All posts by David Cecchetto

Halloween Tooth-Shaving in the Pre-Dawn of the Trumposcene

Halloween Tooth-Shaving in the Pre-Dawn of the Trumposcene[1]

 

On the last night of October 2016, having already considered shaving my teeth, I found myself at a Halloween party in Washington, DC, USA. I was joking there with a woman who wore a Donald Trump mask and costume. We weren’t laughing about the mask itself or what it portended, but were just indulging in the then typical pre-election guffaws about Trump’s racism and general xenophobia. We were each very different from the other—personally, politically, intellectually, etc.—but easily enough found common ground in the general non-alt-rightness that scaffolded a comfortable left plateau in that time and place.

I’d already intimated a Trump victory three days prior to the Halloween party, when my arrival in DC catalyzed a dream that I re-told to anyone who would listen in the subsequent days leading up to the election. In it, I catch sight of Trump standing alone at a social gathering, and decide to go troll him a bit. As we’re talking though, my jabs are failing to land and, despite my initial comportment, I actually find myself increasingly charmed by him, ultimately to the point of a full-fledged infatuation. Even in the dream I know this is a ridiculous way to feel, but in the manner of such infatuations I simply can’t help it. Meanwhile, Trump is physically growing as we speak, so that the course of our conversation is one in which I am increasingly charmed by him and he is increasingly enormous. It is only when he reaches a height of over 20 ft. that my feelings turn back to my initial distaste, but by that time he is too tall to hear what I’m saying and I am left shouting fruitlessly into his crotch (or rather, small mercies, the crotch of his beige slacks). When I woke up from the dream, I not only knew what was coming down the electoral pipeline, I knew that it was coming via a particular kind of reversal.

The truth is, not a day goes by that I don’t consider shaving my teeth. Not ‘consider’ as in rationally calling the question—who still believes that story?—but rather in the truest sense of the term, the sense in which one pits oneself against a determination of the constellate stars (i.e. [con] sīder-, stem of sīdus star). In my consideration, then, I experience the fated paring away of my tooth enamel, and then deny myself the action. It’s hard to complain about such trivialities in times such as these, but I’ll at least note that this isn’t the most pleasant part of my day.

This problem (pro – ballein, or ‘thrownness’) started simply enough: when I bought my first razor I kept it for a single night in a cup, next to my toothbrush. The first time I picked my toothbrush out of the now shared cup I had to actively select against the razor, which wriggled into my teeth-oriented psyche in precisely this moment of deselection: in choosing to brush my teeth, I chose not to shave them, and the bond was thereafter forged. I’ve long since moved my razor to a separate location—a different drawer altogether. But though the results are hygienically salutary, the experience sticks. A toothbrush is forever a nonrazor in my morning ablutions, and that ‘non’ (like most, if not all nons) is experientially parenthetical.

This reiterated (and painful) quotidian experience recalls a key element of the condition of listening, which is always a (compulsive) striving towards something that never occurs. That is, to listen is (among other things) to hallucinate a sound the reality of which is equally as imaginary as it is physical (though no less real for this fact). To be clear, this is not merely an argument about how hearing becomes meaningful, though one could certainly frame musical listening in this way, which is to say as a collective imagination of the type of meaning that is implied by form. More than this, though, listening is materially hallucinatory, in that the physical and neurological activities that constitute hearing do so through processes of filtering and transduction that literally require a difference between the gestalt of what is heard (i.e. inclusive of the imagination) and any grammatization of it (spectrogrammatic or otherwise). This process is also non-reversible, and thus extremely ‘lossy’ from an informational perspective.

The similarities with my shaved teeth are clear enough: if listening profiles an experience that never occurs, the psychedelic adjacency catalyzed by the proximity of my toothbrush and razor to one another likewise indicates an experience that occurs in its nonoccurence. And yet, filtering and deselection aren’t quite the same thing, and the difference is one that matters in this case: to insist on the hallucinatory element of listening is to describe something of the tendency to scale down to one’s perceptual capacities while simultaneously imagining up to the world, which is to say to describe a world that flows from a prior hallucination of identities (human and otherwise) that are compelled to listen. In being dramatically more personal though, my shorn teeth push this prior hallucination to the fore: unlike the filtering I highlighted with hearing, the temporality of deselection is primary: in a very real sense, that ‘I’ that brushes my teeth is produced after the fact of the impersonal though pointed sensation of scraping tooth enamel. It’s the only thing that makes the latter bearable: there is nobody who has to bear it, because it exists in the form of a thought that hasn’t yet landed on its thinker.

At the Halloween party in 2016, my laughter soon enough turned to—or really, was supplemented by—horrified disbelief. The jokes about xenophobia in general led to my derisively pointing out the car outside with two bumper stickers, one promoting Hillary Clinton and the other the local NFL team with a racist name. As happens when one derides at parties, the car was my interlocutor’s. Remarkably, though, she insisted that she wasn’t offended because she agreed the name was “a bit racist.” She felt okay about it because, in the end the racist name was a good thing because it “encouraged discussion about the historical prejudice against natives (sic).” And there we had it: a perfect precession of a simulacrum, spoken from a mask that turned out to be more about its dissimulations than anything else. Masks all the way down, yes, but also something else…something of a relationally constituted (pre)invariant that I’ve often thought about while having not shaved my teeth.

~Cecchetto

 

 

 

[1] A colleague of mine coined this term in recent conversation, but I expect she’d prefer it not be attributed to her. In any case I’m sure others have used it too.

