Object-disoriented Sound: Listening in the Post-digital Culture
Notes, musings, refractions
For some time I have been deeply concerned about the mindfulness of listening and the subjective ramification of auditory perception. The thoughts that envelop these concerns essentially stem out of the questions of perpetual mobility and nomadism perhaps symptomatic of the post-digital culture. A nomadic listener is affected by a fleeting sound appearing and diminishing in the way that triggers an amorphous stream of subjective contemplation and thoughts bordering on the immediate known-ness of the sonic phenomenon, but at once moving toward the realm of unknown.
What is the ‘unknown’ embedded in a sonic phenomenon? A specific sound creates a specific listening state for the listener, who instead of deciphering the objective meaning, location-specific identity and other spatial information, may take the phenomenon as a premise or entryway to a world hitherto unknown to him/her, however vaguely related to the imagined, remembered experience of various amorphous moods triggered by the temporality, if not the characteristic texture and tonality of the sound. Today’s wind may not sound like mere wind, and the lonely screeching of the windowpane may not sound like mere friction between glass and wood, but they may sound something more abstract in the sense that it is generating memories and imagination of other realities parallel to the immediacy of sonic event.
These sounds, as impermanent they appear to the ears of a wandering listener, may open hidden doors and obscure openings for further perceptual meanderings in the realm of contemplation and thoughts transcending beyond the epistemic knowledge-based identity that the sound would otherwise objectify. The epistemological illogic and ontological void created by such object-disoriented sonic explosion, which the ancient Indian philosophers would call as ‘sphōta’ (Barlingay, 2007), is the specific area of praxis in my current ‘post-digital’ research. In order to interpret the provocative term of ‘post-digital’ in my own understanding I would like to underscore the extensive and ever-growing nomadism of agents attuned to the psychogeographic evocation of physical locations and corporeal places. These wanderings substantially contribute to an emergent culture of primarily mobile and itinerant beings engaged in the liberated ebb and flow of events, phenomena and ephemera, which operate arguably beyond the digital essentialism. The essentialism in digital revolution, which was the predominant theme of the late 90’s and early part of this millennium, starts to dissolve into an ever-growing field of intangible data and immoderate information while Nicholas Negroponte aptly proclaims: “The digital revolution is over” (1998). And along the line comes a sense of saturation across the prevailing digital divide between already digital and rapidly digitized contents.
During this process, digital media was turning our world from a textual one to audiovisual one. In this rapidly emerging audiovisual environment, we found that different forms of older media, such as recorded sound and other sound contents, were constantly moving, being relocated, reinterpreted, and engaged in conflict with the globally dispersed digital media within an imminent convergent culture. These sound contents could be as varied as archival sound recordings, clips of music and songs, spoken words, environmental field recordings, and electro-acoustic samples. We could observe a certain movement of these sound contents from a localized state (creative/productive end) to a globalized state (consumptive end) and vice versa. For example, a piece of field recording was digitally mediated so as to be considered a work of sound art, or a ‘traditional’ song from one part of the world was transmitted via the internet to another part of the world as a ‘folk’ song. The question was whether a ‘fluid-local’ sound element was losing its characteristics or retaining its identity over the course of a ‘hyper-global’ shift. We could also ask how such locative sound elements were received and interpreted in the widest end of a rather volatile audience reception within the dispersing digital media and an establishing e-commerce. Central here was the ongoing dialogue between older sound contents from primarily locative analogue source and the digitally generated ephemeral travelling sounds, whereby rapid digitization was rendering the interpretation of older sound contents as sonic artifacts. These phenomena contributed to the emerging ‘post-digital’ discourse by considering the sonic artifacts as displaced, relocated, and transformed to dissolve the digital divide between already digital and rapidly digitized contents and reinterpreted as a ‘background’ (Ihde, 1976) or elusive field of data.
Once this saturation is reached, Kim Cascone argues that in the domain of sound art and experimental music, “the medium of digital technology holds less fascination for composers in and of itself” (Cascone, 2002). In deciphering the term ‘post-digital aesthetics’ in relation to experimental music, he speaks of the ‘failure’ of digital technology and the way that triggers subversive practices with glitches, clippings, aliasing, distortion etc. I however perceive this as a failure of a pervasive digital media/technology to identify, structure and archive the transient and elusive sound field from the nameless, placeless and faceless background world of ‘data’. In this world of big data, all sounds essentially lose their locative characters, normative structure (digital, analogue or digitized), ontological source identities and epistemic knowledge-based object-hood. Admittedly, at this stage my motivation lies in delving into the question of sound’s such object-disoriented behavior upon transient listening.
