Sound Theories

Digital Technologies and the Call for New Genres of Theory

[Cross-posted from the Fordham Graduate Studies Digital Humanities blog.]

I recently attended a panel discussion at the NYU Center for the Humanities to kick off the release of a new book, Theorizing Sound Writing, ed. Deborah Kapchan (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017). The book explores the relationship of writing and aurality (the study of listening) in order to pursue two aims: It theorizes how to write about sound, and it uses its premise of listening to point toward compassionate scholarship. Kapchan, the volume’s editor and chair of the panel cites philosopher Jacques Attali’s pronouncement that theorizing through language and mathematics is insufficient because “it is incapable of accounting for what is essential in time—the qualitative and the fluid, threats and violence.”[1] From this criticism he calls for new “theoretical forms” that can better respond to temporal experience. Kapchan points out that thirty years later we find a similar call from theorist Lauren Berlant, who identifies the need “to invent new genres for the kind of speculative work we call ‘theory.’”[2]

I wonder what these new genres could be. I don’t wonder, however, whether digital technologies will be a part of them. They will, but how? Two examples illustrate the potential roles that digital technologies may take in theorizing our past and current experiences, even if the role is one of absence. In his chapter “Acoustic Palimpsests” J. Martin Daughtry lays out different iterations of his process of writing the article, beginning with a Russian poem by Anna Akhmatova, followed by the first draft of his introduction to the chapter but entirely crossed out like so. He moves through multiple other layers, each marked as a separate section of the chapter, that include a subsequent introduction draft written in 2009; a passage from Jorge Luis Borges; sonic accumulation in recordings of Iurii Kirsanov; photographic examples of street art palimpsests composed of accreted layers of pasted advertisements, graffiti, and partial decomposition from weathering; and various marginalia. In the penultimate section of the chapter Daughtry admits to doubts and asks,

Having inscribed this layered text, this meditation on erasure, can I erase what I’ve written so far? Can I wipe out my treatment of Kirsanov, and Filon, and soldiers in Iraq, and iPod users, only to try again to capture their essence tomorrow? Like a medieval scribe with a scraping knife, can I unwrite this text? In doing so, can I compel you, dear reader to unread it?

Of course I cannot.

[Delete all.] 

[Restart.][3]

Daughtry even does restart with one more brief section following this one, a transcription of pencil scribbles on the “back of the last page” in multiple hands that does not identify the authors, the document scribbled on, or the context of the scribbles.

I couldn’t help wondering what such an experimental chapter form would look like in digital format. In a video or audio version these layers could be shown individually, but then they could also be entirely stacked on top of one another at the end to show the cumulative palimpsest Daughtry creates. The potential for these digital technologies is because of their ability to capture events in and across time. But Daughtry’s sections are not equal in their textual length, and so if they were stacked, how would a digital format temporally deal with their varied lengths? Some layers might finish far before others. I.e., if the text was read at the same pace for each section (another formal and interpretive decision in and of itself), Akhmatova’s poem would finish long before the analysis of Kirsanov’s recordings. Although palimpsests are created over time, digital technologies show, by capturing moments in time, the singular, instant-like nature of palimpsests as well. If we consider different genres for theory, Daughtry’s experimental chapter exhibits the limitations of the standard text or book-based form and offers promising potential for foregrounding his ideas and for raising new ones through digital genres.

But another contribution, “Sound Commitments: Extraordinary Stories,” by Tomie Hahn, shows the limitations of digital formats. She begins her chapter with a warning that it is a performance and is to be read out loud. She entreats the reader, “Join in the performance. Explore the presence of text, the vulnerability and ephemerality of embodying text, by listening to each sound formed by your voice. In this way you will be sharing the text while also experiencing and altering Hahn’s fieldwork experiences.”[4] How would a digital format affect this chapter? The chapter itself asks to be performed, to be sounded. But a digital performance would remove the experience of personally performing the text. A digital performance risks pinning it down to a single, authoritative performance, like sticking a pin in a butterfly to preserve it, and this is antithetical to Hahn’s goals for the chapter. In this respect digital technologies can act as a collection (no doubt Hahn uses them in her fieldwork referred to above), but in tracking temporal performance, as Attali asks, textual forms may lose the potential of their timelessness and openness to multiple performers.

In this volume’s project of more mindful listening digital technologies allow us, on the one hand, to do so in a more somatic sense. If theory needs new genres, digital genres may help to develop more sympathy from physical experience and help to better account for the lived and sensed experience of being human. On the other hand, digital formats will, as we continue to learn, also open new questions about the limits of mediating the human experience no matter what technology we use and argue for occasions when they, like analog technologies, come up short.

