Realism and Materialism in Sound Studies
- To outline how theorists have set about thinking about and through sound.
- Most recently, Christoph Cox's attempt to outline, via Laurelle, a non-decisional thinking with and through sound.
- This could also be described as a becoming-sound of thought.
- To outline a critique of this model of thought that Jonathan Sterne as described as the audiovisual litany.
- To map this audiovisual litany onto immersive aesthetics (which Frances Dyson has described as "sounding new media", thinking digital media through sound rather than … digital media).
- To consider how this thinking of and through sound (a "becoming sound" of thought) has informed sonic materialism.
- Within SS Sonic materialism is distinct from auditory culture due to its metaphysical/ontological orientation.
- To identify some issues with this sonic materialism.
- To consider a few exit strategies from this immersive interiority, this "becoming sound" of thought.
The audio-visual litany
Immersion is the new orthodoxy. Within the production, curation and critique of sound art, as well as within the broader fields of sound studies and auditory culture, the immersive is routinely celebrated as an experiential quality of sound, the value of which is inherent yet strengthened through a dubious metaphysical opposition to the visual. Yet even within the visual arts an acoustic condition grounded in Marshall McLuhan's metaphorical notion of acoustic space underwrites predispositions towards immersion. The acoustic condition in contemporary art envelops audiences and spectators who no longer perceive from a distance but "immanently" experience immersive artworks and environments.
Writing about sound art within academic, artistic and curatorial texts tends to gravitate towards certain common terminology: the "enveloping, immersive and intense" [@henriques2003, 451] are often taken to be a particular privilege of the sonic or auditory culture. These terms are usually contrasted or opposed to the distal exteriority of visual culture.
For Julian Henriques, "the sonic suggests an understanding that is based on connection, combination and synthesis, rather than division, separation or analysis alone", the latter being considered characteristic of 'the visual' [@henriques2003, 453]. This contrast is perhaps most clearly laid out by Christoph Cox in the claim that "lacking earlids, we are forever and inescapably bathed in sound, immersed in it in a way that we are not immersed in a world of visible objects"[@cox2013].
- the "hegemony of the visual" [@cox2011, 157].
- Seth Kim-Cohen has described how a phenomenological orientation pays the price of conceptual efficacy and symbolic participation.
- Kim-Cohen, however, is in full support of the sufficiency of the linguistic turn.
- I'm interested in how a critique of the phenomenological within sound studies might retain the conceptual resources Kim-Cohen is interested in, without remaining bound to the linguistic turn, to non-retinal art; how do we retain these successes of conceptualism but use these conceptual resources to pursue a naturalistic realism?
McLuhan & Acoustic Space
Visual man is the most extreme case of abstractionism because he has separated his visual faculty from the other senses, giving him unlimited powers of blue-printing knowledge and experience of political programming. Only Graeco-Roman man has ever had this visual faculty in isolation, and today it is threatened, not by any single factors such as television or radio, but by the electric speed of information movement in general. Electric speed is approximately the speed of light, and this constitutes an information environment that has basically an acoustic structure. At the speed of light, information is simultaneous from all directions and this is the structure of the act of hearing, i.e. the message or effect of electric information is acoustic. [@mcluhan1987, 466]
Whereas visual space is continuous, uniform, connected and static, the spaces created by all the other senses are discontinuous and dynamic. [@mcluhan1987, 466]
In the above passage the continuous and discontinuous would seem to refer to the linear and non-linear, rather than the discrete and durational, as in Bergson.
In a letter to R. Murray Schafer:
We are living in an acoustic age for the first time in centuries, and by that I mean that the electric environment is simultaneous. Hearing is structured by the experience of picking up information from all directions at once […] At this moment, the entire planet exists in that form of an instant but discontinuous co-presence of everything. [@mcluhan1987, 507-8]
auditory space […] is usually defined as 'a field of simultaneous relations without centre or periphery.' That is, auditory space contains nothing and is contained in nothing. It is quite unvisualizable, and, therefore, to the merely print oriented man, it is 'unintelligible'.[@mcluhan2006]
|Instantaneous / Simultaneous (speed)||Latency|
It is McLuhan's essentially metaphorical use of the acoustic that provides a theoretical elaboration of the acoustic condition operating within contemporary artistic practice and theory, specifically that which is ambient and immersive.
