Managing Noise and Creating Silence

Article excerpt

In his pioneering book on aesthetics and organization, Antonio Strati begins with a description of a working environment:

Music can be heard from the street below. It is sweet music, and is played well, but it never stops. The walls and windows fail to block it out; they merely reduce its volume. The person playing the music has the right to do so; it is his job. But the two women inside the building at work in the secretary's office are also entitled not to be disturbed. The music is sweet, but the initial pleasure that it aroused has faded, and the pleasant surprise felt by the two secretaries when they first heard it has now changed into obsession. They confide in me their secret wish that the music would disappear, and that the player would disappear along with it. (1999:1)

This passage is mainly about sounds and noises. Although the book introduces principles of general aesthetics and gives attention to aesthetics as a methodological perspective on organization studies, it does not return to the auditive sensorium. Strati concentrates instead on the visuality of aesthetics. This is in no way an omission but it underlines the prevalence of the visual in our culture and therefore too in organization studies. From the second part of the twentieth century on, images have dominated daily life. Mass media and especially television have created a culture of images that is closely related to organizations. Branding, advertisement, public rrelations, etc. have all helped to relate organizations to visual images. Companies present themselves as an image and have helped to create a powerful visual environment where the gaze takes central stage. Still, despite the predominance of the visual, noises and sound play an important part in our daily life as carriers of meaning. City life may be dominated by bill boards, shopping windows, and visual elements, nevertheless noise and sounds are ubiquitous and acoustic signals influence our daily life although we tend not to notice them as much as visual stimuli. This also applies to organizations, as the passage cited above demonstrates.

In organizations we are surrounded by sounds and noises.

In this essay I want to explore the auditive aspects of organizations. More specifically, I want to put forth the idea of managing an acoustic environment in organizations, for organizations and management deal with sound and noise in a specific way that underlines the organization hierarchy and control. I intend to explore how noise and sound is regulated and what the implications of these regulations are for the organization and the people in it. At first glance this may seem a strange question to ask, especially in office environments. It is clear that in order to concentrate at work a certain silence is needed. Still, the question is whether silence is created just to help concentration or if it serves other goals. In blue-collar environments there is often concern about the noise levels in the factory, and attention is given to control the noises of work. What I will try to show is that the reduction of noise and control of sound in organizations also has a social and managerial function. It has implications for the way people work together and reflects the way organizations are organized.

After a brief historical reference to the relation between work and sound, I will turn to the historical invention of noise as an existing annoyance to be reduced, while sound is an acoustic environment created and wanted. The annoyance of noise brings the concept of silence as peace and concentration to the fore. Noise, sound, and silence can be managed and put into use in social settings. Sound therefore can be used as a disciplinary device analogous to what Foucault has explained about the use of light. Being in the realm of a voice or a sound is to be obethent to that voice.

The distinction between sound and silence, I argue, is one of meaning. Drawing on Michel Serres, I want to focus on the effort put into getting rid of noise, to selecting sp,e sounds as meaningful and discarding others as noise. …