Listening to Noise and Silence

July 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

I read Salomé Voegelin’s wonderful, wide-ranging, but at times potentially troubling Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (Continuum, 2010) because I’ve been looking for a good work in particular to help me think about noise music. Not that I’d dare write about it (I haven’t heard enough), but I’d like to think about it better.

One of the things the book is best for and best at is Voegelin’s brilliant narration of pieces of sound art: her criticism (as against theory, which she is also good at) is superb, and genuinely eye- (or ear-) opening. She seems to have found a really effective language for sound art, and for opening out what it can mean to the listening body. This is also carried over into arresting, perception-altering (and I am aware of how she would rightly trounce this term in the way I’ve used it, on which, more below) descriptions of how we experience sound in everyday life, for example in her gripping description of sitting in a library as an experience of sound: “In sound the library becomes an awkward space of fraught physicality: full of bodies, rigid and tense, trying to be silent. Ever so often, the restraint cracks under the expectation […].” “In its rising and falling the sounds of the library invite the imagination of a boundary-less mass of human flesh, heaving in its own rhythm, oozing sighs and whispers and grasping me in its breath: a fleshly monster of which I am part, enveloped, swallowed in its hush as in a faintly murmuring beast.” (p.12)).

Indeed, this is best shown (and, for me, is most transformative of how I understand a small part of the world) in her writing on radio. For her, radio best brings to the fore our experience of living in a Merleau-Pontian (Merleau-Ponty is a consistent presence in the book) timespace. She highlights how commercial radio attempts to negate this and root listening down to certainties and transcendental signifiers, with “radiophonic voices that are considered phonogenic: semantic voices without a body to speak of” (p.37), and also with its tendency to “[paralyze] temporality” in its “strict schedule” (p.160), with drive-time and school-run type shows that “get you in a particular spot and resonate its function” (p.161). But ultimately, and especially at night, she sees radio as evincing the potential for a listening of “when the purpose of the day has been spent” (p.161), a true “durational work that knows no operator”, where “no beginning and end can play with what the radio could be in a timespace specificity of its very own making” (p.161). Most powerfully, she elucidates this by describing the experience of listening to the radio at home at night: “I can always hear it, faint and far away, or ever louder and distinct, measuring my roaming through the space by the sound of its time” (p.162).

But one of Voegelin’s fundamental interests in radio is in its capacity as exemplary of a kind of sociality that is the centre of her theory, and it is at this point that I start to take issue with some of her argument. She paints radio, wonderfully, as “everywhere and no-where, manifesting the omnipresent nature of radio, while highlighting the specificity of my listening to it”, and generating “an invisible social network that weaves and bounces on the silent airwaves towards a shared sense that can only ever be a passing moment of coincidence” (p.114). Voegelin’s text reminds me in a way of Roland Barthes’s La Chambre Clair in the way that it struggles against the fact that, trying to articulate an aesthetics, it can’t but avoid the necessary horizon of an ontology. For both, aesthetics will always eventually have to factor in the perceiver, and a theory of the subject is needed therefore in order to properly consider this dynamic. This bit about radio adequately displays Voegelin’s basic understanding of the subject and their relation to the Other, which is elegantly put elsewhere as a scenario (that seems almost Beckettian) of “fragile ‘I’s passing in the dark” (p.94): “we meet in the dark, back to back, and know each other as sensibles, reciprocally constituted in our bodily fantasy. Noise is there before language, when we try each other in the trial of ourselves on the way to a contingent and passing self that passes others of the same temporary constitution. It is the necessary basis of language as the desire to speak, not however its lexis” (p.87).

What creeps in here is that the Other in Voegelin’s model is merely incidental, pleasing to meet, but an exception to an experience of subjectivity that is largely about a unique, individual journey, about self-discovery and self-preservation. Where this begins, is, paradoxically, with what is for me one of the most persuasive and engaging aspects of her theory, which is her base-line understanding of listening. For Voeglin, the audible is distinct from the visual (no matter how much people try to subsume the former into a metaphoric of the latter) in that the visual tries to, and certainly has the initial conditions “to achieve the convenience of comprehension and knowledge through the distance and stability of the object” (p.4): the perceiver and the perceived will, as a rule, be separate. Conversely, listening “cannot contemplate the object/phenomenon heard separate from its audition because the object does not precede listening.  Rather, the auditory is generated in the listening practice: in listening I am in sound, there can be no gap between the heard and hearing” (p.5). Voegelin rightly takes this as an impetus to re-think the discourse of sound, because she sees it rightly as needing to proceed from such an experience, one that is very much one of the body. But seemingly in place of articulating what this new language could be (I thought of Hélène Cixous and écriture feminine as perhaps being a missed opportunity as a good articulation of a new way of speaking from the body and from a particular experience), of what this listening body needs to speak, she instead mostly just articulates her theory of the subject, of what leads up to this point of needing to speak up for the listening experience.

