Listening Out For a Feminist Subject

Sound studies, as Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld wrote in 2004, “is an emerging interdisciplinary area that studies the material production and consumption of music, sound, noise, and silence” (Pinch and Bijsterveld 2004: 636). In particular, theorists engaged within this relatively new field of enquiry have sought to address ways in which auditory organisational systems “have changed throughout history and within different societies” with an explicit intention to engage “a much broader perspective than standard disciplines such as ethnomusicology, history of music, and sociology of music” (Pinch and Bisterveld 2004: 636). Whilst the newly emergent discipline of sound studies provides an over-arching framework by which to think about sound beyond previously established academic boundaries, the main areas feminist frequencies focuses upon – within this framework – are the fields of sound arts and experimental musics. Neither sound arts nor experimental musics has a far-reaching feminist history and whilst categories of race, ethnicity and nationality may have played out through compositional practices and within acoustic ecology discourses in particular, it has often been through either an anthropological or ecological lens that can be considered as often having resulted in certain forms of ‘sonic tourism’ (Norman 2011: 203). The field of sound studies, as a relatively new discipline that intentionally seeks to engage questions of sound with broader discourses, then, offers a means by which to connect analyses of sound arts and experimental music practices with scholarship about sexual and racial difference and the historical assumptions embedded within these categories through a range of critical anti-racist feminist theories.

Where moments of feminist thinking and/or influence in particular have appeared within sound studies, sound arts and experimental musics on the whole they do not neatly fit into an accepted chronology of first, second and third wave feminisms or feminist musicologies as those categorised by feminist musicologist Ellen Koskoff (Koskoff 2005). Yet thinking of the field as a relative ‘newcomer’ belies the fact that the field can be considered as having been structured in ways that resonate, as Jonathan Sterne asserts, with shifting notions of sameness and difference, which I will expand upon and return to throughout these posts (Sterne 2012b: 1). The majority of these developments though, have largely occurred without much of a notable reference or acknowledgement of the historic universality of the white Western masculine bias operative within the field.

Histories of sound studies, necessarily interdisciplinary and in a manner similar to broader philosophies, may be conceived of in a very general sense as addressing sound, sonic practices, discourses and institutions as broadly phenomenological, ontological or epistemological. Of course these categorisations are neither fixed nor exhaustive. But, many theoretical enquiries within sound studies, sound arts and experimental music practices have focused upon sound primarily as a sensory or physical sensation/perception, with an ongoing dominance of ontological and phenomenological theorising about sound (Chion 1983, 1994; Schaeffer 2012; Cage 1961; Schafer 1977; Feld 1996; Truax 2001; Idhe 2007; Morton 2007; Dyson 2009 ; Trower 2012 ; Voegelin 2010; LaBelle 2010).

Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence: Toward a Philosophy of Sound Art (2010) is a case in point that presents an account of phenomenological sonic subjectivity based upon self-awareness as a historically contingent and political process and practice. For Voegelin, the primacy of one’s subjective listening forms the basis of a communication that reciprocally co-constructs meaning through the primacy of perception, the “sensate sense”, as a phenomenological embodiment for understanding rather than knowing (Voegelin 2010: 186). The analogy of the two modes of analysis between noise and silence in Voegelin’s publication lends itself to normatively gendered interpretations of noise as masculine and silence as feminine, but this remains entirely implicit in the text. In her chapter on silence, Voegelin posits the need for a hearing of the body, resonating with twentieth century French post-structuralist feminist calls for a feminine writing of the body (Voegelin 2010: 117, 178). My understanding is that this is a particularly feminine text which I read as putting forward an idea of écouter feminine that correlates with continental feminist histories of écriture feminine (Cixous 1976; Cixous and Clément 1987; Irigaray 1985, 1987; Kristeva 1984b). A close reading such as this hears Voegelin’s text as expanding upon Hannah Bosma’s earlier work on “Écriture féminine in Electrovocal Music” (1997), placing Voegelin’s work within a small genealogy of feminist discourses in sound based upon fundamentally ontological beliefs about sexual difference and materialist thinking about sound and the body. Bosma, along with Sally Macarthur and Kaja Silverman for example, prior to Voegelin, have each developed theories that connect sound, compositional processes and listening, but with more explicitly feminist discourses that take the female body as essentially feminine (Bosma 2003), feminist art-music compositional practices that reflect Deleuzian notions of ‘becoming-woman’ (Macarthur 2001, 2010) and psychoanalytical feminist interventions into the female voice in cinema (Silverman 1988).

