Bureaucratic departments – the DMV, the career services agency, the post office – are places of infinite, futile drama. Although they are designed to move customers with mechanical efficiency from the entrance to the exit, they are usually tense and messy.

Their drama, ironically, results from trying to maintain rigid structures in a liquid universe. On paper, in the abstract, less flexibility means a more streamlined service process. Take a number, proceed to the desk when you’re called, hand over the necessary forms, and wait for the thud of the stamp. In Plato’s post office, it’s that easy.

Outside the world of forms, however, there are always delays, because there is always serendipity, confusion, and disagreement, sometimes all at once. The man at the front of the line has a complicated question. He doesn’t speak English very well. The clerk can’t find his package. Now he’s arguing with her, although she legislates nothing and therefore can only argue back at him, all the more cruelly because she recognizes her own impotence. (Mutual impotence is the infinite loop that renders bureaucratic drama futile.)

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Sound is a useful tool in bureaucratic settings because, under the right conditions, listening can synchronize tightly with action. We can hear ourselves called faster than we can see our number appear on the stern little LED board. No matter what we’re doing – reading, staring, resting – we can mostly be responsible for hearing “68!” and then standing at attention and proceeding. In the post office/DMV/career center, we willingly reduce ourselves to veritable automatons – obedient listening machines – in order to finish our business quickly and get out. We submit to the authority of the system for our own ultimate benefit. Sound, which we don’t have to face to receive, is a great convenience to this end. With it, we can orchestrate a nearly immediate dynamic of command and obedience.

But noise is dangerous. In a bureaucratic utopia, a listener would hear only numbers, perfectly repetitive instructions, and the shuffling of feet. In actual offices, we hear much more. Dramas, futile as they may be for the actors involved, crash the noiseless utopia of efficient repetition, for better or worse. Noise is not only evidence of these dramas, but also a frequent cause of them.

If sound is expedient for an efficient bureaucracy, then we have an opportunity to hear the failure of bureaucracy in noise – sensation, metaphor, and disruption all rolled into one. (We will continue to listen to both the operations and failures of bureaucracy in this space.)

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