Engaging with Everyday Sounds - Marcel Cobussen. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2022


By Jean-Paul Thibaud


“To listen is to travel” (p. 94).


Following numerous books published in his own name or co-edited with others, this latest book by Marcel Cobussen is entitled Engaging with Everyday Sounds. It opens an original perspective into the world of everyday sounds, based on a set of personal reflections, a series of audio recordings that punctuate the book, and a collection of photographs distributed throughout the document. The purpose is not to illustrate the subject with sounds or images but rather to implement a diffractive methodology as initiated by Karen Barad. This methodology aims at understanding the sound world from the inside, by playing with the resonances and the entanglements between these three domains. Everything happens as if words, sounds, and images were calling each other, answering each other, and soliciting each other, as if to hear or see a fragment of the everyday environment could be a resource to pay attention to the unnoticed of the ordinary and to open to the strange familiarity of the world.


Three journeys are proposed throughout the pages, which intermingle to weave a singular and stimulating listening of the world. The first journey is geographical, going from the domestic space to the urban space. To carry out the investigation, Cobussen reports his sound experience by leaving his home, in Rotterdam, and embarks on a journey to Hong Kong, Montoito, Ottawa, Beirut. This journey enables the listener to explore and to diversify various modes of familiarity and strangeness towards the situations encountered. The audio recordings, in particular, give voice to all sorts of practices, devices, places and ways of being-in-the-world with sound. This first journey is far from being anecdotal, since its purpose is to give place to the materiality of sound, "letting the sonic speak" in order to explore new ways of knowing. Thus, we are in search of "sonic ways of knowing." The argument is particularly demanding and stimulating since it is a question of affirming and implementing a true power of sound, a capacity to put to the test and respecify questions of a properly philosophical nature. "How can sound alter or inflect philosophy?" asks Cobussen (p. 24). Everything happens as if the audio postcards speak for themselves and have the power to destabilize the usual ways of thinking. Let us note that certain audio recordings are composed exclusively of the sounds of certain situations encountered in situ while others incorporate the words of Cobussen himself and lead us to integrate articulated speech. One might wonder if these are not two quite different options, when the aim is precisely to make sound speak. How might one listen to the sound fragments without any commentary? To what kind of attention do they lend themselves, and what about their cognitive, affective, performative power? In other words, what do we do with the unspoken of the sound universe?


It is precisely these questions that the second journey, rather methodological in nature, seems to answer. A whole set of proposals and comments are developed that explore devices for listening to the familiar and original regimes of attention to the ordinary. The aim is to manage to defamiliarize oneself from the supposedly too known, to emancipate oneself from the auditory routines, "to give a voice to the less ear-catching sounds of everyday life." The sonic postcards can lead a listener toward developing new modes of attention that destabilize the taking for granted of everyday life. This process operates throughout the whole work, stimulating the exercise of attention as it relates to the familiarity and strangeness of the world. How might one pay attention to what usually goes unnoticed while preserving the profound nature of the ordinary? This paradoxical question holds together a double contradictory movement: opening oneself to new regimes of attention while the ordinary proceeds fundamentally from the inattentive. Finally, is it not the topics of habit and habituation that are at stake here? But another thread also runs through the work, giving real scope and originality to the subject. How can we deconstruct an anthropocentric listening posture and develop a decentering of the human? Numerous pages are devoted to this question, which renew the terms of auditory experience and extensively displace the more traditional conceptions of auditory culture. The whole work encounters here the most actual developments of certain contemporary philosophies that wonder about the more-than-human, the non-representational, the becoming, and the speculative.


The reader/listener also embarks on a third journey that leads to the heart of a demanding and original philosophical thought. Last but not least, this journey leads progressively to a subtle theory of Sonic Materialism. Relying on a substantial philosophical erudition, as well as an in-depth knowledge of sonic studies (Cobussen is one of the co-founders and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Sonic Studies as well as the editor of several important handbooks dedicated to sound), Engaging with Everyday Sounds articulates philosophical thought and sound worlds in a new way. It is not a question here of developing a philosophy of sound but rather of thinking from sound, according to sound. Many arguments deployed here, plead for a sound-thought of emergence, process, relationality, becoming, movement, virtual, multiple. Perhaps, to these main notions, we could have also added life and affect? Although the pragmatist philosophies of the first hour – those of William James or John Dewey – are barely explicitly mobilized, they nevertheless evoke one of the central arguments here: to consider the sound world not for what it is but for what it can do. Cobussen’s Sonic Materialism turns out to be particularly relevant and operative in accounting for the political stakes of sound and when thinking with(in) the social, material, historical, ethical, and ecological dimensions of the everyday environment. Thus, one reads here a fundamental piece of work listening to the contemporary world in the making. A book which nourishes and contributes toward developing a new philosophy particularly relevant for the time to come. A sounding philosophy with which we can embark on a fascinating listening-traveling.