The Political Possibility of Sound: Fragments of Listening - Salomé Voegelin. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
By Sharon Stewart
Prior to The Political Possibility of Sound, published in 2019, Salomé Voegelin wrote Listening to Noise and Silence (2010) and Sonic Possible Worlds (2014). I feel that some familiarity with her previous works, both conceptually and linguistically, was helpful in my engagement with The Political Possibility of Sound.
In light of this, I offer first a brief return to two conceptual fields within Voegelin’s earlier books. First, in Listening to Noise and Silence she introduced the “sonic thing,” which “frees sound from visual expectations and instead allows it to unfold in the complexity of its own material processes, impressing on the listener its contingent production” (2014: 177n4). Secondly, the aspect of formlessness – which appears frequently in Listening to Noise and Silence – traverses through Sonic Possible Worlds and develops as “formless form [...] reaching beyond its certain shape into a formless form that is neither object nor subject but the action of their materiality formlessly forming as liquid stickiness that grasps me too but leaves no trace” (2014: 2).
If I connect these two conceptual fields, textually, then: an engagement with the Dingheit of sound – as we are and do within our indivisibility – creates a “sonic thing,” one of many possible re-imaginings of the visual as a “formless form.” These concepts remain seminal throughout this third book, perhaps most clearly evolving through her considerations of volume, Thich Nhat Hanh’s interbeing, timespace-slices, indivisibility, and the political possibility of the invisible.
That being said, I close this brief connection to her previous works to say that I find Voegelin’s writing around and through sound and sonic works to be both generous and generative. By this I mean that she enters the listening experience with an expansive curiosity that is willing to ponder the what happened? from multiple entryways and use the writing to think through and with sound, generating a response-ably-worded philosophy of sound, a sonic thinking-with an abundance of other writers and creators as well.
Here follows an attempt at a responsive reading and writing – in an interplay with the sonic nature of language proposed by this book – that also speaks to its performative nature. The porousness and sense of evolution of the essays invite the reader into a “potentially infinite discussion” (2019: 10). Welcoming this discussion, I offer three entwined elements here: 1) selected concepts from each essay, relayed largely through Voegelin’s own words; 2) my recorded encounters with the seven “performative essays” – called Actions – at the heart of the book; and 3) my own associative reflections on various concepts offered in the book, /in italics/. Within the following, I also question what seems to emerge as an essentialist reliance on actual sound and listening as the ultimate way to characterize – or develop a methodological approach to understanding – knowledge or thought.
In the introduction Voegelin says that the seven essays are “written vertically – fragments and slices” (p. 6); that they are “the perfectly incomplete form to write about the possibility of the political at a time” of austerity, an exhaustion of the imagination, and when “ecological questions need answers from unknown places” (p. 7); and that they “can be read out of order and without the compulsion of the horizontal and the need to see the whole (p. 10).” So, let’s try to write a response that dialogues with this aim “to bring a sonic engagement into a text-based form [...] that does not deny sound its ephemeral invisibility and mobile intensity,” offering a space of “exploration, playful and incomplete” (p. 5). Allez, allons essayer! [Come on, let’s try!]
“The political possibility of sound” [Essay 1]
How might sound inform a “notion of a possibility of politics unthedered [sic] from the logic of negation or sublimation and employed in continuous territories and invisible zones” (p. 17)? To this end, Voegelin proposes an “‘echography’” of the inaudible,” of material practice – lived listening practices and creative sound practices as well as just shouting, talking and singing – which would not result in a visible geography, organized on a map, but “explores the unseen reverb of reflection where plural causes become visible and their consequences thinkable, and where other voices can make themselves heard rather than theorized” (p. 21). Of importance throughout is that the political possibility of sound does not succumb to the revolutionary circularity – endless echoing – of violence and anti-violence, a continual reflexive presentation of an opposite, a counter- or anti- (p. 17), but “generates an alternative that is neither parallel [...] nor circular” (p. 29). These themes are then thought with the works Language Gulf in the Shouting Valley (2013), a 15-min audio essay on the “politics of language and conditions of voice faced by the Druze community” by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, and Mediterraneo (2015), an audiovisual composition by Anna Raimondo that “brings us to the unheard position in the politics of migration and war” (p. 31).
