Of war, media and sound by Francesco Tacchini (UEL, London, 2012)

Of war, media and sound

To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. —Sun Tzu, The Art of War

During the second half of the twentieth century a number of studies relating to the use of “non-lethal” sonic weaponry began taking place.1 Such weapons aim to control and alter the psyche, therefore the body equilibrium of an individual by using apparently nonviolent methods. Analyzed from a military perspective, the ear is an easy target: like our brain it has no protection nor can it select which sounds to hear; as a matter of fact it acts as a direct channel to our brain. If in the twenty-first century control is crucial to military and police forces at a surprising level, the use of sound as a weapon presents great advantages in terms of how a certain authority can exert it: a form of dissimulated and apparently nonviolent “white torture” that discards criticisms and confuses the public debate. In fact the fast rise of researches on the “non-lethality” topic within the military field and the continuous emergence and use of sonic weapons reflect the concern of potent authorities towards the public opinion. Nowadays the engagement of news media in war reportage is extremely high. They are perceived as a crucial element of war itself, or at least of the representation of it: the so-called “CNN factor” that is the dissemination through the media2, must be taken into account when conducting a war or, in the case of police forces, containing a demonstration, controlling a crowd, etc. It is in this frame that sonic and ultrasonic weapons are presented to the public. Since their violent effects are apparently invisible they become media-friendly: legitimate from a sociopolitical perspective, effective from a military one and justified, when questioned, because “preferable to real bombs”3.

As Steve Goodman puts it (2010, p. 5), our century began with “[...] a bang, setting the resonant frequency of fear at which the planet has been vibrating, trembling, ever since”.4 Sound itself acquired a new dimension of threat and audio signals like, for instance, Bin Laden’s audiotapes gained greater importance and played a crucial role within the hierarchy of the ecology of fear. What is a sonic warfare? Or better what are its modalities? For Goodman, it is the “deployment of sound systems in the modulation of affect, from sensations to moods to movement behaviors”.5 In other words, the production and transmission of bad vibes. Sonic warfare’s tactics are part of the everyday and its potent tools are essential for the control systems of an authority, a city, a nation.

Although only five decades have passed from the first experiments within the field, significant progresses have been achieved. At an early stage, both scientists and military researchers focused on infrasounds, in other words sub-bass frequencies that are lower than 20 Hertz. If very intense, such sound waves can vibrate along with the human body resonant frequency; that means our ear would not be able to hear them while our body would feel them, in terms of tactility or organ vibration. On the one hand, the implications of successfully employing infrasonic machines are terrifying and, particularly in the United States, triggered an “infrasonic euphoria” leading to a number of military and industrial research programs. 
On the other hand, almost fifty years of studies have proven that the real influence infrasound weapons have on human body is limited to tremors, because of the difficulty of producing sub- bass frequencies that are intense enough. Much easier to target are high-frequency weapons on which military and industrial studies focused in the early twenty-first century. 

Two of the most used and known technologies today are the Mosquito and the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device).6 e latter in particular described by the builder as “hailing and warning, directed acoustic device”, but sonic weapon de facto, is used as a crowd control device, a kind of acoustic repellent: an LRAD “produces the equivalent of an instant migraine” according to its inventor, Elwood Norris.7 The circular device is formed by multiple small speakers that emit sound in phase, creating a high-frequency wave of 153 dB at one meter that can penetrate up to 3000 meters of distance.8 e risk of deafness is therefore a real one: the weapon’s operators rely on the fact that no one would consciously want to stay in the sound transmission beam, without any concern about those who might not be conscious or able to move, for instance disabled, old or injured people.

The sonic weapon is also effective on a multiplicity of levels, especially when its image is shaped and re-proposed by the media. It becomes as luminous a triumph of modern technology, legitimately dislocating protesters by firing (harmful) sound waves at a long distance, as sinister a warning for the collectivity: the clear message of the power in control is “stay home.” The crowd control becomes total, for different “crowds” are regulated, intimidated, manipulated in different space-times. The representation of power is therefore deepen by the perception of the system being in full control.

It can be argued that the relation between war machines and sound machines is a crucial one. A media theorist who sustained the argument of an interconnection between sound, media and military is Friedrich Kittler. In his Grammophon, Film, Typewriter, (1986) the German philosopher wrote that military development somehow contaminates mass popular culture with a technological contagion.9 As a result the entertainment industry uses the arsenal of the arms industry. In his view war acts as a catalyzer for new media: military technologies used as data storage devices during the American Civil War such as the gramophone, the film and the typewriter became media technologies. e same happened for the radio which was just “the military radio system of the First World War minus the talkback-capability”10 or the television, result of studies on the electric transmission of data. At last the Computer, emerging during World War II as the Turing machine, is the medium of modern society and allows an electronic transmission of data, a constant and pervasive digital processing. e conclusion is quite frightening: innovation in mass media is only driven by the technological evolution of war.

