Realism and Materialism in Sound Studies

These notes were prepared for a presentation at Sound Art Matters, Aarhus University, 1-4 June 2016.


Here there are two main aims:

  • To answer the question: what do we, as sound practitioners and theorists, mean by matter.
    • Following on from this is the related question of how conceptions of matter inform conceptions of the real?
    • Answering these questions will involve identifying where is the real situated with regard to a listening subject. the domain of subjective experiences, within an external "objective" domain or elsewhere?
  • To acknowledge Brian Kane's critique of onto-aesthetics [@kane2015] but to use this critique as a means of furthering rather than abandoning the the ontological turn in sound studies. What Kane has identified as a problem within the ontological turn, i'd like to argue is particularly a problem with sonic materialism, specifically in that it impedes realism.

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.
Table 1: The opposed terms of the audiovisual litany
Oral Visual
spherical directional
immersion perspective
affect intellect
temporal spatial
subjectivity objectivity
interior surface / exterior
contact distance
life death

Affect theory

  • 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.
  • 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.

Transcendental empiricism

  • 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
    • Florian Hecker
    • Ben Vida
    • Jacob Kirkegaard
  • 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.
  • 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 rapport 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).
  • If it comes up: 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.

Author: Will Schrimshaw

Created: 2018-02-06 Tue 11:54

Emacs 25.1.1 (Org mode 8.2.10)