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The Sound of Panopticon

"In most universities, all examinations and tests are nowadays done by writing, so in theory, one could actually survive the whole of academic life and get a degree without ever opening one’s mouth. Until the viva: at this point, when undergoing the key initiatory ritual, one has to “give voice,” one must not just display one’s knowledge but perform one’s knowledge.

  • Mladen Dolar

Picture Credit: Williams Art Gallery

Mladen Dolar’s A Voice and Nothing More introduces its subject (or rather, the interpellation of the Object) with a remarkable legend. Set in the trenches of a battle, an Italian general with his division prepares for imminent attack. As he commands, “Soldiers, attack!”, nobody makes a move or reacts until someone in the background exclaims, “Che Bella Voce!” (“What a Beautiful Voice”). In this legend, we see two interpellations - one of the much-stereotyped vision of Italians being wary of a brave fight, and the idea of their cultural scholarship. The Italians being connoisseurs of Opera, distinguish passion from an undifferentiating melody. It is this differentiation that marks this essay - A Voice and nothing more.

Acoustic Epistemology: Acoustemology

It is at work everywhere, infinitesimal waves of air floating around. We sense and perceive it without an end - the clicks of my laptop keyboard, the ruffle of traffic outside my library, the calls of the vegetable vendor, and the echoing gunshots of a riot. Acoustic energy is as powerful as its wielder. Objects and agencies that make a sound - sonic materiality - need placement of actors and audio-visual agency in other material arrangements. Our bodies that already embody a theatre of acts and attitudes experience an indeterminate dissociation of sensations from processes of meaning-making. To listen and to make a sound is a cultural signifier - one cannot experience sound without having an extrinsic culture that morphs itself with each actor.

To understand sonic objects everywhere, Joseph Klett (2014) outlines three important and non-exhaustive sonic object settings:

  1. Presence: What sonic objects are available to the subject? What is their relevance?

  2. Orientation: Where are the actors? How are they positioned? Do they move?

  3. Attention: What and how is the actor’s state of mind? Is it zoned out? Is it engrossed?

The mere reaction of actors to sonic energy is not enough to chart a critical ethnography of acoustic sociologies. The organised space of differentiated stimuli is important to mark the availability of sonic objects. Processes of sound-making and the energy taken to absorb and re-enact the theatrics of the organised space form crucial elements of acoustemology. Moreover, the placement of these objects in a space can also reveal and enact various subspaces of blackness where acoustic energy never reaches. The orientation of a person’s head reveals important information on how they receive sounds - a slight tilt of the head can make them perceptible to a whisper amidst a chaotic melee. Finally, the structure of the organised space inhibits or precludes acoustic energy - concavity, convexity, or an apparently infinite openness between the actors.

Acoustic Allegories

The ability to be an actor in an acoustic space, to listen and to remain audible, means a certain degree of cultural legibility. Audibility implies being culturally significant. We might be reminded of Gramscian hegemony as a metaphor for global audibility. To be heard and to produce a voice requires a near central placement in our communal or private spaces. Cultural legibility needs to be separated from audibility and the biological reflex of hearing. Here, one might think of Reverberation of sound as hegemony - loud sounds that echo in a concave space mask whispers and background sounds. The concavity of our closed spaces - a self-critical nationalist, (masochistic) majoritarian polities, and caste. These spaces reflect and focus internal ideologies onto their subjects, how is sound any different?

These soundscapes are a world and a culture constructed to make sense of our spaces. However, we also must delve into the concept of noise. Melodious sound and noise have a social difference. As the Dutch historian, Karin Bijsterveld remarks, “Social elites not only consider the lower classes insensitive to smell and bestial odours but also to be indifferent to noise.” In post-colonial literature, one might find political ideas surrounding cleanliness and noise apropos the colonial subject, “We are clean, they are noisy and dirty.” The concept of otherness (Frantz Fanon, Leela Gandhi, Homi Bhabha) bodes well with and mirrors the idea of black voids in acoustic spaces. The colonial other and the indigenous subaltern are subspaces where sound does not venture. If the subaltern could speak, its subspace would mute its sonic energies (read: culture of the subaltern).

Loudspeakers and Metal Detectors

The voice of authority in our cities and towns does not need a physical apparition. The authority inherits and perfects the ability to orient acoustic energies in our spaces - the orientation of voice and sonic object in communal corners and every intersection of society. The power of these acoustic energies achieves a manifestation of authority as a meta-physical ubiquity - the loudspeaker of order distances the state but also reminds us of its proximity to our private spheres. The state remains un-addressable and yet addresses our acts. A similar argument surrounds the sounds of modernity and cosmopolitan capitalism.

Flying Lotus - Post Requisite

We now turn to the Panopticon. The prison is neither deaf nor mute. The concavity of the prison implies a quasi-auditorium of authoritarian acoustics. The prisoner hears the shoes of the authority, the sound of the locks, maybe a tortured inmate. The sounds of this prison reverberate and are non-linear, they mask and bear heavily on the inmate, who is consequently hypnotised into the sound of incarceration or the rare moments of ringing silence across the hall.

Discourses on this panopticon in everyday life are too obvious for me to articulate in this short ruminate, but I am briefly reminded of security guards in the wake of US school violence. This phenomenon is special in many respects. The presence of heavy security for order assumes a sense of disorder beyond the corpus of the school in loco parentis. The privatisation of security necessitates a cosmopolitan industry of school security, harbouring a new normal of competition for new tech guns and weapons. The body of the student is now for the guard and the mind belongs to the teacher, a two-pronged approach for indoctrination. However, the watch of the guard need not succeed with subordination, but also with fraternisation. The ability of the students to fraternise with the guards presents a new example of subversion within the panopticon. After all, we do cheat in an exam with invigilators - the creation of law can also create a desire to subvert by the mere existence of the acts that surround it. Noise has social power of its own. Noise, as in, the traditional subspaces of the subaltern and the acoustic energy that constitutes its cultural signifiers. Dalit spaces have been pitted against the seemingly harmonised universe of Brahmanical loudspeakers. However, we often witness the subaltern attempting to reclaim the agency that they have been denied or humiliated for. I wish to end this note with a piece of music that maybe captures such movements of reclamation, even if they remain cosmopolitan in their approach.

Dhee ft. Arivu - Enjoy Enjaami (Prod. Santhosh Narayanan)


By Kunal Panda

Kunal Panda is a graduate majoring in Economics from Hindu College, University of Delhi. a Pushkar Prize nominee, he strives to pursue intersectionality in his research. His academic interests include Political Economy and Genser Studies, having recently reviewed the psychoanalytic facade of ideology and asthetics, under a broad view of fetishism and gender performativity. He is also an ardent reader of epic literature. He aims to be an educator one day.


Cluett, Seth. 2010. “Acoustic Projection and the Politics of Sound.” Princeton University Centre for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

Devine, John. 1995. “Can Metal Detectors Replace the Panopticon?” Cultural Anthropology 10 (2): 171-95.

Dolar, Mladen. 2006. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT.