The Sonic Persona: An Anthropology of Sound - Holger Schulze. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018

by Vincent Meelberg

Some books just annoy the hell out of me. Books may simply be written badly, or discuss issues in a way that is entirely unproductive. Books may also state falsehoods, misunderstand theories, or deal with issues that are not worth dealing with. All in my opinion, of course. What is annoying or unproductive to me, might be highly interesting to another reader.

The Sonic Persona: An Anthropology of Sound, written by Holger Schulze, also annoyed the hell out of me, but in a different way. Not because it is badly written, or because it contains unproductive discussions. On the contrary, the book is annoying exactly because it is well-written and discusses important issues in a manner that is thoroughly thought-provoking. It might perhaps even be too well-written. Schulze has a very personal literary style, which makes for an interesting read, but does not always result in the clearest articulation of the arguments the author intends to share. Yet, at the same time the way he uses language perfectly illustrates the point he wants to make in this book: sonic thinking always exceeds language. Pretty annoying for someone who has built his career on writing articles and books on music and sound, although I cannot but agree with Schulze here.

The book revolves around three main arguments, which he develops by incoporating theories by thinkers such as Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean-Louis Baudry, Michel Serres, and Kodwo Eshun. Firstly, listening is a material, a physical, and a bodily activity, one that is situated and performative. As a result, sonic thinking always is a form of corporeal thinking, one that is anti-structuralist, anti-idealist, anti-essentialist and anti-hermeneutical. As Schulze writes: “A sensory a priori guides and informs this thoroughly anti-structuralist, this anti-idealist and anti-essentialist, anti-hermeneutical approach to sound: an approach that serves as a guide for the non-anthropocentric and materialist anthropology of sound presented in this book” (79). This is the second main argument in the book. Schulze calls this materialist anthropological approach a form of thick listening: “[A] form of listening immersed in the substance and the historical as well as sensational, fictional, and obsessive layers coating and entwining any sonic experience. Sensory critique in action” (156). This sensory critique does not imply a distancing of reflection, but instead necessitates an intimate, physical engagement. 

The third and final main point that Schulze makes in this book is that sonic critique is always political in nature, especially in today’s culture, where much listening is done through technology. This technology is never neutral, but transforms the nature of sound and listening. Sound technology is what Schulze calls a poem of processing (92), a translation of sound instead of a transparant means of sonic transmission. That is why the analysis of musical performance, for instance, should always include a focus on the technology that is used in that perfomance. The material and technological sides of performance are never accidental, but fundamental to performance, both in the way it is created and how it is perceived by an audience. Moreover, through technology the micro-decisions one makes at at daily basis can be manipulated, “[…] by way of sensory preferences and routines, by way of inclinations and aversions that you and I might tend to follow” (163). It is this kind of manipulation that Schulze calls nanopolitics. Schulze relates nanopolitics to Mario Perniola’s concept of sensology, which is a “[…] globalised, capitalised, mediatized, and heavily networked form of governing” (169–170). By engaging with and resisting to the hegemonic sensologies at play in a culture, and by explicating the nanopolitics in these sensologies, sensory critique can function as a form of political critique.

The book consists of three parts: Part One is called “The materialisation of sound: A research history” and discusses the ways in which sound is researched and conceptualised in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century by thinkers such as Hermann von Helmholtz, Harvey Fletcher, and Jonathan Sterne. It is in this part that the first main argument is developed, but the relation between sound and technology is also addressed here. In Part Two, “The sonic persona: An anthropology of sound,” Schulze explains his materialist anthropological approach to sound. In this part he also introduces his concept of sonic persona, a persona that is “[…] shaped and constituted by the sonically perceptive, performatively generated traces, the sonic traces, that any vibrating entity leaves in a specific culture and historical era as well as in a situated sonic environment” (123). A sonic persona is a so-called alien who is “[…] trained in more specific and refined ways to thoroughly approach its or her or his environment by means of a hearing perspective” (124). It is this persona, in particular, that is able to perform acts of thick listening. Such acts lead to personal sonic narrations that are by nature erratical, but at the same time these narrations put their “[…] primary emphasis on tiny fractions of an idiosyncratic listening or sensory experience” (126). Instead of an epistemology based on objectivity and generalisation, the listening acts performed by a sonic persona lead to an epistemology of richness, an enquiry into sound based on a situated empiricism and sensualism, not unlike the radical empiricist approach developed by William James and Alfred North Whitehead. 

In Part Three, “The precision of sensibility: A political critique,” finally, Schulze explains, by incorporating the concepts of sensology and nanopolitics, how this approach can lead to a political critique. This critique turns a sonic persona into what Schulze calls a persona resista: “A practice of personal resistance [against hegemonic auditory dispositives] generates the persona resista. A persona that is not polished and fixed in its self-presentation. A persona that is responsive and sensible to requests and activities, to doubts and ambiguities, to moments and reflections” (208). The articulation of individual sensibilities and idiosyncrasies is a form of resistance against institutionalised and static hegemonic practices.

Surprisingly (to me), Schulze calls his approach anthropological, whereas to me it resembles an auto-ethnographical approach, as it explicitly begins and ends with the researcher’s own personal sensual experiences. Schulze’s approach is about personal narratives concerning individual, intimate sensual experiences and the critical potentiality of these narratives. The subtitle of the book, “An anthropology of sound,” to me thus does not quite adequately capture what the book is about. This phrase suggests an othering of sound, sound as something “out there.” This, however, is not what the book tries to argue, at least not in my understanding of it. A better subtitle would perhaps be something like “An auto-ethnography of sonic experience.”

This is not why the book annoyed the hell out of me, though. Apart from the fact that I wished that I had written a book like this (which is mildly annoying in itself), it was annoying because it opens up so many new ways of dealing with sound and sensory experience, that I regularly almost yelled at the pages: “Yes! Tell me more! Show me more elaborate examples of these approaches! Don’t stop here! Why do you stop here and start discussing something else? I want to know more about what you have just asserted!” I guess it is the richness of the book, combined with its relative brevity (it is 255 pages long, including references and index), that was the main cause of my annoyance. I wanted to read more elaborate sensory critiques, more examples of how this approach could lead to productive sonic interpretations. In short, I was left with an urge to know more, but also with a motivation to perform such critiques myself. And Schulze’s book gives me plenty of tools to do this. So, yeah, the book annoyed the hell out of me because it makes me want to do sonic anthropology myself, even though I have enough other things to do. It elicits a desire that is not met by the book itself, but requires acts of thick listening and sonic resistance from the part of the reader.