Sawyer Seminar

Sound, fleeting and immaterial, has long proved resistant to academic inquiry. Faced with the impenetrable difficulty of pinning down sounds themselves, scholars have largely focused on written texts (instead of spoken words), while musicians have largely focused on notes (instead of sounds). In recent years, however, a number of very promising approaches from a variety of fields, which often bridge the arts and the sciences, have sprung up and have begun to capture this phenomenon in its wider context.

The 2013/14 John E. Sawyer seminar “Hearing Modernity,” made possible with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, explores the world of sound studies. As the humanities turn away from the predominance of the visual domain and start exploring other sensory modalities, as the arts turn away from their traditional preoccupation with the work concept and toward a heightened appreciation of ecologies and soundscapes, and as the self-imposed limitations of C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” become ever more apparent, sound studies emerges as a new field that responds to multiple challenges at once.

Sound Studies

In the last few years, sound studies has turned the humanities on its ear. Situated at the crossroads of traditional music studies, media studies, philosophy, literature, cultural anthropology, sociology, technology studies, ecology, and the natural sciences, the fledgling field of sound studies has in recent years become a key area of interest for many students and scholars. By engaging with these multiple disciplinary conversations, it explodes the traditional domain of music studies and opens up the terrain for a wider cross-disciplinary discussion. Given the breadth and innovative nature of sound studies, it is almost inevitable that there are lingering methodological issues that need addressing. It is precisely the challenge of this wider discussion that is the primary concern of “Hearing Modernity”: how to assure that the multiple disciplines are engaged in direct and productive dialogue with one another.

A hard-and-fast definition of sound studies is not easily forthcoming. Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld defined the term in 1977 as “the material production and consumption of music, sound, noise and silence, and how these have changed throughout history and within different societies, but does this from a much broader perspective than standard disciplines.” Since then, a number of trenchant studies—by Jonathan Sterne (Sociology), Emily Thompson (History), the late Friedrich Kittler (Media Aesthetics), Douglas Kahn (Art History), Veit Erlmann (Anthropology), and others—have begun plowing the field. While each of the disciplines represented by these scholars has an indispensible role to play, it seems the time is ripe for achieving a more cohesive discussion across fields. “Hearing Modernity” aims to be a forum in which this discussion will take place.

The broader field in which the John E. Sawyer seminar takes place is in the Comparative Study of Culture. It is no coincidence that this Sawyer seminar is housed in the Music Department, a discipline whose concerns have always revolved around sound.  As such it can serve particularly well as a point of intersection, a meeting place for all the other disciplines engaged in a set of similar issues, from which it can coordinate the various discursive strands at play, forge a cohesive methodology, and ultimately come to terms with the intangible, evanescent phenomenon that is sound.

Guiding Issues and Format of the Seminar

There is no longer any question about whether aurality provides the basis for a counternarrative to the visual domain in modernity. But the question of how exactly this aural modernity manifests itself is still far from settled. It is this important challenge that this project will tackle by highlighting a number of different aspects of cultures of sound.

All Sawyer seminars study culture comparatively. Given the early and exploratory stages of this burgeoning field, it seems appropriate for this seminar to engage a highly focused form of comparison where each seminar will invite two speakers to reflect on a common topic from differing or even opposing vantage points.

The format proposed here amounts to a mini-symposium on a topic related to sound. Rather than two presentations of regular full-length papers, we will ask our speakers to pre-circulate their papers so that the participants can read them in advance. Each session will begin with short statements by the two speakers summing up the key points of their papers. The discussion will be opened by a question or a short response from one of the graduate fellows, and is to be followed by a long and open discussion among all participants. Such a format seems particularly suited to the goals of the Sawyer seminar, as it places primary importance on discussion, interchange, and exploration.

Session Topics

  1. Grand Narratives of Sound
  2. Decentering Sound
  3. Mediated Technologies
  4. Sonic Warfare
  5. Hearing Through the Body
  6. Sounds and the Brain
  7. Aural Memory
  8. Reflections on the Voice

The proposed session topics follow an arc exploring a number of underlying themes that serve to highlight several common topics and specific challenges that have been identified in the literature. We begin in medias res (1) with a discussion of the pros and cons of the various narrations of aural modernity that have been told in recent years. One chief criticism of these narratives has been their focus on western modernity (2), whereas a number of cultural anthropologists have cautioned that the story of aurality followed different patterns in other parts of the world. While sound technology and sound media have come to dominate all parts of the world (3), the specific cultural context in which these technologies function has an immediate effect on their social significance.

