Sonic Affordances of Space


Coined by James J. Gibson – within the field of ecological perception in the 1970s[2] – the term affordance questions the visual interaction between an agent (animal or human) and its environment. Gibson states that affordances are determined by both the physical characteristics of an object and by the sensory, motor, and mental capacities of an individual (Gibson 2014). The term affordance comes from the verb "to afford" that designates “the quality or property of an object that defines its possible uses or makes clear how it can or should be used” (Merriam-Webster). In other words, it delineates the physical characteristic of the object and its ability to promote usage.


From this perspective, space ambiance plays a major role in determining the affordances of a place as inseparable from the sensory background of an environment, le fond sensible (Thibaud 2012). According to Jean-Paul Thibaud, ambiance exists in the way in which the sensory space appears to users and how it gives rise to potential actions. It is as much a reality of the environment as a reality of behavior. If Gibson is primarily dealing with visual perception, in this article, I will put audible perception at the center of our engagement with the affordance theory. Thus, I join other researchers who are reconsidering the sound dimension as either a “resource” (Thibaud 2012: 15) or a “solution” (Pecqueux 2012: 215) in order to decode the articulation between perception and action: how does sound generate and reshape actions? How does it (re)define spaces, create (sub-)territories or mark space-time boundaries?


In “Vers une praxéologie du monde sonore,” Thibaud emphasizes the role of sounds as an essential support for action and a fundamental operator of social practices. Considered most often as an epiphenomenon or a secondary consequence of social activity, Thibaud sketches a praxeological approach toward sound in which he associates everyday sounds with ordinary practices. He introduces the affordances of the sonic environment as a tool that helps in "differentiating and characterizing different sound contexts according to the types of action they make possible" (Thibaud 2012: 15, translated by the author).


Anthony Pecqueux clarifies that affordances cannot be reduced to the visual aspect; they are, rather, a set of dynamic phenomena that constantly influence people's perception and behavior. "The sound appears there [...] as a clutch to intersensorial situations linked to multiple events occurring in the environment" (Pecqueux 2012: 215, translated by the author). This is why he calls for the "affordances of events" in which he underlines the dynamic nature of the perception related to the body in motion and the perpetual interaction between the sensory environment and the agent who constantly reshapes it. Pecqueux refers to the siren as an audible sign reshaping the user’s action: "The sound of the siren works exactly like the affordances in Gibson's sense: not only does it contain information (coming from the surrounding events) but it also promotes actions (stepping sideways or avoiding a priority lane in order to allow an emergency vehicle to pass) (Pecqueux 2012: 222, translated by the author). In addition, Pecqueux insists on the fact that the focus on the sonic dimension is not an attempt to isolate sounds from other sensory modalities. Rather, it means that sound constitutes a primary element in the act of perceiving the environment. It is from this perspective that I aim to understand the sonic affordances of the Blue Source. More precisely, I seek to understand the impact of making water audible – while rethinking the relationship between man and water – in affording certain social practices around the spring.