This is the first in a series of posts concerning the theories of what Jonathan Sterne would call ‘sound students.’ This is my humble attempt to grasp the (no-longer-so-)budding field of sound studies and develop a theory of sonic affect.
The exposé for my PhD is slowly coming together. Having re-read Christoph Cox’s Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism this spring, I was inspired by his call for a new theory of the sonic. Since then, I’ve done my best to read myself into the field of sonic materialism, ecology of vibrational force, sonic affect and speculative realism. Many (if not all) of these overlap, and so it’s been a case of trying to figure out who agrees on which aspects, and how they differ.
In spite of sound art’s recent increase in prominence, Cox writes that little has been done to generate rich and compelling literature on the already under-theorised subject. Much academic writing has taken its outset in art history’s visual paradigms and musicology’s penchant for the textual, leaving out completely the nature of the sonic.
He calls for a theoretical framework that rejects essentialism’s position that the world consists of “[…] fixed conceptual or material essences to which images and signs would refer.” (Cox 2011, p. 146) Opposite essentialism’s fixity, Cox neither accepts cultural theory’s fluid relationship with meaning, which “[…] aims to account for and foster the contingency of meaning, the multiplicity of interpretation, and the possibility of change.” (Cox 2011, p. 146) However theoretically rich cultural studies may be; suggesting, as Jacques Derrida does, “there is nothing outside of the text” (Derrida, 1976) is a dangerous move according to Cox.
The freedom gained by relying on the contingency of meaning comes at the price of an ontological insularity that comes with textual or discursive theories. These theories “[…] implicitly support a separation between culture […] and nature […].” (Cox 2011, p. 147) In contemporary cultural studies, culture is the realm of meaning and significance whereas nature is inert and at the very most a socially constructed space. This anthropocentrism privileges human experience over the rest of nature – forgetting that human beings are themselves a part of it.
If “[…] the limits of discourse are the limits of meaning and being […]” (Seth Kim-Cohen in: Cox 2011, p. 148) then how do we write meaningfully about the sonic arts? Sound art frequently explores the very material texture or temporal flow of sound. How it is transmitted, and how these materials change the sound itself. Sound art and music is not more abstract than visual art, “[…] but rather more concrete, and that [it] require not a formalist analysis but a materialist one.” (Cox 2011, 149)