There’s a 20-year gap in chronology between KMFDM’s 1993 song “A Drug Against War” and Marc Forster’s 2013 film World War Z, but sonically and ideologically they’re very, very similar. They contain the same kinds of sounds–machine guns, military orders barked over radios, buzzing crowds–and they use these sounds in the same way: to build sonic intensity past its breaking point (a “sonic bombardment brighter than sunlight,” as the KFMDM lyrics say). Their sonic similarity is evidence of neoliberalism’s intensification in the 20 years between them: what was once avant-garde opposition is later mainstream norm.
The songs’ sonic similarity reveals the central role of sound in contemporary biopolitics. By listening closely to “A Drug Against War” and the soundscape of World War Z—a film in which Brad Pitt saves humanity from a zombie apocalypse by giving all survivors a terminal disease—I show sound as more than a privileged aesthetic domain; sound actually provides the epistemic background and the concrete mechanisms for organizing society. Just as vision and “the gaze” are the ideological and technological foundation of panopticism, sound is the ideological and technological foundation of contemporary biopolitics. Much more is at stake in this post than just a song and a film: it takes on how—and why—society is organized as it is. It’s also about a particular understanding of “the sonic”: sound as dynamic patterning.
Because “A Drug Against War” lays out, in fairly elementary form, this “biopolitical” sonic vocabulary, it makes sense to start there. But before I do that, I will briefly define what I understand as ‘biopolitics.’
Like “neoliberalism,” “biopolitics” is a trendy concept whose precise meaning can get lost in loose usage. By “biopolitics,” I mean both an ideology of health and vitality and a political strategy whose medium is “life.” “Life,” here, isn’t individual health, wellness, or existence; it’s the ongoing vitality of the segment of society that counts as “society” tout court (e.g., in white supremacy, that segment would be whites). Biopolitics manages society like a living thing; for example, we often talk about the “health” of the economy, or use metrics such as obesity rates to compare different countries.
As Foucault explains in Society Must Be Defended, biopolitics’ “basic function is to improve life, to prolong its duration, to improve its chances, to avoid accidents, and to compensate for failings” (254). But to do that, power sometimes has to kill. Pruning my raspberry bush causes more berries to sprout, for example, just as weightlifting tears all my muscle fibers so they’ll rebuild in bigger, stronger shape. Killing off the weak is a positive investment in society’s overall strength. Again, Foucault:
The fact that the other dies does not mean simply that I live in the sense that his death guarantees my safety; the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer. (Society, 255).
Hitler’s “final solution” is an obvious example of this biopolitical approach to killing, but this practice also informs many contemporary US policies and practices. In the US, black people as a population have significantly higher mortality rates than any other race, for example. Following Foucault, we could say it’s in the interest of white supremacist society to maintain a high mortality rate among black populations because this makes white supremacist society “healthier.” The key point here is this: biopolitics promotes and administers life by generalizing and naturalizing what Foucault calls “the relationship of war: ‘In order to live, you must destroy your enemies’” (Society 256). Biopolitical warfare is precisely what is waged in both “A Drug Against War” and World War Z, and sound emerges as a weapon of choice.
In its original context, KMFDM’s “A Drug Against War” used sound to counter US Presidents Reagan and Bush 1’s War on Drugs/”New World Order” thinking. Indeed, in 1993, it was hard not to hear it as a response to 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, the US’s first military action as the ‘winner’ of the Cold War. It performs, in music, the “cremation of senses in friendly fire,” that its lyrics describe. It burns out our hearing, realizing through sound the sort of “creative destruction” or “shock doctrine” that characterizes neoliberalism more generally. In this rather Nietzschean model, the only way to make something “stronger than ever, ever before” is to first kill it. Death is the means to the most vibrant life.
