Auditory Culture

Reading notes from Auditory Culture, edited by Michael Bull and Les Back, Berg, 2003. Overarching theme: By investigating how auditory culture subtly and profoundly impacts our daily lives, this collection of essays attempts to address the imbalance of sight over sound, and how the visual overly influences the way we relate to and think about our lives.

Auditory Culture > thesis

Provides a template for the production of an "acoustemology" for investigating "the primacy of sound as a modality of knowing and being in the world" (borrowing from Steven Feld's essay, "A Rainforest of Acoustemology", 223-239; see below).

Auditory Culture > notes from introduction

Advocates "deep listening" or "agile listening," both of which involve "attuning our ears to listen again to the multiple layers of meaning potentially embedded in the same sound." Deep listening also involves "practices of dialogue and procedures for investigation, transposition and interpretation" (3-4). Argues that several factors are at stake in deep listening
Sound makes us re-think the meaning, nature and significance of our social experience
Sound makes us re-think our relation to community
Sound makes us re-think our relational experiences, how we relate to others, ourselves and the spaces and places we inhabit
Sound makes us re-think our relationship to power (4)
In short, sound provides a place in which embodied social and cultural traces can be carried, often without the awareness of their bearers. Therefore, it is good to choose to actively and deeply listen to the sounds of the world in which we live. By moving "into sound" we open new ways of thinking about and appreciating the social experience, memory, time, and place—the auditory culture—of sound (16).

Auditory Culture > notes from contents

R. Murray Shaffer (Tuning the World New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977) introduced the term soundscape to denote the auditory terrain in its entirety of overlapping noises, sounds, and human melodies. The soundscape is not a flat terrain that can be mapped, but rather a fluid field changed with the introduction of each new sound (11).

In city and urban environments, the soundscape can become overwhelming, especially with "noise"—that which is considered outside the culturally accepted notion of "civilized." Personal audio devices (Walkmans, mp3 players, and now, mobile telephones) permit users to construct their own individualized sound world wherever they may be. Experience is thus aestheticized and, as she moves through it, the world becomes whatever the user wants it to be. These individuals are not urban flaneurs, but rather individuals preoccupied with the management of their own environment. Sound transforms public space into private property. Jean-Paul Thibaud suggests the term "sonic bridge" for this phenomenon ("The Sonic Composition of the City" 329-341). (9)

Sound provides a place in which embodied social and cultural traces can be carried, often without the awareness of their bearers. Therefore, it is good to choose to actively and deeply listen to the sounds of the world in which we live. By moving "into sound" we open new ways of thinking about and appreciating the social experience, memory, time, and place—the auditory culture—of sound (16).

Auditory Culture > Part 1: Thinking about Sound

Theoretical and epistemological questions . . .

"Open Ears" by Murray Schafer (25-39) suggests three questions:
Who's listening?
What are they listening to?
What are they ignoring or refusing to listen to?

Big noises, like cannons, church bells, steam engines, and jets have changed history. So have small sounds, like whispers in clandestine meetings. In every case someone is listening and understands what is happening. In other cases, persons are not listening, and so miss the revolution, or the social change (26). "Most of the sounds busy people listen to are signals of activity. This explains their immunity to the sounds of nature. One of the essential differences between the natural environment and the engineered environments in which most people live is that nature can't be shut off with a button. Things that can't be generated or shut off with buttons or switches attract little attention in the modern world. . . . The power of technology really comes down to a fascination with buttons and switches in an attempt to modulate information intake. . . . The cellular phone, which the Germans appropriately called the 'Handy,' is the latest installment in this drama" (38). "Beyond what fascinates your ear today is something else, incessantly and obdurately present, although you cannot or do not hear it yet—but whoever hears it first has a good chance of inheriting the future" (39).

"Hearing Loss" by Leigh Eric Schmidt (41-59; first published Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. 15-28.) Argues that "a hierarchy of the senses, with sight vastly ennobled and hearing sharply diminished" (48) is "deeply ingrained in Western religious and philosophical traditions" (43). This results in "a marked dichotomy between eye and ear cultures that has commonly drawn on radicalized constructions of Western rationality and ecstatic primitivism" (48)—most notably the work of Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan.

"Auditory Imagination" by Don Ihde (61-66; first published Ihde, Don. Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1976. 133-139.) "In the most general terms, auditory imagination as a whole displays the same generic possibilities as the full imaginative mode of experience. Within the active imaginative mode of experience lies the full range from sedimented memories to wildest fantasy. . . . Within the range of the imaginative, auditory imagination may accompany other dimensional presentifications." (61) Between the imaginative and perceptual modes of experience there are "distances and perceptions" regarding copresence, a dual polyphony of perceived and imagined sound (61-62). There is, in auditory imagination, "the possibility of a synthesis of imagined and perceived sound" (62). These distances and perceptions can create the sense of there being an "echo" between, or because of the alternation between perceived and imaginative sounds (64).

