Immanence and Immersion: On the Acoustic Condition in Contemporary Art - Will Schrimshaw. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017
by Jordan Lacey
Schrimshaw’s aim, in this book, is to clarify and separate what he sees as a confusion and conflation of meaning of the “immanence” and “immersion” terms as applied by sound artists and sound study theorists. Immersion, according to Schrimshaw, has become an orthodoxy in sound art practices dominated by sonic immersivity. He argues that immersion contains the same flaws that Quentin Meillassoux recognizes in correlationism, the connection being that phenomenological theories of immersion limit knowledge of the world to immediate experience; similarly, correlationism argues that the world view of phenomenologists (amongst others) is akin to a circular feedback loop that is unable to recognize a “mind-independent reality” exterior to subjective experience.
Schrimshaw’s understanding of immanence builds on Deleuze’s plane of immanence. He describes this as a reality comprised of forces and intensities that exists beyond our senses. Schrimshaw argues that sensual experience cannot access the real of the immanent outside. Instead, we need the abstractions and modelling of science to bring awareness to the “imperceptibilities” of the real. In so doing, he is making an appeal to the arts, particularly sound art, to embrace the “scientific image” (see below) as the means for engaging with this immanence. He uses a number of artists to defend his position – including Rolf Julius, Stephen Vitiello, and Nina Canell – whose discussed works employ non-perceivable sound (such as infrasound), which is suggestive of acoustic forces and intensities that exceed immediate experience.
Schrimshaw builds his argument on Jonathon Sterne’s audiovisual litany. According to Schrimshaw, sound is erroneously considered (by some) to be superior to the visual, insofar as sound is immersive and affective, while the visual puts a distance between us and the world/objects. Schrimshaw suggests that what is criticized as the visual is in fact a criticism, even rejection, of reason. And this, he concludes, is why sound studies is in danger of rejecting representation and critical thought. To avoid this, Schrimshaw argues that sound practices should focus on “the scientific image” to properly present what he refers to as the “naturalistic real” within the context of immersive artworks. To explore this point, he presents the work of artist Ryoichi Kurokawa’s, unfold, that represents scientific (astrophysical) data in an immersive setting – both visually and acoustically. In this way, he claims, immanence is properly explored by artists who understand it as a “mind-independent reality outside of subjective experience” (p. 145-6).
Following is a brief summary of each chapter. There is much more to explore in the book, but these are what I identify to be Schrimshaw’s key points. In chapter 1, Decentralization, he mounts an argument for the development of an artistic orientation that lies outside of subjective interiority. In chapter 2, Infraesthetics, infrasonics is introduced to demonstrate the limits and boundaries of sound immersion practices. Inaudible sound – suggestive of sonic movement and displacement occurring beyond the senses – is presented as an exit from immersive aesthetics. Chapter 3, Writing out Sound, employs Derrida’s concept of the “trace” (a misappropriation of the term, Schrimshaw confesses) to recognize the “non-phenomenologizable, un-intuitive real,” where sound is always already “impressed upon a medium prior to audition” (p. 86). Chapter 4, Immersive Phenomenology, is a discussion of the ideas of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, both of whom, he says, argue for the primacy of the felt over the thought and are thereby limited by the logic of correlationism. Chapter 5, Sonic Materialism, challenges the ideas of Salomé Voegelin and Christoph Cox. Although, in approach, the former is phenomenological and the latter materialist, both are positioned as correlationists vis-a-vis world-views dependent on human-centered subjectivities. He uses this critique to begin building his materialist methodology, which depends on cognitive, conceptual, and representational resources. In chapter 6, The Scientific Image, he articulates a naturalistic realism that doesn’t discard representation and conceptualism (as do, he argues, Voegelin and Cox). To achieve this he employs Wilfred Sellar’s ideas of scientific naturalism, which present an evolutionary understanding of the world from the “personification of objects” towards the “manifest image” and, finally, the “scientific image” (p. 136-7). The latter is able to grasp imperceptible entities that exist outside of experience – rendering it akin to a mind-independent map of the world. This is central to his main argument that sound practices should be freed from the limitations of immersion by embracing the more naturalistic approach of the scientific image, which, he argues, provides new “aesthetic strategies” via its “abstraction, formalization and conceptualism” (p. 153). Chapter 7, Repurposing Conceptualism, is an argument for post-correlationism, which he describes as a scientific realism able to bind conceptual content to the real. The final chapter, Stratification of Immanence, argues for a concept of the real that remains irreducible to perception and affective experience. He finishes the book with what might be called his final argument: “[A] critical approach to the immersive identifies that the reality of experience is not an exhaustive experience of reality” (p. 193).
Despite the fascinating intellectual journey Schrimshaw takes us on, this final cumulative argument struck me as self-evident. Surely there are no phenomenologists so solipsistic that they would consider reality to be constituted exclusively of their immediate experiences. And, is phenomenology a rejection of reason and science, or is it a means to expand our access to the real beyond the particular means of analysis employed by the sciences? I wonder whether Schrimshaw – by being so critical, even dismissive, of sound-immersive practices – risks setting up a new litany by defining the scientific image as the answer to understanding the true meaning of immanence (or the real/nature) in opposition to the interior subjectivities of phenomenological practices. At any rate, the idea of the scientific image is questionable. This concept is built on early 20th-century philosophies that championed the scientific method as being the only real claim to truth, broadly grouped under the banner of logical empiricism – roughly understood as the rejection of metaphysics and a belief in scientific verification over personal experience. Philosophers of science such as Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, and Bruno Latour critique the scientific method as being all-too-human and not something mind-independent that is able to claim exclusive access to the truth. These latter-20th-century thinkers, I thought, had undone the axioms of logical empiricism. My main concern with the book’s championing of the scientific image – with its roots in logical empiricism – is its unintended imperialism (in the Deleuzian sense of the royal sciences) in that it necessitates the refutation of all thought systems not governed by scientific investigation and thus unavoidably dismisses indigenous knowledges, alongside mystical or non-rational means of apprehending the real, that might be worthy of investigation (by artists or otherwise). To evoke just one maverick example: Timothy Leary also wrote about the limitations of the senses in The Politics of Ecstasy. He argued that the hallucinogenic experience was able to break through the bounding conditions of the five senses and provide access to a real that typically exceeds our sensual apprehensions. Is this not also a legitimate way to engage with a realism that exceeds subjective experience? The point being that surely it is not only the abstractions of scientism that give us access to a real that exists outside of human perception.
Finally, it would have been helpful to hear how Schrimshaw’s own sound art practice has influenced his elaborate, at times intricate, thought processes. Instead, in the Preface, Schrimshaw makes the point that he will not use his own work, despite the ideas he presents being rooted in his own experiences as an artist. In my view this is a shame, as some kind of link to his own experience would have gone a long way in helping me understand why he is so adamant that scientism, and not experience (if indeed the two are different), is what is necessary to improving the efficacy of the sonic arts (as Schrimshaw puts it). I am left wondering how his own practice lead him to this rather startling position. Lest this all sound too critical, I would like to point out that Schrimshaw has written a very insightful and well-crafted book. Although I am very much involved in the field of thought and practice that Schrimshaw criticizes, I do appreciate how much his book has pushed me to think more carefully about my own work and ideas. I would encourage any philosophically-inclined practitioner (as Schrimshaw puts it) to dive in.