Kittler’s theory on the military nature of media adapts well to theories developed during the last century that argue the centrality of war in modern and contemporary society.11 e concept of war becomes ambiguous: it is not just a battle between factions anymore but a condition of militarization of the everyday. War is omnipresent because so is the inter- and hyper-connected militarized media environment; the only response to the ubiquity of such environment is abusing the militarized media. Paraphrasing Kittler, fighting the power which exerts control or, borrowing an engineering term, “negative feedback” necessitates the wild reappropriation of its artifacts, the remix of its media.12 By recycling and reutilizing the array of militarized technologies and practices the negative output can be reversed to an opposite, positive output.

A famous contemporary example of the practice could be KRS-One’s tune “Sound of da police”.13 The rapper from Brooklyn transferred the sound of a police siren to his beat: the alarm is as much of an echo and an allusion as a symbol to whom greater importance and new meanings have been given. Both loud noise making device and symbol of power willing to enforce control, the high-frequency sound remixed by KRS could have been the much louder one of an LRAD, but the “feedback” would still be positive.

Dealing with another medium, an example is found in Samuel L. Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. One of the central episode of this second movie of the epic trilogy is the battle of “Helm's Deep”14 fought between the Uruk-Hai and the humans lead by Aragorn. Moments before the conflict starts, the two factions are facing each others: the orcs’ army then begins hitting the ground with their spears and shields, thus creating a loud intimidating sound. e connection is easily drawn: the practice is in fact common among riot police, the special police force who are equipped and deployed to confront crowds. Before charging, riot police signal their move forward by hitting their shields with batons.
On 19th December 2010 a protest took place in Minsk against Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian leader who has been in charge for two decades. On the occasion riot police affronted the pacific crowd in a particular violent way.15

“22:30 - Out of the Government House come out a lot of riot police units with batons. There is tough resistance on the steps of the Government House. Some people are severely beaten, they lie on the ground. Riot police makes noise with shields and batons to intimidate people.”16

On 10 November 2011 thousands of Canadian student striking against education cuts in Montreal experienced the same fear when riot police started charging.

“They hit their shields with batons, producing an intimidating sound. is sound was repeated over the next several minutes, each time warning that the squad was moving forward.”17

Transferred to the equally frightening Uruk-Hai, the intimidating practice, which might be defined as negative output from a Kittlerian perspective, is reversed to a positive one.
At the dawn of the millennium the intersection of the machines of war, the machines of noise and the machines of entertainment is tight at an unprecedented level. Whether sound is employed as a weapon, or media are; whether militarized media become part of the entertainment network, or get abused by generating frequencies that echo urban and war experiences, a sonic war exists. As Deleuze (1995) would remind us, “ere is no need to fear or hope, but only to . . . [listen] . . . for new weapons.”18

1. Altmann, J. (1999), Acoustic weapons. A prospective assessment: sources, propagation and 
effects of strong sound, Occasional Paper, n. 22, Cornell University Peace Study Programs.

  1. Major Thomas, M.R. (2008), Non-lethal weaponry: a framework for future integration, Air Command and Staff College, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, p. 12-13.
  2. McGeal C. (2005) "Sonic Boom Raids Cause Fear, Trauma," Guardian, 3 November 2005. [Online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/nov/03/israel (Accessed: 11 April 2012).
  3. Goodman S. (2009) Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, Cambridge: MIT Press.
  4. Ibid., Glossary.
  5. Volcler J. (2012) Il suono come arma. Gli usi militari e polizieschi dell' ambiente sonoro, trans. Roberta Cristofani, Rome: DeriveApprodi.
  6. Arkin, W.M. (2004) “The Pentagon's Secret Scream: Sonic devices that can inflict pain - or even permanent deafness - are being deployed,” Los Angeles Times, 7 March. [Online] Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2004/mar/07/opinion/op-arkin7 (Accessed: 11 April 2012).
  7. See the LRAD product overview, [online] available at: http://www.lradx.com/site/content/ view/15/110/ (Accessed: 11 April 2012).
  8. Kittler, F. A. (1986) Grammophon, Film, Typewriter, Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose.
10. Ibid.
11. Goodman S. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, p. 33. 12. Kittler, Grammophon, Film, Typewriter.

13. Video and song [online] available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VRZq3J0uz4 (Accessed: 12 April 2012).
14. 10 minutes clip [online] available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvcNid87ONA (Accessed: 12 April 2012).
15. 3 minutes clip [online] available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrM8pdXeO68 (Accessed: 12 April 2012).
16. Solidarity with Belarus’ Information Office (2010) “19 December 2010. Chronology of event.” [Online] available at: http://solidarityby.eu/cat/chronology_of_events (Accessed: 12 April 2012).
17. Jutras D. (2011), Report of the Internal Investigation into the Events of November 10, 2011, Montreal, 15 December. [Online] available at: https://secureweb.mcgill.ca/dean-jutras-report/ sites/mcgill.ca.dean-jutras-report/files/investigation_report_final_version.pdf (Accessed: 12 April 2012).
18. Deleuze G. (1995) "Postscript on the societies of control," in Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin, New York: Columbia University Press, cited in Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, p. 194.

Post Codex: 1) pic Alex Webb Magnum Photos: The Invasion of Haiti 1994
2) Media-fiendly bombs
3) pic LRAD sonic weapon
4) The Israeli Defense Ministry has contracted for the production of sonic-boom stun-guns called "Thunder Generator cannons," which they hope to use in crowd-control situations
5) The Turing Machine