The way a city sounds has something to do with how its residents move around and interact. It also has to do with the decisions made by the local government, as it tries to eliminate “harmful” and “unnecessary” sounds. This project discusses how residents of São Paulo deal with noise conflicts and the sound-politics these mediations entail. As with most concepts in the social sciences, sound-politics is a discursive device that addresses a set of questions by linking texts to the “actual” world – in this case, my experience in São Paulo. The questions it addresses relate to social conflicts that are mediated through sounds. Although these conflicts do not necessarily involve the state, they are in general either entangled in existing laws or stimulate the creation of new ones. In this project, my discussion of sound-politics involves three main actors: the authorities responsible for creating and enforcing laws related to sound in accordance with body and spatial conventions; the sound-makers who break these laws, often without knowing that they exist; and complainers, who dislike the sounds and call on lawmakers and law enforcers to resolve the noise problem. Complainers may dislike the sound because they dislike the sound-maker(s), or, conversely, dislike the sound-maker(s) because they dislike their sounds; it is often hard to tell the cause from the effect, which is why ethnography is so important.
Sound-politics is clearly linked to noise, commonly defined as unwanted sound. The major difference between the two is that not all noises generate social conflicts, and not every sound that provokes conflict is defined as “noise” by sound-makers, complainers, and authorities. This difference became clear to me during fieldwork. I quickly realized that labeling a given sound as noise implied an interpretation of that sound, which could compromise my ability to understand what was at stake for each actor involved in the controversy.