Mute Sound

by John Mowitt

These remarks take up the theme of pandemic media by considering online instructional platforms such as Zoom, MS Teams, and the like to examine, as it were, both sides of the coin: the role such media play during the coronavirus pandemic, but also the role the pandemic plays in giving sense to our relation to such media. Specifically, in thinking about the place of sound on such platforms, the iconography of microphones both muted and unmuted, this contribution examines how Mara Mills’s concept of “telephonic hearing” is given fresh relevance in online instruction, both in deepening the divide between sound and voice, and by reactivating Michel Chion’s concept of the “acousmêtre.” Recast as what sounds in mute sound, the “acousmêtre” at our finger tips prompts consideration of an instructive pandemonium coursing through and as the pandemic.


[Fig. 1] In Line Instruction (Source: u/Balcion 2017)

The motto is designed to provoke a certain obstinacy. Specifically, the normal, whether old or new, is almost certainly overrated. It is only a preposition away from the pathology to which it has been opposed. Now more than ever.

Although unlikely to leap out, pandemic (an epidemic that has affected the global demoz) has deep connotative links to both panic and pandemonium. Hysteria, as both cause and effect, of a pandemic makes this hard to miss. At the hub of these connotative spokes sits Pan and his pipes. Pan spooks, he stirs up animals, provoking them to respond to his piping with noise. This quintessential figure of what Michel Foucault would call “pastoral power” not only splices sound to such power, but splices sound to the pandemic. Where I live, in Northern England, the lockdown has changed the “soundscape” much in the same way that deep snow does. As with the birds recorded “singing” after the cessation of hostilities on 11 November 1918, an intensely “low-fi” ambience was abruptly displaced by the lockdown, as if sonic modernity had been literally thrown into reverse. Nothing has been more affected than musical sound, which is now aggressively rerouted through home studios (Joan Baez’s kitchen, or Ryuichi Sakamoto’s New York flat, for example), balconies and instruments (one thinks here of the panelaço in Rio, or Charlie Watts’s “air drums”). But I want to listen for something else. I have called it “mute sound.”

Terry Eagleton’s humour is not to everyone’s liking. Perhaps not even to him. A personal favourite is the Cavellian riff he once elaborated on the sentence: “dogs must be carried on the escalator.” He seizes immediately on the imperative ambiguity of the descriptive—if you have a dog it must be carried while you ride the escalator—versus the prescriptive—if you wish to ride the escalator you must do so while carrying a dog—“versions” of the same sentence. His point is oriented toward answering the question, “what is literature?” Mine is different.

As those of us involved in that aspect of academic labour called teaching move this and other activities online we come face to face with the screen and the various apps (software platforms) that organize our relation to it. It is here that I encounter “mute sound,” an imperative rife with many of the same ambiguities Eagleton teased out of “dogs must be carried on the escalator.” Instructions for use thus seem called for. Especially in the context of “meetings” involving numerous participants, one is typically advised to “mute sound” so as to minimize interference on the line. At issue are not voices, but the random ambient noises that sonically profile them. Too much of the latter is thought to render the former unintelligible. On the screen, before our eyes, the icon provided for this functionality is that of a microphone that when muted is placed sous rature, that is, it is struck through with the “universal” mark of prohibition. In this it resembles the hardware graphics of the computer’s volume control (significantly a loudspeaker) that is also struck through when fully muted. As with the Heideggerian “kreuzweise Durchstreichung,” we can see the sign of sound (both voice and noise) transmission, and we can see that it is struck through. Off. Interestingly, we “hear” that it is muted typically when someone says “unmute your mic,” as the digital technology does not permit us to hear the absence of our ambient noise in the shared feed. Lips moving and voices speaking line up, but ambiguities begin to crackle. Not all of them electromagnetic.

The microphone, as Pauline Oliveros would insist, is a promiscuous transducer. It picks up everything and everyone, converting all into electronic signals. By design. Muting it online draws attention to a difference between the voice and noise, reminding us that the desired sound, the one meant to be facilitated by the microphone, is the voice. The undesirable sound, the noise, is the space, the room of the voice. What then is the icon of the microphone an icon of? A device or an effect? A difference or an indifference? Mute sound? Is it simply an instruction uttered in the imperative, necessitated by the aim of facilitating an exchange with which it interferes? Is sound something that a microphone properly metonymizes? Sound in what sense? At issue here is something Mara Mills and Avital Ronell, in their radically distinctive ways, invite us to think about: is there a break in the line? Are we present before an emerging, thus new normal, mutation in telephonic hearing?

This question has been taken up most emphatically in Mills’s essay, “Hearing Things: Telephones and Auditory Theory,” where she graphs the rise and fall of telephonic hearing. Like Friedrich Kittler, she splices hearing and the telephone through the notion of the prosthetic supplement (Edison’s deafness), noting that the apparatus effectively usurped the perceptual faculty by urging that we, and the acoustic engineers among us, think about human hearing on the model of telephonic communication and its privileging of intelligibility (picking out phonemes) over fidelity (picking up details of the soundscape). Implicit in this model is a notion of transductive analogy, that is, the idea that like a telephone that moves an information rich signal from point a to point b, hearing itself involves an analogical alignment between sound wave frequencies and otio-electrical currents triggered in the brain. The expression: “I hear what you are saying,” is a miniaturization of the entire model. Successive audiological descriptions of the functioning of the human ear and attention to the auto-poetic capacity of transduction to create what it carried, eventually cut the line between telephone technology and hearing. Microphone and receiver, and even loudspeaker (“speaker phone”) lost their loop and the telephone faded as an audiological model.