The lyric–“stronger than ever, ever before”–is the first line of the chorus. At the end of every verse, there’s a short drumroll that leads into it. As S. Alexander Reed notes in Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, “clocking in at “322 bpm, the eighth-note snare fills at the end of the verses fire at about eleven rounds every second–the same rate as an AK-47” (29). This flourish foreshadows the gesture that, in the song’s bridge [after the second chorus, around 2:17 in the video above], musically “cremates” our senses in friendly fire–in this case, in the rapid fire of percussion. This rapid-fire percussion is one of the sonic elements that “Drug” shares with WWZ; in fact, the chorus uses what is likely (according to Reed) a machine gun sample. The machine gun effect mimics blast drumming. As Ronald Bogue explains in Deleuze’s Wake, blast drumming is a “tactic of accelerating meters to the point of collapse,” produced through the “cut-time alteration of downbeat kick drum and offbeat snare, the accent being heard on the offbeat but felt on the downbeat” (99). “A Drug Against War”’s AK-47 rolls actually accelerate to the point of auditory collapse, i.e. to the point at which humans generally can’t distinguish individual sonic events—the aural equivalent of seeing 24 frames per second as one continuous image. The AK-47’s rolls of ‘friendly’ fire cremate our sense of hearing.
The song’s chorus includes many other sonic elements shared by World War Z: doppler effects (such as the sounds of dropping bombs or planes buzzing the ground), rubble being moved around, military orders barked over radio. In the bridge several kinds of crowd noises are introduced: first, guitars buzz like a swarm of insects; then, a call-and-response in which singer Sascha Koneitzko echoes the chorus (which reverses the usual order in which the chorus echoes the individual leader); finally, a chaotic rabble of voices builds in intensity and leads into the sense-cremating climax.
An extended and intensified version of the “friendly fire” at the end of each verse, “A Drug Against War”’s climax builds to a peak by layering two full measures of AK-47-style drumroll on top of sounds of rabble, evoking the image of the military firing on an unruly crowd. This roll barrels towards the point of auditory collapse–if it got much faster, we’d be unable to distinguish individual rhythmic events, and hear a constant buzz (like in the beginning of the bridge), not a series of eighth notes. The roll’s forward momentum intensifies musical energy to an apex, culminating on the downbeat of the next measure in a florid lead guitar solo.
Describing the song as “sonic bombardment brighter than sunlight,” the lyrics confirm the music (and vice versa). The song overdrives sound until it sublimates into something else–if sunlight is more intense radiation than even soundwaves, here soundwaves amplify to a state more powerful than that. Cremating our senses in friendly fire, KMFDM channels soundwaves into a revolutionary drug, a drug against war. The band presents cleansing fire meant to purify us of disease: just as a fever kills pathogens in our bodies, the song burns our senses to kill a pathogenic ideology. Overdriving mainstream musical taste, offering something so brutal, so damaging to one’s ears, that only the avant-garde can survive, KMFDM inoculates the population against its most reactionary, war-mongering elements. “A Drug Against War” uses sound to perform a biopolitical operation, one that emerges as the basis of WWZ’s plot: the only way to save the human race from the zombies is to kill everything.
World War Z intensifies the horrors of contemporary biopolitics to the point that the only way to recuperate from them is to intensify them even further: in order for humanity to survive, everyone must be dead on their feet. In the sci-fi universe of World War Z, zombies aren’t eating for their survival, but for the survival of the virus they carry; they only attack and eat prey that are also (and primarily) attractive hosts for the virus. Pitt’s character, protagonist Gerry Lane, discovers that terminally ill humans aren’t legible to the zombies as human—that is, as attractive hosts. They won’t live long enough and/or are too weak to aggressively spread the virus. So, he decides the best way to protect humans from zombies and the virus they carry is to infect the remaining people with a deadly but ultimately curable illness. The World Health Organization develops a vaccine that allows healthy people to ‘pass’ as terminal cases. The only difference remaining in the post apocalyptic world of WWZ is between the quasi-dead and the walking dead. Death is the drug against WWZ.
