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The knock

Jason Warr

The other day I was lain abed, taking advantage of the snooze alarm, dozy with the warm snuggled hug of the memory foam topper keeping me from the day. Parched, gritty eyed, in comforting dark when I was torn from my state by Bang … BANG, BANG!

I was immediately alert, up, on edge, worried, looking for the fresh Adidas, thrown back, awaiting the later crash as the door succumbed to uniformed baton and boot. The sounds of the banging immediately transported me back to a former time and a “6 in the Morning …”[1] moment that I was not, until this moment, aware had been haunting me. Fortunately, this time it was not the police. It was just an impatient delivery driver bringing some novelty to the door (unlike some advisory others we’re adhering to lockdown rules) and had ignored the doorbell and had just slammed fist to door. However, it got me to thinking about the police and The Knock.

Thus far many of the blog posts that have been presented here have focused on the sensorial nature of the prison and conducting research therein. This is understandable as the admins are all currently prison researchers and thus many of our connections are in the same field. However, the aim here has always been to expand our work and thinking beyond the realm of prisons and our book on Sensory Penalities into the wider realm of a sensory criminology. Here I aim to discuss one element of that: namely, the symbolism enmeshed within the police actions of knocking on a door.

Kate Herrity[2] notes that sounds such as banging (in one section of her thesis she discusses banging on cell doors) are symbolically communicative. The rhythm, timbre, volume, pitch, and tone of the ‘bang’ convey a range of messages and information. From calls for attention, to dissatisfaction, to alarm and panic, to anger – all can be contained within those sounds. She also argues that in order to understand the sound environment, the soundscape, of the prison (and thus in order to understand the prison), we need to become attuned to those sounds in order to be able to interpret and discuss their relevance and meaning within the social ecology of that environment. I contend here that we can extend such thinking to explore the relevance and meaning of police behaviours – here specifically the Knock.

Knocking is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself. There are whole articles and essays based on this.[3] The interpretations of ‘knocks’ is a complex neuro-social interaction which comprises varying neuro-functions conjoined with forms of social cognition[4]. There is the identification of both the action itself (becoming aware of the sound) and the form (discerning location and component of the sound) and then a process of contextual interpretation – what does the sound/knock mean? Ordinarily, and evidently, a knock represents an external person’s expressed desire and intention to gain some access into the space from which a door currently blocks their progress. The knock, therefore represents an intent[5]. However, there is a complex relationship of cultural expectation, mores, and manners involved in the act of a knock. Evidenced by the fact that some ‘knocks’ on a door can be considered rude – you will know what I mean by that. Think about that, you will have some recognition already that some forms of ‘knock’ are inappropriate. BANGBANGBANG when bringing a cup of tea to someone on a conference call for instance. Yet, though we have some recognition of this when asked to contemplate it, it is nevertheless one of those simplistic acts in our quotidian lives that is much more complex than we ever really bother to consider.

When it comes to the police, and their knocking on your door, this is complicated by the function of their knocking. Or in deed not knocking. In the US policing literature, there is a wide range of critical explorations on the controversial policy and practice of the ‘No-Knock’ warrant – whereby the police can gain access to a property without the ordinary provision of having to ‘knock’ on the door[6]. When it comes to police practice there is a great deal of symbolic communication layered into the sounds of their knocking or decisions not to knock. Due to the delivery drivers rude awakening of my imagination it made me realise that I have been subjected to varying forms of the ‘the knock’ by the police. There is no singular knock here, instead there is a multitude of aural communications, being proffered by differing forms of the knock. Here I explore three.

tap … tap, Tap

When I was 17 a friend of mine died. The police who attended the scene asked me to accompany them to the family’s home in order to break the news to my friend’s mum. It was the first and only time I ever got into a police car willingly. Fuck knows I did not want to go but … what do you do? I remember so vividly how nervous the two officers, one older male, the other a younger woman, were on the way there. It was the first time I had ever seen people who I associated with power, hostility, and ill-treatment seem vulnerable. The ride there was filled with pained silence. They had seen the devastation wrought on the child of the person we were on our way to see. The closer we got the more nervous we all got. As we reached the house, I felt sick with dread. The officers approached the door and gave the door a tentative tap, followed by a brief pause, and then two more taps. The last of which seemed more assertive – tap … tap, Tap.

Tap, Tap … Tap, Tap

Sat in my flat in East London, minding my own business, watching tv, there came a Tap, Tap … Tap Tap at my front door. There was a weird, proprietary air to the knock on the door. As I disentangled myself from the cushions on the sofa in order to answer the door there came a further Tap, Tap … Tap, Tap. It was, as most knocks are a call for attention, but interlaced into this knocking was something of authority, confidence, and impatience. It made me hesitate. Nervous. Alert. Ready for a confrontation, violence if needs be. When I opened the door there were police officers, a number, strategically placed at the portal, eying the locked security gate with suspicion. Nerves, fight or flight instincts began to kick in, until I noticed another set of officers at the door opposite. “Sorry to bother you sir, but there was an incident outside last night, and we’re just checking to see if you saw or heard anything”.