 

[1] Jacques Attali qtd. in Deborah Kapchan, “The Splash of Icarus: Theorizing Sound Writing/ Writing Sound Theory” in Theorizing Sound Writing (ed. Deborah Kapchan (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017), 2.

[2] Lauren Berlant qtd. in Ibid.

[3] J. Martin Daughtry, “Acoustic Palimpsests” in Theorizing Sound Writing, 79.

[4] Tomie Hahn, “Sound Commitments” in Theorizing Sound Writing, 138.

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Music, Sound and Space: Transformation of Public and Private Experience

On March 4, our reading group convened to discuss two chapters from Cambridge UP’s 2015 anthology Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience.  We began with Eric F. Clarke’s “Music, Space and Subjectivity,” which acknowledges both the human capacity to hear space and the ways that sound and music can “specify various real and virtual spaces” (90).  Clarke notes the ocularcentric bias in spatial perception–we can see space so well that we often overlook how effectively we can actually hear space–and examines songs by Pink Floyd, Goldfrapp, and Bjork to highlight how each forms acoustic spaces.

We also explored Jonathan Sterne’s chapter “What the Mind’s Ear Doesn’t Hear,” which, building on his major study MP3: The Meaning of a Format, presents the MP3 as “a political modulation of private listening experience” (111).  Describing the development of the MP3, Sterne explores the criteria sound engineers used to create the most imperceptible decay in sound quality.  Yet, as Sterne explains, since “no two people can occupy the same exact subjective space,” the MP3 must at best rely “upon the measurement of something that can only be approximated: interior listening experience” (113).

We concluded by briefly mentioning another essay on the politics of sound and physical spaces: Michael Bull’s “The Audio-Visual Ipod.” This article observes how the iPod (or any mobile listening device,  I suppose) alters a listener’s perception of his/her environment.   Listening to, for instance, a sad song influences the way we perceive our current environment; the world may, as a result, seem melancholic. The iPod, then, transforms our perception of physical spaces, creating “a satisfying aestheticized reality for [listeners] as they move through daily life” (198).

Next month we will meet to analyze articles from, excitingly, the very first issue of Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal!

Works Cited

Bull, Michael. “The Audio-Visual iPod.” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 197-208. Print.

Born, Georgina, ed. Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print.

Bruce R. Smith – The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-factor

On October 22, Fordham’s Music and Sound Studies reading group reconvened to discuss its first monograph of the semester: Bruce R. Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-factor.  Smith’s book was well-received, and we found his spatial approach to sound especially compelling.  While sound instinctively seems temporal and ephemeral, Smith responds that it actually is also spatial and enduring.  When we study spaces constructed for particular sonorous environments, we can recover traces of past sounds.  In this way, we can still engage with and act upon absent sounds; the past can become an object of present inquiry.  In other words, thinking of sound spatially grants it a persistence that is not accessible when we think of sound temporally.

We also spent time observing Smith’s astute challenge to Derrida (pp. 11-12). Whereas Derrida wants to locate writing in voice, Smith observes the body in sound production.  Smith criticizes Derrida for effacing the body’s role in creating sounds, as Smith points out that the body stores a set of practices that enables us to produce intelligible speech.

Smith’s book raised other questions about interdisciplinary study (particularly about the literariness of Smith’s endeavor) and about the presence of noise in both theoretical writings (Attali) and historical and literary scholarship (Picker, Cockayne).  These questions concluded our engaging and lively meeting.

The reading group will next meet on November 12 to discuss R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape.

March Discussion Recap: Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, by Don Ihde

listening and voice

In our third meeting, we discussed Don Ihde’s difficult but classic Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Below are some highlights from the conversation and Ihde’s ideas:

Ihde reminds his readers that to listen phenomenologically is to hear sounds as they are — to hear their essence — and not to perceive them as attached to some objects, i.e. the sounds of the jackhammer. Sounds are not “sounds of things,” Ihde writes (61). By studying the phenomena of sound, Ihde breaks from the “traditions of dominant visualism,” where sounds serve as “anticipatory clues for ultimate visual fulfillments” (54). He also points out that the limit of sight is not darkness but invisibility, and that even a strong invisible wind has a distinct and tangible spatial presence that we perceive by the sound it creates even if we cannot see it directly.