Listening and Ecologicity

Putting this up in the spirit of the blog as a place for incompletions…part of a short writing piece I’m trying to finish up this week.

~Cecchetto

I — NB: Listening and Ecologicity

It almost goes without saying: to listen is to acknowledge the world in its ecologicity, to call the world forth as a constellation of objective conditions and mobile sensual effects (Boetzkes). In this sense, in so far as listening involves attention it is equally (though not more) about misdirections—always more than one at a time—as it is about any conventional understanding of focus; that is, it is about the material misdirections that are called forth as the performative excesses of constellating, objectifying, conditioning, mobilizing, sensing, and effecting. NB: Materiality is always in performance, and performance is always productive of excesses.

In their own ways, musicians will tell you as much, repeating—for example—Debussy’s dictum that music is found in the spaces between the notes. Indeed, the challenge of playing in an ensemble might be characterized in this way too: one must listen simultaneously to oneself and the ensemble in both their collectivity and their distinctness, the former for obvious reasons and the latter because one must nonetheless play one’s part with the specificity that both is and signals “musicality.” Sing it in a round: musicality as circular causality. NB 1: A round isn’t actually circular, it’s one of those cases where we cite something as relatively more complex than it might be—e.g. a round conjures musical time as a spiral rather than a line—and in so doing foreclose on its more radical complexities (e.g. that music may not be spatial at all); NB 2: Circular causality isn’t actually circular, which is why one ends up thinking about listening in terms of ecologicity.

Even in a more limited field, though, such listening—which is all listening, not just musical listening—isn’t about selection, per se, in that one’s (for example) listening away from oneself to a collective isn’t in opposition to listening to oneself. Rather, listening is listening in so far as when one listens one attends to that of a sound which is not sounded, which is to say one listens to music in its nonlinearity (i.e. as a system that outputs signals that are qualitatively different from its inputs). One listens to and away: the sum of all possible attendances is less than its parts, but that less is precisely also (and more importantly) more in that its resonant affordances continually reinforce themselves. Sounds have plenty to say, but they don’t say it…they say something else. Put differently, the sum of all the musical sounds present in a room is less than its parts, but more so. NB: reality is a room, among other things; a room is also a room, among other things (as Inspector Clouseau’s requests for one reveal).[1]

Listening, then, is (in)attention. Importantly, though, this (in)attentional economy in no sense operates in the sole or even privileged mode of conscious thought. The (in)attention of listening is, for example, played out in and as the physiology of the ear itself: on one hand, it is simple enough to understand the transition of sound energy from the relatively large—indeed, airy—outer ear to the tiny oval window that acts as a threshold to the fluid-filled inner ear as precisely an attentive process. That is, the middle ear functions primarily to concentrate—to focus—the pressure exerted by a sound wave onto an eardrum into an area (i.e. the oval window) that is approximately twenty times smaller than it, thus working rather like a thumbtack. On the other hand, though, the mechanical coupling through which this takes place is rather more complex because it occurs via not one but three, the interaction of which allows for—or, put less psycho-centrically, causes—various regulatory functions. Thus, as one example of many, when the middle ear’s stapedius muscle contracts it reduces the motion of one of the three bones (the stapes) in such a way that affects the transfer of some frequencies more than others.[2] NB: “Transfer” is a term of (in)convenience, purposely chosen over “transduction” because the latter, in being slightly more accurate, might seduce one into forgetting that the entire causal chain—in being called forth as such—occludes the radical relationality that is in play; that is, occludes the primacy of listening’s ecologicity.

We listen in part by not listening. Listening is “the contraction of all sound, the contraction of all vibrations, which gives sense to sound, contracting clearly just this vibration, this sound wave, and letting the rest remain obscure, implicated in various degrees of relaxation” (Evens). And, while one might think—in concert with an informatic logic that imagines communication to consist in point-to-point transmissions of data—of this as a simple filtering process, the physiological fact of the matter is that we rely on the dynamism of the middle ear as much as its filtering profile. Put differently, since we only hear via the contractively transductive process of hearing, and since that process is inseparable from the specific and material misdirections of the middle ear’s dynamism (among other dynamisms), it follows that to listen is to attend to the effects of a reality the cause of which can never be singly determined, even as a coming together of more than one. NB: The proverbial sound of one hand clapping is not the limit case of sound, but rather its basic enabling condition…providing that we accept that every singular hand is itself a multiplicity.

Put differently, the ecology called forth in listening always includes an autonomic oto-acoustic dimension; specifically, it always includes the ongoing and relentless dynamism of intra-ear relations. Thus, while it is true that we break a physical transmission in order to have received it, it is more importantly the case that we conceive a transmission such that we can hear the ongoing relations (the contraction and dilation of the stapedius, in concert with innumerable other processes, the separation of which—i.e. the framing of such processes as distinct processes—is always contingent)…or rather, in order to take part in the transductive energetic constellation that allows for questions of meaning(lessness). The ear functions in communication in the form of an alibi, dissimulating its ecologicity in order to function, with the particularity of any given instance of “functioning” acting to “disclose [determinable] signals of an otherwise [undeterminable] object world” (Boetzkes).[3] Indeed, this is precisely why it is so important to listen well, as this alibic function is as much evidence of its (and, indeed, any) communicative importance as one is apt to hear. NB: Tinnitus is also not an exceptional case with respect to listening, but rather a basic enabling condition. One listens tinnitally to the clapping—the successive impulses—of a singular multiplicity. Listening thus signals sound’s migration beyond its enabling conditions, namely changes in air pressure.

Like I said, this almost goes without saying. Sometimes, though, saying something can work to bring forth what is said as a thing in its own right, which is to say as a before and after of its objective material existence (Boetzkes). What then, is the thingness of listening? If listening is constitutively misdirected—if it is a radically contingent production—then such a question can only be answered according to specific instances, otherwise the misdirection would be relativized. Moreover, to listen to listening would require a misdirection in its own right, a second-order of misdirection; it would require us to listen to our listening, the ensemble of listenings, and their summing that is less than their parts (but more so).

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsCW2N-6MUM

[2] This contraction most often occurs as an unconscious reflex when one is exposed to loud sounds, thus protecting—though often belatedly, because it is slower than the speed of sound—the relatively delicate structures of the inner ear.

[3] I have substituted “determinable” and “indeterminable” for Boetzkes’s use of “visible” and “invisible” (in “Interpretation and the Affordance of Things”) in order to avoid certain confusions. While this substitution aligns—to my mind—with her argument in this case, this is not to suggest that it obtains more broadly. Clearly, Boetzkes’s work—in the cited chapter and elsewhere—works through the operations of (in)visibility in concert with specific aesthetic regimes of visibility as well as specific ocular and neuroscientific discourses related to the eye, none of which nuance would be captured in terminological substitution I’ve made here.

Ghosting Baudrillard: Music and Simulation (anticipatorily logged, sans web, in 2006)

Since (un)certain circumstances and the phonocleric have catalyzed a renewed interest in Baudrillard in our occulturating minds, I decided to post a short piece of writing I did in 2006 that never (to my recollection) made its way into anything I’ve published. The piece uses a technique I call ‘ghosting’ (and that others call other other things when they do it; it certainly doesn’t originate with me) wherein I start by substituting different nouns into an author’s text and then gradually proceed to change other words such that my argument both logically hangs together in its own right and palpably echos the original author’s ‘voice.’ This is, for me, a way of writing without feeling overwhelmed by the voice in my head that insists that writing is an impossibly arrogant thing to do.

In any case:

Ghosting Baudrillard: Music and Simulation

Writing alongside Baudrillard, it is possible to think (in the realm of music) of ‘performance’ as ‘simulation.’ Since “to simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t,”[1] to perform is to feign the ‘reality’ of music, a reality which is never ‘real’ outside of the play of simulation. In the presence of musical composition (which is always already there), there is no longer music. Indeed, with the emergence of sound (which is always already there), there is no longer music.

Remaining with Baudrillard: the ‘western art music’ performance is no longer that of a ‘piece of music’. Instead, the performance is hypermusic: the generation by musical techniques derived from music that is not musical. The ‘piece of music’ (embodied in the composition) no longer precedes its performance, nor survives it. Since the performed precedes the piece of music, the difference between the ‘piece of music’ and its sonic realization disappears. What disappears with performance is the sonic realization’s musicality (as well as its composition), without which the music itself disappears. The sound of a performance no longer has to be musical, then, since it is no longer measured against the forms of ‘western art music’. In fact, since it is no longer placed within a musical canon, it is no longer music at all. It is hypermusic: the product of a synthesis of musical techniques in a canon without history.

“To dissimulate is to feign not to have what one has,”[2] so that to study the score of a composition is to dissimulate music. Studying the composition produces musicality in it, even though it presents the ‘study’ (the process of studying) as something other than music. Thus, formal analysis – banalysis – leaves the music intact: the music is always clear, it is only masked by the score; whereas performing music threatens the difference between the score and the performance by risking exposure of the fact that music itself is nothing more than a performance.

What of music and discourse? Beethoven’s music has only ever been its own discourse. Had we been able to believe that discourse only described the music of Beethoven, there would have been no reason to destroy the discourse’s musicality by insisting on its separation from music. If Beethoven’s music is only discourse, that is to say reduced to the descriptions that attest its genius, then the entire canon becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a musical performance: not unmusical, but a musical performance, never again exchanging in music, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.

It would be interesting to see whether a musical institution would not react more repressively to a performance of non-music for a graduating recital (a talk, for example) than to an unmusical performance itself. For an unmusical performance only upsets the order of things, the aesthetics of the institution, whereas a performance of non-music (a talk, perhaps) interferes with the very principle of music. Unmusicality is less serious for it only contests the effectiveness of the institution. Talking (non-music) as performance is more dangerous to the music institution because it always suggests that music itself might be nothing more than a performance, more than a ‘talking’. “Everything is metamorphosed into its inverse in order to be perpetuated in its purged form […] Every situation speaks of itself by denial, in order to attempt to escape, by performance of its antithesis, its real ambivalence.”[3]

Performance is characterized by a precession of works already performed, and their orbital circulation constitutes the genuine magnetic field of performing. Musical theories, discourses, and compositions no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the intersection of musical canons; a single work may even be engendered by all the canons at once. A genuine composition no longer exists, just as music no longer exists.

Contemporary composition is itself hypermusic. It retains all the features, the whole discourse of traditional production, but it is nothing more than its scaled-down refraction. Thus the hypermusic of performance is expressed everywhere by the music’s striking resemblance to itself. Performance of a composition is nothing but the object of a social demand. Completely expunged from the aesthetic dimension, it is dependent, like any other object, on production and mass consumption.

It is clear, then, that the simulated tension between music and performance, between the composition and its realization, serves to mask the fact that there is no tension, that they are equidistant from a reality that is not ‘real’, but only a simulacra. They are the “map that precedes the territory – precession of the simulacra.”[4]

~ Cecchetto

[1] Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations” trans. by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman in Selected Writings, Mark Poster, ed. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, [1981] 2001, p.170.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 180.

[4] Ibid., 169.

Theocculture on empyre

For those not on the empyre list, starting today we’re participating in a weeklong discussion on “Sound Art, Curating, Technology,” which is itself part of a month long discussion titled “New Sonic Paths: Sound Studies Expanded.” The week is orchestrated by Jim Drobnick, and also features Darren Copeland, Christoph Cox, Kevin deForest, Ryan Alexander Diduck, Paul Dolden, Dave Dyment, Anna Friz, Seth Kim-Cohen, Andra McCartney, John Oswald, Salome Voegelin, Jennifer Fisher, and Lewis Kaye.

The discussion is also open, so feel free to chime in!

You can find it here: http://empyre.library.cornell.edu/phpBB2/viewforum.php?f=2&sid=7bfab7d478fd3a687e8bc814dddbe4f4

In response to Renée Lear’s “Renée Taking a Sip of Water (Human and Video in Motion)”

I was lucky enough to take in Renée Lear’s Renée Taking a Sip of Water (Human and Video in Motion) at Trinity Square Video (Toronto) today, and felt compelled to think through a few things afterwards. What follows is very much incipient (with respect to my thinking) and ill-informed (with respect to my knowledge of the piece)…which isn’t an apology, but I reserve the right to invoke it as one if necessary.

The exhibition’s didactic describes the work as follows:

[This is] a companion piece to Renée’s video performance Time not a video, where Renée engages in a super slow motion daily practice in order to become video. In [this work] Renée enacts a banal activity from her slow motion practice, effectively combining human movement with the slow and fast frame rats of the video camera and the slow and fast playback times of video editing software.

The piece is presented on two large television screens mounted beside one another, with each screen featuring multiple iterations of Renée sitting and taking a drink of water (with minor variations); there is also a three-line text on each that describes the playback variation currently being shown on that screen (e.g. Renée moving in slow motion/videoed at normal speed/played back at normal speed). I’ve posted a  (camera-phone) image below to give a general impression. As the piece moves along, each video works through the various possible combinations of movement/video recording/video playback happening at a slow/normal/fast rate.

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

The piece is gorgeous and brilliant in ways that I can’t (and won’t try to) capture. Beyond that, though, it helped me to complete a couple thoughts, one from my early days as a composer and the other pertaining to Mark Hansen’s reading (in New Philosophy for New Media) of Robert Lazzarini’s sculpture-installation skulls. With respect to the first, I remember quite clearly when I first began studying music composition as a specifically written practice; I’d improvised earlier in my life and could read music well enough to learn to play pieces, but for me learning to write music was almost coincident with learning to read in a robust way (i.e. with learning to read music in the way that I can read text, as a kind of transparent medium). The point is, notating music felt like I was manipulating a machine that was outside of my ‘natural’ thinking process, so that my creative process was about channeling relatively coarse interactions with a code that greatly exceeded my ability to account for it consciously (in this sense, it was a kind of cybernetics). One of the frequent and most banal results of this was that I would conceive of a piece spatially, only to be shocked when it was realized in performance: a page of music written at 184bpm looks like it is formally equivalent to one that is written at 42bpm, but takes roughly 4 ½ times longer in performance…and this extra time has a real and undeniable impact on the shape of the piece.

Truthfully, though, these surprises were one of the things that I quite liked about composing: the discrepancy between the piece as a visual-conceptual apparatus and the performance as an ill-formed, meandering, mis-timed, aclimactic mess was something to marvel at in lieu of any real talent in the Romantic sense. This difference, I’ve always thought, was such a productive one that it might even qualify as the piece itself in the case of my work. And that is why I was so struck by the way that Lear’s piece plays out its temporal combinatorics: whereas I’d always thought the marvel was in the translative difference of processing musically, with Lear’s piece I heard the strange asymmetry in its own right and it was all the better for it. That is, the conceit of working through the combinations is simple enough that it isn’t productive of a difference that is sited in the performance of the piece; instead, the formal weirdness—and it is manifestly weird to move through these variations—is right there to behold and be held by in the durational moment of viewing. If part of the charm of processual work is the incipient awkwardness that inheres in any translation, this piece palpates that potentiality—the not yet undertaken undertaking that calls forth the question of form in the first place—in a manner that precludes the (at this point exhausting, anyways) question of origin in favour of a kind of history to come…we know, after all, precisely what is coming and how, but we don’t know where it is coming from (which is why Lear tells us how each variation is made, because there is no risk of us actually understanding this making except in the most banal sense).

Approached differently, I might say that Lear’s making herself a component of the combinatorics (i.e. striving to “become a video”) isn’t just an aesthetic choice (though it is that too) and isn’t just about problematizing the boundary between person and machine, it is more importantly a choice about just how such boundaries are constituted. Thus, because she crosses that threshold by crafting a register where she, the video recorder, and the video playback are functionally equivalent Lear perfectly demonstrates the way that a political language of attunement moves (for better and worse) from the distance of criticism to a kind of bodily affection. Form isn’t an enveloping structure in this work, but instead a capacity to entrain.

