The Right to Silence
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4,391 Words

On June 13, 1966, the United States Supreme Court decided 384 U.S. 436, Miranda v. Arizona, ruling that a suspect’s testimony is inadmissible as evidence if not informed of their right against self-incrimination. Later that year, California Attorney General Thomas Lynch asked Harold Berliner, District Attorney of Nevada County, to distill from the majority opinion “practical words to express the court’s notion, in language simple enough for an ordinary suspect to understand.” Berliner thus coined American law’s most famous clause: “You have the right to remain silent.”

This essay begins with an elision. What happens when “You have the right to remain silent” becomes “You have the right to silence”? To whom is this right granted? From whom is it withheld?

It is February 23, 2019. On Saturdays, I walk downtown from my walk-up on 18th St. and 10th Ave., past the Apple Store, past the Whitney and Seravalli Park, to the West Village. I sit on the benches between Grove and Christopher. I listen to jazz in Washington Square. I occasionally visit Three Lives & Company, the bookshop on West 10th. This time I do. I browse the “Staff Picks” on a table by the door, where an iridescent pink cover catches the light. Erling Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise. On the back, Oprah lauds “the soul-reviving benefits of quiet” and The Wall Street Journal tells me that it is “Something to be handled and savored.”1Erling Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise (New York: Pantheon Press, 2017), back cover. I oblige and bring it to the register, where the cashier looks up from his book—Tolstoy—and says “$14.95.” “You’re lucky. Our last copy.”

At home I open Silence and read it as jackhammers gnaw at the parking lot across the street. Kagge begins in Antarctica, where, in 1993, he became the first to complete an independent expedition to the South Pole. “Antarctica is the quietest place I’ve ever been. I walked alone to the South Pole, and in that whole vast monotone landscape there was no human noise apart from the sounds I made. Alone on the ice, far into that great white nothingness, I could both hear and feel the silence.”2Ibid., 12.

Side-by-side magazine advertisements for the Swiss watchmaker Rolex, featuring the explorer Erling Kagge. The advertisement at left features a small rectangular image of Kagge, legs spread as he spans a crack in the ice while towing a blue sled. At right, Kagge rests his chin on a reflective silver sphere marking the North Pole. His beard is frosted with snow.
Kagge traversing the “great white nothingness” in two Rolex advertisments. The luxury Swiss watchmaker sponsored his Three Poles Challenge: solo expeditions to the South Pole, North Pole, and the summit of Mt. Everest.

Kagge returned to Norway disillusioned. He grew allergic to vacuum cleaners, the din. “At home there’s always a car passing, a telephone ringing, pinging or buzzing, someone talking, whispering or yelling.”3Ibid., 13. In the two decades since, Kagge laments, the world has only grown more boisterous. He’s right. At the turn of the twentieth-century, bacteriologist Robert Koch speculated that “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.”4Robert Koch as quoted on Quiet Parks International, “About,” Accessed December 5, 2020, In 2011, the World Health Organization calculated that “at least one million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise.”5World Health Organization, Burden of disease from environmental noise: quantification of healthy life years (Copenhagen: WHO, 2011), V. The National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division estimates that noise pollution doubles or triples every thirty years.6 “Quiet places,” says the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, “have been on the road to extinction at a rate that far exceeds the extinction of species.”7Gordon Hempton as quoted in Bianca Bosker, “Why Everything Is Getting Louder,” The Atlantic, November 2019, https://www. lence/598366/. Kagge himself is more blunt: “I think we may be on our way to becoming stark raving lunatics.”8Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise, 44.