Because her subject is not that of, say Levinas (or after him, Derrida or (see below) Simon Critchley), for whom the encounter with the Other precedes everything else, an encounter indeed without which subjectivity cannot be thought, her subject is unburdened by any fundamental responsibility, it is merely alone, and self-present, coinciding with the sound it experiences.

Follow, for example, Voegelin’s often-used concept of intersubjectivity. It is not intersubjectivity with the Other, but intersubjectivity in the sense that “Listening is intersubjective in that it produces the work and the self in the interaction between the subject listening and the object heard” (p.28). This plays out in her concluding chapter when she broaches an ethics which, unlike a Levinasian ethics, offers no fundamental (only an incidental) responsibility to the Other, and unlike a Socratic/Aristotelian/Kantian ethics provides no impetus to do good: “the ethical dimension of art concerns the responsibility of the audience to engage in the work’s affective production and to produce their own emotions that reveal to each listener his own ethicality. This clarifies that the ethical dimension of the work, played out in its affective perception, is not to do with what it might represent, but what it produces in terms of an aesthetic sensibility: as affective subjectivities, and in terms of the affective action towards our coincidence with others” (p.182). This to me seems to be an ethics of formal responsibility to (one) the work being experienced and (two) the self experiencing that work, so as to cultivate most fully their dialectical (or, in her terms “intersubjective”) development in conjunction with the work. This leads, therefore, on the one hand, to a kind of extreme aestheticism, of a justification for art pour l’art that is also hinted at in her opinions about some of the sound art she approaches (for example, of Peter Cusack’s Chernobyl, she says that “Where at first I fill its sounds with cultural references, abundant on the subject of catastrophes, nuclear and otherwise, those get relinquished in a close listening, and all that is left is what I hear. Having curtailed the cultural references I am left with nature, the nature of Chernobyl [note the italics: it’s the work, not the place, the event], which is what its culture is increasingly left to be” (p.158) – is this really preferable? A pure aestheticism that manages to repress any responsibility, to repress the work’s power in bearing witness?). On the other, and more by extension, this kind of model could lead to a purely libertarian politics, of each individual existing for themselves and against or with the Other only according to their individual need, not to do with any a priori law, whether from the state, religion, or from any inner compulsion (e.g. the unfulfillable demand of the Other, or the idea of the good of the collective). I see this developing in her celebratory figure of the rave as “a euphoric mass of isolated movement” (p.46), but most alarmingly in her dismissal of commercial radio as against her endorsement of Gregory Whitehead’s If a Voice Like then What? and Susan Stone’s Langue Etude. For Voegelin, sound art must “implode the parameters of commercial radio”, something she contemptuously describes as “conventional productions that aim to entertain and inform a collective audience, arranging time and aspiring to create a sense of listenership and civic identity” (pp.38-9). I agree with her, as I said before, about the radical potential of some works (even some experiences of listening to radio) as a means of challenging, unpicking, even opposing the norms of commercial radio, but I will not follow her in seeing this potential as ultimately aimed at undermining attempts to forge civic identity. This is then further evinced in the way she endorses Whitehead’s and Stone’s works as against commercial radio: “They produce a collective solitariness, a mass of equally but individually alienated people” (p.39). This veers too close to libertarianism for me, an insensitive, selfish politics. As an aesthetics, it can also (like libertarianism) seem too much to be a cover-up for the formation of an elite, who leave the weak (or the “conventional” commercial radio listeners) behind because they lose the battle of the survival of the fittest, either for life and dominance, or to enjoy to the “right” kind of artwork.

Ultimately, though, as I hope it can be seen, the very fact that I’ve touched on Voegelin’s working towards an aesthetics, an ontology, a politics, and an ethics shows that this work is a genuine and assure philosophy of sound art. It’s a serious, serious work, very comprehensive and very brave, a real achievement. Perhaps to some extent I balked from some of it simply because I didn’t agree with the political implications: this doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just that I’m a tired old lefty and I’m suspicious of libertarianism, and all the guilts-by-association it’s wrapped up with. But as an approach to listening, and perhaps even something to use sometimes against Voegelin’s grain (I would take issue, for example, with her outright rejection of music and overt convention and formality in sound, and could see her ideas about sound being used in a philosophy of liminalities, of finding the sonic supplement, the freak, mistaken resonances in all sound (musical or not), no matter how much it tries to curtail them), it is excellent, and the best type of Theory-work for me in the sense that I can imagine using it, proceeding from it. It has really opened up spaces for me, and I’m thankful to have read it.

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