The film doesn’t represent or express the biopolitical recuperation of death visually, but sonically: to make audiences feel what the narrative depicts, WWZ cremates their sense of hearing–often with more amplified and complex versions of the same sonic elements mobilized in “Drug.” Doppler effects, crowd noises, machine guns, military orders barked over radio bombards the film’s audience as sonic “friendly fire.” Though the film’s soundtrack doesn’t actually blow out its audience’s ears (what lawsuits!), it repeatedly simulates sonic cremation; the tinitus-y buzzing one hears after auditory trauma–what one hears in lieu of hearing—functions as a constant refrain. Narratively climactic moments are composed, cinematically, as sonic overdrive. The massive car crash as everyone tries to evacuate NYC in the beginning of the film, the moment when Pitt’s character thinks he may have been infected atop the NJ apartment building, the plane crash outside the Cardiff WHO office–each of these events culminates in tinitus-y ringing. As physical and psychological trauma overwhelms the characters, the film pretends to inflict overwhelming—cremating—auditory trauma on its audience.
In the WWZ universe, sound is destructive; it unleashes the zombie horde. At 49:00, a soldier says: “remember these things are drawn to sound…there’s only one way we’re getting you on that plane, and that’s quiet.” In a scene set in Jerusalem, excessive sound turns something miraculously positive—a Muslim girl and a Jewish girl leading a mixed crowd in song, a mini Arab-Israeli peace accord—Into a massacre. The sound attracts the zombie horde, leading them to swarm and overrun Jerusalem’s walls. Similarly, at the film’s end, Pitt’s character empties a soda machine so the cascade of cans will attract zombies away from the doors he needs to enter. By this point, Pitt’s character has injected himself with a deadly disease, effectively killing himself in order to preserve himself from zombification. The cascade of cans aesthetically represents this narrative point and hearkens back to KMFDM. The cans drop out of the machine at an increasingly rapid rate, mimicking “Drug”’s intensification of percussion events to and/or past the limit of human hearing. Just as Pitt’s character has crashed his body, the cascade of cans crashes our hearing.
The climax presents a narrative and the auditory convergence on the same biopolitical idea: kill everything, because then the best will bounce back, phoenix-like, from that sensory cremation, stronger than ever. Zombies can’t rebound from death, but still-living humans sure can (via immunization). Like a sonic bombardment brighter and more radiant than sunlight, this anti-zombie camouflage tactic phase-shifts death into exceptionally lively life. Just as the muted, tinitus-y moments in the film make the subsequent scenes feel comparatively more sonically rich and dynamic, intentional and carefully managed mass extinction ultimately makes the living more vibrant.
Sound & Biopolitics
Such vibrancy–that is, what Julian Henriques dubs “the dynamics of [the] periodic motion of vibrations” in Sounding Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (265)–is what “life” and “sound,” as they are conceived by and function in contemporary biopolitics, have in common. “Sound,” according to Henriques is “a particular kind of periodic motion, variation and change” (247). Sound waves are dynamic patterns of intensities (pressure); they move through matter and respond in turn, both to that movement itself and the secondary sound waves (harmonics) that movement produces. WWZ treats this notion of periodic motion, variation, and change as the conceptual basis for the ideally biopolitical “life.” At around 20:00, when Pitt’s character attempts to convince the Latino family sheltering him to leave their apartment with him, he says “movement is life…Moviemento es vida.” Sedentary fortresses protect no one from zombies–we see this repeatedly in the film. The only way to survive is by rapidly adjusting to new conditions. The dynamism of adaptive flows—the ability to bounce back and recuperate (like an echoing pressure wave), to dynamically recombine (like both harmonizing frequencies and like a virus), to find signal in noise–this dynamism is life. Because it adapts to new challenges, because it moves, varies, and changes, life can bounce back from total annihilation, stronger than ever before. Only life lived like sound can be properly and sufficiently resilient. In WWZ, the zombie virus is a eugenic tool that weeds out insufficiently “sonic” life, life that is too static to respond to capitalist and biopolitical mandates for calculable motion, variation, and change.