To save us from that fate, he turns to Blaise Pascal, E.B. White, Heidegger, Parmenides, Aristotle, Plato, Jesus, Buddha, Kant, Emily Dickinson, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Bashō, Diderot, John Cage, Debussy. Kagge is but the latest entry in a pantheon of quiet philosophy. For Seneca, silence was virtuous: “Be silent as to the services you have rendered, but speak of favors you have received.”9Seneca, De Beneficiis, trans. John W. Basore (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), 11. For Confucius it was “a true friend who never betrays.”10Confucius as quoted in Johanna Nylund, Silence: Harnessing the Restorative Power of Silence in a Noisy World (Ottawa: Octopus Books, 2020), p. 31. For Francis Bacon, it was intelligence: “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.”11Francis Bacon, “De Augmentis Scientiarum,” The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon, trans. Robert Leslie Ellis, Spedding, James (London: Routledge, 1905), 553. Likewise for Schopenhauer, via negativa: “Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption. It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought.”12Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Noise,” Studies in Pessimism, trans. Thomas Bailey Saunders (London: George Allen, 1890), 128. And for Thomas Merton, quoting the Old Testament, it was godliness: “God is present, and His thought is alive and awake in the fullness and depth and breath of all the silences of the world.”13Thomas Merton, “Silence,” No Man is an Island (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1955), 83.

For Kagge, silence is all these: moral, wise, strong, thaumaturgic. It is also luxurious. In echo of Jane Austen who, two centuries prior in Mansfield Park wrote “Let us have the luxury of silence,” Kagge declares, “Silence in itself is rich.”14Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1860), 253; Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise, 66. “It is exclusive and luxurious”—“more exclusive and long-lasting than other luxuries.” But, unlike “the exclusivity of a Louis Vuitton bag,” “silence is a luxury for every living creature.”15Ibid., 66–67.


At London’s Selfridges department store, Louis Vuitton is up two escalators, a left before Chanel, adjacent to Gucci. Three floors below, under the Rolex boutique on ground level, where Oyster Perpetual Explorers like that Kagge modeled on his expeditions lie behind glass vitrines, is the Silence Room. After removing their shoes and phones, shoppers are led into a dim corridor, around the back of a glowing rectangular box, and through a gap in the wall. There, in a palatial solitary confinement chamber, each surface padded with cream felt, customers can sit on the benches that line the perimeter, lean against the walls, or recline on the floor. “We’ve seen people sleeping there, meditating there. One person was seen praying there,” says architect Alex Cochrane.16Alex Cochrane as quoted in Dan Howarth, "The Silence Room at Selfridges by Alex Cochrane Architects,” Dezeen, January 19, 2013, Merton would approve.

Selfridge's austere Silence Room, with padded beige felt walls and light wood benches running its circumference. Two shoppers lay face-up, while two children sit cross-legged, one facing the wall.
The Silence Room in Selfridge’s luxury emporium. It is “an insulated inner-sanctum, shielded from the noise and human traffic of the store.”

The idea came from Selfridges’ founder Harry Gordon Selfridge, who incorporated a silent area into his original 1909 design. It was good business: shoppers could “retire from the whirl of bargains and the build up of energy”; husbands could relax while their wives shopped, keeping them in the store for longer.17Harry Gordon Selfridge as quoted in Alanna Okun, “The Quietest Department Store Of All Time,” Buzzfeed, January 10, 2020, alannaokun/the-quietest-depart- ment-store-of-all-time.