Which brings me to the second response that the piece provoked in me, relating to Hansen and Lazzarini’s skulls. Put really simply, Hansen argues that the skulls—which feature compound mathematical distortions derived using algorithm-based operations such as mappings and translations (Wikipedia)—do not represent the algorithmic distortions from which they are derived, but rather—because they make it impossible to ‘resolve’ the image from a single perspective—take the viewer up in a proprioceptive strangeness that makes clear the fundamental weirdness of the computer’s topology. That is, we get an embodied sense of just how different the computer’s embodiment (in the sense of an ongoing articulation of system-environment difference) is from our own, such that computational sense-making is also understood to be fundamentally different from human embodiment (which, for Hansen, points to the limits in approaching such technologies through Derridean grammatology, which approach he argues turns a radical difference into a relative one). In short, the disorientation that is catalyzed by skulls is for Hansen not simply a product of difference and differal, but is instead fundamentally and specifically adscititious.

I accept that argument to a point, and diverge from it in ways that probably don’t matter here. What struck me while looking at Lear’s piece, though, was that I was being drawn into something analogous but not quite the same, and that something pertained directly to Lear’s aforementioned thinking through her practice as an effort to “become video.” This is surely what she’s doing, but it strikes me that the change is less a categorical one than a practice; the accent is on “practice in order” rather than “to become.” That is, it isn’t incidental that Lear didn’t so much become video as learn to become video, where learning is a process of entrainment that is bodily precisely because it is outside of oneself…it is the technical element that is in us but not of us. That is, what it means for Lear to “be video” is to be—quite literally—caught up in the latter’s tempi and machinations precisely in so far as these point to a technical system that acts through her when she envelopes it and envelopes her as she acts through it. So of course, the video also becomes her; what’s a becoming to do, after all?

The artfulness of the work is, of course, that none of the above really means anything to it…except perhaps to attest to the fact that it demanded a response from me, and quick.

~ Cecchetto

 

Four aural-neiric speculations with a very fat head

Video of a paper presented at the Tuning Speculation conference in Nov. 2013, organized by Marc Couroux and eldritch Priest.

Four aural-neiric speculations with a very fat head
The impulse behind this paper is a desire to speculatively historicize sound, both in its mechanical and psychoacoustic trajectories. Since the mid-60s, our understanding of sound has been dominated by spectrum analysers that effectively represent a given sound as a combination of frequencies, a representation that is at the heart of both waveform analysis and sound synthesis. Supplementing this (ultimately positivist) rendering of sound, debates have proliferated (under the umbrella of ‘pscyhoacoustics’) over the role of hearing itself in constituting sound: hearing, after all, is a perceptual and sensual event as much as it is a mechanical one. With this in mind the paper considers the wearable artwork FATHEAD—still in a beta version, made with technical assistance from William Brent and Adam Tindale—which basically amounts to a microphone/headset that simulates ways the world would sound if the wearer’s head were 1000 feet wide. The language of thresholds that the piece executes proves a particularly robust site of exploration: the piece supplements the conventional thresholds of audibility (pitch and amplitude) with that of stereo relation.
~ Cecchetto

The Sonic Effect: Aurality and Digital Networks in ‘Exurbia’

Greetings folks,

We’ll have a swath of new posts on here in the coming weeks I expect, but I thought I’d start the year with a piece I’ve just published with the journal Evental Aesthetics. Since EA doesn’t have a commenting feature, if you’ve any thoughts on the piece theocculture seems as good a place to post them as any.

The full text is available online (for free) here: http://eventalaesthetics.net/animals-and-aesthetics-vol-2-no-2-2013/david-cecchetto-the-sonic-effect/

The abstract is as follows:

“This essay examines the problem of medial specificity in music and sound art, giving particular attention to Seth Kim-Cohen’s call for a non-cochlear sound art based on the notion of “expansion” that has been decisive in visual arts discourses.  I argue that Kim-Cohen’s non-cochlear intervention in In the Blink of an Ear might be productively pressured towards the concept of a “sonic effect” that acknowledges the material-discursive particularity of sound without recourse to the phenomenological claims of authenticity that Kim-Cohen correctly abhors.  In service of this argument, the essay extensively discusses a sound and media artwork – Exurbia, created by myself and William Brent – that leverages the metaphorics of sound against existing understandings of specific forms of network communication.  I argue that the conceptual and material dimensions of the project stridulate in a hum of recursive vectors for considering the constitution and consequences of networked aural interaction.  Exurbia can thus be parsed in terms of medial specificity precisely because its digital aural materials are themselves discursive.”

~ Cecchetto

On loosing face

I was recently lucky enough to be part of a seminar with Jamie Currie (University of Buffalo), and was asked to respond to his paper. I thought the paper itself would be of interest to many here so I’ve copied it below (with Jamie’s generous permission), followed by my short response.

