I’m working on something like a “position paper” for an upcoming roundtable where participants are asked to consider how their writing engages the materiality of sound. I’d love any comments or suggestions for the following; while the language is perhaps excessively declarative in its rhetoric, I hope that the contents of this rhetoric might be taken up in our discussion as probes rather than declarations. That is, I don’t really believe what I’ve written, I just don’t think it’s wrong either.
[with apologies for incomplete and missing citations]
The very question of writing the materiality of sound implies a logically fallacious distinction, specifically one that begs the question. That is, the challenge that inheres in such writing is an assumed sound/vision distinction that it is the goal of the challenge to articulate: the challenge rests on the assumption that there is a there there to write about. And truthfully, I expect there isn’t, which is to say that the basic principle behind Seth Kim-Cohen’s polemical non-cochlear intervention in the discourses of music and sound art is to a certain extent irrefutable: insofar as any knowledge of sound is routed through the logic of knowing itself, it is necessarily discursive (and specifically grammatological).
And yet—as Levi Bryant reminds us in a different context—the irrefutability of grammatology need not close the door on other approaches: Bryant points out, for example, that “no one has yet refuted the solipsist, nor the Berkeleyian subjective idealist, yet neither solipsism nor the extremes of Berkeleyian idealism have ever been central and ongoing debates in philosophy.” In this, Bryant maps Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s citation of Max Planck’s well-known view on scientific progress into the register of philosophy, arguing that “new innovations in philosophy do not so much refute their opponents as simply cease being preoccupied by certain questions and problems.” In short, the task at hand is less to disprove Derridean grammatology than it is to explore the affordances of other approaches (or perhaps other affordances of grammatology), even if such endeavors remain contingent. As Niklas Luhmann argues, even if any signifying instance is finally undecidable, systems nonetheless decide.
Being logically untenable, then, is not the end of the story of writing sound but instead its beginning, as discourses always modulate according to forces in addition to those of reason. Put differently, this is just to insist again on the performative dimension that has always invested deconstruction, and which indeed was the most crucial (and most vexing, logically) component of grammatology’s intervention into the Humanities. In this light, we can note that sound’s extra-discursivity is different than vision’s (even if it remains, like vision, ultimately and logically extendable to either the sublime or the transcendent). That is, sound’s “extra-discursivity” remains as impossible, provisional, and contingently constructed as any claim to discursive evasion, but nonetheless offers a rather different clew to continually unravel and ravel again in our ongoing enaction of the system-environment difference that is embodiment. In short, the initial gambit of writing the materiality of sound must—to my mind—entail a shift from categories to operations. In this, the challenge of writing the materiality of sound is itself re-written: no longer a matter of representation or even conveyance, the task at hand instead becomes one of accounting for the agential cuts that are enacted in any coming-to-sound. The task is less one of representation or apprehension—with the entire “ecology of the mirror” that such a perspective suggests—than one of expansion and intensification.
Thus, to engage the challenge of writing about sound is less to move towards the truth of sound and more to speculate about the specific methodologies that are caught up in “knowing” sound in the first place. Put differently, writing about sound is a methodological challenge, where a methodology constitutes a set of mechanisms that reiteratively construct and sustain a system/environment difference. Indeed, no matter how open it may be, a method is always a system: it is a means of separating what can cause activity in a specific way from what can only catalyze such causations, where that distinction is continuously drawn by the system through its ongoing articulation of its boundaries (i.e. of what is included in the system). In this case, individual thoughts and activities can catalyze our method for writing about sound, and this activity can lead to changes in the method itself, but we ourselves can’t directly and willfully write the materiality of sound except insofar as we are part of that materiality.
Put differently, writing about sound begins with a set of principles that will, in a sense, write for us (and for which we will write). Moreover, the method is an archival one, in that it is less a matter of tracking our listening experiences (which are, in any case, always-already tracked insofar as they are experienced) and more one of recording this track. As a result, any method for writing sound must start by acknowledging that it is already written (in the broad sense), and also that there is a rich history of recording this writing.
