Toxic Sounds: Noise and Harm in Vieques 1941-2017
Between 1941 and 2003 the US Navy used large portions of the island of Vieques (part of Puerto Rico), as a naval training site, engaging in live training exercises that included gunfire, bombing, and mock battles. These activities transformed the landscape and soundscape in ways that are not yet well understood. Considering Vieques through sound means plunging into debates about what is and is not true. Does noise hurt? Do vibrations from years of bombing exercises make people sick? Do the frequent, unpredictable sounds of military exercises make children anxious and depressed? Does it contribute to low birth weight and infant mortality? Does a changed soundscape affect marine and littoral wildlife? These are the claims, made by some and disputed by others. Measuring noise and sound is easy, gauging their impact on human and non-human bodies is both obvious and elusive. This paper draws from literature on Vieques, which focuses mostly on the political mobilizations surrounding the ouster of the US Navy from the island, as well as from a growing literature on the environmental impact of weapons testing. It contributes to these conversations a methodological meditation on how to understand and theorize sonic toxicity.
Alejandra Bronfman is Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches courses on Caribbean and Latin American history, historical theory and practice, race in the Americas, and media histories. She is currently working on two projects: , which records the unwritten histories of sonic technologies in the early twentieth century, and Biography of a Sonic Archive, which draws from the extensive career of Laura Boulton to interrogate the use of recordings in the making of a sonic, exotic Caribbean.