In his seminal writings, for example in the famous article ‘Aural Object’, film-sound scholar and an early phenomenologist Christian Metz has expressed serious doubt about the object-specificity of sonic phenomena in scholarly thinking. He instead focused on the ‘characteristics’ of sound, and wanted to emphasize on the problematic of locating sound’s object-oriented or location-specific source. He stated, “Spatial anchoring of aural events is much more vague and uncertain than that of visual events” (Metz, 1980). Likewise, whenever a sound is digitally registered, it is mediated. Digitization causes sounds to dislocate from their original sources, turning them into discreet data on the nebulous digital media environment as discussed above. In classical sound studies (Rick Altman et al) scholars have already underpinned the issue of sound’s problematic relation to its object or source: “(…) sound is not actualized until it reaches the ear of the hearer, which translates molecular movement into the sensation of sound” (Altman, 1992). Altman speaks here of a sound event as defining the trajectory of the essential production and subsequent reception of a sound element. Its narrative, as Altman terms it, is hypothetically bound to the source that produces it. This source, the sounding object when producing sound, is spatially defined or connected to a place. These spatial sources of sound are by definition localized, but are not rendered until and unless carried by a medium to reach the point of reception. Therefore, sound contents are only recognized at different stages of digitization toward reaching a saturation state of an assumed ‘post-digital’ economy/ecology, whereby it is freed from the object. Thus, sound, by its very nature, implies mobility and subsequent object-disorientation in order to establish its recognition in the ‘post-digital’ domain. But the process of interpretation is more complex than it appears at its perceptual level of reception.
Sound seems ‘less esoteric’ in the post-digital culture because of our “newfound comfort with the immaterial world of pure data and information flowing through the cyberspace” (Dayal, 2013). The contemporary media environment allows for the separation of sounds from their locations and facilitates their travel across hyper-dispersed networks as background noise. A sound that is disembodied from its locational specificity causes multiple layers of mediation across its multiple receptions and interpretations outside of place, time, and context, whether this be in an audio streaming network on the Internet, a digital sound composition published on a net-label, or exhibited within the augmented space of an interactive installation work. In an interactive art piece, identification of a nomadic sound event can be understood through its interpretation as a fertile auditory situation. The post-digital discourse essentially relates to perpetual transience of these amorphous situations (Chattopadhyay, 2013). It is evident that, in this constant flow, the production and reception of sound over greater mobility and interactivity leads to its interpretation as itinerant auditory situations, which is a transformation of the original sound, ready to be re-interpreted to create a sense of cultural context within the post-digital milieu.
At this juncture, a nomadic listener floating across the post-digital milieu, may interact with the background noise or the unknowledgeable sounds of nameless, placeless and faceless sonic states, may sensitize his or her ears to the pseudo-object of these sounds, and are able to deconstruct them into their listening selves by their evocative capacity toward a sonic explosion as streams of timeless reverie, rumination and musings. The ‘unknown’ embedded in the wandering shadows of sounds are explored and given a (con)text by the nomadic listener’s intervention into their appearing and diminishing leaving object-disoriented states of feelings or moods.
Let us indulge into further philosophical musings triggered by listening to sounds in the post-digital milieu, and attend to what John Cage claims as mindful: “[S]ilence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind”. This will require us to set aside ‘epistemic’ issues of recognizing the source or ‘object’ of sound, and instead, focus on the subjective and inward perception of sound within the ‘self’ or ‘mindfulness’ of the listener. Following this methodology, we can examine the way memory, imagination, and personal experience of the nomadic listener alters the character of sound. Taking point of departure from the epistemological basis of object-oriented sound, in this paper I introduce this alternative methodology of listening in the post-digital culture, which I term as ‘hyper-listening’. Addressing a practice-based approach, I explore my ongoing project ‘Doors of Nothingness’ (2012-) and a series of upcoming sound installation/interventions ‘Mind your own dizziness’ (2014-) that incorporate the concept of ‘hyper-listening’, meaning that I intend to relate to the higher-level/psychic pre/post-cognitive processes triggered by the object-disoriented sounds into creating thought-provoking auditory situations. This method perhaps operates on the fringe of what artist Yolande Harris explains in her doctoral thesis: “To create situations where sound can affect and activate people’s experiences in a personal way”. The works rely on intuitiveness in listening rather than the reasoning involved in deciphering meaning of ‘aural objects’. The strong belief in inward contemplation, subjectivity and an enhanced ‘selfhood’ available to a wandering listener (because of his/her ability to free the ears from object-specificity, be they spatial, temporal, or locative) the project on one hand can explore the personal or private nature of listening; on the other, it tries to engage with the emergent sonic practices in the implicit post-digital culture.
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Cascone, Kim (2002). “The Aesthetics Of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”. In Computer Music Journal 24:4, Winter 2002 (MIT Press). http://subsol.c3.hu/subsol_2/contributors3/casconetext.html (Retrieved on 15th September, 2013)
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