Routine. Breathe …

BANG, BANGBANGBANG, BANGBANGBANG

Crash. Splinter. Baton and boot.

“6 in the morning, police at my door, Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor, Out my back window I make an escape …”[7]

Except I didn’t escape from the flat. I barely made it out of bed before hands and boots were on me. Blurs of black and white. Pain, sharp, intense. Shouts ringing loud but incoherent. I had no idea why they were there but … that was nothing new. It was the last time though. There is nuance to the communicative, and symbolically communicative, actions of the knock. Here, by exploring just three forms of knock employed by police officers we can begin to see how the act of knocking on a door, with differing intents, can be discerned. We tend not to think about the sensory element of actions of, or performances by, those who wield power. Yet they are there. If we are to have a greater understanding of the interactivity of that power with the public then we need to begin to start taking these sensory elements more seriously. There are questions to explore and to be answered. This is what sensory criminology aims to do, revisit much of our criminological understanding and see if there are facets that we have, hitherto missed.


[1] Ice-T (1986) “6 ‘N the Morning”, Rhyme Pays, Techno Hop Records, Warner Bros, Los Angeles: California.

[2] Herrity, K. (2019). Rhythms and Routines: Sounding Order in a Local Men’s Prison Through Aural Ethnography., Doctoral Thesis., University of Leicester., Leicester https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.794058

[3] For instance, von Wright, G. (1988). An essay on door-knocking. Rechtstheorie, 19(3), 275-288.

[4] Lemaitre, G. Pyles, J. A. Halpern, A. R. Navolio, N. Lehet, M. and Heller,L. M. (2018). Who’s that Knocking at My Door? Neural Bases of Sound Source Identification, Cerebral Cortex, Vol. 28(3): 805–818.

[5] See 3.

[6] See: Dolan, B. (2019). To knock or not to knock: No-knock warrants and confrontational policing. St. John’s Law Review, 93(1), 201-232.

Goddard, J. M. (1995). The destruction of evidence exception to the knock and announce rule: call for protection of fourth amendment rights. Boston University Law Review, 75(2), 449-476.

[7] See 1.

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‘Feeling’ feelings

Kate Herrity

Privileging the sensory has implications for how we understand how we know as well as what we know. The process of working with our patient, pioneering contributors has been a lesson (as we hope to discuss elsewhere) in the kind of editors we want to be as well as how significant a departure this presents from academic convention. As the most junior and least experienced of the three of us this was particularly valuable for me. I have contributed to edited and reviewed works but never before assumed this role. For me it has been formative; an intimate process of collaborative and supportive exploration rather than distanced and dictatorial. I hope this is reflected in people’s engagement with the book. I am not about to reflect in depth on the editorial process here but rather a particular, recurring, issue that prompted further interrogation.  I have spoken about the distinction between feeling and feelings before[1]. I may well do so again as I try to better understand the role of the sensory in prison social spaces, though there are broader implications here for epistemology and emotion in criminal justice and criminology.

Foregrounding the sensory brought the distinction between senses and emotion, as well as between privileging the sensory and reflexivity in to stark relief. Prompting academics to reflect on this more sharply demarcated the distinctions between these facets of knowledge and experience, and in so doing added clarity to both. There are linguistic obstacles as well as cultural ones that must be vaulted or circumvented when asking of someone “what did that ‘feel’ like?” but reaching further than whether they were happy or sad, safe or unsettled to what was mediating those emotions in the social world they sought to understand, and what reflecting on ‘feeling’ those ‘feelings’ taught them about those spaces. Rather than drawing on research on the complex relationship between emotion and sensory perception[2], I want to reflect on rather more direct demonstrations of this relationship by using a couple of examples of the surprising ways this has manifested.

