Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control

Hush: Media and Sonic Self Control by Mack Hagood

Reviews and Endorsements

“Hagood writes movingly… Once you begin to think about the relationship between the sound waves that constantly pass through us and the potential loss of self, you become more attuned to all the beckoning noises of modern life… The constant efforts to sonically sculpt our emotional realities.”
— Hua Hsu, The New Yorker

“Hush is provocative and insightful.”
— Stephen Phillips, The Wire

“Hagood leaves us rethinking media theory, sound studies, and the definition of media.” — John F. Barber, Leonardo Reviews

“Mack Hagood retunes the field of sound studies… Hush inserts sound into critical debates about affect, ‘filter bubbles,’ and productivity apps. By the end of the book you wonder how sound could have previously been so overlooked in these arenas.”
— Mara Mills

Hush is challenging and imaginative; read it and you will learn to think differently about sound, noise, silence, and meaning.” — Jonathan Sterne

“A fascinating study of our efforts to control sound and, through it, our emotional and political lives. As Mack Hagood shows, the sonic and the social are never far apart and are best thought together.” — Fred Turner


For almost sixty years, media technologies have promised users the ability to create sonic safe spaces for themselves—from bedside white noise machines to Beats by Dre’s “Hear What You Want” ad campaign, in which Colin Kaepernick’s headphones protect him from taunting crowds. In Hush, Mack Hagood draws evidence from noise-canceling headphones, tinnitus maskers, LPs that play ocean sounds, nature-sound mobile apps, and in-ear smart technologies to argue the true purpose of media is not information transmission, but rather the control of how we engage our environment. These devices, which Hagood calls orphic media, give users the freedom to remain unaffected in the changeable and distracting spaces of contemporary capitalism and reveal how racial, gendered, ableist, and class ideologies shape our desire to block unwanted sounds. In a noisy world of haters, trolls, and information overload, guarded listening can be a necessity for self-care, but Hagood argues our efforts to shield ourselves can also decrease our tolerance for sonic and social difference. Challenging our self-defeating attempts to be free of one another, he rethinks media theory, sound studies, and the very definition of media.

Duke University Press, March 2019

Cover design by Matt Tauch. | Google Books | Indiebound | Amazon

Phantom Power

Phantom Power is a podcast series I produce and host. In each episode, I interview established and emerging sound scholars and practitioners, using sound design and music to bring their work to life between your ears.

In part, the show is an experiment in how to do humanities scholarship in sound, using the podcast form to present original research, translate written publications into compelling audio, and generate works useful to scholars and broader audiences alike.

Phantom Power

Guests have included Rick Altman, Caroline Bergvall, Lawrence English, Charles Hayward (This Heat), Robin James, Shannon Mattern, Mara Mills, Jacob Smith, Jennifer Stoever, and more. Topics have included the affective politics of EDM, auditory inkblots, the automotive dimensions of chopped and screwed hip hop, the ultrasonic communication of New York rats, radio art, the sonic color line, the sound of silent film, and the voice of Yoko Ono.

Phantom Power was initially funded through a generous startup grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and The National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as the Robert H. and Nancy J. Blayney Endowment.

You can listen and subscribe at or wherever you get your podcasts.

Selected Publications

The links below lead to the original publishers’ sites. You can also find these articles and more of my work (and in many cases, PDFs) at my page.

Cage’s Echoes of the Anechoic.” 2022. Australian Humanities Review, Issue 70, November 2022.

Here I explore the mythology around John Cage’s visit to the anechoic chamber at Harvard. The chamber was designed to completely eliminate echoes. Ironically, the tale of Cage’s experience in that space has echoed through history, affecting our understanding of silence, sound, and the self. But what do we really know about what happened there? And what could we ever know about such an event? To use a term Cage loved, the relationship between sound, self, and meaning-making is indeterminate. 

Tinnitus, Exclusion, Relationality (Beyond Normate Phenomenology).” 2021. (A dialogue with Marie Thompson, introduction by Jonathan Sterne.) Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 3.

In this dialogue with Marie Thompson, each we discuss our ongoing research into tinnitus. The more you objectify, other, and push against tinnitus, the louder and more troubling it becomes. People who carefully guard their ears and avoid sound often end up with even worse tinnitus. This lesson that I learned from tinnitus (as a researcher and someone who experiences it) has became my model for all listening: from phantom sound to imagined sound, to acoustic sound, to figurative listening online, to political listening.

The Scholarly Podcast: Form and Function in Audio Academia.” 2021. In Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography, Jeremy Morris and Eric Hoyt, eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 181-194.

In this chapter, I provide an over- view of what I call “audio academia”: a diverse collection of initiatives aimed at producing and communicating scholarship through electronic audio in the form of podcasts, audiobooks, online lectures, and other genres. I examine its past precedents, rationale, current forms, and future possibilities. I then turn to study the scholarly podcast per se, which currently includes two main types: what I call “hi-fi, mid-register” shows for broad audiences and “lo-fi, high-register” shows for scholars. I conclude by advocating for a third, fledgling type of podcast that draws inspiration from both, taking audio production seriously as a mode of scholarship.

“Emotional Rescue: Consuming media is as much about managing feeling as accessing information.” Real Life. December 3, 2020.

This piece begins with the example of recent digital-audio pillow technologies used to soothe the media consumer. The cozy conflation of content and comfort, however, is not a recent digital development. Nor is it, I would argue, a quirky edge case of media use. In fact, this is what media are: tools for altering how the body feels and what it perceives, controlling our relationship to others and the world, enveloping ourselves, and even disappearing ourselves.