/reflections on possibility/
Behind each empirical realization is a field or array of potentiality. The part of mathematics that is often represented by patterns of movement (e.g. hydrogen wave function probability density plots) reveals that forms can be actualized in a quantum jump. The patterns are real, but only one is realized empirically at a time.
“We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can only be used as in poetry.”
~Niels Bohr (discussion with Werner Heisenberg in 1920)
“Hearing Volumes: Architecture, light and words” [Essay 2]
Two soundwalks, conducted at Tate Britain and Tate Modern in 2012, led to the understanding of architecture, the exhibit space, as volumes, “a dimensionality that has a capacity: the capacity of the work and the capacity of our experience of it, [... an] invisible architectural volume” (p. 48). This intersects with interbeing, borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh. Interbeing enables the consideration of being according to listening as a being together and a being of each other” (p. 48). These concepts are then written with and thought through an experience of Phillipe Parreno’s Anywhen at the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2016.
/reflections on volume and interbeing/
What is volume and listening to volume as interbeing?
I enter the voluminous space where each being refracts all interactions, not linearly or certainly, but with the uncertainty of existing as that which is not the body of a node or the movement of a hub but, rather, the connections that are represented in the body of the node or movement of the hub.
I enter the potential of this node-ness and hub-ness and sense-act from this potential.
“Geographies of sound: Performing impossible territories” [Essay 3]
“A geography of sound has no maps; it produces no cartography.” It is a geography of “invisible trajectories and configurations” whose “textures and rhythms can’t be measured” (p. 76). Through a listening of Arturas Bumsteinas’s piece Night on the Sailship (2013) and thinking with Michel Foucault, Voegelin introduces the term hyper-invisibility, the unquestioned and normative absoluteness of this type of visual language (p. 77) that “we fail to see when we stare at its measurements but [...] cannot fail to notice when we listen to its sphere” (p. 89).
Thinking with Doreen Massey (For Space, 2005), Voegelin takes the concept of time-slices as slices of possibility articulated as sonic possible worlds (p. 81). In Voegelin’s words: “These slices generate the world as a sphere of variant activities and inter-activities, and produce not a map but an invisible and indivisible volume of what we might call simultaneous ‘timespace-slices’ through which we inter-are, inter-act and inter-invent a contingent geography” (pp. 81-82). Thus, the “interbeing of textures, material and physical rhythms” of Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s work with choreographer Sonya Levin – Inside You is Me, July/Surface Substance – is written by Voegelin as: “a performing of the geography of the place of the work as a sonic possible world” (p. 84).
Through Susan Schuppli and Tom Tlalim’s Uneasy Listening (2014), we are exposed to the “persuasiveness and limit of the hyper-invisibility of the surface” (p. 89) in relation to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Uneasy Listening makes the occupation of the vertical dimension hearable through simulating “the experience of what it is like to live under a drone” through “restaging of the over-flights in 5.1 surround sound” (p. 90). A vertical sensibility, activated by listening, relays both the terror of a 3D matrixed territorialism and the “failure of the infrastructure of separation” (p. 92).
Voegelin connects an awareness of vertical geography to a certain depth, to the “back” and “behind” of Merleau-Ponty’s “’dimension of the hidden’, which is the place of my looking, my simultaneity with the thing” and “the sound of my simultaneity with others” (p. 89). She concludes this essay with an invitation to “the visual geographer to consider the invisible, indivisible and (im)possible world of sound in her methodologies” (p. 95).
/reflections on verticality/
What does vertiginous sound, a verticality of being, slices of timespace effect in me?
Equality is not horizontal, but vertical.
I fall towards you, a cow, a worm, a grinding stone,
an old shoe, a sewer, the crackle in my inner ear,
an empty water bottle, zooplankton, an Arctic sunset,
womb warmth, the sense of someone behind me,
the smell of my thinking.
I keep falling between all these things.
I fall into the groundless depth of our mutual perception.
“Morality of the invisible, ethics of the inaudible” [Essay 4]
This essay, in the middle of the book, offers eight Actions, sets “of instructions to listen, do and read” (p. 103) that aim “to position ethics as the performance of things, subjects, texts and words” (p. 106). They propose to include “anyone at all” (p. 104). What do they do? For whom are these scores actually written?
