Diverse Positions, Shared Ethics: A Review of Soundwalking: Through Time, Space, and Technologies - Jacek Smolicki (ed.). Abingdon: Routledge (The Focal Press), 2023
by Paulo Dantas
Encounters with “the Outside World”
The first chapter of Jacek Smolicki’s edited volume, Soundwalking: Through Time, Space, and Technologies, Usue Ruiz Arana’s “Soundwalking in the Phonocene: Walking, Listening, Wilding,” begins with a brief retelling of the rather unsettling story of Australian philosopher and ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s survival of a crocodile attack in the wetlands of Kakadu National Park. Reflecting on this episode in “Human Vulnerability and Being Prey,” Plumwood reveals that, after her struggle to survive, a sense of gratitude actually remained for “the gift of that searing flash of near-death knowledge, the glimpse ‘from the outside’ of that unimaginably alien world from which the self as the centring observer is absent” (Plumwood 1995, p. 32). Plumwood acknowledged the sense of vulnerability resulting from this episode as “necessary to realize how misguided we are to view ourselves as masters of a tamed and malleable nature” (Plumwood, in Arana, p. 18).
In the opening lines of the eleventh and last essay of this edited volume, Jacek Smolicki’s “Composing, Recomposing, and Decomposing with Soundscapes” echoes Plumwood’s account, albeit in less unsettling tones. During a visit to an intertidal zone located in Stanley Park in Vancouver, Smolicki slipped while walking on muddy rocks, an accident with consequences that extended further than the resultant physical injuries. Upon being instantaneously cut off from the surrounding environment he thought he was almost perfectly in tune with, Smolicki realized how the walking and listening practices that he had been committed to for many years – “as an artist, researcher, and a human being – are so often about grounding one's senses, establishing a form of belonging to the surrounding environment without necessarily questioning one's eligibility to be there” (Smolicki, p. 181).
Soundwalking as a Method?
The newly acquired sense of vulnerability and the consequent realization of one’s self-decentering reported in Smolicki’s and Arana’s texts – the closing and opening chapters, respectively, of Soundwalking – function as eloquent means to introduce and reinforce what I consider to be important themes driving the entire publication. These themes are succinctly presented in the two questions Smolicki poses in his introductory chapter: “Can soundwalking, a seemingly trivial combination of walking and listening, be approached as a spatio-temporal condition for reconfiguring how we sense and act in the world today? Can attentive walking and listening unite into a technique for disrupting the familiar and familiarizing with the unknown, strange, uncanny, even inconvenient and monstrous?” (Smolicki, p. 2).
Throughout this review, I will explore the impact of Smolicki’s questions through some of the texts contained in this book, with the support of a handful of its important references – mainly Dylan Robinson (2020), Val Plumwood (1995) and Sara Ahmed (2006). Before proceeding, I need to take a closer look at the aforementioned questions in order to establish my orientation marks, the themes that will loosely anchor this review. First, I am interested in understanding how soundwalking can be deployed as a technique or a condition “for disrupting the familiar.” That initial investigation will then allow me to consider the aims towards which this technique could be deployed, i.e., “familiarizing with the unknown” and “reconfiguring how we sense and act in the world today.” If the hypothesis implied in Smolicki’s questions holds, namely, if soundwalking can, in fact, be considered as a method to help us actualize the recurring metaphor of listening as an “openness to the exterior world to take input and be disturbed” (Droumeva, p. 80), and if said disturbances can indeed reconfigure how we sense and act in the world, then soundwalking might be considered a tool in service of a wider ethical program, one that facilitates a better attunement “to the particular filters of race, class, gender, and ability that actively select and frame the moment of contact between the listening body and the listened-to sound” and a “listening otherwise” (Robinson, p. 11) oriented towards social and environmental justice.