This is metaphorical as the acoustic describes tendencies in audio and visual immersion.
Interestingly this immersive practice is particularly active within digital media based practice, in immersive and often interactive artworks. We find examples of this in Oliver Grau's virtual art book, focused on VR.
This is interesting as it is in the digital, in the realm of what Osborne refers to as infinite exchange, that we find the most eviscerating challenge to the interiority of immersive practices, as if immersive aesthetics are an attempt to stem the flow from aesthetic immediacy to the quantified "exteriority" of digitisation that forms the artworks conditions of possibility (will come back to this later).
The Audiovisual litany
Jonathan Sterne has identified this opposition of the auditory and the visual in McLuhan and Walter Ong as the audio-visual litany.
This is the idea (non-metaphorical, as it was originally in McLuhan) that sound requires a special language and metaphysics that is sensitive to its "vibrational" nature as "flux".
av-litany can be expressed as a table of opposed terms:
|interior||surface / exterior|
It is the oral/acoustic side of these two lists that inform a standard approach to immersive aesthetics.
Beyond the metaphorical and topographical usage of acoustic space, what is it about the sonic that leads to an assertion of interiority being proper to it?
- Sympathetic resonance
- Also, a training/educational issue, a lack of attention span regarding the sonic that leads the mind to wander inwards.
- the opposition of the senses in the audiovisual litany is only metaphorical, as everything that can is said of or ascribed to the visual side can be assigned to the oral side when one takes into consideration audile techniques.
- Sound studies has forgotten / ignored the metaphorical nature of "acoustic space".
- It ascribes the terms of the litany to a metaphysics of the oral and the visual
- This argument only stands up where imbalanced oppositions are maintained, such as the medium of sound to the act of seeing.
- The av-litany is undermined where the medium of light is compared to that of sound, or the act of listening to the act of seeing.
- Accordingly we see that the opposition here is built upon a certain hostility to intentionlity, rather than to the visual as such.
- For sound to assert its ontological priority over the visual, it must refrain from intentionality to create the blurred peception of a continuous, affective substrate that subsists beneath the distal and representational acts of the visual.
- intentionality & rationalism
- The issue then is rather that of an opposition of the affective and the cognitive or conceptual, and within phenomenology as opposition to intentionality.
- Immersion is the aesthetic of correlation: to be in and at the centre of an acoustic world.
Bergson, Duration and Sound
Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states […] as happens when we recall the notes of a tune, melting, so to speak, into one another. Might it not be said that, even if these notes succeed one another, yet we perceive them in one another, and that their totality may be compared to a living being whose parts, although distinct, permeate one another just because they are so closely connected? […] We can thus conceive of succession without distinction, and think of it as a mutual penetration, an interconnection and organisation of elements, each one of which represents the whole, and cannot be distinguished or isolated from it except by abstract thought. [@BergsonKey, 60]
Bergson's "bald dichotomy" maps quite neatly onto the av litany:
|Instantaneous / Simultaneous (speed)||Latency|
|Interior||Surface / Exterior|
Immanence and Immersion
- Immersion is frequently referenced as the aesthetic dimension of immanence, as the experience of immanence.
- We find this in both Christian Kerslake and Benjamin Noys.
- Noys describes a warm and intimate "theological excess that consoles us against the penetration of capitalist abstraction" [@noys2014, 182].
- The digital can be considered complicit in this "penetrating capitalist abstraction", again drawing upon Osborne's infinite exchange.
- This consolation is undoubtedly the function of an immersive aesthetics (as mentioned above in relation to the digital, asserting the pathetic affectivity or pathos of life), but can we really align this with a concept of immanence, can we really reduce immanence to immersion? Such a move places immanence in a distinctly phenomenological and aesthetic register.
This conflation of immanence and immersion leads to what in SS has been called sonic materialism.
Sonic Materialism and Non-representational theory
- The dominant strain of the ontological turn in SS is sonic materialism (SM).
