Carceral soundscapes. Sonic violence and embodied experience in films about imprisonment

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Post 9/11 the ‘invisibility’ of political prisoners as part of the ‘war on terror’ has had a direct correlation with the concealment of abusive treatment of detainees in the detention camps at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Details of these abuse scandals have indicated that there has been a notable shift away from the optical towards the sonic as a form of punishment and torture, with accounts of detainees being subjected to rock music played for prolonged periods at excruciating volumes (Smith, 2008). Addressing a number of key concerns – sound and phe- nomenology, sound and the ethics of spectatorship, sound and the experience/intensification of confinement, sound as a (potential) mode of resistance/control – this paper will investigate the use of sound in cinematic depictions of imprisonment including A Man Escaped (Bresson, 1956), Hunger (McQueen, 2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012). The aim is to explore how an auditory perspective might complicate previously held ocularcentric conceptions of power in penal institutions (Foucault, 1977) and to examine how this experience of sound is represented on screen. The essay also considers how sound design can bridge the distance between self and other, and align the spectator emotionally, ethically and politically with a film’s characters. The essay thus proposes that an ethical spectatorship may require cinematic auditors to listen more critically, and it claims that a better understanding of the fundamental role that sound and listening play in the articulation and recognition – or indeed, disavowal – of the subjectivity of prisoners within these narratives may lead to an increased awareness of the politics of aesthetics of individual films. The essay concludes by suggesting that the field of sound studies creates further opportunities for research that explores these important questions about representation, spectatorship and ethics from a range of disciplinary perspectives.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-39
JournalSoundEffects. An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Sound Experience
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 9 Mar 2016


  • Sound design
  • Sonic violence
  • Ethics of listening
  • Prison films
  • Carceral geography


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