“Listening” While “Walking”
In comparison to the life-changing potential of such an extreme moment as Plumwood's near-death experience, what could soundwalking offer in terms of stimuli for disrupting the familiar? Focusing on listening as a starting point seems to be a good way to proceed, for this is one of those activities often conferred a special status, the status of a general metaphor for an “openness to the exterior world” (Droumeva, p. 80). For example, according to Salomé Voegelin, through listening, “we can reach a different sense, one that is plural and includes what we did not expect to know” (Voegelin, in Droumeva, p. 79). It can be implied that such plurality arises through the very act of listening, with the activity itself implying “a preparedness to meet the unpredictable and unplanned, to welcome the unwelcome” (Westerkamp, in Shaw, p. 118).
Even though I understand listening as an alternative path amidst a visually overcharged contemporaneity, I tend to agree with those who believe one needs to establish conditions to reach such a different sense. That is one of the roles frequently assigned to technologically-mediated listening: technology creates the conditions for the unpredictable and unplanned to be met by one's listening and facilitates “opportunities to allow the outside in” (Shaw, p. 118). As many field recordists would attest, Louis Chude-Sokei asserts that one of the first lessons learned at the outset of one’s field recording activities is that “most listening is silencing, a filtering out of information unconducive to our preferred or expected auditory foci” (Chude-Sokei, p. 39).
This brings me back to the other activity that, combined with listening, constitutes soundwalking. Throughout the book, “walking” never seems to be “only walking”; rather, it conveys a sort of gateway to the outside world. As such, it could be considered an important technique to put one’s listening in place, making it susceptible to encounters with “what we did not expect to know” (Voegelin, in Droumeva, p. 79). It is maybe in this sense that Milena Droumeva considers presence, and not listening, as soundwalking’s most valuable gift (Droumeva, p. 81). When present, when attentively listening and walking, when exposed to that which “we do not, or at times refuse to, hear” (Chude-Sokei, p. 40), one may feel the pull and push of difference. In other words, because listening while walking allows a more direct experience of sounds one is usually isolated from (Messina, p. 136), there exists a potentially pedagogical operation when both activities are combined. Walking becomes a condition for listening to become haunted, for welcoming the unwelcome. But most crucially, once “firmly and materially located in place” (Droumeva, p. 81), one has a chance of becoming aware that what is felt as unwelcome might actually be due to one’s own perspective in relation to everything else.
Engaging with Listening Positionalities
Probably already clear at this point is Smolicki's assertion that “no soundwalk is innocent” (Smolicki, p. 7). “Every act of walking and listening,” he suggests, echoing Sara Ahmed, “no matter how open and inclusive, technologically complex or reduced, collective or individual, spontaneous or planned, is always to some extent oriented and, in turn, orienting” (Smolicki, p. 7). Throughout Soundwalking, becoming aware of sounds one is usually inattentive to is considered as a possible trigger for a more impactful process: the charting of a double orientation of soundwalking, simultaneously pointing “outwards into the environment and inwards to recognize one’s positionality” (Smolicki, p. 7).
The practice of soundwalking does not usually place us in the middle of such extreme and life-changing moments as the one Plumwood survived. Nor should it, necessarily: by means of her story, Plumwood has no intention of suggesting a reintroduction of “the experience of being prey” in our lives. Rather, Plumwood asserts the importance of being aware of the “dimension of experience that we lost” (Plumwood 1995, p. 34), that of having a “glimpse ‘from the outside’ of that unimaginably alien world from which the self as centring observer is absent” (Plumwood 1995, p. 32, emphasis added). In this sense, the combination of listening and walking – albeit much safer – may offer the opportunity to reach an understanding similar to the one shared by Plumwood.