Historians of technology have long pointed out that warfare has served as one of the chief innovative forces in modernity, and this uncomfortable insight (4) holds true, too, for a range of important issues relating to sonic modernity. The stark questions of music and its effects on the body, thrown into sharp relief into the nexus of sound and warfare, return in different form in our session on trance and ecstasy (5), which contrast the extreme physiological effects of electronic dance music with forms of musically induced trance experiences in other cultural contexts. This topic leads us from questions of the body to the ways in which the brain processes such music. We follow up with a discussion (6) of the insights neuroscience and cognitive science can offer on the perception of music and sound.

With a focus on memory, the third part of the seminar zooms outward again from the individual brain to the collective mind, and returns from the scientific to the cultural domain: Memory (7) and its associated institutions, above all the archive, have been identified as a constitutive part of the modern experience, but most work has focused on written sources. However, collections of recorded sound are fast emerging as vital records of cultural memory. The voice, finally, has been the focus of much philosophical discussion (8), particularly in its capacity to engender a sense of heightened presence of the person behind the spoken word, as compared with written records. Our final reflections on the voice will provide an opportunity to revisit a number of key points raised during previous sessions and marks a fitting end point for this exploration of the world of sound.

As a final culmination, we look forward to welcoming Jacques Attali, the statesman, musician, and man of letters, whose book Bruits sent ripples through the academy more than 30 years ago. In many ways, Attali’s prescient work has anticipated several developments that came to the fore in the context of sound studies.

Thematic threads
The synoptic view of the seminar indicates that there are three axes that determine the thematic threads that will run through the seminar. Since each of these constitutes a major topic across the humanities at present, it is to be expected that they will provide much material for further discussion and will provide further cohesion between the individual seminar sessions. These three axes can perhaps best be described as Technologies—Geographies—Perceptions:

Not least due to the evanescent nature of its object, the study of sound is often inseparable from the study of its media. No date in the history of listening seems more important in this respect than the invention of recording technology, usually pinpointed in Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877.A number of influential studies have explored the way in which sound media have molded our perception of the world around us. Recording technology made it possible for the first time to store, repeat, and manipulate sounds (not notes or words). A fleeting noise now became a palpable object that could be replicated and analyzed. From elevator muzak to Bin Laden’s cassette tapes, recording technology has shaped the soundscapes that determine modern life.

The influential histories of aural modernity that were written in recent years (e.g. Sterne’s The Audible Past, Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity) have been focused on the hallmarks of modernity in the west. As many sound scholars agree, the next step is to move beyond the boundaries of Europe and the US, where the story of aural modernity is a very different one. The geopolitical North-South divide also reverberates in the aural domain. Social conventions, technological possibilities, as well as different modes of signification add up to a sometimes startlingly different sonic outlook. Questioning the totalizing narrative of the story of aural modernity, often tacitly assumed, will doubtless be a significant part of our conversations.

Interest in the question of aisthesis, (= sensation, perception), has recently been rekindled in the humanities (e.g. Friedrich Kittler, Gernot Böhme). This branch of aesthetics takes sensation as its focal point and works outwards from there. Aisthesis no longer evaluates art in the service of the “science of the beautiful,” but rather considers artworks—if it considers them at all—in the way in which they engage and challenge our senses. Unlike most traditional aesthetics, aisthesis considers artworks as loci of sensory knowledge.  Some artists have explored this notion of art as a source of knowledge by creating artworks that deliberately challenge the ability of the senses to process them or interpret them. We will have the opportunity to explore how such sonic artifacts can be employed in the wider context of humanities as sources of perceptual knowledge. A dialogue between hearing and the other senses can be the basis of an investigation that would encourage exploration of a number of related topics that generate much excitement at the moment, such as synesthesia and perceptual questions.

These three axes are of course not the exclusive focal points of our discussions, but it is to be expected that they will form a backbone that will span the discussions across the seminars and will reconfigure themselves in different constellations, depending on the topic under discussion.

We hope that “Hearing Modernity” will be the starting point of an ongoing conversation across the different disciplines. The multiple dimensions of auditory culture that are brought to bear in this Sawyer Seminar will forge new alliances and open up new avenues of further research, even after the formal seminar series concludes in April 2014.