The siren’s wail is as pervasive and deceitful in modern life as it was in ancient literature—the nymphs that nearly ensnared Odysseus’ wandering heart are more like the caterwauling devices atop police cruisers than you might assume. Both distract to the point of danger, yet evoke a titillating allure. “The question of the nature of the siren’s face and of the siren’s true role in human affairs,” writes Cabinet’s George Prochnik in an intriguing literary history of man’s relationship with sirens, “haunts both the mythological creatures from which the mechanical sirens derive their name and the history of siren technology alike.”
Prochnik nimbly hops between disparate topics—epic poetry, acoustic science, neurology, funeral art, and crime-prevention technology—thus, it would be arduous and redundant to follow his thread completely here. But his exploration of the siren’s cultural place often barrels down unexpected paths. For example, he sees the police siren as a last-ditch urban-assault on those desperately trying to escape the din of modernity:
DC police chief Lanier argued that new technology, by proffering an endless supply of “something to distract folks,” made people oblivious to their surroundings. True enough. But dominated by traffic noise, infrastructure roars, crashes and shrieks, along with countless auditory come-ons from commercial interests, our public spaces have devolved into ghastly sonic dumping grounds. It’s often only in the individualized sound bubble that we can escape from the distractions of the auditory wasteland we’ve been condemned to and find solace for the fact that we already inhabit a Noise Underworld. “The Rumbler [a new type of mechanical siren],” remarked Lanier, “helps shake that distraction” endemic to the age of technology. She did not add that it does so by creating a distraction more disruptive of interior life than any vehicular sound before it.