- The key proponents of SM are Christoph Cox (C) & Salomé Voegelin (V)
- Both C & V define SM as prior to, opposed or resistant to representation, conceptualisation or more broadly the symbolic.
- A metaphysics of sound is posited within sonic materialism that depicts it as inherently resistant to representation (which I think is a false move).
- Resistant to the symbolic, SM proceeds instead via an affective register.
- This opposition of the affective and symbolic maps neatly onto Jonathan Sterne's audiovisual litany, with the affective considered proper to sonic.
- SM conflates concepts of matter and the real, both entail a claim of ontological primacy that is contrasted to the supplementary nature of the symbolic. Accordingly we can say that SM is concerned with accounting for the primacy of "real matter" and a reorientation of auditory culture around this ontological account of sonorous real matters.
- Accordingly assertions of sonorous real matters assert a foundational, ontological priority over the symbolic, thereby clawing back ground from a perceived "hegemony of the visual".
- What is real flows beneath the static domain of signs and the symbolic. This flowing reality beneath the sign is a real populated by affects.
- Both Cox (C) and Voegelin (V) assert the primacy of the affective, yet their respective concepts of the affect differ.
- For Voegelin the affective is principally the auto-affective.
- For V sonic materialism is a phenomenological materialism.
- V's phenomenological materialism finds many resonances in Michel Henry's (H) material phenomenology.
- H's material phenomenology seeks to reclaim what Husserl's phenomenology lost sight of: the material reality of immediate, auto-affective experience; the experience of self-givenness of life as opposed to ideal, universal essences.
- Both H and V are critical of the seeing and the priority of the seen.
- this critique of seeing presents a number of parallels with the audiovisual litany. Seeing is the mark of transcendence rather than immanence, distance rather than intimacy, abstraction rather than the concrete, cognition rather than affect, etc.
- Against the transcendence of vision, what both H & V assert is the reality of auto-affective immanence. For V the flow of affectivity is characteristic of the sonic.
- What the comparison between H & V helps to clarify is the way in which V's criticisms of visuality are less concerned with the senses in particular than with methods and techniques of perception, with visual-seeing visual-hearing and so on. Through comparison with H it becomes clear that the issue is with intentionality as that which detracts from auto-affection, inserting a transcendence in immanence.
- This goes back to the assertion made above regarding the metaphorical usage of the sonic and the visual, that they refer to perceptual methods rather than the senses as such.
- For Cox affect is understood in more broadly Deleuzian terms, encompassing the notion of an
"autonomy of affect".
- In this Deleuzian context affects are not strictly bound to emotion or that which is "felt and lived" [@voegelin2014, 86] by a listening subject, but conceived as autonomous forces that, importantly for Cox, describe extra-somatic, physical interactions beyond the human. This is a non-anthropocentric theory of affects. Sound is one of these affective forces.
- These extra-somatic, non-anthropocentric affects populate Cox's philosophical naturalism, his commitment to a nature that is independent of and ontologically prior to the human.
- Significantly, this affective orientation opens an intensive channel between the phenomenological and physical. Where we become aware of affection as such, the sensation of sensation, the being of sensation, we are oriented towards the physical conditions of the phenomenological. This is the "intensive" channel which sits between the virtual and actual poles of the Deleuzian ontology that Cox draws upon.
- While the arguments presented by Christoph Cox and Salomé Voegelin regarding sonic materialism are clearly distinctive, the notion that auditory experience might attain greater purchase upon the real is presented by both.
- sound is somehow conceived more real as both sound and the pre-symbolic real are considered to be "in flux" whereas the visual is apparently static, therefore distinct from the nature of reality.
- For V & H reality resides in the interiority of subjective auto-affection which as an immanent system excludes what both perceive to be the transcendence of seeing. As such the exteriority or transcendence of seeing is rendered irreal.
- What we can take from Voegelin's clear alignment of phenomenological and sonic materialism is the sense that matter pertains to the sensorial events of a contingent encounter that ultimately boil down to an auto-affective sensation of the self. This is what we will call phenomenological matter.
- Christoph Cox has put summarised his position as espousing "a realist conception of sound as an asignifying material flux" [@cox2011, 157].