Auditory Culture > Part 2: Histories of Sound

Historical studies of sound . . .
"Tuning into London c. 1600" by Bruce R. Smith (127-135) ". . . most of us live immersed in a world of sound" (127). "Sound is at once the most forceful stimulus that human beings experience, and the most evanescent" (128). Three principles of studying sound:
Sound, as an object of study, has been neglected
Knowing the world through sound is fundamentally different from knowing the world through vision
Most academic disciplines are vision-based, not only in the materials they study, but in the theoretical models they deploy to interpret those materials (129). Problem with studying sound from an historical perspective is that many sounds, unless they have been recorded in some way, are no longer available for study, or are difficult to study. One manner of recording historical sounds, and then for studying them, is through literature. Authors, as well as travelers, journalists, etc. have recorded in writing their impressions of the sounds of new or historical contexts. The speech of persons living in these contexts is, naturally, a primary concern, and we can study these writings to learn something of historical speech. Hence, most historical attention to sound has focused on the narrow range of sounds involved in speech. Less researched are the ambient sounds of a particular context which often mark or define the boundaries between that particular context and another, between class, gender, or race relations, for example.

Auditory Culture > Part 3: Anthropologies of Sound

Cross-cultural examples of sound . . .
"A Rainforest Acoustemology" by Steven Feld (223-239; an earlier version first published as part of "Sound Worlds," Sound. Particia Kruth and Henry Stobart, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 173-200). Reacts against the notion that soundscapes are separate from the "pervasiveness of human invention." Says, "Soundscapes, no less than landscapes, are not just physical exteriors, spatially surrounding or apart from actors who attend to them as a way of making their place in and through the world. Soundscapes are invested with significance by those whose bodies and lives resonate with them in social time and space. Like landscapes, they are as much psychical as physical phenomena, as much cultural constructs as materials ones" (226; from Edward S. Casey, "How to Get from Space to Place in a Very Short Stretch of Time," Senses of Place, Steven Feld and Keith Basso, eds. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996. 13-52). Defines "acoustemology" as "a union of acoustics and epistemology"; a way to "investigate the primacy of sound as a modality of knowing and being in the world" (226). Argues that "sound both emanates from and penetrates bodies; this reciprocity of reflection and absorption is a creative means of orientation—one that tunes bodies to places and times through their sounding potential. Hearing and producing sound are thus embodied competencies that situate actors and their agency in particular historical worlds. These competencies contribute to their distinct and shared ways of being human; they contribute to possibilities for and realizations of authority, understanding, reflexivity, compassion, and identity" (226).

"Nostalgia and Radio Sound" by Jo Tacchi (281-295; first published as "Nostalgia, Radio Listening and Everyday Life," Media@LSE Electronic Working Paper, No. 1, December 2000.) Argues that sound may be "easily equated with depth perception, interior understanding and dynamism" and that, despite sound being devalued by vision, may provide more creative ways in which to work (288).

Auditory Culture > Part 4: Sounds in the City

Sounds of urban life and popular culture . . .
"Aural Postcards: Sound, Memory and the City" by Fran Tonkiss (303-309) "Cities provide a soundstage for the dramas of modern life" (304). [I would substitute "narratives" for "drama".] With all their sounds, however, city soundscapes can be overwhelming. "It is easier and more effective to shut your eyes than it is to cover your ears. Ears cannot discriminate in the way eyes can—as with smell, hearing puts us in a submissive sensuous relation to the city. And yet still we glance at sounds in the city, we don't glaze. Individuals' relation to sound in the everyday spaces of the city tends to be one of distraction rather than attention. . . . Acquired indifference is both the side-effect of and the best defence against" the overwhelming effects of a city's soundscape (304). The personal stereo or mobile telephone allow users to create private, personal soundscapes that are "smaller, tamer, more predictable" (305). Sound souvenirs, the relation of sound to memory, promote the audible presence "in the moment of recall, the melding of space, sound and memory there in the concept of resonance; a movement in the air like sound you can touch" (307). "The past comes to us in its most unbidden, immediate and sensuous forms not in the artifice of the travel photograph, but in the accident of sounds half-remembered. This is something like the difference between record and memory. There is a quality of those sounds not quite recalled that has the texture and the delicacy of memory itself" (307).

"The Sonic Composition of the City" by Jean-Paul Thibaud (329-341) Argues that urbanites use of personal stereos transforms their experience of the city by creating a balance between what she hears and travels through. This reconfiguring of the urban space by unsettling the relationship between sound and vision produces new ways of experiencing the city. Listening to music via headphones not only protects from "the sonic aggressions of the city" but also "enhances the events that give the place its meaning" (330).

"How Many Movements?" by Caroline Bassett (343-355) Argues that users of mobile telephony, walking about in a city, are "no longer embedded in [their] immediate locality or environment." Instead, they are connected simultaneously to other people in remote places/spaces. One then can discover new perspectives because they can both be reached and reach out via their mobile telephones (344-345). The mobile telephone offers then, different from the Walkman or other personal stereo device, "the possibility of remote intervention" (345). For the mobile telephone user, travel/discovery is no longer a broken connection, a separation between the mode of travel and the environment in which one travels. There is no dislocation between the traveler/flaneur and the world beyond. Instead of a boundary, mobile telephones provide an interface (346). Use of mobile telephony creates/facilitates a sense of space/place different from the physical space occupied by the user. "Regarded as a practice of space, and as a practice that makes space, the mobile phone draws up the cultural conditions under which it itself is made—all the species of space—unto itself: like a map, a dream, or even like a prayer might do" (354). These spaces are neither individual or private, but rather socially collective constructions that offer a sense of "being there" of "being live" (351, 354).