I was in the second year of my PhD when I presented at the carceral geography conference in snowy Birmingham:[3] https://carceralgeography.com/conferences/2nd-international-conference-for-carceral-geography-11-12-dec-2017-university-of-birmingham/conference-programme-2017/1b-health-and-wellbeing/. I was nervous at finding myself in such illustrious company. This was one of few presentations I had given at that point, and, I think, the first time I attempted to illustrate the significance of a focus on sound by banging on furniture. I had pillaged our kitchen for suitable tools – a pestle and a souvenir bottle opener – for makeshift percussion. I reached the appropriate point in my talk and dutifully banged out the different rhythms of cell-door banging as a means of exploring the meanings they signified. Sound, I argued was a site both of symbolic violence and power contestations, a means of expressing dissent or warning from those captive and invisible (though not inaudible) behind the door. I had failed to appreciate quite what potency this might have for someone in the audience suddenly transported back to prison by my amateur banging on the table. He taught me a valuable lesson that day about how sound can traverse time[4]. He also taught me about my insensitivity. I was torn between trying to offer comfort and carve him space to process his visible emotion. He was keen to impress upon me that he was not in a negative place, but rather that the banging had “taken him back there” with a forcefulness he had not anticipated any more than I. What I interpreted as distress was, rather, a man fielding a sudden deluge of memories, smells, textures, sounds, of a time he had left behind but was with him still.

Approaching the end of my fieldwork I attended a conference (the Crime and Control ethnography symposia are always worth it if you can[5]). Many of my friends were there and one in particular, a year behind me, was struggling with her fieldwork. She felt uncomfortable in the prison space but couldn’t work out why. She felt guilty when it came time to leave and struggled to reconcile that with the genuine relationships she had forged throughout her time as both researcher and volunteer. Others speak far more eloquently than I about the contradictions of drawing on your stranger status and humanity to equal if conflicting degree as researcher. In the context of prisons where emotions of all in the community run so very high, this can be painfully intense. If ethnography is about stories then the doing of it is surely about the relationships and meanings they serve to underscore. I wanted to offer her comfort. I do not think it is incidental that I drew on sensory experience, the feeling, in an attempt to offer comfort and support to her emotional state, her feelings, as a way of telling her she was not alone:

https://leicester.figshare.com/articles/Rhythms_and_routines_Sounding_order_and_survival_in_a_local_men_s_prison_using_aural_ethnography/762884 [6]

Leaving (for M)

Emerging from the airlock
Metallic clunk; The freedom signal
Ringing in my ears
Quickening pace
My nostrils hungry for that biting burst of evening air
I speed to slough that lingering scent
The burning afterimage of this place
That clings beneath the skin I vainly scrub
With soap and wine.
Is this enough?

I stand in shitty remnants of your rage
I walk your vale of cries and shouts
Your bangs and crashes
Laugh too loud
My pleasure in your company clear
I hope for better futures for you
Far from here
And yet I fear
This isn’t going to be enough

Wandering aimless through the streets
I see your face on cardboard-cloistered,
Doorway bundles
Watch your ghostly presence weave amongst
The living
As they mindless tread
My memories scar those grubby pavement beds
And now you haunt my fitful sleep
I know

This cannot ever be enough

The sensory is both source and conduit for an array of knowledge, as well as a powerful medium of emotion. Sound – and the sensory more broadly – offers a means of collapsing distance in time, space and between people, evoking shared memories and experience. Privileging the sensory creates a site for scrutinising the social function of shared emotions summoned by it. The relationship between sensory and emotional realms is intimately intertwined but closer interrogation demands we expand our vocabulary to recognise they are nevertheless distinct. Only in so doing are we able to get within, amongst and underneath these facets of our social world, to develop our ability to interrogate the ‘feel’ of our ‘feelings’.


[1] Herrity, K. (2020) “Some people can’t hear, so they have to feel”: exploring sensory experience and collapsing distance in prisons research” Early Career Academics Network Bulletin, Howard League for Penal Reform January 2020, No. 43 https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/ECAN-Autumn-2019-final-draft-2.pdf

[2] E.g. Kelley, N.J.,Schmeichal, B.J. (2014) “The effects of negative emotions on sensory perception: fear, but not anger decreases tactile sensitivity” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol.5, Pp942. Goodman, S. (2010) Sonic Warfare: Sound, affect and the ecology of fear. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press

[3] This is an audio recording of a talk given at the Second Carceral geography conference (Herrity, K. (2017) “Sound, Space and Time: A rhythmanalysis of prison life” 2nd Carceral Geography Conference, University of Birmingham, December 2017.

[4] David Toop (2010) speaks explores this in Sinister resonance: the mediumship of the listener. London Bloomsbury. Sound, he argues, is a haunting.

[5] https://crimeandcontrolethnography.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/crime-and-control-ethnography-symposium-2018-call-for-participants/ Here’s a link to the 2018 call in Glasgow which was class.

[6] Soundfiles accompanying my thesis (within the thesis the reader is directed to listen at specific points of the discussion. I include them here for those who have not heard a prison soundscape: Herrity, Katherine Zoe (2019): Rhythms and routines: Sounding order and survival in a local men’s prison using aural ethnography. University of Leicester. Dataset. https://doi.org/10.25392/leicester.data.7628846.v1