When read through “Drug,” WWZ illustrates the epistemic and ontological importance of sound to contemporary biopolitics. We think “life” works like we think sound works. Because “life” is the object and the mechanism of biopolitical government, power works on and through us sonically. If we want to analyze, critique, and fight the institutions, structures, and practices that put power to work for white supremacy, cis/het patriarchy, and all other forms of domination, then we need to start thinking and working sonically, too.
Some theorists, such as Elizabeth Grosz and Adriana Cavarero incorrectly think this move to sound and voice is itself revolutionary and counter-hegemonic. Just as the critique posed in 1993’s “Drug” has been co-opted by 2013’s WWZ, white feminist theory’s sonic counter-modernities are the medium of biopolitical white supremacist patriarchy. When we think and work sonically, we’re working with the master’s tools; to bring down the master’s house, we have to use them critically and strategically.
Featured Image by Flickr User crisper fayltrash
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism will be published by Zer0 books this fall, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice–Yvon Bonenfant
The Noises of Finance– Nick Knouf
Welcome to the third and final installment of Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, our series about sound in contemporary films. We’ve been focusing on how filmmakers are blurring the boundaries between music, speech, and sound effects – in effect, integrating distinct categories of soundtrack design.
In our first post, Benjamin Wright showed how celebrated composer Hans Zimmer thinks across traditional divisions of labour to integrate film sound design with music composition. Danijela Kulezic-Wilson followed up with an insightful piece on the integration of audio elements in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, suggesting how scholars can apply principles of music, like tempo and rhythm, to their analyses of the interactions between a film’s images and sounds. In this final entry, Randolph Jordan, considers another dimension of integration: a film’s sounds and the place where it was produced. In his provocative and insightful reading of the quasi-documentary East Hastings Pharmacy, Jordan, who is completing a post-doctoral post at Simon Fraser University, elaborates on how the concept of “unsettled listening” can clue us into the relationship between a film and its origins of production. You’ll be able to read more about “unsettled listening” in Jordan’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled Reflective Audioviewing: An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema, to be published by Oxford University Press.
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking in this series as much as I’ve enjoyed editing it with the help of the marvelous folks at SO!. Thanks for reading. — Guest Editor Katherine Spring
A mother and son of First Nations ancestry sit in the waiting area of a methadone clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, their attention directed toward an offscreen TV. A cartoon plays, featuring an instrumental version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” that mingles with the operating sounds of the clinic and ambience from the street outside. The tune is punctuated by a metal clinking sound at the beginning of each bar, calling to mind the sound of driving railway spikes that once echoed just down the street as the City of Vancouver was incorporated as the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway (beginning thus the cycle of state-sanctioned erasure of indigenous title to the land). The familiar voice of Bugs Bunny chimes in: “Uh, what’s all the hubbub, bub?”
Hubbub indeed. Let’s unpack it.
The scene appears one third of the way through East Hastings Pharmacy (Antoine Bourges, 2012), a quasi-documentary set entirely within this clinic, staging interactions between methadone patients (played by locals and informed by their real-life experiences) and the resident pharmacist (played by an actress). Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, dubbed Canada’s “worst neighborhood” for its notorious concentration of transients and public drug use, is also home to the largest community of First Nations peoples within the city limits, a product of the long history of dispossession in the surrounding areas. When the film presents this indigenous pair listening to a Hollywood fabrication of the sounds that marked their loss of title to the city it is a potent juxtaposition, especially given the American infiltration of Vancouver’s mediascape since the 1970s. Long known as “Hollywood North,” Vancouver is more famous as a stand-in for myriad other parts of the world than for representing itself, its regional specificity endlessly overwritten with narratives that hide the city and its indigenous presence from public awareness.
