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September 15, 2023

Humanities Scholar, Mack Hagood, Receives NEH Grant

Cody Norris

Robert H. and Nancy J. Blaney Associate Professor, Mack Hagood, was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for his project titled Quiet Storm: America' Low-Key Noise Industry and the End of Listening. Hagood's project delves into a fascinating and often overlooked aspect of American culture since the 1960s: the transformation of noise from an unwanted industrial byproduct into a desirable domestic companion and a vital tool in the modern workplace. Through meticulous research, "Quiet Storm" unearths the stories of scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs who redefined noise as a distinct category of sound waves, harnessed it as a valuable raw material, and marketed it to the public as a technology of self-care.

The book takes readers on a journey behind the scenes of the noise industry, exploring the development and popularity of white noise machines, nature sound apps, ambient sound streams, and noise-canceling headphones that have come to shape contemporary listening habits, attention spans, and cultural norms. But Hagood's project goes beyond the realm of noise and sound technology. The book also seeks to identify and critique the cultural, political, and economic changes that have left listening so fraught and attention so frayed, fueling our need for noise. Putting aside cliches about screen time, it uses a sonic focus to offer a new way of thinking about communication in the digital age. By foregrounding these background sounds and the changes they effect, Hagood aims to explain and help us grapple with the cacophony that technological communication has become in recent decades—what he calls “a crisis of listening.”

Mack Hagood expressed his gratitude to the Humanities Center, which supported his research over the past decade. He highlighted the center's role in shaping his academic path, from participating in the 2015-16 Altman Program on the senses, which refined his work on sound, to benefiting from the book proposal and grant development workshops. He also acknowledged the center's support for his podcast, "Phantom Power," which explores sound. He noted, "My path as a scholar would have been much more difficult without the training and intellectual community that the Humanities Center provides." The National Endowment for the Humanities grant is a testament to the importance of Hagood's work in understanding the role of noise and sound in contemporary American society.

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