“Who and what are you excluding?” (p. 111) is certainly proposed throughout Voegelin’s book, and I certainly experienced its echoes in the scores offered in this essays. However, if one dedicates a chapter on ethics to offering an invitation to take part in a performative engagement with Actions that are ostensibly dependent on physical listening and the reading of complex academic English out loud without specifically acknowledging that only a tiny percentage of the worlds’ human population can actually easily perform this, is the “inclusion of anyone at all” (p. 104) accurately contextualized or realizable from the vantagepoint of anyone can participate? Or does the sounding of the text become the silence or complete disinterest of the uncomprehending reader?
While sound art installations and events might be infused with the most open and noble ideas of inclusion, the physical reality of the event often tells a strikingly different story.
Is it enough to think the right thoughts?
Extend the correct proposition?
Additionally, this essay and the seventh – “Reading fragments of listening” – really forced me to ponder the emergence of ableism within phenomenological explorations. If one writes, quoting Adriana Cavarero (2005: 169), that thought
is an embodied action, ‘whose seat is in the corporal organs that extend from the area of the breast to the mouth.’ It is the expulsion of audible air formed into words. It is invisible and centrifugal, presenting as the movement from the lungs into speech and ultimately to the listener’s ear. In this scenario, speech does not simply convey thought but produces it. Thought is therefore performative and sonic. It is produced in the expulsion of sound as air and generates what it is contingently. (p. 196)
If one writes this, then what is communicated to those (of us) who use the visible gestures of sign language to express themselves or who never hear the sound of language? If their thought is not sonic, then where does it exist in this writing?
Perhaps all writers approaching the sonic would do well to spend time engaging with sound from the perspective of those (of us) who experience it outside of the ear plus auditory centers of the brain connection. Sound artist Christine Sun Kim – whose work intersected with that of Voegelin’s in the exhibition and publication Sounds Like Her (2019) – says in relation to the political possibility of sound: “Being Deaf [has] always been a political thing. I don't know if it will ever stop being political” (Martirosyan 2020). Finally – regarding the glorious treachery of language – let’s be aware of how we use the words “deaf” and “mute,” often metaphorically, within musico-philosophical writings.
/reflections on ethics and sensorial essentialism/
How do we write ethically from the standpoint of a certain sensory capability or mode without falling into an certain sensorial essentialism that ends up excluding those for whom that sense does not actually physically function?
While “hearing” and “sound” may be considered as metaphors for ways of doing and being in this world, are we not in danger of the most extreme form of exclusion by insisting that this one sense forms the basis for an ethical being in the world by people who have never experienced cochlear hearing or listening?
Pauline Oliveros asked us in person and many times later, in my thoughts: “What are you excluding from your listening?” The Deep Listening Institute has inquired into modes of collaboration with the profoundly deaf and hard of hearing as well as those who have (extreme) functional motor limitations.
Cannot text scores be written to be equally performable by the profoundly deaf? I have certainly tried.
“Hearing subjectivities: Bodies, forms and formlessness” [Essay 5]
Voegelin un- or rethinks representation with Hito Steyerl’s “A Thing Like You and Me” (2012), which proposes that identification with an image actually be redirected toward the image as thing (like a JPEG file) rather than being continually directed toward image as representation. She suggests that this kind of identification would then become participation. This then leads toward the idea of a trans-subjectivity via an indexical position: “This indexical position is formless, fluid and ephemeral and answers not a visual grid but the invisible and intersubjective practice of listening and making noise” (p. 122).
Trans-subjectivity is an acceptance of the other as part of the self to reach what Étienne Balibar terms an ‘internal multiplicity’, ‘without which no self could exist’” (p. 122). The possibility “to proffer ourselves not through the channels of identity, prepresentation and actuality, but from the possibility of being everything with everything else” arises within the audiovisual work of Evan Ifekoya and a trans-technological vocal performance of Pamela Z and via the theoretical voices of Saul Kripke and Hélène Cixous.
This leads towards the, for me, most interesting concept in this book in terms of creating sound art: the avatar-I. Through the words and art of Ifekoya, Voegelin thinks through the sonic mirror that is being offered and the critical agency of the avatar-I. While the normative identity receives its authority through its pervasiveness, transparent because society is saturated with it, the “sonic mirror of Ifekoya’s voice by contrast is the articulation of absence, where the lack of a pronoun” signifies a “void in language and in our imagination to account for a transitory subjectivity and its possible reality” (p. 131). This mirror-voice invites self-reflection, breaking the gaze and allowing for an intersubjectivity.
