Sonic Fiction - Holger Schulze. New York: Bloomsbury 2020


by Vincent Meelberg


One of the many challenges of sonic studies is how to articulate knowledge concerning sound. The traditional way of conveying sonic knowledge within academia is to resort to (written) language, but it is often very difficult to capture this kind of knowledge in words alone. Holger Schulze has embarked on a continuing quest to find manners to write sound that is able to adequately capture sonic knowledge, and in his latest book he explores the possibilities sonic fiction offers to accomplish this.


Sonic fiction is a term that was originally coined by Kodwo Eshun - who I first encountered in this 1998 documentary on electronic music - as a “[…] new heuristic on the go, by means of heuristically proceedings through a large number of sounds and performers, of sonic experiences, imaginations and fictions that he writes about” (4). Schulze asserts that sonic fiction  “[…] does not write a theory about sound or on sound, but through sound. Sonic fiction represents a sort of sonology” (151). As a result, sonic fiction consists “[…] not just of one written account of sonic experiences and imaginations alone. Any small note, any aphorism or fragment of sound can qualify as sonic fiction” (1). Sonic fiction thus exceeds written language; any act that is related to sound can be sonic fiction. Or, as Schulze puts it: “Sonic fiction is everywhere. Where one can find sounds one will also detect bits of fiction.” (1) Sound and fiction thus seem to be inextricably related, although Schulze nowhere explicitly explains or defines what he understands by fiction. 


Schulze explains that sonic fiction is related to fiction in at least two ways. It is related to fiction in the sense that it focuses on the “[…] unfolding [of] those fictions inherent in cultural artefacts, musical productions and sonic performances” (6). At the same time, sonic fiction is a form of fiction itself because it relies on the imagination of those who write sonic fiction. It “[…] leads its protagonists, writers and inventors to an imaginative thinking as a method to confer sonic experiences by means of a poetic or narrative immersion with more erratic, surprising and unconventional forms of performativity” (41).  This kind of writing is a radical departure from conventional academic writing, Schulze asserts, as it sometimes “[…] favours erratic articulations of need and desire over the orderly disposition of reasoning efforts” (41). As a result, sonic fiction needs to be read and evaluated differently from conventional academic text. Readers should appreciate and accept “[…] an author taking control of the reader’s imagination. The reading situation in itself is a completely different one” (84). Moreover, sonic fictions “[…] provide an infusion for activism either by facilitating and accelerating it or by substantiating and mutating it by its prolific forms of critique. Sonic fictions are heuristic fictions in this sense. They alter reality” (143).  Sonic fictions are performative; they do something in the real world.


Schulze emphasises the difference between conventional academic writing and sonic fiction even more by calling the former white science and the latter black aurality, and in doing so also politicises this difference. For Schulze, sonic fiction is a black cultural concept “[…] with an intrinsically hybrid, politicised and revolutionary agency in an environment of still largely white endeavours in sound research” (4). Because of its alienating character, Schulze believes, sonic fiction is an epistemological force, “[…] a force towards social change and progress” (63), emphasising the political and even ethical aspect of sonic fiction.


According to Schulze this epistemological force hinges on two concepts inherent to sonic fiction: sonic thinking and mythscience. Sonic thinking, Schulze explains, is a “thinking with your ears” (an expression he borrows from Sam Auinger and Bruce Odland), a “thinking with and by means of sound” (pace Bernd Herzogenrath). As a result, Schulze asserts, sonic thinking always starts with sonic experience. It is a form of what Schulze calls non-musicology that emerges from sound practices and sonic artefacts. Sonic thinking in this sense is a “non-discipline” based in sonic practices and should not open up “[…] a new and superior (and often detached, patronising and condescending) discourse outside this field of practice” (133). For Schulze, sonic thinking is “[…] the critical and prolific method of sonic fiction to analyse, to scrutinise and to understand the sonic. This new understanding then affects and triggers directly the new sonic epistemologies” (147-148). Schulze thus again highlights the performative nature of sonic fiction and sonic thinking.


In his discussion of sonic thinking Schulze also refers Michel Serres’s ideas regarding sensory perception. Schulze stresses that sensory knowledge is an intricate part of sonic thinking. Sonic thinking is a form of sensory epistemology, one that “[…] transcends the existing and legitimate institutional and historical framework of academia; a framework that is still focusing its operational modes on sign operations, on definitions of terms, on decision trees and on propositional sentences” (97). Here, Schulze’s critique of what he calls white science is also clear.


Schulze points out that mythscience is constituent of sonic thinking. Mythscience is “[...] a new and apparently mythologically structured or grounded kind of scientific knowledge” (19), and is responsible for sonic research to be expanded into “[…] imagination, into idiosyncratic sensibilities, and into predictive approaches” (25), and thus departs from what is conventionally considered as sound academic research (pun intended).


One of the reasons why sonic fiction, as a form of mythscience, departs from conventional academic research is because it is what Eshun calls mixillogic. Mixillogic, Schulze explains, “[…] applies steps in thinking that would not be regarded adequate in scholarly logic following either antique syllogism or contemporary rhetorics” (21). Moreover, they “[…] constitute a body of knowledge that protrudes into a mixture of manifold, strangely formed and surprisingly combined practices” (28). Mythscience thus can be regarded as the practice of combining elements in unexpected and novel ways.


The material, tangible result of this mixillogical practice Schulze calls, following Eshun, a mutantexture. Generating such mutantextures is the most important goal when engaging in mixillogics, Schulze insists. By extension, the generation of mutantextures is also the main aim of sonic fiction.


Finally, by combining the above concepts and incorporating some that he also discusses in his book but I left unmentioned in this review, Schulze concludes that sonic fiction is “[…] a generative and mixillogic, a syrrhetic and generic, a mythscientific, nontological and decolontological, a muntantextural, implecturial and multiphestomological endeavour - propelling its readers, writers and thinkers, its sensors towards an acid communism and ultra black resistance of NON” (142). This definition of sonic fiction is typical of Schulze’s writing style. He introduces a lot of neologisms, some of which are perhaps less useful, such as his consistent use of the term “humanoid alien” whenever Schulze refers to human subjects. Others, for instance those borrowed from Eshun, do have theoretical and analytical potential. That does not take away the fact, however, that his text is a bit opaque at times. At the same time, this opaqueness may be consistent with the philosophy behind sonic fiction: turning away from logic and syllogisms and stimulating imagination instead.


Just as in his book The Sonic Persona: An Anthropology of Sound, published in 2018 and of which I wrote a review as well, Schulze does not offer straightforward recipes of how to do sonic fiction. This perhaps would undermine the very character of this activity, which is predicated on excess, non-conformity and a rejection of formulaic expression. But here, too, I would have preferred to read some concrete examples of sonic fiction (although Schulze’s book as a whole may count as a piece of sonic fiction in itself) in order to see what sonic fiction might bring to sound studies. Nevertheless, the book did convince me that our field, and actually any scholarly or scientific field in fact, could benefit from a healthy dose of sonic fiction.