Next to the Silence Room is the home appliance department. At the entrance is a shrine of different sort: to Britain’s most beloved inventor, Sir James Dyson. Dyson made his name by reinventing the vacuum cleaner—the very object of Kagge’s misanthropy—with a “cyclonic centrifugal suction” mechanism that didn’t loose power over time. It was also much quieter. He applied his patented engineering to handheld vacuums, then to hair straighteners and stylers and air purifiers. At the center of the display is the limited-edition 23.75-karat gold plated Airwrap curling iron—silence literally golden.18Marisa Meltzer, “Dyson Wants to Curl Your Hair,” New York Times, October 9, 2018, It is, like the entirety of Dyson’s suite, marked with an aubergine “Q,” indicating that it has been “recogniz[ed] [for] excellence in low-noise technology” by QuietMark.19QuietMark, “About,” Accessed December 5, 2020, Like the Airwrap curler, the carving knives, freezers, electric toothbrushes, lawnmowers, and alarm clocks so awarded are invariably more expensive. The Blueair Classic 480i, QuietMark’s air purifier par exsilence, uses HEPASilent™ technology to attenuate sound to “whisper quiet on the lowest speed (32 decibels) and equivalent to the noise level of rainfall on the highest setting (52 decibels).”20The decibel (abbreviated dB) is the standard unit of measure for noise intensity. A two-fold increase in sound energy (eg, two identical jackhammers instead of one) will cause the sound pressure level to increase by 3 dB. A ten-fold increase in sound energy (10 jackhammers) will cause the sound pressure level to increase by 10 dB, which is perceived as about twice as loud.; Blueair, “Classic 480i with Particle Filter,” Accessed December 5, 2020, It retails for $689.99, 25% more than the next most expensive listing on Amazon.21“Air Purifiers,” Amazon, Accessed December 4, 2020, https://amzn. to/3qDANNm. The Bosch 800 Series dishwasher, likewise acclaimed for its EcoSilence™ motor system, runs $1,499, twice as much as the median price of dishwashers offered by Home Depot.22Tabulated from 143 listings on Home Depot, Accessed December 4, 2020, Quiet has its costs. As The Economist advised its readers—and the proliferation of trademarks like HEPASilent™ and EcoSilence™ attests—silence “makes economic sense... Designers are paying more attention to devising products that make less noise which can save energy and boost sales.”23“The Sound of Silence,” The Economist, September 5, 2013, Or, as W Magazine declared in 2017, “Silence—Yes, Silence—Is the Most Sought-After Luxury Trend [of the Year].”24Emilia Petrarca, “Silence—Yes, Silence—Is the Most Sought-After Luxury Trend of 2017,” W Magazine, March 2011,

An ad for the Bosch 800 Series. In a modernist kitchen, a woman runs the appliance as she reads. She suits the house: lily-white skin, cream pants, ivory cabinets and countertops. Her daughter approaches in matching pajamas, and they share a secret.
Bosch’s “Seen Not Heard” advertisement for the 800 Series Dishwasher. Luxury, it suggests, is visible and inaudible.

On YouTube, in the thick of a mindless binge, I am served an ad for the Bosch 800 Series. In a modernist kitchen—designed, I presume, by Cochrane and Associates—a woman runs the appliance as she reads. She suits the house: lily-white skin, cream pants, ivory cabinets and countertops. Her daughter approaches in matching pajamas, and they share a secret. This is possible, I am told, because of eighteen sound reducing technologies that hush the machine to 39 decibels, just louder than a rustle.25Bosch Dishwashers, “Seen Not Heard,” June 12, 2018, On QuietMark’s website, similar images abound. Models sleep atop laundry machines, brush their teeth, bathe, pour juice and sip wine, garden, golf, play the piano, clean— all of them unperturbed by noise, all of them sans melanin. Silence is intelligence is hygiene is whiteness. This cultural (mis)imagination is lodged like stubborn wax deep in America’s ear.


It is now November. Silence: In the Age of Noise is in its eight printing and has been translated into thirty seven languages. Snow has yet to arrive in New York City. In search of Kagge’s “great white nothingness,” I Google “poetry about snow.” Poetry Foundation has a “Winter Poems” collection. I start with Robert Frost; his name feels right.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.26Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” New Hampshire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1923).

Next, Linda Pastan’s “Blizzard”:

...I pull a comforter
of snow
up to my chin
and tumble
to sleep
as the whole
of silence
falls out of the
sky.27Linda Pastan, “Blizzard,” Poetry, December 1978.

Finally, Billy Collins’ “Snow Day”:

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,...28Billy Collins, “Snow Day,” Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2001).

I encounter similar refrains from Shakespeare and Mary Oliver and William Carlos Williams. Snow. Silence. White. Nothing. With time, the color conjures the sound and the sound, the color. This chromesthesia is not mine alone.

German physician Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs gave the first medical account of synesthesia in 1812.29Jörg Jewanski, Day, Sean A., Ward, Jamie, “A colorful albino: the first documented case of synaesthesia, by Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs in 1812,” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 18 (July 2009): 293–303. In September of 1850, the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind took the stage at Castle Garden for the New York City stop on her U.S. tour. Joining the ticketed guests, a flotilla of “two hundred boats and a thousand persons” arrived by the Hudson River and maneuvered under the gates.30As quoted in Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 91. The New York Tribune reported the next morning that “a noisy crowd of boys in boats” disrupted the “most quiet, refined, and appreciative” bourgeois audience with “a hideous clamor of shouts and yells, accompanied by a discordant din of drums and fifes.”31As quoted Ibid., 91–95. The Saturday Evening Post diagnosed “Lind Fever” the symptom of a debased humanity.

