6.   “With Sufficient Listenings”


The writing and listening associated with this text has been an exercise in personal salvage ethnography for me, meaning that I have attempted to redeem a sound artifact of rubbish quality by subjecting it to intensive listening. This task is not unlike what composer and theoretician François Bonnet has called “archipelagic listening” (Bonnet 2016: 268). Let me extrapolate via a small detour.


Bonnet cites at length an anecdote originally from David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, where Brian Eno talks about a field recording he made near the northern edge of Hyde Park:


I suddenly had this idea. What about if I take a section of this – a 3-minute section, the length of a single – and I tried to learn it? […] I tried to learn it, exactly as one would a piece of music: oh yeah, that car, accelerates the engine, the revs in the engine go up and then that dog barks, and then you hear that pigeon off to the side there. This was an extremely interesting exercise to do, first of all because I found that you can learn it. Something that is as completely arbitrary and disconnected as that, with sufficient listenings, becomes highly connected. […] Since I’ve done that, I can listen to lots of things in quite a different way. (Toop 1995: 129, [Bonnet’s emphasis])


Bonnet calls Eno’s technique “archipelagic listening,” since, according to Bonnet, it is not an analytical strategy that tries to apprehend a priori structures of the recording. Instead, it is the repeated listening itself that causes the structures to emerge (Bonnet 2016: 268). For Bonnet, Eno’s strategy implies a possibility of escaping the tyranny of discourse. By deploying the metaphor of “archipelagic thought” by Eduard Glissant, and repurposing it as “archipelagic listening,” Bonnet wants to emphasize the possibility to hear sounds in a way they have hitherto been unheard of (Bonnet 2016: 268–274).


In order to explore directions for an anthropology of rubbish sounds, I propose redeploying Bonnet’s argument in a more modest form. By repeatedly listening to cast-aside audio recordings, the hegemony of the normal-science approach to recordings – which implies an unquestioned relationship between audio and its ethnographic context – can be challenged. This is because listening to “failed” recordings has the effect of stimulating a new kind of listener subjectivity, or even cultivating a new kind of technique of the self (cf. Foucault 1997), such as implied by Eno (“Since I’ve done that, I can listen to lots of things in quite a different way”). By engaging with a recording that is technically unsalvageable, and sometimes literally painful to listen to, new connections are created between the materiality of the audio recording, the ethnographic context, and the subjectivity of the listener. This might not be the kind of non-analytic listening that Bonnet seems eager to salvage, but it definitely is a non-systemic or “tactical” listening (Certeau 2002: xix; cf. Bonnet 2016: 268), since it actively attempts to sidestep the “proper” discursive aspects of the recording.


The “methodology” – if it can be labeled as such – I am suggesting here is a relative of anthropologist Christopher Pinney’s (Pinney 2005; cf. Cobussen 2021: 76) proposal for a tactic of how to approach objects qua objects, instead of as/through vehicles of linguistic meaning. Objects do not merely assimilate into “culture,” “history,” or “discourse” (Pinney 2005: 266). Objects can be, as anthropologist Marilyn Strathern argues, interpreted as performances that open up in surprising ways, characterized by disjunctures (Pinney 2005: 269; Strathern 2021: 33). My revisitation of the recording made me not only realize that listening to it was possible; it also made me focus on things I had previously missed. Specifically, I discerned that the dynamics of the background and foreground noise of the recording – i.e., the rising and waning audience chatter and the distortion due to fluctuations of volume in the public access system – was relevant for my analysis. These dynamics pointed to the fact that noise was both employed by and reacted to by all the participants, using various tactics, in order to communicate authoritatively.

Excerpt from an intensive oratory by a kiai, with a lot of recording artefacts