~ Cecchetto

On Loosing Face

Dr. James R. Currie

Since, as the title of this seminar states [Shifting Positions — Writing Materialities of Sound], we are attempting here to contemplate the issue of how we are to set about writing about the materiality of sound, I would like to follow through on the invitation by focusing in almost exclusively on the materiality of the writing itself within this process.  To proceed in this fashion is perfectly within the boundaries of our topic.  But if I do so, it is less out of professional academic interest, than from a desire to test out the validity of a certain suspicion that distracts me in a number of areas of my, as it were, so-called life in late modernity.  And since this is a seminar, and so this is not yet an article—the latter, we should remember, is a term of law—I’m happy either way, whether it turns out to be a valid paranoia or just a productive fiction.  We are, after all, trying to work some things out, to draw things into the light so that they can just be seen first of all, rather (hopefully) than just re-performing some already composed script.  At any rate, I wonder whether, with the academic/artistic topic of how to write about sound, we might not be opening the door inadvertently to the tricky contradictions of some latter day version of what (in admittedly very broad terms) we might call a realism problematic.  If and when this is the case, sound can get scripted in the privileged position as sheer visceral reality; writing then gets relegated to a somewhat parasitic condition, as the never quite transparent-enough medium through which our experiences must (unfortunately, according to some) pass.  Within the discipline that concerns itself primarily/exclusively with the sound that is music (the discipline sometimes known as musicology), an all-too-obvious example of this kind of stance would, of course, be Carolyn Abbate’s Critical Inquiry piece, “Music: Drastic or Gnostic?”  But fragments of this can be found glittering in the gloom of all sorts of nooks and crannies—and a fragment, after all, can sometimes have far more devastating a radius of repercussion than the offensiveness of a broadly held policy.

 

If and when such a sound/writing (and thus reality/commentary, host/parasite, presence/absence) binary is managing to make its pressure felt, then we are back quite solidly within the concerns of the early Derrida, and in particular the world of On Grammatology.  And maybe this might give us some pause.  On Grammatology, of course, works out its theory of writing’s supplemental relationship to speech through an incredibly close reading of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, an essay in which music features prominently.  It is very much concerned with the problem of sound in relationship to writing, and it repeatedly keeps drawing our attention to the contradictions and abuses performed under the aegis of presence, such as one finds when sound is posited in its unmediated state.  However, present academic fashions in the humanities are frequently geared towards seeing themselves either as a form of liberation from, or just simply beyond the linguistic turn of poststructuralism.  Sound studies can be as prone to this pose as anything else.  At its crudest, this kind of gesture manifests itself in some kind of assertion that, having dethroned language from its privileged position, we are now more free to be in touch with the real thing, whatever that might be: sound, force, the body, color, gesture—the list continues.   It is an interesting assertion, especially considering how manifestly less free we are now in the second decade of the twenty-first century than we were in the late 60’s and early 70’s when Derrida was at work in this area.  Do we have to be free in terms of something like sound in order to compensate for our manifest lack of freedoms elsewhere?  Maybe we are not yet quite as over post-structuralism as some of us (myself included at times) might wish to think.

 

Now, I’m not much of a Derridean.  Further, although I’m prepared to say that language goes a long way, I’m not prepared to say that it’s got the entire ground covered.  (And I’m not saying that Derrida says this either.)  However, the fact that I notice the early Derrida out of the corner of my eye as I’m sitting here working out my thoughts through the computer keyboard is perhaps the itch that helps me formulate the following scratch: that although I’m happy to say that we can pass over into sound—and although at times I’m prepared to be quite euphoric and utopian about that possibility and its repercussions—I do not believe that one can do that directly.  Moreover, to keep in mind the indirection that is necessary in order for sound to give us the impression of its sudden directness of assault upon us—to do this is, I assert, to the benefit of sound itself, not just something that is advantageous for our ethical and political understanding of ourselves.  In my statements here, I posit two reasons for why this is the case; the two reasons are intimately bound up in each other, but I do not have anything particularly profound to say at this stage about the intricacies of their wobbly, lop-sided co-dependencies.  The first reason is broadly political; the second reason is broadly psychoanalytic.

 

To start with the political:  it is always interesting to note these days when lines of argumentation are imbued with the potential for careering off a little too easily into rather border-line fetishizations of liveness, presence, the irreducibility of the present moment, and the power of the non-discursive, the haptic, force, event, affect, visceral immediacy and so on.  When this happens, discourse can inadvertently come off a little butch—and believe you me, I’m not unattracted to this quality.  But when ever a discourse threatens to start positing itself in such terms (as being somehow in the raw, naked, the real thing) it is perhaps not unhelpful to contemplate its dress code, and so in this instance remember that we sometimes take our clothes off precisely in order to hide.  Qualities of liveness and presence are, after all, also massively privileged terms within the networks of corporately-driven commodity circulation with all its attendant brutalities.  And so what kind of pause should that give us when we see that being played out on the terrain of sound?  If there is an element of fetishization at play when such terms rise to the surface of sound studies? Does it help us to remember that a fetish, crudely speaking, is an overdetermination of one thing that functions to distract from a lack somewhere else?  And so if we are, at this particular juncture of the historical present, attracted strongly to what we perceive as the reality of sound’s materiality, is there any traction to be gotten from flirting with the idea that our attraction in such instances functions like desire, and so therefore through lack?  Do we desire presence from sound because the discursive structures that would allow us to get such tangibility in the rest of our life (politically, intersubjectively, romantically, professionally, or wherever) are at this stage withered to the point of embarrassment?  And anyway, even if this is the case, does this necessarily mean that we are on the wrong track?