But what a commentary is such an enormous compensation to Jenny Lind, upon the moral and intellectual position of some of our people. How grossly is music overvalued by the them in comparison with nobler things. For music is the lowest of the arts. It does not seem to require so much elevation of character as either painting, sculpture, or poetry. An ability for it is often found, in fact, in company with inferior endowments. Degraded races, such as the negro, may excel in it. The English and the Americans—the noblest specimens of the Circassian race—are few surpassed by other nations of the same great branch, in music.... Nations with their hearts filled with the music of great deeds, have but little time for the music of brass and catgut.32As quoted Ibid., 94.

The Tribune and The Post thus demarcated a sonic color line. The “Negro” ear seeks “brass and catgut.” The “Circassian”: the silent “music of great deeds.” That October, the satirical British newspaper Punch published a cartoon of the event. Lind’s alabaster skin juxtaposes the smudged faces of her “manic” audience. She sits atop a throne—stoic, demur—as unkempt fans puff tobacco at her feet and others shout from afar. A wall of noise bears down on Lind’s unblemished whiteness. As Jennifer Lynn Stoever writes, in the Antebellum North, quiet became “an aural signifier for whiteness.” Dangerous noise, by contrast, was “associated with essentialized blackness.”33Ibid., 95. Two centuries later, similar worldings, more or less insidious, endure.

A cartoon of Jenny Lind before an American audience. Lind’s alabaster skin juxtaposes the smudged faces of her “manic” audience. She sits atop a throne—stoic, demur—as unkempt fans puff tobacco at her feet and others shout from afar.
Punch’s October 1850 portrayal of America’s “Lindmania.” Once a visual phenomenon, in the Antebellum North race was encoded in the sonic: loudness became synonymous with blackness and quietude with whiteness.
[Loud Sirens]

COPS debuted on March 11, 1989. It ran for thirty-two seasons—longer than any Reality TV show in American history. I was around for twenty-four. I would ride with officers on beat, accompany them as they made traffic stops, conducted stings, and served search warrants. There was “Tazed & Confused Special Edition” (Season 17, Episode 7), “Tough Takedowns” (S19, ep. 18), “What! Who Me?” (S21, ep. 7). “Black & Blue & White” (two weeks before that), and “Crusin’ the Neighborhood” (Season 27, Episode 7). The neighborhoods we cruised—heteropatrionizingly, to be sure—were mostly dark (the dramatic action unfolding after nightfall) and always loud, punctuated by altercations, noise complaints, sirens, K9s barking as they gave chase, gunshots, and the occasional flash bang. Which is to say that the neighborhoods that we cruised were, eight letters of politesse not withstanding, “hoods.” Executive producer John Langley attributed his show’s success to its “raw” authenticity”—its “cinema verité ethos,” “as pure as you can get in documentary film making.”34John Langley as quoted in Theodore O. Promise and Johnson, Ann, “Law Enforcement and Crime on Cops and World’s Wildest Police Videos: Anecdotal Form and the Justification of Racial Profiling,” Western Journal of Communication 68 (Winter 2004): 73. I suspect that COPS’ appeal was its unreality: its figuration of a convenient, profane alterity. As Rashad Robinson wrote protesting the show, “It represented for [Black people] what was the very worst way poverty and crime and communities of color are show on TV... It was a story fueled by a fear of Black folks.”35Rashad Robinson as quoted in Tim Stelloh, “Bad Boys: How ‘Cops’ Became the Most Polarizing Reality TV Show in America,” The Marshall Project, January 22, 2018, https:// www.themarshallproject. org/2018/01/22/bad-boys. Langley’s “purity” rings more racial than cinematographic.

