We had seen a number of houses that day. A real estate agent was helping us navigate the U. S. city we had just moved to. This neighborhood was acceptable (translation: white enough). This other one we won’t visit because I don’t recommend it (translation: not white enough). He opened the back door to an empty house we were visiting and invited us to step outside to see the yard. I remarked, once again, as I had in our previous stops, on the sound of the freeway that saturated the back yard. The agent claimed he couldn’t quite hear it, I wondered if he was lying. He then replied, “I think the sound of a freeway is like the ocean. A kind of hum. There comes a point when you don’t notice it, and instead it helps you fall asleep at night.” Maybe he was joking, I was unsure, as I often am when trying to gauge whether what my interlocutors say is intended humorously or not. Not to offend, I did not laugh to his face. His remark signaled his irritation with my attention to sound. He probably thought if I wanted a house where you didn’t hear the freeway I should put more money down. Go to a neighborhood that he recommended more.
I don’t come from a quiet place. I come from a place where noise is a companion. You are always touched by all sorts of noise. Traffic, the neighbor’s music, the intensity of birds singing at sunrise—birds whose singing is so loud that it is noise, not romantic nature. About once a month, Doña Ana visits the neighborhood where I grew up. Doña Ana is not a person I know. She is de-objectified, but not de-materialized, sound. She is a voice recording, a marker of the indefinite urbanism back home. Before Siri, there was Doña Ana, although at that time she was anonymous. Doña Ana does not provide new information; her recorded voice utters the same words month after month, year after year. Many people in different parts of Costa Rica have heard Doña Ana. She announces that scrap-collectors are passing by.
Doña Ana ceased being de-objectified sound in April 2021. That month, sound became voice, and voice became person. Ultimately, Doña Ana turned into a temporary celebrity. In the midst of one of the worst weeks of the pandemic in Costa Rica, the television news aired a short portrait of her story (see Video 1) . A couple of decades earlier, she started making recordings with her Dad for different businesses. He would write the text, she would read, and both would record it. The one she did for chatarreros (scrap collectors) was originally recorded in a cassette which, she explained, was copied endlessly, until her voice became the official sound of the chatarreros. The TV portrait re-objectified her voice. It re-attached meaning and matter by way of a speaking subject. Multiple publics emerged. Twitter commentators of middle-class social life, for example, erupted after the piece aired. Finally, noise became subject! They now knew who interrupted their sleep early on Sunday mornings:
Estimados vecinos! Andamos recogiendo…
Learning to listen for atmospheric noise is an invitation to sit where the sensory and the sensible meet or diverge. At the point where freeway can be Ocean; at the point where Doña Ana is both noise and sound. Atmospheric noise is both political object and enveloping cloak; everyday experience and glitch; technology and phenomenon. In Marina Peterson’s enthralling book, Atmospheric Noise: The Indefinite Urbanism of Los Angeles (2021), we are guided through an experience of close reading of sound that enables us to think by listening. Culturalist accounts that replicate a classificatory logic are not enough here: x group of people listens in this way, y group of people embraces noise, z group of people thrives in quietude. If we are to refuse this essentializing impulse, what do we ask of sound, and how do we ask? The first step, Peterson offers, is to trace possibilities. Said possibilities are often found in glitches, in the concrete interruptions by which the technologies and materials that objectify sound, turning it into bounded object, are short-circuited. A feminist methodology of glitching is:
“a “noise” interrupting or erupting within an intended sound, a voice or a squeal that betrays the inner workings or recursive potential of audio technologies—dirty connections, crossed wires, microphones with too high a signal held in front of an amplifier, a scratch that cuts across the grooves of a record.” (Peterson 2021, 12)
In this incredible book, we learn how to de-objectify sound while rematerializing it by way of glitches. We visit homes where immigrants resist the government by also demanding and taking its services. Sound becoming the matter of new windows, paper towels preventing bees and noise from squeezing in through a mail slot. Sound is materialized in bureaucratic relations, embodied in home visits, stabilized in repairs, crystalized in gifts (Peterson 138). The freeway as Ocean. After reading this book, soundproofing will not be the same.
As if I had planned it, I sit down to read this piece one final time and Doña Ana goes by. I listen to her far away, then closer, then by my front door (listen to Recording 1). I run outside to catch an image and let the microphone on my phone be touched by sound. I smile.
Doña Ana’s voice, once again as de-objectified sound after her short-lived celebrity status, embodies recycling regulations, economic inequities, inventiveness, and changing sound technologies layered on top of each other—megaphone, cassette, CD, cell phone. Atmospheric Noise (2021) is a book that alerts you, invites you to listen in this way. It keeps at bay the temptation to explain sound away. Instead, it helps you sense possibilities. Not as objects, but as arrangements of matter, technology, bodies, and histories. Marina Peterson changes what sounding is like, transforms our thinking about urban form, through an acoustemology that is inviting and that you cannot help but want to experiment with. Open the book and experience how listening is always a compositional practice!
Peterson, Marina. 2021. Atmospheric Noise: The Indefinite Urbanism of Los Angeles. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.