In her essay “Thoughts on Making Places: Hollywood North and the Indigenous City,” filmmaker Kamala Todd stresses how media can assist the process of re-inscribing local stories into Vancouver’s consciousness. East Hastings Pharmacy is one such example, lending some screen time to urban Natives in the 21st Century city. But Todd reminds us that audiences also have a responsibility “to learn the stories of the land” that have been actively erased in dominant media practices, and to bring this knowledge to our experience of the city in all its incarnations (9). Todd’s call resonates with a process that Nicholas Blomley calls “unsettling the city” in his book of the same name. Blomley reveals Vancouver as a site of continual contestation and mobility across generations and cultural groups, and calls for an “unsettled” approach that can account for the multiple overlapping patterns of use that are concealed by “settled” concepts of bounded property. With that in mind, I propose “unsettled listening” as a way of experiencing the city from these multiple positions simultaneously. Rick Altman taught us to hear any given sound event as a narrative by listening for the auditory markers of its propagation through physical space, and recording media, over time (15-31). Unsettled listening invites us to hear through these physical properties of mediatic space to the resonating stories revealed by the overlapping and contradictory histories and patterns of use to which these spaces are put, all too often unacknowledged in the wake of settler colonialism.
East Hastings Pharmacy provides a great opportunity to begin the practice of unsettled listening. The film’s status as an independent production amidst industrial shooting is marked by the intersection of studio-fabricated sound effects and direct sound recording, as in the example described above, and further complicated by the film’s own hybrid of fiction and documentary modes. That speaks to the complexity of overlapping filmmaking practices in Vancouver today, a situation embedded within the intersecting claims to land use and cultural propriety on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. To unsettle listening is to hear all these overlapping situations as forms of resonance that begin with the original context of the televised cartoon and accumulate as they spread through the interior of the clinic and outwards across the surrounding land. So let’s try this out.
The cartoon is Falling Hare (Robert Clampett, 1943), a good example of the noted history of cross-departmental integration at The Warner Bros.’ cartoon studios. The scene in question begins at 1:55, and here the metallic clinking sound is just as likely to have been produced by one of music orchestrator Carl Stalling’s percussionists as by sound effects editor Treg Brown. This integration can be heard in the way that the music’s unspoken reference to railway construction charges each clink with the connotation of hammer on spike. However, the image track in Falling Hare doesn’t depict railway construction, but rather a gremlin whacking the nose of a live bomb in an attempt to do away with enemy Bugs seated on top. James Lastra would say (by way of Christian Metz) that the clinking sound is “legible” as hammer on spike for the ease with which the sound can be recognized as emanating from this implied source (126). But this legibility is premised upon a lack of specificity that also allows the sound to become interchangeable with something else, as is the case in this cartoon.
East Hastings Pharmacy capitalizes on this interchangeability by re-inscribing the clinking sound’s railway connotations, first by stripping the original image and then by presenting this sound in the context of the dire social realities of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as the city’s sanctioned corral for the markers of urban poverty – and indigeneity – that officials don’t want to spill out across the neighborhood’s increasingly gentrified perimeter.
As one of a string of Warner Bros. cartoons put in the service of WWII propaganda, the Falling Hare soundtrack also resonates with wartime xenophobia and imperialist expansion, branches of the same pathos that leads to the effacing of indigenous culture from the consciousness of colonizing peoples. In Vancouver, this has taken the form of what Jean Barman calls “Erasing Indigenous Indigeneity,” the process of chasing the area’s original peoples off the land while importing aboriginal artifacts from elsewhere to maintain a Native chic deemed safe for immigrant consumption (as when the city paid “homage” to the vacated Squamish residents of downtown Vancouver’s Stanley Park by erecting Kwakiutl totem poles imported from 200km north on Vancouver Island) (26). This is an interchangeability of cultural heritage premised upon a lack of specificity, the same quality that allows “legible” sound effects to become synchretic with a variety of implied sources. And this process is not unlike the interchangeability of urban spaces when shooting Vancouver for Seattle, New York, or Frankfurt, emphasizing generic qualities of globalized urbanization while suppressing recognizable soundmarks from the mix (such as the persistent sound of float plane propellers that populate Vancouver harbour, the grinding and screeching of trains in the downtown railyard, or the regular horn blasts from the local ferry runs just north of the city).
