Quiet Comfort: Noise, Otherness, and the Mobile Production of Personal Space


Marketing, news reports, and reviews of Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones position them as essential gear for the mobile rational actor of the neoliberal market—the business traveler. This article concerns noise-canceling headphones’ utility as soundscaping devices, which render a sense of personal space by mediating sound. The airplane and airport are paradoxical spaces in which the pursuit of freedom impedes its own enjoyment. Rather than fight the discomforts of air travel as a systemic problem, travelers use the tactic of soundscaping to suppress the perceived presence of others. Attention to soundscaping enables the scholar to explore relationships between media, space, freedom, otherness, and selfhood in an era characterized by neoliberalism and increased mobility. Air travel is a moment in which people with diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and bodies crowd together in unusually close proximity. Noise is the sound of individualism and difference in conflict. Noise is othered sound, and like any type of othering, the perception of noise is socially constructed and situated in hierarchies of race, class, age, and gender. The normative QuietComfort user in media representations is white, male, rational, monied, and mobile; women, children, and “chatty” passengers are cast as noisemakers. Moreover, in putting on noise-canceling headphones, diverse selves put on the historically Western subjectivity that has been built into their technology, one that suppresses the noise of difference in favor of the smooth circulation of people, information, and commodities.