Reflections on Sonic Environments

Vincent Meelberg and Marcel Cobussen

The Ear and/versus the Eye

Why bother about the ear? James Clifford asks himself this question in 1986. According to Clifford, our culture is the result of acts of inscription, reading, and interpretation, acts within the domain of vision, visibility, and perspective. (Erlmann 2004: 1)

One possible answer precedes Clifford’s question. In the very beginning of Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali writes:

For twenty-five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible. Our science has always desired to monitor, measure, abstract, and castrate meaning, forgetting that life is full of noise and that death alone is silent: work noise, noise of man, and noise of beast. Noise bought, sold, or prohibited. Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise. (Attali 1985: 3)

But of course, the strongest arguments against Clifford’s analysis of our contemporary (Western) culture come from sounds themselves, from music, sound art, sound pollution, audio architecture, sonic branding, sound design, etc. Taken together, these sonic events prove that (our) culture cannot be captured or understood through visual means alone. Unmistakably, sounds play an enormously important role in how humans relate to the world, to other beings, to their environment. Simultaneously, sounds often cannot be analyzed through reading and writing alone. So, obviously, there seems to be a need for cultural and historical contextualizations of sonic events.

The rise of sonic studies or auditory culture in the 1990s seems an explicit reaction against the alleged domination of the eye in Western culture; it seems to parasitize on the often expressed opposition between the ear and the eye where the eye (re)presents intellect, abstraction, distance, objectivity, and surfaces and the ear is connected to affect, contact, immersion, reception, and subjectivity. (Sterne 2003; Jay 1993; Levin 1993; Berendt 1991; Ong 1982; McLuhan 1964)

Sonic studies suggests that it is possible to conceptualize new ways of knowing a culture and of gaining a deepened understanding of how people relate to each other through the sense of hearing. (Erlmann 2004: 3) However, in his introduction to Hearing Cultures, Erlmann makes immediately clear that a counter-monopoly of the ear should not be the aim – with this, following Jonathan Sterne who in The Audible Past laconically states that “there is no scientific basis for asserting that the use of one sense atrophies another.” (Sterne 2003: 16) Instead of presenting a new hierarchy of the senses, Erlmann claims that it makes ‘scientific sense to conceive of the senses as an integrated and flexible network.’ (Erlmann 2004: 4) This is corroborated by studies into human cognition: human perception is always synesthetic. All senses influence each other. There is no such thing as “pure vision” or “pure hearing” (Leman 2008; Pfeifer & Bongard 2007; Massumi 2002). Consequently, the simplistic dichotomy between the (modern) eye and the (pre- or antimodern) ear must be replaced by a more nuanced approach. However, to make such an approach possible at all, more attention for the ear, for the influence of hearing and listening is needed.

However, it seems that we are caught up in a paradox here. Is Clifford right after all? Demanding and fixing attention for sounds by producing books, essays, and articles – doesn’t that prove that, in order to be taken seriously, sounds should submit themselves to the high priest of visual culture, to écriture? Giving space to the aural sides and sites of culture cannot restrict itself to the praxis of writing and reading alone. Sound should not only be subject for and subjected to discursive analyses; it should infiltrate those analyses with sound, comment on them through sound, support or reject them sonically; what should be explored is how and when sonic events themselves ‘say something’ …


                                                                                                                              The Study

                                                        The Shop

            Sirens                                                                                                                                                                  The Gym


                    The Bedroom


                             The Ear and/versus the Eye

                Sound Design    



                                                    Footsteps                                                                                                                                      Rattle and Hum

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