Review | Sound-Politics in São Paulo

Sound-Politics in São Paulo. By Leonardo Cardoso. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 247 pp. ISBN: 9780190660109

Reviewed by Patrick Murphy

Leonardo Cardoso’s Sound-Politics in São Paulo brings an innovative approach and trenchant analysis to the question of sound in relation to law and the state. Challenging academic narratives favoring the visual, Cardoso places special emphasis on sound as an analytical category, examining it as a point of entry for understanding government in São Paulo, the largest city in South America. Cardoso’s central claim  is that “noise” is not simply a given within a particular order but rather comes into being ontologically as multiple actors – be they public officials, legal scholars, rowdy teenagers, or any other of  a plethora of agents – negotiate over different versions of sonic events to establish their legitimacy. Negotiations concerning sound also contribute to distinctions between “sound” and “noise” as sonic events such as those emanating from churches, night clubs, and street parties are resignified within legal settings. For the author, fundamental factors in shaping the legality or illegality of particular sounds are found in the “ways residents experience certain sounds and the ways certain groups stabilize a definition of, and thus a ‘proper’ way of hearing, those sounds as noise” (2). In his research, the author leans heavily on ANT, or actor-network theory, retracing associations between actors which can be “anything that modifies a state of affairs by making a difference” (10). For Cardoso, actors include lawmakers, musicians, and scholars, but also non-human agents such as legal documents, amplified cars, and political parties – all of which play a role in shaping the variegated sonic settings of the city.  

Another central argument offered by the author is that sound is ephemeral, pervasive, and debilitating to citizens, the state, and the relationship between both. Here Cardoso’s coinage of the term sound-politics stands as particularly useful, a term referring to “sounds as objects that are susceptible to state intervention through specific regulatory, disciplinary, and punishment mechanisms” (1). For Cardoso, the hyphenated term reinforces the dialectic between sound and politics as the state attempts to control and constantly redefine sound, all while sound simultaneously infiltrates and reshapes the state. Regarding the state, Cardoso maintains decisions are not carried out in rigid or linear ways, but rather that administrative flows are constantly disrupted by interested parties attempting to advance their own agendas through legal channels. Throughout the narrative, however, the author gives prominence to working-class communities which have recently acquired broader citizenship status in the context of a newly established democratic regime in post-dictatorship Brazil. Leaning on James Holston’s foundational concept of “insurgent citizenship,” Cardoso emphasizes the burgeoning political bargaining potential of disenfranchised communities, such as those spatially segregated or living in informal housing, who boast newly acquired access to consumer goods and citizenship rights. What stands as particularly unique in Cardoso’s work, however, is his emphasis placed on rights concerning the circulation of sound in the city. Cardoso notes that such communities participate more and more in legal decisions concerning sound, and while their social demands are not always met, their participation in the administrative flow comes to show the consolidation of a new social paradigm in Brazil since redemocratization starting during 1970s – one of improved, albeit still precarious, citizenship rights among disenfranchised communities.

The author divides his book into six chapters, plus introduction and conclusions. Drawing on  São Paulo’s two most popular newspapers, Chapter 1 offers a narrative of noise controversies between the 1910s and the 2010s. Chapter 2 discusses the establishment of what the author calls a standard “public ear” through modern techniques of studying sound, to then debate the legal importance of technologies which have provided new measurement techniques such as decibel measurement and room reverberation analysis. Each of the three following chapters discusses one of the distinct branches of municipal government - legislative, executive, and judicial - and their relation to laws and practices concerning sound. Chapter 3 analyzes lawmaking processes in the São Paulo Municipal Chamber, focusing on bills proposed since the 1990s specifically directed towards sound control. Chapter 4 considers the role of the executive branch, looking at the roles of both the São Paulo anti-noise agency known as PSIU and the police, while also following bureaucratic procedures concerning noise complaints by citizens. Examining the judicial sphere, chapter 5 shows how lawyers, public prosecutors, and judges deal with noise litigation to then identify the ways residents mobilize the state to promote change concerning noise. Finally, in chapter 6, the author discusses the polemical pancadão street parties occurring throughout poor suburbs, examining ways in which residents, authorities, and lawmakers have responded to the loud popular parties. 

