noise and trauma, besides an intensely internal and invisible, but concrete, scarring? As in that ex-prisoner’s testimony, both seem to go on forever without an anticipated end: when the noise stops, the psychological reverberations echo indefinitely. As in elevator music—that most unobtrusive form of noise—they are made to be constant, to envelop a space and to drown out either silence or rational thought. Any sounds played loud enough would serve this purpose, though certain kinds of heavy metal seem strangely appropriate: how ironic is it that Metallica’s later albums have been at the forefront of the so-called “loudness wars,” the over-compression and dynamic flattening so characteristic of mainstream rock records in the last two decades? Even the waveform from Death Magnetic (2008) seems to want to consume the entire space it’s in.