In his review of COPS’ inaugural season, columnist John J. O’Connor noted the show’s dramaturgy. “The dominant image is hammered home again and again: the overwhelmingly white troops of police are the good guys; the bad guys are overwhelmingly black.”36John J. O’Connor, “‘Cops’ Camera Shows the Real Thing,” New York Times, January 7, 1989, 50. A content analysis of sixteen episodes corroborates his observation. 92% of officers pictured were white. 63% of crimes were committed by people of color. 93% of the Black characters portrayed were suspects. White offenders most commonly committed misdemeanors; nonwhite individuals, by contrast, were more likely to be shown in burglaries, thefts, or crimes involving drugs.37Elizabeth Monk-Turner et al., “Are Reality TV Crime Shows Continuing to Perpetuate Crime Myths?” Internet Journal of Criminology (2007): 1. These stagings of black criminality began to spill off screen, producing a formidability bias that begot overestimates of the size, speed, and age of Black people.38Colin Holbrook, Fessler, Daniel M.T., Navarrete, Carlos David, “Looming large in others’ eyes: racial stereotypes illuminate dual adaptations for representing threat versus prestige as physical size,” Evolution and Human Behavior 36 (2016): 67–78. These visual hallucinations, in turn, bled into the streets. In his sworn testimony to investigators after killing twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, Officer Timothy Loehmann declared that the pre-teen “appeared to be over eighteen years old and about 185 pounds.”39William Cheng, “Black Noise, White Ears: Resilience, Rap, and the Killing of Jordan Davis,” Current Musicology 102 (Spring 2018): 116. Defending this use of lethal force, Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association president Steve Loomis described Rice as “menacing.” “He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds... a twelve-year-old in an adult body.”40Ibid.

COPS induced illusions optical and aural. Season 24, Episode 21: “Arrests With a Twist 2.” North Las Vegas Police Department Officer Dave Brooks is dispatched to a domestic disturbance. He flickers his siren as he approaches a husband and wife arguing on the sidewalk. He orders the man to sit down on the curb, then rips the man’s shirt and shoots taser probes into his right shoulder. Officer Ochoa arrives to administer a knee to the man’s neck as Brooks applies handcuffs. Back at his patrol vehicle, Brooks reads the man his rights, raising his voice to cut through the sirens and car alarm that sound across the boulevard.41John Langley, “Arrests With a Twist 2,” COPS S.24, ep. 21, March 31, 2012, Noise is seedy is dangerous is Black.

A still image from COPS Season 24, Episode 21. A white male police officer rests one hand over the door of his patrol car and the other on its room as he informs a black man in its back seat of his Miranda Rights.
Officer Dave Brooks informs a man of his Miranda Rights. Black Americans, arrested at a disproportionate rate, are most commonly reminded of their “right to remain silent.”

I learned my Miranda Rights through televised pronouncements like Brooks’s: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to the presence of an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, it will be appointed to you by the court.” Millions of Americans did too. Beginning in 1967 with Dragnet, recitations of “the police procedural” became Hollywood short-hand for due process. They quickly settled as the most identifiable phrases of American law. Legal scholars Richard Leo and George Thomas credit COPS and its progenitors Adam-12, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order, with “so entrench[ing] Miranda Rights in American popular folklore as to become an indelible part of our collective heritage and consciousness.”42Ronald Steiner, Bauer, Rebecca, Talwar, Rohit, “The Rise and Fall of the Miranda Warnings in Popular Culture,” Cleveland State Law Review 59 (2011): 220. Kagge, a Scandinavian, suggests that their reach may be broader still when he urges us to seize our “right” to silence.43Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise, 66. These entitlements—Brooks’s right to remain silent and Kagge’s right to silence—are two words apart. And two worlds apart. Where the right to remain silent is most recited, the right to silence is least guaranteed.

"Whence that knocking?"

At August Martin High School, students read MacBeth in the tenth grade. In Act 2, Scene 2, MacBeth jumps at a sound at the door: “Whence is that knocking?—How is’t with me, when every noise appals [sic] me?”44William Shakespeare, MacBeth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 146. They are used to it. Fifty times each hour, a plane takes off or lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a mile to the south.45“John F. Kennedy International Airport: January 2020 Traffic Report,” The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, March 19, 2020, Sometimes the building trembles.