The high-concept legibility of Warner Bros.’ sound effects – used in Falling Hare to play on listener’s expectations to comic effect – is further unsettled by its presentation within the context of documentary sound conventions in East Hastings Pharmacy. Bourges’ film commits to regional specificity in part through the use of location sound recording, which, as Jeffrey K. Ruoff identifies in “Conventions of Documentary Sound,” is particularly valued as a marker of authenticity (27-29). While Bourges stages the action inside the clinic, the film features location recordings of the rich street life audible and visible through the clinic’s windows that proceeds unaffected by the cameras and microphones. This situation is all the more potent when we account for the fact that, in this scene, the location-recorded cartoon soundtrack and ambient sound effects were added in post-production, and so represent a highly conscious attempt to channel the acoustic environment according to the conventions of “authentic” sound in documentary film.
While the film uses location recording as a conscious stylistic choice to evoke documentary convention, it does so to engage meaningfully with the social situation in the Downtown Eastside, underlining Michel Chion’s point that “rendered” film sound – fabricated in studio to evoke the qualities of a particular space – is just as capable of engaging the world authentically (or inauthentically) as “real” sound captured on location (95-98). By presenting this Hollywood cartoon as an embedded element within the soundscape of the clinic, using a provocative mix of location sound and studio fabrication, East Hastings Pharmacy unsettles Hollywood’s usual practice of erasing local specificity, inviting us to think of runaway projects in the context of their foreign spaces of production and the local media practices that sit next to them.
Finally, this intersection of sonic styles points to the complex relationships that exist between the domains of independent and industrial production around Vancouver. In his book Hollywood North, Mike Gasher argues for thinking about filmmaking in British Columbia as a resource industry, pointing to how the provincial government has offered business incentives for foreign film production similar to those in place for activities like logging and fishing. Here we can consider how the local film industry might follow the same unsustainable patterns of extraction as other resource industries, all premised upon willful ignorance of indigenous uses of the land. Yet as David Spaner charts in Dreaming in the Rain, the ability to make independent films in Vancouver has become largely intertwined with the availability of industrial resources in town. Just as Hollywood didn’t erase the independent film, colonization didn’t erase indigenous presence.
East Hastings Pharmacy offers a powerful example of how we can practice unsettled listening on the staged sound of Falling Hare, devoid of local context and connected to the railway only by inference, to reveal a rich integration with regional specificity as the cartoon’s auditory resonances accumulate within its new spaces of propagation. In this way we can hear local media through its transnational network, including the First Nations, to understand the overlaps between seemingly contradictory modes of being within the city. And in so doing, we can also hear through the misrepresentation of the Downtown Eastside as “Canada’s worst neighborhood” to the strength of the community that has long characterized the area for anyone who scratches the surface, an important first step along the path to unsettling the city as a whole.
Featured Image: Still from East Hastings Pharmacy
Randolph Jordan wanted to be a rock star. Academia seemed a responsible back-up option – until it became clear that landing a professor gig would be harder than topping the Billboard charts. After completing his Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary Humanities program at Concordia University in 2010 he floated around Montreal classrooms on contract appointments before taking up a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. There he has been investigating geographical specificity in Vancouver-based film and media by way of sound studies and critical geography, research that will inform the last chapter of his book Reflective Audioviewing: An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema (now under contract at Oxford University Press). If you can’t find him hammering away at his manuscript, or recording his three young children hammering away at their Mason & Risch, look for him under Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge where he spends his “spare time” gathering film and sound material for his multimedia project Bell Tower of False Creek. Or visit him online here: http://www.randolphjordan.com
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World Listening Day took place last week, and as I understand it, it is all about not taking sound for granted – an admirable goal indeed! But it is worth taking a moment to consider what sorts of things we might be taking for granted about sound as a concept when we decide that listening should have its own holiday.