There follows a weaving of Pamela Z’s Breathing (2014, solo version) and Rebecca Horn’s Einhorn (Unicorn, 1970-1972), producing “a political possibility of desire that uncurbs politics” (p. 137). The trans-technological subject unthinks and unperforms ultrasubjective and ultraobjective violence by transforming itself into fabled beasts, the poetry of ephemeral breath and the fluidity of a dancing body,” generating itself “inexhaustibly as a complex entirety” (p. 143).
Voegelin offers the work of these artists as refusing “the acceleration into the taxonomy of a lexical digitalization with its purposeful algorithms” and “resisting not only the representational reduction of the image, but also its material’s reduction into data. [...] Thus they unperform a Kantian consciousness on which the universal measure of reality relies” (p. 142).
/reflections on representation/
How does unthinking representation happen?
Look around you with your ears.
Speakwrite to me the things you hear with your eyes.
What remains outside of your speakwriting?
What can you not express to me from the ground of the Kantian framework of a thoughtlanguage that exists before you speakwrite it?
Listen with the touch of the body of the object that tells you what it is and what to do as you grasp it or let it slip.
Smell the sound of your grandmother’s kitchen.
Did I first see myself in my mother’s face or hear myself in her voice?
“Sonic materialism: A philosophy of digging” [Essay 6]
This essay ends with the concept of digging, “Philosophy as digging on your hands and knees” (p. 173), and, for me, personally, this concluding section contains the most potential moving forward, leading toward all manner of ways of doing the thinking that has already been thought.
But before we arrive there, Voegelin listens to Meillassoux’s pre-human ancestrality “to guage what a sonic phenomenology might contribute to the understanding of the speculative materiality of the world” (p. 152) and, in that listening, affirms with Rosi Braidotti and Karen Barad that “the human too is matter” and advocates for “an embodied materialism that does not seek to simply disavow the body in favor of the calculation of the ancestral, but re-engages the body and mind’s own materiality in order to be with that of things, thought, unthought and unthinkable” (pp. 152-153).
Voegelin returns to Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak I (2005), developed in collaboration with cellist Charles Curtis, to further inquire into the post-philosophical and propose “philosophical questions on parity, materiality, agency and autonomy” to “address access and objectivity [that] give us some insights into whose unthought the absolutely real of the realist actually is” (p. 153). This is a score for “the body of the performer and the instrument, who search in the in-between of bow, space, flesh and audience the material reality and possibility of their relationship” (p. 154), “a choreography of unperforming as an affirmative reconstitution of musical possibility” (p. 171).
Finally, and there is so much more that can be discussed in this essay, she brings a number of matters to light in the move toward a feminine sonic materialism. Via a discussion of Christoph Cox’s 2011 essay on sonic materialism, she notes: “Dualism is not in the world but in theory and in philosophy” (p. 155). She addresses the way Ancestrality, Possibility Spaces, and Object-Oriented Ontologies (Meillassoux, Manuel DeLanda, and Graham Harman) hold “that to find what things/objects really are, we need to withdraw from them, and measure their interaction, free of human influence” (p. 159). They thus work to deconstruct “the power at the centre of an anthropocentric worldview,” but without either “critiquing its origin in a masculine visuality, its authority as a hyper-invisibility” or asking whose body and whose subjectivity needs to be withdrawn to attain this measured view” (p. 160). Offered as an alternative: “Irigaray, Barad and Braidotti are seeking caresses, entanglement, creativity and agency, to reach a non-hierarchical, non-dualistic world that accounts for the variability of the human and the non-human and that comes to breach the dualistic nature of knowledge by performing its differences” (p. 160). In other words, the precarious ones demand to enact their own intersubjectivity in a real way, with social and historical impact, before those who have already been speaking deconstruct their own artificial philosophical structures in a pseudo-liberating gesture.
/reflections on contingency/
“The book [The universe] is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.” (Galileo Galilei, Opere Il Saggiatore, 1623)
There is No Reason for this.
Numbers demand a referent in order to describe.
Three inches from here.