Rochdale, Queens, is New York City’s loudest neighborhood—and its Blackest. Here nine out of every ten residents is Black; the citywide Black population is 24%.46“2018 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,” United States Census Bureau, December 19, 2019, The day-night average sound level is 72 decibels, four times as loud as the level deemed “incompatible with residential land use” by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and twenty times the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation.47“Monthly Noise Monitor Report for JFK, LGA, and EWR,” The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, December 2019, https://bit. ly/33UNycG; “Fundamentals of Noise and Sound,” Federal Aviation Administration, July 13, 2020, This din is not only “annoying,” the FAA’s measure of “interference with speech, sleep, the desire for a tranquil environment, and the ability to use the telephone, radio, or television satisfactorily.”48“History of Noise,” Federal Aviation Administration, February 9, 2018, It gets into the body. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn signals the adrenal system, which in turn increases stress hormones and elevates blood pressure.49Mathias Basner et al., “Auditory and non-auditory effects of noise on health,” Lancet 383 (2014): 1325–32. It causes the heart to misfire and over-fire and stop firing.50Andrew W. Correia, Peters, Junenette L., Levy, Jonathan I., Melly, Steven, Dominici, Francesca, “Residential exposure to aircraft noise and hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases: multi-air- port retrospective study,” British Medical Journal 347 (2013): 1–11. It atrophies grey matter.51Mathias Basner et al., “Auditory and non-auditory effects of noise on health”: 1329. It creeps into the womb, disturbing fetal development.52Laura M. Argys, Averett, Susan L., Yang, Muzhe, “Residential noise exposure and health: Evidence from aviation noise and birth outcomes,” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 103 (2020): 1–31. The bodies noise haunts, like pollution air and light, are dark. Black and brown neighborhoods across America are, on average, twice as noisy as white enclaves.53Joan A. Casey et al., “Race/Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Status, Residential Segregation, and Spatial Variation in Noise Exposure in the Contiguous United States,” Environmental Health Perspectives 125 (July 2017): 1–10.

Twelve charts illustrating a neighborhood's night time noise levels based on its demographic factors, including: the percentage of occupants who graduated high school, the percentage of occupants unemployed, the percentage of occupants living in poverty, the the percentage of occupants by race.
America’s sonic geography. Average daytime-nightime noise indexes race, education, and status.

Next to Rochdale, along the northbound flight path from JFK and just beyond LaGuardia International Airport, is Rikers Island. Population: 11,091. Rikers is not a neighborhood; it is a prison. Like Rochdale, Rikers’ population is predominantly Black—63%—and the sonic geographic is “annoying”—71 decibels.54“2018 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,” United States Census Bureau,; ”Monthly Noise Monitor Report for JFK, LGA, and EWR,” The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, But inside solitary confinement, where the complex's inmates of color are most likely to held, there are “no sounds at all.”55Thomas Silverstein as quoted in Jean Casella, Ridgeway, James, “America’s Most Isolated Federal Prisoner Describes 10,220 Days in Extreme Solitary Confinement,” Solitary Watch, May 5, 2011,; Melinda Tasca and Turanovic, Jillian, “Examining Race and Gender Disparities in Restrictive Housing Placements” (Washington D.C.: National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 2018). Within days, the deprivation produces an “ontological derangement.”56Lisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 166. Eddie Griffin, a prisoner held in solitary at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, writes:

The cell itself contains a flat steel slab jutting from the wall. Overlaying the slab is a one-inch piece of foam wrapped in coarse plastic. This is supposed to be a bed. Yet it cuts so deeply into the body when one lays on it, that the body literally reeks with pain. After a few days, you are totally numb. Feelings become indistinct, emotions unpredictable. The monotony makes thoughts hard to separate and capsulate. The eyes grow weary of the scene, and shadows appear around the periphery, causing sudden reflexive action. Essentially, the content of a man’s mind is the only means to defend his sanity.57Eddie Griffin as quoted in Stephen Dillon, “The Prisoner’s Dream: Queer Visions from Solitary Confinement,” Qui Parle 23 (Spring/Summer 2015): 165.

