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The Dark Side of Game Audio: The Sounds of Mimetic Control and Affective Conditioning

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Sound and Surveilance4

It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.

This month, SO! Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell curates a forum on Sound and Surveillance, featuring the work of Robin James and Kathleen Battles.  And so it begins, with Aaron asking. . .”Want to Play a Game?” –JS

It’s eleven o’clock on a Sunday night and I’m in the back room of a comic book store in Scotch Plains, NJ. Game night is wrapping up. Just as I’m about to leave, someone suggests that we play Pit, a classic game about trading stocks in the early 20th century. Because the game is short, I decide to give it a go and pull a chair up to the table. In Pit, players are given a hand of nine cards of various farm-related suits and frantically trade cards with other players until their entire hand matches the same suit. As play proceeds, players hold up a set of similar cards they are willing to trade and shout, “one, one, one!,” “two, two, two!,” “three, three, three!,” until another player is willing to trade them an equivalent amount of cards in a different suit. The game only gets louder as the shouting escalates and builds to a cacophony.

As I drove home that night, I came to the uncomfortable realization that maybe the game was playing me. I and the rest of the players had adopted similar dispositions over the course of the play. As we fervently shouted to one another trying to trade between sets of indistinguishable commodities, we took on similar, intense, and excited mannerisms. Players who would not scream, who would not participate in the reproduction of the game’s sonic environment, simply lost the game, faded out. As for the rest of us, we became like one another, cookie-cutter reproductions of enthusiastic, stressed, and aggravated stock traders, getting louder as we cornered the market on various goods.

We were caught in a cybernetic-loop, one that encouraged us to take on the characteristics of stock traders. And, for that brief period of time, we succumbed to systems of control with far reaching implications. As I’ve argued before, games are cybernetic mechanisms that facilitate particular modes of feedback between players and the game state. Sound is one of the channels through which this feedback is processed. In a game like Pit, players both listen to other players for cues regarding their best move and shout numbers to the table representing potential trades. In other games, such as Monopoly, players must announce when they wish to buy properties. Although it is no secret that understanding sound is essential to good game design, it is less clear how sound defines the contours of power relationships in these games. This essay offers two games,  Mafia, and Escape: The Curse of the Temple as case studies for the ways in which sound is used in the most basic of games, board games. By fostering environments that encourage both mimetic control and affective conditioning game sound draws players into the devious logic of cybernetic systems.

Understanding the various ways that sound is implemented in games is essential to understanding the ways that game sound operates as both a form of mimetic control and affective conditioning. Mimetic control is, at its most simple, the power of imitation. It is the degree to which we become alike when we play games. Mostly, it happens because the rules invoke a variety of protocols which encourage players to interact according to a particular standard of communication. The mood set by game sound is the power of affective conditioning. Because we decide what we interact with on account of our moods, moments of affective conditioning prime players to feel things (such as pleasure), which can encourage players to interact in compulsive, excited, subdued, or frenetic ways with game systems.

A game where sound plays a central and important role is Mafia (which has a number of other variants like Werewolf and The Resistance). In Mafia, some players take the secret role of mafia members who choose players to “kill” at night, while the eyes of the others are closed. Because mafia-team players shuffle around during the game and point to others in order to indicate which players to eliminate while the eyes of the other players are closed, the rules of the game suggest that players tap on things, whistle, chirp, and make other ambient noises while everyone’s eyes are closed. This allows for the mafia-team players to conduct their business secretly, as their motions are well below the din created by the other players. Once players open their eyes, they must work together to deduce which players are part of the mafia, and then vote on who to eliminate from the game. Here players are, in a sense, controlled by the game to provide a soundtrack. What’s more, the eeriness of the sounds produced by the players only accentuate the paranoia players feel when taking part in what’s essentially a lynch-mob.

The ambient sounds produced by players of Mafia have overtones of mimetic control. Protocols governing the use of game audio as a form of communication between bodies and other bodies, or bodies and machines, require that we communicate in particular ways at set intervals. Different than the brutal and martial forms of discipline that drove disciplinary apparatuses like Bentham’s panopticon, the form of control exerted through interactive game audio relies on precisely the opposite premise. What is often termed “The Magic Circle of Play” is suspect here as it promises players a space that is safe and fundamentally separate from events in the outside world. Within this space somewhat hypnotic behavior-patterns take place under the auspices of being just fun, or mere play. Players who refuse to play by the rules are often exiled from this space, as they refuse to enter into this contract of soft social norms with others.

Not all panopticons are in prisons. "Singing Ringing Tree at Sunset," Dave Leeming CC BY.

