"Listen and Learn through Civil Defense": Exploring the Governmental Sound Design of an Atomic Age Aurality

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM
Chicago Ballroom C (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Jessica Schwartz, New York University
Nuclear weapons operated under the veil of a politics of silence. The bomb would silence anything it touched, its development demanded unprecedented secrecy, and preparation against its devastation required a modality of listening for the un-hearable. This paper investigates how aural orchestrations of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) echoed these silences in attempts to make the bomb audible. I explore how events of silence (Operation Alert drills) and aesthetics of silence (“dead-air” broadcast interruptions) were written into civil defense procedure. I also consider how civil defense media often silenced the severity of the bomb’s consequences (e.g. the duck and cover jingle). Supported by archival work and oral histories, I analyze the careful interplay of sounds and silences in FCDA sonic architectonics and trace the historical development of an atomic age aurality that was attuned to the silences endemic to nuclear culture. Exemplified by the slogan delivered by Johnny Cash in a 1959 public service announcement  (PSA) “listen and learn through civil defense,” FCDA governmental sound design cultivated an art of listening that was to be the glue that enabled cohesive protection against enemy attack. I read the ways in which PSAs and broadcast alerts argued that the public’s survival depended on the cultivation of particular aural skills, such as learning how to recognize distinct air raid sirens, and disciplined listening practices, such as tuning in to the radio frequencies 640 and 1240 AM for instructions. Returning to silence, I utilize historical records and demographic data to demonstrate how many members of United States society were not afforded the opportunity to engage in this new mode of listening given their geographic location and socio-economic status. I conclude by contemplating the stakes of aural exclusion in terms of the tenets and well-publicized goals of civil defense.
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