Reflections on Sonic Environments

Vincent Meelberg and Marcel Cobussen


While I am writing this essay many thoughts enter my head, both productive and unproductive, even distracting, ones. Sometimes, these distracting thoughts become so loud that I am no longer able to hear the productive ones. When this happens, I am forced to stop working and try to silence my thoughts altogether.

Yet, what does it mean to “hear my thoughts?” What do I hear when I am thinking? On the one hand, the act of thinking implies silence, at least an external silence in the sense that, as long as I am not thinking out loud, no one can hear that I am engaged in the activity called thinking. Yet at the same time, thinking can oftentimes create a cacophony of sounds/thoughts in my head. My inner voice continuously talks to me. Thus, to the outside world, thinking has the timbre of silence, that is, it sounds like silence, but it is not mute.

But how to conceptualize such an abstract, ephemeral phenomenon like the inner voice? To reiterate my question above: what does it mean, or rather, what am I listening to, when this inner voice talks to me? Is it me talking? Or my subconsciousness? Can I call this conversation “talking” when no actual sounds are produced?

Philosophers such as Edmund Husserl also pondered these questions. He asserts that listening, unlike seeing, which is directed outwards from the seeing subject, includes a dual discourse: listening to oneself and listening to others, hearing one’s inner voice and the voice of another. Seeing differs from thinking: listening to my inner voice is directed towards the inner self, whereas seeing only has the outer world as its object. Of course I am able to imagine something visual, but even when I close my eyes, this mental image never becomes lifelike, in contrast to my inner voice, which becomes sometimes far too real.

It might be for this reason, Marcel Cobussen suggests, that many philosophers distrust the inner voice. Referring to Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Nietzsche, Cobussen (Cobussen 2001) observes that the sonority of the inner voice is often considered a threat to the autonomy of the subject. Hearing my inner voice speaking to me implies an otherness that can be attributed to this voice. Consequently, my thoughts, my inner sonic utterances, at the same time both belong to me and feel alien to me. This inner voice sounds so real that it might almost seem like someone else is talking to me. The most intimate of sonorities, my inner voice, may simultaneously feel like a sonic intruder.

The noises in my head do not only consist of a voice (or voices). These mental sounds can be anything. At least in the head of the thinker, they have the potentiality to become any sound imaginable. And to the thinker, they actually do. The sounds of thoughts are at the same time virtual and actual, in the sense of Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s (Deleuze and Guattari 1988) use of these concepts. They are virtual because the sounds of thoughts cannot be measured in decibels, these sounds do not consist of an alternation of compressed and expanded air. They are composed of another kind of alternation, however, namely the alternation of electric currents generated in the head of the thinker. To this thinker, these sounds are very real. They are actual voices and noises that both help and interfere with the process of thinking. It is up to the thinker to transform these sounds into actual sounds by speaking, making music, screaming, etc. Or, as I am doing by writing this text, create a medium which can induce mental sounds in the mind of you, the reader of these sentences.


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