Mute sound. To the extent that, in the context of online congregations it visualizes a segregated distribution of sound shaped by the difference between voice and noise, it oddly works to restore telephonic hearing. Fidelity has returned to the fore, a fact acknowledged in the “rate this call” survey that now concludes virtually every online exchange. It is as though all oral/aural communication has become postcoital: how was it for you? The question is its own answer. There is here, however, more than a simple and direct restoration of telephonic hearing. Hang ups are suggestively catachrestic. A model has morphed.

To amplify this one does well to note that the telephone figures prominently in Michel Chion’s thinking about his analytical neologism, the “acousmêtre,” a portmanteau (acoustique + être + maître) he employs to track the distinctly sonic curve of narrative suspense in the cinema. Like one’s telephonic interlocutor, the “acousmêtre” is absent from the visual field. But unlike the party to whom one is speaking, the cinematic “acousmêtre” always threatens to appear and thus has a determined hermeneutic force, precisely in rendering its “de-acousmatization” (to use Chion’s mot d’art) narratively consequential. William Castle’s 1965 film, I Saw What You Did deftly twists the strands that wire together the apparatus of the telephone, and the menacing figure of the “acousmêtre,” in this case an uxoricide. Crucial to the hermeneutic force of the “acousmêtre” is the oft-remarked fact that a film aggressively subjects its audience to the syntax of its sights and sounds. The “owner” of Mrs. Bates’s voice in Psycho (her skull is now at the Cinémathèque in Paris), de-acousmatizes on the film’s time, decidedly not ours. Its appearance shocks and means. This effect, and its significance would appear to interfere with a pandemical restoration of telephonic hearing.

Although often indexed to technical matters having to do with signal strength, bandwidth, server stability etc., it is common that with online interfacing one engages in a rhythm of acousmatization and de-acousmatization; one mutes one’s microphone, and blinds (?) one’s camera. If you continue speaking with the camera blinded one assumes the position of the “acousmêtre” and online teleconferencing mimics telephony directly. However, the etiquette in play—”could you mute your sound/un-blind your camera” (an insistently “oral” thus acoustic gesturing, unless the supplement of “signing” is in play)—deprives the “acoustmêtre” of its hermeneutic force. Its mastery of Bertolt Brecht’s long sought “two-way” communication here operates to drain all drama from the event of de-acousmatization, producing the distinctively exhausting tedium of online interfacing whether teaching or meeting. The moment of disclosure is just a click away and the syntax of sight and sound (the “film”) falls willy-nilly into our hands.

Or does it? In Mills’s discussion of the crisis of telephonic hearing, she points to the gradual but irreversible separation between the psychoacoustic account of hearing, and the model of telephonic transduction. She spends less time on the matter of what happens to telephony as a result of this separation, a history that would include the emergence of online teleconferencing. Although she does not italicize it, the fate of transduction figures crucially in such a history. It too is caught up in the fade of the telephonic model, not merely as an aspect of the model, but as a concept subject to technical modelling. Not surprisingly, transduction has attracted the attention of many, everyone from Gilbert Simondon and Gilles Deleuze to Adrian MacKenzie and Jonathan Sterne. And, if this matters it is because the puzzle of transduction breathes new life into the figure of the “acousmêtre.” It does so by evoking and thus generating a matrix behind or beneath the etiquette of the muting/blinding where de-acousmatization reacquires hermeneutic force, not in the syntax of narrative (whose voice organizes the plot?), but in the operation of the medium (how is the signal possible?)

To get at this, another sense of “mute sound” asks to be heard. Instead of hearing it as an instruction, hear it as a description. Sound that is mute. Not sound that is muted or muffled, but sound that cannot be voiced. Or better, sound that is not phonic, but sonic. In his tenacious reading of Pascal Quignard’s “treatise” on language, Jean-Francois Lyotard elaborates a contrast between music and “la mutique,” in order to bring forward a music that falls before, yet sounds (Quignard says “bellows”) within music. In this spirit might we not invoke mute sound as a way to bring forward a sound before sound? Again, not merely non-vocal sound, but sound prior to a model of hearing modelled on telephony. The commotion produced by the tree falling un-miked in the forest. From behind its “strike through,” the muted microphone transduces an appearance that simultaneously promises and defies de-acousmatization. What (certainly not “who”) makes the sound before sound? Can it be picked up by the camera? Such questions and others parasitize the online interface and they transfer to the digital medium of the computer all the hermeneutic force of de-acousmatization, but now realized through a potential gesture of disclosure that defies location in space and time.

At the Greek root of mute lies mouh. It means to close one’s eyes or lips, and in thus connoting secrecy (“mum’s the word”) quickly suggests initiation and mystery. As muting and unmuting belong to apps enabling and even now sustaining online instruction, their use places education back where it belongs. In the (dis)seminary. Serendipitously, the OED tells us that in biology, transduction designates the work of a virus, the transfer of foreign genetic material into an organism. Perhaps it is this that post-telephonic transduction threatens to de-acousmatize, not the pocked face of the virus stirring the current pandemic, but the operation of the pandemic within our techno-pedagogical response to it. Or maybe even the pandemical character of all initiation, the collective drive to expose all to the mute sound.

A reminder, however immodest, that we may not yet grasp the crisis of well-being at hand. We cannot simply respond to it. It is in the operation of this response. Just pick up the phone. Take or make the call. Raise your hand. Unmute sound.

Would like to acknowledge everyone affiliated with the Konfigurationen des Films research group at J.W. Goethe Universität and thank them warmly for their hospitality and the generous invitation to patch into their circuit.


Chion, Michel. 1999. Voice in the Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1997. “Music, Mutic.” In Postmodern Fables. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mara Mills. 2007. “Hearing Things: Telephones and Auditory Theory.” In Variantology 2: On Deep Time Relations of Arts, Sciences and Technologies, edited by Siegfried Zielinski and David Link, 229-256. Köln: Walther König Verlag.