T. Brandon Evans: Grand Narratives

T. Brandon Evans

Sawyer Seminar 2013-14: Hearing Modernity



Response to “Grand Narratives of Sound,” with Veit Erlmann and Jonathan Sterne


Is sound studies a viable discipline?  What are the questions that structure its coherence, if it can be said to have any?  How are claims to sonic or auditory knowledge recognized and legitimized? Veit Erlmann notes the claims that sound studies (or sensory studies in general) have made toward uncovering hitherto unrevealed knowledge (“hidden by ocularcentrism, of course!”).  Further, these claims are legitimized by the narrative of human freedom, a narrative that cannot escape both idealism transcendentalism that have gradually and increasingly fallen out of fashion since the Enlightenment.  If this picture of the legitimation of sonic knowledge is accurate, perhaps we should approach sound studies’s induction into the academy with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Despite hesitation on aspects of Jean-François Lyotard’s argument about “the postmodern condition,” Erlmann cites it here to listen for how the critique might still resound today:  there needs to be, before all, an assessment of how knowledge in sound studies is legitimated––especially with the slew of sensory “turns” that continually claim to expand the meaning of sense and senses of meaning.  At stake here is whether sound studies should begin claiming, in a more or less positivist direction, particular forms of sonic or acoustic knowledge proper to the constitution of a discipline.  Or, by contrast, should it refuse that such particular forms are proper or existent at all, operating via “paralogy,” Lyotard’s term for articulations that lie beyond the limits of knowledge as such?  If such paralogical refusals of grand narratives are possible, how should sound studies attempt this configuration at both intellectual and institutional levels?


Jonathan Sterne, giving some comments toward a history of compression in communications technology, hopes for his part that sound studies might indeed make lasting intellectual contributions, but is not so concerned about whether or not its narratives are “grand.”  Rather in a more speculative and even optimistic register, Sterne asserts that sound studies (and indeed any discipline) becomes valuable in the moment it starts to inspire those working in other fields, asking questions that cut across disciplinary bounds.  To do this, Sterne inquires into a “general history of compression,” with compression as a salient effect at work in many audio contexts, and perhaps most notably as a feature of “degraded” quality in the shift from CDs to mp3s as a market standard. But listening for compression as a general operating principle in the theory of communication, he also opens up different historical connections between study of technology, sound, aesthetics, and visual culture–– from television to half-tone printing.  He also emphasizes the occasional character of sound studies, bringing together a range of scholars in humanities, arts, and social sciences, extending into the “hard” sciences as well.  Sterne leaves aside the question of whether or not we are living under the oppression of a grand narrative to focus on the generative nature of sound studies as an interdisciplinary nexus.  Of course, the general history of compression is also an alternative history, unsettling in its own way the general master narrative of technological improvement over time, and no history should be taken for granted.  Sterne thereby suggests that the production of multiple histories––of sound, of vision, of sense, of value––may act as a productive remedy for anxiety over grand narratives.


Despite many differences, such as their diverging views on the stakes of the political in Friedrich Kittler’s account of war-infused technological developments, there was one area toward which each speaker expressed caution:  phenomenology.  How, after inquiring into the structuring effects of media (technologies) on the passages of data into the human sensorium, can we seriously approach a question of phenomenology?  Does Kittler’s work, which some might want to call bellicose technological determinism, suggest that the question of phenomenology is none other than the question of technological mediation? Are any grand narratives or fundamental ontological claims about the nature of sonic experience still valid, now that both Lyotardian grand narratives are defunct and sensory phenomena are now seen as McLuhanesque extensions of the body? In particular, Sterne notes that he sees most extant work that claims to be a phenomenology of sound or hearing to be in actuality something a bit different.  Performing what he calls the “audiovisual litany,” such phenomenological endeavors to describe and theorize sonic experience tended to reinstate long-held romantic beliefs about the ontological qualities of sound versus those of vision or the image.  The “litany” consists of a series of platitudes, claiming sound is “circular, immersive,” that it “brings us all together… around a campfire having undamaged intersubjective relations.” More generally the litany relates sound to interiority and privacy the way that the visual is understood to correspond to exteriority and publicness.  The gaze exposes the world as an exterior of the body while sound resonates with a supposed inner “core” of being.  In thinking about how to approach the question of sonic experience at a time when studies of media and technology apparently annex the study of the human sensorium Sterne offers that the next step to a better phenomenology of sound should begin with a good dose of skepticism.  Specifically, he suggests that ethnography might be a way to get at a phenomenology of sound that “doesn’t accept all the truisms of sound and hearing” such as those in the now-familiar litany.


Why ethnography?  Initially, Sterne does admit that this suggestion stems partially from a specific set of post-colonial concerns–– how might romantic notions of interiority or aurality-as-pre-literacy reproduce certain sets of colonialist knowledge that tie sound to notions of more “primitive” or originally experience?  However, there is more to be gleaned from his ethnographic suggestion than a mere comparativism which could, at worst, turn into a culturalist mode of description that neutralizes the effects of mediating technologies as benign cultural difference.  Far from that, his enrollment of ethnography for the task of phenomenology points to a new form of conceiving how we should approach the constellations of form, perception, sensorium, and experience.  To those of us who are not anthropologists, ethnography may invoke a sense of mundane description that is at first alienating, and at worst stultifying in its concept of a “culture” captured on a page.  This is especially the case because as Sterne calls for the mistrust of the phenomenological truisms of the “litany,” we can see the potential ethnographic effect of throwing our hearing subjects into doubt.  But in ethnographic accounts of hearers and listeners, the doubt we produce in representing “other” forms of knowledge, if I hear Sterne correctly, can help us throw our own preconceived notions of our own perceptions into contrastive flux.  Indeed, Sterne notes that phenomenology tends to (boringly) reinvent itself with each text that approaches it, partially because of the descriptive imperative.  In offering ethnography as a future conceptual and methodological direction for sound studies, we will surely need to begin again, this time not describing sonic experience in terms of interiority, but encountering it “in the field.” We can thus hope to recognize the multiplicity of channels, environments, agencies, and forms that sound takes, when it is transduced by ear and skin as auditory experience within particular “cultural” contexts, as well as beyond the narrow human auditory frame at large.



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