One gets the idea that soundscapes are like giant pandas on Endangered Species Day – precious and beautiful and in need of protection. Or perhaps they are more like office workers on Administrative Professionals’ Day – crucial and commonplace, but underappreciated. Does an annual day of listening imply an interruption of the regularly scheduled three hundred and sixty four days of “looking”? I don’t want to undermine the valuable work of the folks at the World Listening Project, but I’d argue it’s equally important to consider the hazards of taking sound and listening for granted as premises of sensory experience in the first place. As WLD has passed, let us reflect upon ways we can listen beyond our ears.
At least since R. Murray Schafer coined the term, people have been living in a world of soundscapes. Emily Thompson provides a good definition of the central concept of the soundscape as “an aural landscape… simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world.”(117) As an historian, Thompson was interested in using the concept of soundscape as a way of describing a particular epoch: the modern “machine age” of the turn of the 20th century.
Anthropologist Tim Ingold has argued that, though the concept that listening is primarily something that we do within, towards, or to “soundscapes” usefully counterbalanced the conceptual hegemony of sight, it problematically reified sound, focusing on “fixities of surface conformation rather than the flows of the medium” and simplifying our perceptual faculties as “playback devices” that are neatly divided between our eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue, etc.
Stephan Helmreich took Ingold’s critique a step further, suggesting that soundscape-listening presumes a a particular kind of listener: “emplaced in space, [and] possessed of interior subjectivities that process outside objectivities.” Or, in less concise but hopefully clearer words: When you look at the huge range of ways we experience the world, perhaps we’re limiting ourselves if we confine the way we account for listening experiences with assumptions (however self-evident they might seem to some of us) that we are ‘things in space’ with ‘thinking insides’ that interact with ‘un-thinking outsides.’ Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama, in their chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, put it the most bluntly, arguing that
Recent decades of sensory history, anthropology, and cultural studies have rendered banal the argument that the senses are constructed. However, as yet, sound scholars have only begun to reckon with the implications for the dissolution of our object of study as a given prior to our work of analysis.(546)
Here they are referring to the problem of the technological plasticity of the senses suggested by “audification” technologies that make visible things audible and vice-versa. SO!’s Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has also weighed in on the social contingency of the “listening ear,” invoking Judith Butler to describe it as “a socially-constructed filter that produces but also regulates specific cultural ideas about sound.” In various ways, here, we get the sense that not only is listening a good way to gain new perspectives, but that there are many perspectives one can have concerning the question of what listening itself entails.
But interrogating the act of listening and the sounds towards which it is directed is not just about good scholarship and thinking about sound in a properly relational and antiessentialist way. It’s even less about tsk-tsking those who find “sound topics” intrinsically interesting (and thus spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about things like, say, Auto-Tune.) Rather, it’s about taking advantage of listening’s potential as a prying bar for opening up some of those black boxes to which we’ve grown accustomed to consigning our senses. Rather than just celebrating listening practices and acoustic ecologies year after year, we should take the opportunity to consider listening beyond our current conceptions of “listening” and its Western paradigms.
For example, when anthropologist Kathryn Lynn Guerts first tried to understand the sensory language of the West African Anlo-Ewe people, she found a rough but ready-enough translation for “hear” in the verb se or sese. The more she spoke with people about it, however, the more she felt the limitations of her own assumptions about hearing being, simply, the way we sense sounds through our ears. As one of her informants put it, “Sese is hearing – not hearing by the ear but a feeling type of hearing”(185). As it turns out, according to many Anlo-ewe speakers, our ability to hear the sounds of the world around us is by no means an obviously discrete element of some five-part sensorium, but rather a sub-category of a feeling-in-the-body, or seselelame. Geurts traces the ways in which the prefix se combines with other sensory modes, opening up the act of hearing as it goes along: sesetonume, for example, is a category that brings together sensations of “eating, drinking, breathing, regulation of saliva, sexual exchanges, and also speech.” Whereas English speakers are more inclined to contrast speech with listening as an act of expression rather than perception, for the Anlo-Ewe they can be joined together into a single sensory experience.