In response to this dominant visualism, one of Ihde’s biggest interventions is his interest in reclaiming sound as spatial. Ihde writes that the auditory is often associated with temporality; it seems to arise and disappear, not occupying a spatial presence. However, Ihde contends that all sounds, even muteness, have their own auditory space. Matt elucidated Ihde’s claim by noting that muteness is always visually noticeable on a spectrograph.  The absence of sound, then, also occupies space and has a demonstrable spatial presence.

Step by step Ihde illuminates how in listening we hear shapes and surfaces. We can hear if an object rolling in a box is round or some other shape. Simultaneously we hear the surface of the box, just as we can hear the surface of a sidewalk as luggage rolls along it. This association of the sonic with the spatial departs from or, perhaps more accurately, expands on the typical sonic-temporal pairing.

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February Discussion Recap: Noise, by Jacques Attali

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Fight between Lent and Carnival

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Fight between Lent and Carnival

Last week, our sound studies group met to discuss Jacques Attali’s Noise. For over an hour we discussed the central claims of Attali’s textits implications on sound studies, and the many ways it still resonates today.

First, we defined what Attali means by noise.  He argues that noise is violence: it disturbs, creates disconnects, and brings disorder in music and, more generally, daily life. (Think of a phone call interrupted by static, for instance). Noise has a special relationship with music, which Attali claims is ordered and harmonic. For such ordered music to exist, chaotic noise must be repressed, if not eliminated. In this way, the “code of music simulates the accepted rule of society” (29): music creates harmony by marginalizing unpleasant noises, just as society retains order by squashing subversion.

We then noted how Attali constructs a developmental narrative of music featuring four stages: ritual sacrifice, which makes people forget the general violence of their society; representation, which makes people believe in the harmony of the world; repetition, which silences people by mass-producing a deafening music that censors undesirable other noises; and composition, which has not yet occurred, but if it does it will be an entirely non-commercial art, where composers make self-communicative art.

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Thinking about Noise: Simmel and DeLillo

Enraged_musician

William Hogarth depicts a noisy London in The Enraged Musician (1741).

In the next few posts, I will highlight some of the many ways writers have approached the phenomenon of noise. I begin today by turning back to the beginning of the twentieth century with Georg Simmel’s famous 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”

Georg_SimmelIn his essay, Simmel observes how humans’ senses have adapted to specific environments over time. As people moved from the countryside to the modern metropolis, for instance, they had to develop physically and mentally to withstand the city’s constant external stimuli. Simmel explains that the metropolitan’s body gradually builds a “protective organ” that counters “the profound disruption with which the fluctuations and discontinuities of the external milieu threaten it” (12). In other words, the organ literally shields metropolitans from the external city’s innumerable sights, sounds, and smells.  This organ is necessary in an environment marked by constant sensory overload, for if metropolitans tried to perceive everything they encountered, they’d quickly become overwhelmed (and certainly accomplish nothing).

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Benjamin, Vinyl, and Almost Famous

vintage rock vinyl woodstock classic john lennon 1920x1080 wallpaper_www.wallpaperto.com_95

With sound and music studies in mind, I recently re-read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin famously suggests that the mass reproduction of art has stripped it of its “aura,” which he defines as the mystical emanation surrounding an aesthetic object that identifies its authenticity. Proposing three stages of art, Benjamin explains how this aura originates and decays: in the first stage, art is appreciated for its cult or ritualistic value; that is, someone would create a unique piece of art (like a sculpture) for worship.  Second, following this religious stage is a secular one, where people value art for its aesthetic beauty. Benjamin claims that during the Renaissance and for three centuries thereafter, aesthetic objects retain their aura. (Think of any famous Renaissance painting; there is still a spiritual presence surrounding that very object, which is why, in part, we revere them.) In the third stage machines begin to mass-produce art, and the aesthetic object’s aura disappears. Once art is made for reproduction, Benjamin explains, the “authentic” product is no longer valued, and the original will become indistinguishable from its innumerable duplicates. He gives the example of a photo, which does not carry the same presence as, say, a Renaissance portrait; we value the photo for its (reproducible) content, not for its original print. As Benjamin writes, “one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense” (256).

Walter Benjamin

But has mechanical reproduction totally diminished art’s aura? My immediate counter-argument to Benjamin’s history of art is the vinyl record. I have what may be a very subjective response to vinyl: when I hold one of my records, I can sense the very aura Benjamin describes. Yet maybe my feelings aren’t so unique; the recent resurgence in record sales cannot be attributed only to the (often debated) difference in sound between vinyls and CDs/MP3s. There is an allure to records — no other format (CDs, cassettes, and, especially, digital music) has the same cultish appeal.  Even though records are mass produced, their form — not to mention the music they hold — still carries some cultish and aesthetic value.

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