I wonder what Kagge would make of this place. In cells like Griffin’s, the liberatory potential of silence metastasizes into its opposite. Silence is not virtuous; it is punishment for those deemed incapable of virtue. Silence is hardly “a true friend”; it marks social death, intimacy’s impossibility. Silence doesn’t “nourish wisdom” nor anything; it turns the mind against itself. Silence is not God incarnate; it leaves families praying for the return of their fathers, mothers, children. And silence is not luxurious; it is all you have besides a jumpsuit. What separates quiet sanctuary from purgatory—Selfridges’ Silence Room from Rikers’—is the ability to reclaim one’s phone and shoes after enough is enough and carry on shopping. Here, in a box of sixty square feet, bordered on all sides by thick slabs of concrete and galvanized steel plates that shut the world out, silence silences.

Silenc(e)(ing), or the Duck–Rabbit

Silence is oft weaponized as an instrument of state “acoustic violence.”58María Edurne Zuazu, “Loud but Non-lethal: Acoustic Stagings and State-Sponsored Violence,” Women and Music 19 (2015): 153. A means of, in Audre Lorde’s terms, ensuring that those “never meant to survive... will not be heard.”59Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival,” The Black Unicorn (New York: Norton and Company, 1978). So is loudness. As Voltaire observed, writing in eighteenth-century France, conquest is announced and qualified—even advertised—by sound: “It is forbidden to kill. Therefore, all murders are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets.”60Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version with Notes, ed. Tobias Smollett (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 1901), 106–107.

To disperse Black Lives Matters protests of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old African American, the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department deployed the Genesys 1000Xi Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), a trumpet-esque device capable of producing a shriek unmatched by the reveille of Voltaire’s day. Following its use in Ferguson, the LRAD became standard-issue equipment in police barracks across the nation. In an early 2015 earnings call celebrating “a renewed interest” for the device initially developed for battlefields in the Middle East, Genesys chief executive Tom Brown—unrelated—described the device as an icon of humanitarian policing.61Lee Fang, Acoustic Cannon Sales to Police Surge after Black Lives Matter Protests,” The Intercept, August 14, 2015, https:// after-ferguson-baltimore/.

Two white male police officers dressed in tactical gear atop an armored vehicle. The officer at right speaks into a microphone attached to his black helmet, which broadcasts through the rectangular grey speaker in front of him. The officer to his left lies on his stomach and looks through the scrope of an automatic rifle, with his finger on the trigger.
A sniper and Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) operator keep watch over a Black Lives Matter protest in Ferguson, Missouri. The LRAD features a similar scope with cross-hairs to aim its sonic beam.

But his design suggests otherwise. The 1000Xi, borrowing from the tactical rifle, allows an operator to target the location of its beam through the scope of a viewfinder with crosshairs. It can induce nausea, vomiting, and loss of bowel control and, at 159 decibels, is just one short of the force that ruptures eardrums.62Daphne Carr, “Understanding the LRAD, the ‘Sound Cannon’ Police Are Using at Protests, and How to Protect Yourself From It,” Pitchfork, June 9, 2020,; “LRAD 1000Xi Long Range Communication System: Datasheet,” Genasys, Accessed December 7, 2020, The LRAD thus demands racial silence at the threat of making solitary confinement—and its deafening silence— corporeal.63Guilaine Kinouani, “Silencing, power and racial trauma in groups,” Group Analysis 53 (2020): 146–161.

Here, Kagge’s “right to silence” takes on a twisted polysemy, hinting that the right to enjoy silence and the right to silence others are kin. A conjunction which, like the duck–rabbit, may readily transmute. His declaration that “silence is a luxury for every living creature” appears more straightforward. Straightforwardly incorrect. Be it in Antarctica, Selfridges, the poetic and filmic worlds of Robert Frost and John Langley, Castle Garden, Rochdale, Rikers, or Ferguson, silence is thoroughly racialized. A luxury for certain living creatures. That is, unless we follow Lorde’s reminder that some never counted as living in the first place.