what does democracy sound like?

in the u.s. electoral politics centers on televised events, leading to the predominance of soundbite or mass spectacle. both tend to the repeated slogan, as do street protests. in u.s. politics generally, the soundscape of democracy valorizes a habermasian vision of rational debate, but mass media produces the sonic equivalent of what debord has described as the “diffuse” spectacle. while these differ, they share a diagnostic feature that gives them a shared basis if not a shared aesthetic. in the first, a disembodied speaking subject–some would say a bloodless one–makes perfectly clear statements of opinion, which an equally rational, disembodied public of listeners registers as they weigh matters of public interest. the latter employs all of the tricks of mass media to focus a message while rendering it ubiquitous, often encouraging forms of participation. yet in both, communicative relationships are largely impersonal. an empirical question for anthropological research, i think, could focus on different soundscapes of democracy. we could begin with the question, is there one democratic soundscape (what habermas and his followers might suggest), or are there several? what might be the family resemblance among these? some of this work has been explored in the writing of j bernard bate (see bate 2009)

taiwan gives us another vantage on soundscapes of democracy, embedded in local aesthetics of crowd time or naojiat, “noisy hot” crowd spectacles, as well as kinship networks (for a description of naojiat see hatfield’s taiwanese pilgrimage to china chapter one). on taiwan, where electoral politics is more personal, entangled with kinship and local patronage ties, the sounds of “paying respect to” or “pulling in” votes on truck mounted speakers signal that elections are coming soon. giving speeches and endorsements from a variety of public figures over a musical soundtrack, the sound trucks often travel through every street of a town, with additional announcers—sometimes the candidate herself or himself—calling to potential supporters by name and asking for their vote. supporters line the road, decked out in campaign garb of baseball caps and campaign vests, waving and lighting fireworks

in a’tolan and nearby villages in taitung county, the electoral soundscape now indexes the region’s linguistic diversity, with sound trucks featuring recordings and live hailing in mandarin, suwalo no ‘amis, and hoklo. one measure of the island’s emerging national consciousness has been this public multilingualism, evident in the capital city’s mass transit system but here also displayed in one of democracy’s public rituals. in this way, the soundtrucks might tell us much more about a vision of democracy than the actual content of the speeches. like taiwan’s legislature, the elections are heated and engage people in public spaces that nonetheless have a great amount of intimacy. nonetheless, we might ask just what the soundtrucks mean, and in this regard, soundtrucks encourage debate about the personal ties that fit uneasily into the public. one of my best friends in a’tolan, for example, often expressed support for one candidate for the legislature, but could not avoid as a duty to his kin group, to drive one of the processional trucks for an incumbent with whom he vehemently disagreed

although many see the sound trucks and other personal features of taiwan’s electoral politics a feature of the island country’s “immature” democracy, i would argue that these features give taiwanese democracy its local inflection: taiwanese people produce the elections as noisy-hot and festive. like temple festivals or other spectacles of social reproduction, the run up to an election creates sonically an image of the public and mobilizes it in one of its defining rituals

for a clip of the soundtrucks in action, visit my soundcloud site