But just as no soundwalk is innocent, no one is completely secure when soundwalking: the authors contributing to this book seem to agree that the activity should not be considered as offering a distant vista to the outside world but as indicating an opening into it, with profound consequences for its practitioners. As such, soundwalking could lead to the realization of a “lack of fit” between a subject-centered framework and an outside version of the world (Plumwood 1995, p. 30). The replacement of subject-centrism with “position” – a word that “implies location vis-à-vis other locations and incorporates a sense of perspective on other places” (Smith and Katz, in Ahmed 2006, p. 12) – seems to be the decisive move being made here: facing unknowns could help one become aware of one’s own “normative listening habits and abilities,” the totality of which Dylan Robinson calls “listening positionality” (Robinson, p. 10). And by critically engaging with our listening positionalities, we have the opportunity to enhance our sensitivity to the specific filters of race, class, gender, and the ability that actively shape and define the moment of contact between the listening body and the listened-to sound.
Haunting: Diverse Positions, Shared Ethics
“While it has more commonly served apolitical purposes and been concerned with the immediate, aesthetic dimensions of traversed environments, I believe soundwalking could be one iteration of what Dylan Robinson describes as a ‘decolonial practice of critical listening positionality’ which actively seeks out (or allows itself) to become haunted” (Messina, p. 135).
By fostering a collective and plural engagement with the activity of soundwalking in dialogue with Robinson’s double-layered question of “how – or the extent to which – we might orchestrate [...] stratified positional listening toward intersectional antiracist, decolonial, queer, and feminist listening practices” (Robinson, p. 60), Soundwalkingunveils a potential ethical dimension of soundwalking, one that seeks to inaugurate “a radical listening accepting ambiguity and singularity, the agency of the unheard and the imperceptible, the displacement of the I and of the paradigms through which we know the world. A listening looking for commons rather than differences” (Biserna, p. 57). Each of the texts brought together in this book approaches this shared ethical intention via a specific path, one that aligns with – and is informed by – the artistic research practices of the various authors. To give but a few examples: Amanda Gutiérrez’ “Aural Border Thinking as a Decolonial Soundwalking Methodology” offers one of the most direct answers to Robinson’s call to a critical engagement with one’s own listening positionality, through embracing such critical commitment as a methodology in soundwalking practices. This methodology requires enacting walks in groups and employing collective listening and storytelling as a way to dissect “our different positionalities through self-reflexivity” and aims at highlighting “an environment’s political and social dimension by enacting situated listening in space to define aural relations with the self” (Gutiérrez, p. 96). For Usue Ruiz Arana, soundwalking is a tool for raising awareness of dimensions of collectivity with the non-human, facilitating the “realization that we are implicated in inter-subjective relations with many others'' and “the recognition of kinship and difference embedded in those entanglements,” resulting in “our own wilding as an integral part of [an] environment” (Arana, p. 30).
In its gathering of diverse authors around the possibility of deploying soundwalking as an instrument toward a shared ethical intention, the book becomes something more than a collection of haunting stories: it converts into a haunting device, setting an example of how to engage in the task of orchestrating diversity toward a common desire for social and environmental justice, toward “distinct notions of the future” (Chude-Sokei, p. 41).
Coda: To What Extent?
I tend to agree with Paola Cossermelli Messina's assertion that “[i]t would be a stretch and falsity to propose that soundwalking as a method can alone be a tool to ‘even the playing field’” (Messina, p. 136). In this respect, Smolicki presents a compelling argument on why to continue soundwalking, with which I will suspend this discussion, for now.
I keep asking myself about my right to navigate through and work within places my projects are concerned with. To what extent am I invited and allowed to soundwalk through them? And yet, I still do it. What these diverse engagements with places taught me is that the reconfiguration of one’s orientation is always partial. Some habits and attitudes that one brings along are always, to some extent, inevitably conserved. Nevertheless, as opposed to shielding oneself from those moments of troubling realizations, irreconcilable tensions, and dilemmas, or completely withdrawing from the field, I believe that one can approach them as productive points of departure. One can recognize them as specific (perhaps only) gateways, tight and uncomfortable, and yet helpful in facilitating initial steps into the environment one intends to enter and genuinely work with. (Smolicki, p. 194)
Ahmed, Sara 92006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.
Plumwood, Val (1995). “Human Vulnerability and the Experience of Being Prey.” Quadrant 39/3: 29-34.
Robinson, Dylan (2020). Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.