Sound’s own entanglement with discourses of hearing assumed as primarily a priori sensory perception would seem to suggest a natural affinity with sound and listening as sense perception, as inherently and primarily related to the body, suggestive of a continuity or direct correlation between hearing, nature, the body and sound phenomena within histories that, predominantly, have either sought after a universality of hearing or have claimed hearing as an always particular and subjective experience. Most of these approaches themselves have been oriented around certain notions or beliefs about the body and its ability to encode sensory perception as a ‘natural’ way of understanding the ‘natural’ world even if those understandings have changed over time.

As a critical response to perceived notions of essentialism within sound technology histories and their discourses, Jonathan Sterne’s work, which whilst not explicitly feminist, seeks to historicise the “naturalistic” thinking that he believes dominates histories of sound reproduction technologies (Sterne 2003, 2012). Deriving largely through concerns developed within communication theory, Sterne’s scholarship seeks to challenge the phenomenological assumptions he claims underlie the field of sound studies. Sterne’s critique of sound reproduction technologies examines the ways in which “audition is learned” rather than being an essential and timeless embodiment by “positing sound, hearing, and listening as historical problems rather than as constants on which to build a history” (Sterne 2003: 12, 22). Instead Sterne is critical of dominant thinking within Western histories of sound based upon belief in essential sensory experience as particular beliefs that implicitly embody “the unacknowledged weight of a two-thousand-year-old Christian theology of listening” (Sterne 2003: 14). This weight of history, claims Sterne, is a hegemonic discourse that has governed the development and uses of sound in technologies of the gramophone, telephone and MP3 codec among other related audio-technical discourses as well as aesthetic applications of sound in histories of musique concrète and acoustic ecology (Sterne 2003, 2012).

Sterne’s critique further cites the ongoing influence of classical Platonic and Christian doctrines upon the field and is intended to challenge the notion of the “universal human subject” that a “phenomenological truth about sound sets up” (Sterne 2003: 14). As Sterne explains, the age old division between vision and aurality within philosophical traditions developed from classical Platonic and Christian doctrines and later elaborated by the phenomenologist and Jesuit priest Walter Ong in particular, have come to dominate the ways that sound has been theorised and practiced within Western sound and technology discourses (Sterne 2003: 15). The division between sight and sound according to Sterne has often been considered as a division based upon a belief in “biological, psychological and physical facts” that, to my ear, resonates loudly with biological beliefs about sexual and racial difference and which, subsequently, as Sterne suggests, have been applied “as a starting point for the cultural analysis of sound” (Sterne 2003: 15).

Most pertinently, Sterne addresses the “ideological framework” (Sterne 2003: 20) of origins and their assumed copies that he asserts underpins both histories of musique concrète and acoustic ecology. He identifies both of these historical approaches of sound theory and practice as ideologies that “hold human experience and the human body to be categories outside history” (Sterne 2003: 20); the acousmatic sound of musique concrète is reproduced in terms of a ‘visual lack’; within acoustic ecology the concept of ‘schizophonia’ is based upon idealised holistic desires to heal the sonic split of an ‘original’ sound from its ‘natural’ source. These theories, Sterne concedes, are founded upon the assumption of a primacy of immediacy – a belief in a universal truth of unmediated experience – of “face-to-face communication and bodily presence” (Sterne 2003: 20, 21) and lend themselves to queer feminist and post-colonial critiques of supremacist patriarchal ideologies in which notions of ‘originality’ and the ‘natural’ have been historically established through a masculine signifying economy of whiteness that promotes the white, heterosexual, masculine as the universal and original ideal. Yet Sterne’s focus in his work is never announced as explicitly feminist, where his critique of the “universal abstract humanist subject” (Sterne 2003: 9) as original and universally pale, straight and male, if this is a conscious critique at all, remains largely implicit.


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