Perhaps the most literal such history flows from the technical artifact of the phonautograph, a machine invented by Leon Scot in 1857 to quite literally write sound (or rather, to have sound write itself). Importantly, one use of this device—a device that introduces what Jonathan Sterne calls the “tympanic mechanism” as a synecdoche for listening—was to help deaf people to learn to modulate their voices to sound more like oto-typical people’s voices. That is, by comparing their own inscriptions to those of people with typical hearing, deaf people could modulate the timbre of their voices in response to visual differences. Speaking is externalized and “captured” in the form of this machinic writing, with which individuals can couple in a kind of pedagogical feedback loop in order to “smooth out” aural differences that are inaudible to the speaker.
Sterne notes that this technical feedback loop is markedly different from contemporaneous approaches based on bodily reproduction tuned to the level of the phoneme. That is, the emphasis had been on reproducing movements of the lips, tongue, et cetera, in order to recognizably reproduce phonemes, thereby emphasizing the communicative capacity of speech over its sound per se. With the phonautograph, though, the communicative goals of this project are supplemented (or perhaps even displaced) by an effort to eliminate the aural marks of a deaf person’s difference. This technical development thus folds aesthetic and political values into its purview in a perfect demonstration of what Kittler calls the “immaterial origins of science.”
While obviously problematic, the values built into this technical writing of sound are worth noting because the fact of their enaction—if not the values themselves—is a fact of working methodologically: insofar as they hold steady against the tide of madness, methods must always decide in advance what will and will not count as data. In this way aesthetic judgment is built into the foundation of methodologies, in the sense that the former is precisely about the “threshold of the (im)possibility of measure.” Sound must necessarily pre-exist itself in order to be written then—it is written in and as a grammatological “always-already.”
This aesthetic component of the phonautograph is crucial to note because it highlights an original (which, like any origin, appears as the original) as opposed to an historical moment of sound. That is, the shift from a unit-based communicative model (based on phonemes) of spoken sound to a normatively driven aesthetic model of sound per se moves the multiplicitous and nonlinearly related histories that are packed into this sounding beyond the pale of reasonable consideration into the creative enclave of aesthetic speculation. Specifically, (as Sterne argues) this invention ultimately charts an inversion “of the general and specific in theories of sound” such that “speech and music become specific instances of sound, which is a reproducible effect” (i.e. rather than speech and music being different things altogether). In other words, a given sound is no longer treated as a thing-in-itself that is tied to its conditions of production, but is instead understood as an effect that is theoretically separable from those conditions (this, of course, is famously articulated in other settings as well, including Schafer’s notion of ‘schizophonia,’ which serve to departicularize sounds into Sound). In short, categorical distinctions about sound are put aside in favor of operational ones: sound is an effect of behavior rather than a resemblance.
Sterne (like others) is in some respects critical of this, of course, but the broader point is irrefutable: in order to properly understand sound and its reproduction we must take the time to chart the complex imbrication of social and technical forces that are built into our understanding. Echoing Donna Haraway, what is called for are histories without origins. What complicates this endeavor in the case of sound, though, is its particular mode of sedimenting the myriad (and often contradictory) histories that inhere in and as its materiality: the oft-remarked ephemerality of sound means that even as it collects these histories it does so precisely in the form of disappearance. Indeed, this is simply another way of stating the basic schizophonic premise: whatever one’s opinion about how sound should be, the schizophonic fact is that this rhetoric of ephemerality (i.e. of constant disappearance, of ontic evasion) is as inseparable from the histories sound collects as light is from vision. Vision illuminates, and sound is a shadow; to close one’s eyes and listen to sounds (i.e. to attempt to meet sound strictly on its own terms) is thus to search for a shadow in the dark.
Thus, any method for writing the materiality of sound involves an ambivalent relation with the material in question: on one hand, insofar as a method is undertaken it involves the writer being taken up into the systemic operations through which sound recognizably appears (i.e. the writer catalyzes a sonic system, such that it performs its system-environment differentiation more intensely). At the same time, though, since this sonic system consists precisely in a performance that includes the writer this externalization into aurality is simultaneously an internalization of a sound’s multiplicitous material-semiotics into the scale of lived experience. Both the writer and sound disappear to the other.