Not all panopticons are in prisons. “Singing Ringing Tree at Sunset,” Dave Leeming CC BY.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple relies on sound to set a game mood that governs the ways that players interact with each other. In Escape, players have ten minutes (of real time) where they must work together to navigate a maze of cardboard tiles. Over the course of the game there are two moments when players must return to the tile that they started the game on, and these are announced by a CD playing in the background of the room. When this occurs, a gong rings on the CD and rhythms of percussion mount in intensity until players hear a door slam. At this point, if players haven’t returned to their starting tile, they are limited in the actions they can take for the rest of the game. In the moments of calm before players make a mad dash for the entrance, the soundtrack waxes ambient. It offers the sounds of howling-winds, rattling chimes, and yawning corridors.

The game is spooky, overall. The combination of haunting ambient sounds and moments where gameplay is rushed and timed, makes for an adrenaline-fueled experience contained and produced by the game’s ambient soundtrack. The game’s most interesting moments come from points where one player is trapped and players must decide whether they should help their friend or help themselves. The tense, haunting, soundtrack evokes feelings of high-stakes immersion. The game is fun because it produces a tight, stressful, and highly interactive experience. It conditions its players through the clever use of its soundtrack to feel the game in an embodied and visceral way. Like the ways that horror movies have used ambient sounds to a great effect in producing tension in audiences (pp.26-27), Escape: The Curse of the Temple encourages players to immerse themselves in the game world by playing upon the tried and true affective techniques that films have used for years. Immersed players feel an increased sense of engagement with the game and because of this they are willingly primed to engage in the mimetic interactive behaviors that engage them within the game’s cybernetic logic.

These two forms of power, mimetic control and affective conditioning, often overlap and coalesce in games. Sometimes, they meet in the middle during games that offer a more or less adaptive form of sound, like Mafia. Players work together and mimic each other when reproducing the ambient forms of quiet that constitute the atmosphere of terror that permeates the game space. Even the roar of bids which occurs in Pit constitutes a form of affective conditioning that encourages players to buy, buy, buy as fast as possible. Effectively simulating the pressure of The Stock Exchange.

Although there is now a growing discipline around the production of game audio, there is relatively little discourse that attempts to understand how the implementation of sound in games functions as a mode of social control. By looking at the ways that sound is implemented in board and card games, we can gain insight of the ways in which it is implemented in larger technical systems (such as computer games), larger aesthetic systems (such as performance art), economic systems (like casinos and the stock market), and even social systems (like parties). Furthermore, it is easy to describe more clearly the ways in which game audio functions as a form of soft power through techniques of mimetic control and affective conditioning. It is only by understanding how these techniques affect our bodies that we can begin to recognize our interactions with large-scale cybernetic systems that have effects reaching beyond the game itself.

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Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.

Featured image “Psychedelic Icon,” by Gwendal Uguen CC BY-NC-SA.

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“Cremation of senses in friendly fire”: on sound and biopolitics (via KMFDM & World War Z)

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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.’

Life

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.

"Overweight or obese population OECD 2010" by ZH8000 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Overweight or obese population OECD 2010″ by ZH8000 – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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.

“Kill Everything”

DrugagainstwarIn 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.

KMFDM, 1 October 2009, Image by Flickr User Axel Taferner

KMFDM, 1 October 2009, Image by Flickr User Axel Taferner

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.

WWZ

WWZ Stencil Duncan CWorld 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.

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WWZ Screen Capture

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 BodiesReggae 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.

WWZ Shooting in Glasgow, Scotland, Image by Flickr User Gerry McKay

WWZ Shooting in Glasgow, Scotland, Image by Flickr User Gerry McKay

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

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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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Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears: Reflecting Upon World Listening Day

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World Listening DayWorld Listening Month3 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.

"Rock Series - Microphones" by Flickr user Stefano Tambalo, CC BY 2.0

“Rock Series – Microphones” by Flickr user Stefano Tambalo, CC BY 2.0

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.

"listen (069/365)" by Flickr user Tim Pierce, CC BY 2.0

“listen (069/365)” by Flickr user Tim Pierce, CC BY 2.0

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.

"Listening, Regent Street, London, 17 December 2011" by Flickr user John Perivolaris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Listening, Regent Street, London, 17 December 2011″ by Flickr user John Perivolaris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

"Listening Room" by Flickr user Consumerist Dot Com, CC BY 2.0

“Listening Room” by Flickr user Consumerist Dot Com, CC BY 2.0

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.

Featured image: “listen up: ears really are strange looking if you think about it” by Flickr user woodleywonderworks, CC-BY-2.0

tape reel  REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Snap, Crackle, Pop: The Sonic Pleasures of Food–Steph Ceraso

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry–James Hyland

SO! Amplifies: Eric Leonardson and World Listening Day 18 July 2014–Eric Leonardson

 

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