Here: Active Listening System Sound Technologies and the Personalization of Listening.” 2018. In Appified: Culture in the Age of Apps. Morris, Jeremy Wade and Murray, Sarah (eds.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 276-285. 

Examines in-ear wearable computer technology (“hearables”) an example of both what I call “the silicon sonic turn” and the customization of individual listening through orphic media. Hearables function as interfaces with the aural world, recasting the latter as content to be selectively accessed and manipulated–inserting a logic and responsibility of choice into the relationship with the lived aural environment.

“Disability and Biotechnological Mediation.” 2017. In Disability Media Studies:  Media, Popular Culture, and the Meanings of DisabilityElizabeth Ellcessor and Bill Kirkpatrick, eds. New York: New York University Press, 311-329.

Proposes a framework for the study of biomediation that disentangles medical uses of media technologies from the medical model of disability. Media do far more than represent disability: they are also used to set bodily norms, circulate normative knowledge, test/screen bodies against this knowledge, catalog/regulate screened bodies, mediate bodies for therapeutic purposes. The framework is explained through the case study of tinnitus screening, therapy, and advocacy.

The Twelfth Man: Fan Noise in the Contemporary NFL.” (Co-authored with Travis Vogan.) Popular Communication Volume 14:1 (2016). 

Using Seattle’s 12th Man and the discourses surrounding it, this essay examines the relationship between sound, space, and fandom in the contemporary National Football League. We consider how fans’ sonic labor is constitutive of their place within a fan community; the relationship between sound and fandom’s spatial and affective dimensions; and how contemporary sport and media organizations capitalize on fans’ production of sound and the embodied experience and communal identity it fashions. Specifically, the league has shifted from regulating fan noise as an interruption to cultivating it as a communicative resource that adds value to games, both in person and in television through surround-sound mixes.

The Tinnitus Trope: Acoustic Trauma in Narrative Film.” 2015. The Cine-Files Issue 8, Spring.

A brief history and analysis of what I call “the tinnitus trope,” cinematic sound design evoking a damaged auditory perspective through ringing noise and a reduction of ambient environmental sound. I provide a historical timeline of the effect from 1970 to 2014 and use spectral analysis to evaluate an earlier technological claim about the effect’s advent. I also suggest two possible reasons for this effect becoming so prevalent: 1) after 9-11, consequence-free Hollywood explosions were no longer tenable and 2) an ascendant neurological conception of self has supplanted the unconscious, Freudian self in American culture. Instead of the remembered voices and voiceover narration of post-WWII film noir, we now hear the wordless signal of blown ears and short-circuiting brains.

Unpacking a Punch: Transduction and the Sound of Combat Foley in Fight Club.” 2014. Cinema Journal Volume 53:4.

This article unpacks the production and impact of the Foley punch in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) to theorize the sonic transmission of affect in cinema. It advocates transduction as a model for a soundtrack analysis that acknowledges the already-mediated nature of aural subjectivity and allows for authenticity in electronically mediated experiences.

Listening to Tinnitus: Roles of Media When Hearing Breaks Down.” Sounding Out!: The Sound Studies Blog, July 16, 2012.

In this short study of tinnitus and the roles media play in its creation, diagnosis, treatment, and public discourse, I advocate for an “applied sound studies, one that intervenes in this mediated public discourse, works against moral panic and hyperawareness, and suggests the quieting possibilities that open up when we grasp the constructed nature of our aurality.” Listening carefully to tinnitus can highlight the ways in which our most subjective aural perceptions are also social, cultural, and mediated—perhaps the fundamental insight of sound studies. My hope is that by listening critically to tinnitus we can speak to it as well, helping tinnitus sufferers find relief.

QuietComfort: Noise, Otherness, and the Mobile Production of Personal Space.” 2011. American Quarterly Special Issue: Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies Volume 63:3.

An examination of noise-canceling headphone’s invention and early marketing, both of which bear a special relationship to the airport and commercial airplane–paradoxical spaces in which the pursuit of happiness impedes its own enjoyment. In the early 2000’s, Bose headphones were marketed primarily to white, male, business-class travelers, offering the promise of “a haven of tranquility.” The article studies headphones as technologies of self-care in deregulated, neoliberal settings; it also critiques the ways that structural problems can be perceived as gendered and radicalized noise.


Photo of Mack HagoodI’m  Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Miami University, Ohio and the producer/host of Phantom Power.

Research: Ethnographic and archival studies of digital media, sound technologies, disability, and popular music.

Teaching: Sound studies, digital media, ethnographic methods, and audio production.

I have published work on subjects such as tinnitus, the use of noise-canceling headphones in air travel, the noise of fans in NFL football stadiums, indie rock in Taiwan, and the ontology of Foley and digital film sound.

My book Hush: Media and Sonic Self Control is about “orphic media,” apps and devices such as white noise makers and noise-canceling headphones, used to create a comfortable sense of space through sound. This concept is the namesake of the mythic figure in the image above, Orpheus, whose expert control of sound and music fostered social and spiritual communion. Today’s sonic media technologies wield this orphic power, but often neglect its communitarian potentials in order to control individual attention and personal comfort. In the image, instead of singing and playing his lyre to connect with his love, Orpheus disconnects with noise-canceling headphones.

In the past, I have worked as a writer and editor for print and digital publications, created music for independent film projects, and played guitar for the Americana group Pinetop Seven.