Two kilograms heavier.
One Planck length from now.
[Can the essence of a calculation exist outside of human language?
Outside of mathematical linguistics?
Would this not be direct access, again, to pure Being?]
No matter how many referents you add, can you eliminate the human?
With what can we replace ourselves as ultimate referent?
Does contingency then occupy the non-space of the referent?
I repeat, “The book [The universe] is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.”
I repeat, “There is No Reason for this.”
“Reading fragments of listening, hearing vertical lines of words” [Essay 7]
Following Marian Leatherby, 92-year-old narrator and protagonist of Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet (1974), one hears a chant “Belzi Ra Ha-Ha Hecate Come!” that presents the “radical reality of sound that breaches referential language and generates as ‘world-creating predicate’ the environment of its own truth” (p. 187). Listening into the depth of the text, the visual text, achieves its “sonic reality, which is an actual possibility of this world” (pp. 187-188). Voicing the phonographic field of the text aloud, one could “get to the sonorous of theory” (p. 192).
As a “sounding counterpart” to Leatherby’s hearing trumpet, Voegelin listens to the non-sense of the “shrieks and screaming, the expulsion of words and sounds that are equivalent rather than hierarchized” (p. 193) of Andrea Pensado’s performance with voice, live electronics and dummy at the Back Alley Theatre (2014). “[H]er devices sound not language but the larynx, the lungs and the breath,” to “counter-poeticize the horizontal drive of meaning and the semantic plane” (p. 194).
The point Voegelin seems to remain hovering around is that great potential lies in the proposition that we not allow text to remain visual – “limited and exclusive,” “boundaried by its own taxanomical [sic] norms” – but understand it as a phonographic field, so that “access to language’s impossibilities, its unthinkables, might become possible” (p. 200).
Following a return to the concept of verticality, the vertiginous, Voegelin listens to the long cables of Jana Winderen’s hydrophone cables. These cables enable an “impossible of vision from the depth of the sea,” (p. 203) through a 30-minute “composition of underwater recordings made of Zooplankton and Phytoplanktons” called The Wanderer (2015).
The microphone cables plot vertical lines for hearing the text of murmurs, blurbs, shrieks and hisses that do not mean as semantic signs and do not connect on the horizontal line of meaning, but provide the unspeakable complexity of their relationship in invisible slices stacked up under the surface of the sea. (p. 204)
The conclusion of this essay extends an invitation for each of us to chant vertiginous songs (together).
/reflections on escape/
How can we think at the back of language, through sound and sounding?
You read this text, but can you hear the sound of it?
Is it screaming, whispering, pleading, monotonous, a text-to-speech-engine?
The net has been thrown so wide.
The net has been thrown so wide.
Who frees who?
The one who has fought and resisted, been maimed and killed in the pursuit of freedom?
Or the one who declares “I no longer enslave you”?
What has been erased in my listening?
What void exists in my thinking?
Can I thinkspeak outside of Western Thought?
Could I listen better outside of Western Thought?
If I come to understand it as the voice of that which binds up the existence of my mindbeing towards erasure, how can I avoid the net without needing to reconstruct the net in its many forms?
Must I always engage?
Must I listen from within that which erases me?
The net is not us.
We are the net.
To conclude this foray into these rich and generative worlds of thought and practice: If you are curious about noise demonstrations, sound as a methodology of resistance, the people’s mic, sound as a tool for community-building, and so forth, Voegelin’s book will probably not reveal itself as a tool for you in the traditional activist sense. As is probably abundantly clear through the text above, this book is more about the pervasive yet subtle aspects of sound’s political possibilities: thinking through sound as an indivisible volume, as resisting the representational reduction of the image, resisting the dissective workings of data, providing access to language’s unthinkables, etc.
Whatever your customary approach, there remains infinite potential within the political possibilities of sound and the sonic possibilities of the political. Allez, allons essayer!
Cavarero, Adriana (2005). For More than One Voice, Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (trans. Paul A. Kottman). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Martirosyan, Lucy (2020). “Artist Christine Sun Kim on ‘deaf rage,’ the Super Bowl and the power of sound.” The World, Arts, Culture & Media, 13 February.
Voegelin, Salomé (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. London: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
Voegelin, Salomé (2014). Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. London: Bloomsbury Academic.