The ways of experiencing the world intimated by Geurts’ Anlo-Ewe interlocutors play havoc with conventionally “transitive,” western understandings of what it means to “sense” something (that is, to be a subject sensing an object) let alone what it means to listen. When you listen to something you like, Geurts might suggest to us that liking is part of the listening. Similarly, when you listen to yourself speak, who’s to say the feeling of your tongue against the inside of your mouth isn’t part of that listening? When a scream raises the hairs on the back of your neck, are you listening with your follicles? Are you listening to a song when it is stuck in your head? The force within us that makes us automatically answer “no” to questions of this sort is not a force of our bodies (they felt these things together after all), but a force of social convention. What if we tried to protest our centuries-old sensory sequestration? Give me synaesthesia or give me death!
Indeed, synaesthesia, or the bleeding-together of sensory modes in our everyday phenomenological experience, shows that we should loosen the ear’s hold on the listening act (both in a conceptual and a literal sense – see some of the great work at the intersections of disability studies and sound studies). In The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty put forth a bold thesis about the basic promiscuity of sensory experience:
Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear and feel. (266)
Merleau-Ponty, it should be said, is not anti-science so much as he’s interested in understanding the separation of the senses as an historical accomplishment. This allows us to think about and carry out the listening act in even more radical ways.
Of course all of this synaesthetic exuberance requires a note to slow down and check our privilege. As Stoever-Ackerman pointed out:
For women and people of color who are just beginning to decolonize the act of listening that casts their alternatives as wrong/aberrant/incorrect—and working on understanding their listening, owning their sensory orientations and communicating them to others, suddenly casting away sound/listening seems a little like moving the ball, no?
To this I would reply: yes, absolutely. It is good to remember that gleefully dismantling categories is by no means always the best way to achieve wider conceptual and social openness in sound studies. There is no reason to think that a synaesthetic agenda couldn’t, in principle, turn fascistic. The point, I think, is to question the tools we use just as rigorously as the work we do with them.
Owen Marshall is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His dissertation research focuses on the articulation of embodied perceptual skills, technological systems, and economies of affect in the recording studio. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of pitch-time correction, cybernetics, and ideas and practices about sensory-technological attunement in general.
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Listen in as Eric Leonardson and Monica Ryan celebrate World Listening Day 2014 by reflecting on the work of R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project. Interviewees Professor Sabine Breitsameter of Hochschule Darmstadt (Germany) and Professor Barry Truax of Simon Fraser University (Canada) discuss the impact of Schafer’s ideas and offer commentary on contemporary threads within the field of Acoustic Ecology. How does does Acoustic Ecology help us to think through today’s complex environments and how can listeners like you make a difference?
Co-Authors of this podcast:
Eric Leonardson is a Chicago-based audio artist and teacher. He has devoted a majority of his professional career to unorthodox approaches to sound and its instrumentation with a broad understanding of texture, atmosphere and microtones. He is President of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and founder of the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, and Executive Director of the World Listening Project. Leonardson is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Sound at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Monica Ryan is an instructor and audio artist from Chicago. Currently her work explores spatialized sound recording and playback techniques along with interactive sound environments. She teaches in several institutions in Chicago, including The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College.
Tom Haigh is a British post production sound mixer, composer, and phonography enthusiast, now residing in Chicago. As a staff engineer at ARU Chicago, he works with clients in advertising, media, and independent film.
Featured image: Used through a CC BY license. Originally posted by Ky @Flickr.
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