- In contrast to the phenomenological concept of matter found in Voegelin's sonic materialism, Cox's sonic materialism is built upon a physical concept of matter that posits the independent exteriority of the natural (more precisely an immanent exteriority of material nature).
- For Cox, the real is associated with a physical naturalism and as such the real is located beyond, outside yet simultaneously immanent to the subjective. This excessive natural real provides the conditions for subjective interiority.
- While Cox claims his realism to be immanent to a materialist-physicalist paradigm, his own adherence to the av-litany entails a rejection of the cognitive and conceptual's purchase upon reality, as such things are, according to the av-litany, distal, visual abstractions, transcendent rather than immanent to the real.
- Where the av-litany requires rejection of the conceptual, the best means of access to the real remains intuitive and affective.
- Here I think we find two competing claims upon the transcendental with Cox's argument, one materialist-physicalist, the other affective.
- Due to this competition we find a slippage and ambiguity in the concept of matter, as it could refer equally to the physical or phenomenological, due to the affective mode of access. There is a sleight of hand whereby phenomenological and physical concepts of matter are conflated. This conflation describes Cox's onto-aesthetics (Brian Kane's excellent term).
It is due to this conflation that sonic materialism remains a material phenomenology. Even where, as in Cox's argument, it pertains to the physical real its aesthetic orientation and affective mode of access prevents it from making use of the conceptual resources that would permit a more thorough realism that is not bound to subjective experience. While Cox's ontological commitment to naturalism seeks to escape the correlationist circle, the methodological and epistemological orientation towards sonic materialism impedes such a move.
For this reason SM proves an impediment to realism and this materialism is something that should be superceded if we are to pursue a more thorough realism or philosophical naturalism.
Having identified some of the limits of sonic materialism, I'd like to consider how we might continue to pursue a naturalisation of the sonic through a continued pursuit of realism.
"An emphasis on materiality in art carries the same desire of a primacy of sensory and spatiotemporal experience" (Malik, Reason to Destroy Contemporary Art, 187).
"the critique of correlationism made by rationalist SR is not the generalization of aesthetic experience [ooo] but, to the contrary, the demonstration that there can be a knowledge of what has never been experienced." 189
"Indifferent to aesthetic experience, it is an art of rational knowledge." 189
[…] the indifference of such art to any subject or meaning imposed on it other than the fact of its systematic fabrication. 189
"instruction art […] need not be experienced at all, but only known, in order to be art." 190
- Sure, but then we can think of Douglas Huebler as an example of this? Windham College Pentagon
- Equally we can think of software art, as in Florian Kramer's excellent paper "Concepts, Notations, Software, Art" from 2002 distinguishing a functional conception of software art from an aesthetics of data-visualisation: the art is in the instructions, the code, not the output or aesthetics.
"What is demanded […] is art as rational exercise that eviscerates all lingering experiential conditions. Concept, not feeling; rational and formalized, not wanton and uncaptured; indifferent and impervious to you: such is the binding force of reason directed to the real, a destruction of contemporary art as an art of indeterminacy." 191
- Again, sure, interesting, but does this not just take us back into canonical Conceptualism and its failed attempt to fully eviscerate the aesthetic, hence Osborne's account of a post-Conceptualism that acknowledges this inevitable interface or residuum of cognition in action.
- Ultimately this attempt to simply refrain from the aesthetic doesn't fulfil the project of a post-correlational art that Malik seems to aim at, it must be worked through not abandoned.
- The tools of conceptualism that Malik indirectly appeals to need to be re-purposed towards a philosophical naturalism.
Writing out Sound
"Writing or text in Derrida’s sense is not discourse or any other recognizable determination of language, but the beginning of the in-determination of language into the absolute generality of the trace-structure." [@bennington2016]
There is a complex relationship between philosophies of writing and sound. In McLuhan's thought the continuity of the acoustic is opposed to the discretion of the typographic. We find a similar opposition in Derrida's work where the interiority of the auto-affective voice is opposed to the anterior-exteriority of writing. Immersive aesthetics can be understood as an affirmation of the embodied and the lived; as a principally affective rather than cognitive or conceptual experience, immersion is an affirmation of presence.