Put differently, writing the materiality of sound requires one to think through a part of oneself that is non-thinking, but that nonetheless couples thinkingly. And indeed, this is the case with any method, which is to say that methodology itself is a kind of (Deleuzian?) machine for medial translation, whether it be from sound to writing specifically or from “experience” to “having experienced” more generally. This is not a particularly new thought, and myriad artists and scholars have spilled much ink on the folds, erasures, and lines of flight that belch from aural metaphors. Importantly, what underwrites these approaches—as different as they are similar—is the necessity of relating practice and research. While this is a proximate concern in any field, I would argue that it is amplified in the case of sound precisely because aurality’s “extra-discursivity” is always a movement towards a specific and immediate particularity (as opposed to standing in representationally), precisely because sounds are not even provisionally “present” (in the categorical sense).
Thus, though methods always involve a degree of mechanized medial translation this translation is fundamentally informed by practices in the case of sound. If writing (in the full sense) is characterized by a bilateral theory/practice causality that is always-already performative, the functional norms of this relation are inverted in the case of sound: whereas a key intervention of grammatology was to draw out the absences that inhere in any figuration of presence, in thinking/writing contemporary sound practices the challenge seems to principally be one of making present something that is manifestly absent (i.e. in its ephemerality).
However, this isn’t quite the case either; instead—and this is where I will close—the challenge of writing sound is that of making present the fact of having made sound present in experiencing it, which is the challenge of reco(r)ding any relational phenomenon. Alexis Madrigal makes an analogous point with respect to social networks when he notes that it is manifestly not the case that Facebook allows us to exchange personal data for the ability to share information, since sociality was built into the Internet from the start. Instead, with Facebook we exchange our personal information for a record of our having shared, so any cost-benefit analysis (i.e. any method for assessing whether such an exchange is desirable, or more broadly any means of registering Facebook activity as ‘sharing’ in the first place) must account for this. The point, in writing about sound, is that this reflexive component is part of the materiality that such writing seeks to code.
Finally, then, it strikes me that the pertinent question is less how to engage the materiality of sound and more that of exploring the power dynamics that are called upon and cultivated in any such engagement. Paraphrasing Madrigal, in writing about an aural practice it isn’t the case that we give up the particularity of our experience in exchange for the ability to share this experience, as experience itself already does this. Instead, we give up this particularity—we externalize ourselves into a system of writing—for a record of having shared, which is to say in order to lay claim (however provisional) to an origin of sound. This, quite simply, is a problem…and specifically one that can only be accessed through aesthetic vectors.
 Kim-Cohen, Seth. In the blink of an ear: toward a non-cochlear sound art (New York: Continuum, 2009).
 Bryant, Levi. The Democracy of Objects (Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2011), 29.
 For an excellent introduction to the relationship between second-order systems theory (SOST) and deconstruction, see Cary Wolfe, “Meaning as Event-Machine, or Systems Theory and ‘The Reconstruction of Deconstruction:” in Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays on Second-Order Systems Theory, edited by Bruce Clarke and Mark B.N. Hansen (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), pp. 220-245. Luhmann situates SOST as “the reconstruction of deconstruction.”
 Hiebert, Ted. “Delirious Screens: flesh shadows and cool technology” in CTheory.net (2008). http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=592
 Bryant also has a relatively simple gloss of SOST here:
 Sterne, Jonathan. “A machine to hear for them” fill out complete bibliographic info.
 Kittler, Friedrich. GFT (find page number).
Indeed, Sterne shows how later developments in the phonautograph technology are made possible by changes in the Anatomy Act in Massachusetts, changes that were themselves modeled after the British Anatomy Act of 1832 which “offered to medicine [i.e. medical students] any corpse that would otherwise have to be buried by the British state” (e.g. people dying in workhouses, or who could otherwise not afford burial services) (274).
 Chun, Wendy. Find bibliographic info.
 For myself, I have charted these protuberating vectors along four lines that combine to produce what I call the “sonic effect,” namely sound’s tendency to be differential, relational, semiotically parasitic, and multiplicitous. See Cecchetto, David. Humanesis: Sound and technological posthumanism (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 1-4.
 Oddly enough, in this view particularity corresponds the (in)famous claim that music is entirely abstract, since this is simply another way of noting sound’s apparent tendency to disappear at the very moment of its appearance.