 

If our attraction to a certain immediacy connected with sound is indeed some kind of symptom of our times, then maybe (to nod vaguely towards Žižek) we might benefit from enjoying it.  Presence, indeed, may well be less an either/or encounter (redemptive immediacy pitted against ideological obfuscation) than radically indifferent and so strategically open to all sorts of possibilities and pitfalls.  We live, after all, in radically undecided times.  And as Lauren Berlant writes, in Cruel Optimism, “Intensely political seasons spawn reveries of a different immediacy.  People imagine alternative environments where authenticity trumps ideology, truths cannot be concealed, and communication feels intimate, face-to-face” (223).  Sound, as she goes on to articulate, can provide the necessary sense of belonging, for it creates a space in which “Without having speech as a cushion, affect shapes the event” (228).  Sound, as opposed to traditionally articulated political language, is “that circulating, transpersonal, permeating, viscerally connective affective atmosphere that feels as though it has escaped ‘the filter’ to indicate, for good or for ill, a sensorium for potential social world now lived as collective affect, or a revitalized political one”(231). And so she wonders, for example, why such a large amount of art activism has turned away from the essentially language-based forms of communication that have tended to define public-sphere communication.  She wonders why noise/sound has come to the fore instead, why there has been such a concerted effort to access the “visceral immediacy that communication rationalizes, brackets, idealizes, and disrespects?”  Her conclusion seems to be that whilst the seeming immediacy and sense of affective attachment created by the sonic may well be fantasy, and thus part of what she calls a cruel optimism, it is nevertheless the case that in the new ordinary of our world, in which instability and the lack of any tangible concept for the political future has become the norm, the kinds of fantasies offered by the sonic environment might simply be necessary in order to kick start something other than what predominates into action.  To hijack her arguments rather shamelessly for my own purposes, we might thus posit the following hypothesis: if the “visceral immediacy” of sound is, in its fetishized state, part of the very problem it seeks to give us respite from, then maybe (to return to nodding towards Žižek once more) our best solution is to double the insult and cure the effects of the poison by imbibing another draft of the poison itself: only the spear that smote thee can heal the wound, as Žižek would say.

 

The invocation of Žižek and fantasy leads me to my second optic on the problem of the, as it were, directness of sound: psychoanalysis.  As any good Lacanian understands immediately, God writes in crooked lines, and so freedom is something that must be practiced.  In other words, it is not that we are always tragically barred access from the actuality of the world (such as sound) by means of the castrating force of language, but that our approach to that actuality involves what often seems, at first, to be a paradoxical distraction from our main aim.  Thus, to elaborate: we “get” at sound not by placing it firmly in our line of sight and then plotting as direct a course across the intervening landscape as possible.  The seeming common sense of such literal mindedness merely gets us caught up on what Lacan would call the inverted ladder of desire, where the approach to the object of desire becomes the very means by which our arrival is forever forestalled.  (The strong tendency amongst academics towards writing blocks, procrastination, and the inability to bring projects to completion comes, I suspect, quite precisely from such a form of entrapment within the drunken convolutions created by what they think at first is but their sober attention to the most rational means of getting at their subject.)  But to state my basic credo here, we “get” at the object through what I would describe as the sustaining of a carefully orchestrated productive distance.  And that distance is what I would call love.  Love is a distance, not a proximity.  Therefore, if you care about sound, you should care about perfecting the disciplines of distance that allow you access to it.

 

Over the years, my thoughts about this matter have developed from the helpful irritation inspired by a certain scene.  The scene is what we might call “the sad story of love lost.”  Here one is again, sitting in the restaurant opposite one’s friend who is slowly but inexorably slumping down into their soup.  Their relationship is no longer working.  It may well be over. “We’ve fallen apart,” they sigh, and look up at us with hang-dog eyes.  We nod back, slowly, as if we were looking out over the vast plains of the sadness of this life.  How beautifully melancholic is the truth!  And yet this is all complete nonsense.  Romantic love doesn’t dissolve from lack of proximity; it is rather that proximity itself is the guilty liquid that drowns the focused desire that had constituted the initial passion.  The sad story of love lost is an endlessly repeated parable of the tragedies that ensue when two people fall into each other, not when they fall apart.  Simply note the following: that when love goes wrong, partners become consumed by an excessive attention to the kinds of particular observations that can only come from too much proximity: “He always leaves the lid off the tooth paste,” “Have you noticed the grotesque way that she keeps her mouth open when she’s breathing?” “Don’t scuttle across the road like that!  It’s so embarrassing! It makes you look like a nervous child.”  And so on and so forth.  It is like the paradox of looking at an Impressionist painting: you get too close and the whole thing dissolves into the materiality of paint, a snow storm of meaningless pigment that one cannot see beyond.  At a certain distance, however, the thing becomes a picture with which one can establish a relationship.  Getting close periodically to the mesmerizing swarm of brush strokes may well be a means of revivifying the relationship to the image—even of creating wonderment out of the realization that at a certain point a shitty mess can become a seemingly living artifice—but getting close is hardly more “truthful.”  If love happens it is through the miracle that two people find that the respective distances they both need in order for the other to come into focus are mutually compatible.  What is needed is a discipline capable of sustaining that truth.

 

There was a period in Žižek’s career, for example, when he would frequently perform variations on the following theme (loosely pilfered from Marguerite Duras): that the only form of romantic relationship that he would participate in was one where there was a third point of focus (for him politics) to which each party in the relationship was prepared to sacrifice the other should the need arise.  Now this, for some, may merely validate their suspicions regarding the distasteful tendency towards sacrifice and cruelty that they perceive to be endemic to the influence of Lacanain psychoanalysis.  For our purposes, though, it raises an interesting theoretical potential: that in the relationship between us and sound, writing is the third term that allows for the sound to strike us with any force at all.  It is as if the focus necessitated by the materiality of the writing act itself, is the discipline that allows for the creation of a distraction—a distraction from the miserable surveillance we incarcerate the beloved within when we approach them directly.  Free from us, sound can then finally get to us.  But if we need to be distanced from sound in order for sound to get at us, then that is precisely because we have to get away from ourselves in order to write.  If there is a pleasure to writing (and for this author, writing verges towards a full and productive sublimation) then that is because the discipline necessary in order to form concepts through language necessitates that for the period that the writing is at work we have to push to the side that tedious and essentially quite lazy blob of what Kant would have called our pathological being.   We have to become gripped by something other than our desire to fiddle with our emails, or endlessly make cups of tea, or go to the toilet, or follow through on the most childish and fidgety of our instincts and wishes.   So if sound can at last get at us, that is because we, to a large extent, are no longer there.  We have been liberated from the shame of being anyone at all.  We have lost our face, and so at last can smile.  And perhaps listen too.