The development of a philsophical nattative for sound built upon an expanded sense of writing and exteriority rather than presence, as this exteriority is assumed to be the better orientation for a naturalism.
The aim of what follows is to identify one possible route out of this increasingly constrictive discourse of interiority and immersion, a route where sound is written, or even writes itself, out of interiority towards an expansion of sonic practice's epistemological scope.
- recording and mediation … infinite exchange … quantification …
- Always already written out in the real … physical impressions … etc.
- To align sound and sound recording with writing so as to draw upon the narrative of exteriority found in Derrida.
- To then not limit that exteriority to some kind of infinite play but to seek to reground in some naturalistic domain.
- Writing and Exteriority
- Where interiority and presence was affirmed through the auto-affective voice, the mark of exteriority was that of writing.
- Here we extend writing to recording technology.
- Through this linking of writing and recording we assume the narrative of exteriority.
- This puts us back within a domain of signs, representation etc.
- The idea is not to remain here, but to then set about repurposing the tools of conceptualism in art towards possible methods of enagement with a naturalistic conception of the real.
- auto-affectivity of the voice and the affectivity of sound more generally is taken as an affirmation of presence
- writing marks an absence, a recording, a document or supplement to the primacy of the affective sound event.
- As such writing breaks with the circle of interiority and immersion within which sound envelopes and centres us.
- Exteriority and the Real
It is through recording technology, through processes of mediation that we might know something of the exteriority of sound, that is, sound naturalised rather than elevated through a dubious metaphysics of presence and "asymbolic material flux".
Just because this proceeds through a process of mediation, representation, etc. does not mean that this is about mediation.
- Sound Recording and Writing Sound
- writing underpins many an immersive art experience.
- The immersive installation is increasingly digitally implemented.
- The immersive experience is underwritten by digital mediation and the capacity for infinite exchange (the consolation of the immersive).
- "while you're in the soft space of light [James Turrell], the NSA and Facebook are still collecting your data"[@kim-cohen13, location 151].
- What Kim-Cohen's identification of ubiquitous data collection raises is a disjunctive or parallel relation between aesthetic experience of immersive interiority and the externalising implications of 'deep' writing, recording, encoding, exchange and so on.
- Peter Osborne's notion of infinite exchange is derived from his thinking on digital photography, yet this thinking quickly leads to the conclusion that what the digital brings to photography is that its images need not actually be photographic in origin due to the a-specificity of the data file which may be rendered as an image.
- it is not the phono or photo that is of significance but the -graphy which is responsible for the dissolution of media and medium specificity towards a "generic field of the digital*"[@osborne2010, 66].
- through writing, digital mediation, this places us on a trajectory towards the generic which is more suited to thinking immanence than the phenomenological interiority that is often associated with a more localised conception of immanence.
- Sound is always-already written out
- Dawn Scarfe, Etchings: https://vimeo.com/5993571
- Through the mediation of recording towards the always-already written exteriority of sound in the real.
the phonograph permitted for the first time the recording of vibrations that human ears could not count, human eyes could not see, and writing hands could not keep up with. Edison's simple metal needle, however, could keep up—simply because every sound, even the most complex or polyphonous […] formed a single amplitude on the time axis. Put in the plane language of general sign theory, acoustics is one-dimensional data processing in the lower frequency range. [@kittler1999, 118]
Where the siting of the real appears confused due to a conflation of the aesthetic and ontological in sonic materialism, entailing ambiguity regarding what is meant by matter. A perhaps clearer siting of the real to which certain sound practices pertain, a real that overlaps with the intentions presented in the varied conceptions of sonic materialism discussed so far, can be found Deleuze's concept of transcendental empiricism.
- The transcendental is not the transcendent, it does not refer to some plane of being that floats above, separated from the world, but rather to the immanent conditions of possible experience.
- Transcendental empiricism aims at accounting for the real conditions of that which appears, it would commit not to sonic materialism but its physiological conditions.
- This siting of the sonic real, the transcendental conditions of sonic experience, within
perceptual physiology is carried out implicitly in works drawing upon psychoacoustics.