Cardoso tirelessly identifies ways in which lawyers and judges shape legal documents to categorize different sonic phenomena as either legitimate “sound” or disruptive “noise.” A particularly clear example of legal processes shaping the meaning of sounds are legislative debates concerning sounds emanating from churches and night clubs. Cardoso points to insistent efforts by the city’s evangelical lobby to consider the sonic excesses of churches as examples of “religious freedom,” necessary for cathartic experiences connected to spirituality. Among other things, the example illustrates the blatantly clientelist workings behind legal processes in São Paulo as the mayor embraces evangelical bills in exchange for votes giving her greater power. The result of the evangelical push for protection is not only sustenance for their excessively loud devotional practices, but also the legitimization of the practices in the eyes of the law, and ultimately to the soundscape of the city. Equally loud, however, nightlife sounds were considered “part of a hedonistic cult of spiritual weakness” (92) by the very same evangelical caucus. While deliberating over city councilor Jooji Hato’s law of 1999, aimed at forcefully closing loud nightclubs and bars by 1:00 am, the caucus refused to accept a noise ordinance considering church and bar sounds similar, claiming religious sounds had more to offer to the city than nightlife noise. The law which limited sounds emanating from bars and clubs, later known as the “Hato Law,” passed with wide popular support, based on a supposed causal relationship between noise, alcohol consumption, and crime. What is ultimately seen in the cases of evangelical churches and nightclubs in São Paulo is the power of established discourses and legal decisions to act upon and establish meaning over different sounds, considering some as legitimate sonic events, while others as disruptive, harmful noise.

A recurring theme Cardoso tackles is the interrelation between sound and citizenship. For the author, “noise legislation, and the very definition of noise, is entangled in various projects of social organization at the interstices of differentiated and insurgent citizenships” (98). To this end, the author closely dialogues with the differing notions of citizenship introduced by James Holston. For Holston, “insurgent” citizenship offers a new paradigm for social demands emerging in Brazil since the late 1970s, during a return to democracy, where disenfranchised communities begin to challenge established norms through recently acquired bargaining potentials within a new setting of democratic participation. Holston’s notions concerning “differentiated” citizenship stem from foundational Brazilian author Roberto Da Matta who, while writing in the 1970s, suggested a high degree of patronage and social prestige as being key signifiers in establishing citizenship status in Brazil. What is novel in Cardoso’s work, however, is the connection between newly acquired citizenship rights and the issues concerning “sound” versus “noise.” While past authors working on citizenship issues in Brazil focused their attention on issues such as land rights and mobility within the city, to name a few, Cardoso points to ways in which the public sphere has functioned as a sounding board for legitimizing new social movements and broader participation in the contemporary political sphere. One example brought by the author is the MTST (Cardoso translates the movement as “Members of the Roofless Workers Movement”). Through MTST mobilizations, Cardoso argues that “noise becomes a political statement about the right to occupy, to be heard, and to demand inclusion” (98). as protesters infiltrate the lawmaking process by loudly clamoring for change while gathering outside City Hall. The MTST example ultimately functions as a case of sound-politics since politics itself stands as a condition of possibility for transforming sound, but is also transformed by sound itself. 

While Cardoso’s work stands as extraordinarily innovative in making connections between issues concerning citizenship, law, and sound, it sometimes falls short in its methodology. This becomes particularly clear in his final chapter regarding the street parties popularly known as pancadão events. Even though the author participated in community council meetings, held interviews with police officers, lawmakers, and PSIU agents, and even observed a few anti-pancadão operations organized by the police, the author did not participate in a pancadão event itself. Why did the researcher choose not to participate in these events if he engaged quite readily with all other aspects of fieldwork throughout his project? For his descriptions of the parties, the author relies on reports by other ethnographers, which, while informative in themselves, might better have had a secondary function in his own fieldwork. However, although the chapter lacks an important ethnographic dimension, it contributes through its analysis of modern-day street parties in São Paulo to a deeper understanding of both citizenship issues and legal studies in Brazil.

Above all, Sound-Politics in São Paulo offers a novel approach to sound studies by delving into the interrelations between the ontology of sound and legal issues in one of the largest cities in the world. Cardoso succeeds in illustrating how different sonic phenomena come to be considered either “sound” or “noise” in the eyes, or better, the ears of the state as relevant actors – be they human or non-human – interact within given legal settings. Readers drawn to issues concerning citizenship status in Brazil may also find Cardoso’s work useful. The author dialogues with scholars deeply entrenched into the issue – and here James Holston, Teresa Caldeira, Néstor Canclini, and Roberto Da Matta come to mind – offering sound as a new issue to be investigated. Through his thoughtful approach to sound and noise in São Paulo, Cardoso offers an equally grounded scholarly work, opening up new ways for studying governmental bureaucracies, citizenship issues in Brazil, and sound as it relates to legal settings.


Patrick Murphy is a PhD student in ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the interactions between music and law in contemporary Brazil.



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