——–

Response to ‘On loosing face’ 

(David Cecchetto)

In Of Grammatology, Derrida explains that the reason that the notion of technique can never simply clarify the notion of writing is that “a certain sort of question about the meaning and origin of writing precedes, or at least merges with, a certain type of question about the meaning and origin of technics” (8). There’s much to unpack in this claim but what strikes me as crucial is the parenthetical hesitation, the “or at least merges with.” This, after all, is the crux of the matter: the precedence of “writing” in the large, grammatological sense of the term lies (paradoxically) in the fact that it is both before and after technics (in this case), and indeed experience itself.

To my ears, Jamie’s not-yet-article picks up on this ambivalence in its full complexity, but also does something more: that is, rather than simply and only mounting a defense of writing as something more than “the never quite transparent enough medium through which our [sheerly visceral sonic experiences] must [unfortunately] pass,” Jamie also limns precisely the multivariate indirections of sound’s perceived directness. Like Jamie proclaims of himself I’m not much of a Derridean, but I do believe that one of the unfortunate results of the canonization of Derridean grammatology in the academy has been to dramatically underplay—and in many cases even willfully neglect—the performative dimension of Derrida’s thought; Jamie’s brief intervention is a useful corrective to this tendency, both in his constative claims and in the possible paths these claims (provisionally) lay.

He draws our attention to two such paths in particular: politics and psychoanalytics. With respect to the former, Jamie notes that the qualities of liveness and presence that sound catalyzes are “massively privileged terms within the networks of corporately-driven commodity circulation.” From this, he astutely wonders if our attraction to such qualities might not emerge—through an economy of desire—as a result of the lack of such immediacy in the rest of our daily lives—lives that are characterized by a bureaucratic diffusal of agency that is intensified in what we must unavoidably (and cynically) call our contemporary networked culture. An intensification of what Sartre—long in advance of the personal computer revolution—identified as urban alienation, contemporary networks alienate as much as they connect (and indeed, they alienate through their connectivity).[1] Brilliantly, Jamie turns this diagnosis into a prescription of sorts, suggesting that perhaps the best response is to redouble the problem, in this case by leveraging precisely that set of aural capacities that are most fantastic towards upsetting the established state of affairs.

And yet, moving into his second site of argument—psychoanalysis—Jamie offers an alternate approach—perhaps even a reversal of sorts of the politics of symptoms that he articulates in the political arena. As he states so beautifully, “in the relationship between us and sound, writing is the third term that allows for the sound to strike us with any force at all.” Writing is a discipline that cultivates the distance (rather than proximity) that is the sustaining condition of love. Put differently, writing affords us a distance not only from sound, but also from ourselves in so far as this distanced sound strikes us.

It is this last image—the image of our disappearance, of our ‘lost face’—that leads to the line of discussion I’d like to open, a line that perhaps connects these two disparate trajectories (psychoanalysis and politics). Stated as a question, I’d ask: is there a point where fully “enjoying the symptom” of sound’s immersive directness means adopting something other than a linear relationship between individual bodies and the social bodies that their coagulations perform? Put differently, if writing acts as a kind of ecology (i.e. a set of complex and multilateral causalities that sustains both distinctions and relations) might it afford us access, in its own peculiar ways, to sound at a scale other than ourselves? Is this scale made of the same material as that which we can cultivate love for? In short, I think I’m almost entirely on board with both of the suggestions that Jamie provisionally explores, but I’m wondering how they might sustain their purchase in the context of a notion of sound that doesn’t hinge on human individuals listening. Do they?

 

 

 



[1] In Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) Sartre figures this through the example of men reading newspapers at a bus stop: their “acts of waiting are not a communal fact, but are lived separately as identical instances of the same” (262). They are isolated, while at the same time being forced into group arrangements.

Performance and Enaction in Writing Sonic Materialities OR The writing of having written: writing about (writing about) sound

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).[1]

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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4]

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”[5] 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).[6] 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.[7] 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.”[8]

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.”[9] 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).[10] 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.[11] 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).[12]

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.[13] 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.

–Cecchetto


[1] Kim-Cohen, Seth. In the blink of an ear: toward a non-cochlear sound art (New York: Continuum, 2009).

[2] Bryant, Levi. The Democracy of Objects (Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2011), 29.

[3] Ibid.

[4] 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.”

[5] Hiebert, Ted. “Delirious Screens: flesh shadows and cool technology” in CTheory.net (2008). http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=592

[6] Bryant also has a relatively simple gloss of SOST here:

[7] Sterne, Jonathan. “A machine to hear for them” fill out complete bibliographic info.

[8] 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).

[9] Chun, Wendy. Find bibliographic info.

[10] Sterne, 279.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] Madrigal, Alexis. “Dark Social: We have the whole history of the web wrong” in The Atlantic (12 October 2012; accessed January 2013). http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social-we-have-the-whole-history-of-the-web-wrong/263523/