- Mark Fell: Get Out of the Defensive Position https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A56zQuLkrQE
- Ben Vida: Qweek Plus Enner from esstends …
- Jacob Kirkegaard: Labyrinthitis
- This indexing of the psychoacoustical conditions of the sonic equally indexes a gap between the aesthetic and ontological, between the synthesis of sonic appearances and an indifferent exteriority. One consciously senses ones body sensing (the intensive being of the sensible) the body synthesising what appears while recognising this as the synthesis of acoustic interiority. That this limit or horizon appears as such poses it and that which resides beyond as a problem.
- Psychoacoustics marks out a limit, threshold or horizon, the edge of the circle of immersive experience.
- This limit of horizon is the site of sounds real, yet not the site of reality as such.
- This marks the limit of the affective techniques of sonic materialism, to move beyond this in search of the real as such requires that we utilise the cognitive and conceptual resources that sonic materialism dispossesses itself of where it limits itself to the aesthetic and affective.
- If it wishes to have rapour with the real then sonic materialism should reject its onto-aesthetic orientation and the self-imposed limits of the audivisual litany and explicitly reengage with the conceptual yet from the naturalistic position where representation is posited as immanent to the real (Brassier, Sellars).
- (Heterogeneous conception of immanence rather than homogeneous affective immanence, planes and plane of immanence in Deleuze … local and global immanence, global immanence cannot proceed via affect, this imposes anthropocentrism).
- Moving beyond the aesthetic to an functional understanding of autonomous affects as that which is susceptible, ammenable to quantification, to quantitiative reduction.
- The intensive quantities immanent to qualitative experience.
- This requires making use of conceptual and representational methods (considered "visual").
- Nina Cannell, perpetuum mobile
- Stephen Vitiello
Beyond Sonic Materialism as an approach to Realism
- Distinction between the reality of sensation and the sensation of the real.
- Post-conceptual, anti-aesthetic approaches.
- Repurposing or "accelerating" the work done under Conceptual art, from concepts as such to "true representings".
- Anti-aesthetic formalised systems using representation and diagrammaticssystematicsschematics
as the best method for interfacing with a naturalistic realism.
- Aesthetic implications of this:
- We could urge aesthetics to follow and mirror an anti-aesthetic methodology, leading to an aesthetic impoverishment. This however falls back into an onto-aesthetics where aesthetics (and auditory culture) is obliged to mirror ontological methodology.
- Alternatively asserting that aesthetic methodologies are not appropriate for a realism unbinds the aesthetic from any necessity to mime the ontological methodology. The aesthetic thereby retains its own autonomy to a certain degree.
- There is, however, a qualification required, that there remains a degree of openness in the composition of the work, whether through incompletion, diffusive-nodal structure, etc.
- This goes against Negarestani's argument in Medium of Contingency, whereby the work should be tightly bound, complete, black-boxed, isolated so as to assert only the autonomous contingency of the materials itself, rather than the openness the artist can afford or is willing to permit. This argument remains a materialism and this is something that we are trying to escape here.
- This then asserts a methodological dualism within an ontological monism. This isn't the univocal materialism of new materialism however, as within THE plane of immanence the differing relative immanences constitute transcendences within immanence, immanent-transcendence. (Pete is good on this).
- A heterogeneous immanence (in that, as just one example, an immanent conception of representation is asserted), rather the homogeneous immanence of affectivity that onto-aesthetics asserts.
- Does Malik over state the anti-aesthetic impetus in responding to an in-aesthetic concept or the real and its engagement? To require an abandonment of the aesthetic is to require to work to mimic the ontology posited (an ontology not of the work), which is a kind of paradoxical onto-aesthetics. Rather we should assert the reducibility or analytical susceptibility of the work to diagrammatic reduction, schematisation and formalisation, and that while the essence of the work may not be aesthetic this does not necessitate and abandonment of the aesthetic (which repeats the dead-end of conceptualism that sought a similar abandonment). Alternatively we might consider the open schematic as an interesting form for the work that is oriented beyond the aesthetic, grappling with concepts pertaining to the real (rather than concepts as such in Conceptualism).