2. Framing

How did language come to be more trustworthy than matter?

Karen Barad, Signs: 801

Towards a Sonic Materialism #1:
Rethinking Space Through Sound

An additional remark related to the preparation of my breakfast and the accompanying audio file is needed: a remark about the relationship between sound and place. What can sound studies contribute to our thinking about place? Of course, this is a huge and complicated question that deserves far more research and reflection than what I can offer here.3 However, I would like to present one, underdeveloped ideanamely how, through listening to a place, this place can be perceived not as a fixed context or a preexisting void in which something happens, but as an active and unstable agent, participating and constituted in the moment the action takes place.4

It is common knowledge and a daily experience that sound is not necessarily confined to a concrete, physical architectural space; sound overflows borders. However, simultaneously it is also site-­specific, bound to a particular place, and the materiality of that place affects the sound due to absorption, reverberation and diffraction (LaBelle 2007: ixxi). Listening makes me aware of a space, as the sounds come from somewhere; they come to me from an actual environment. Listening to the sounds of me preparing my breakfast or doing the dishes might give an indication of the space in which this activity takes place: how large it is, how high, if there are many other thingsthings such as household technologyin that space, what materials these things are made of, perhaps also its floor covering, etc.5

However, listening to the performance of an event can also help us think about space in a less essentialized way (Cresswell 2003: 25). A space is not simply a sort of box in which an action takes place; it is (also) something of which human as well as nonhuman agents are part. I don’t just prepare breakfast or wash the dishes in a place, probably a kitchen; rather, it is in and through these activities, in combination with the material conditions, that this place becomes constituted as a kitchen. In more general terms, one could state that a place provides a stage for a specific practice, albeit an unstable stage. Seeing a place somehow confirms its permanence, its stability; listening to a place allows a more ephemeral presence to emerge. The auditory space which surrounds a listener is filled with life. In other words, it is not sound that has become alive in space but space that has become alive as a result of sound; the listener experiences the space in motion, emerging through the sounding events (Zuckerkandl 1973: 277, 289, 292).6 By listening to the movements and practices that are unfolding, it becomes clear that a place is in a constant state of becoming; it is flowing, and the listener is participating in this becoming, engaging with its acoustics.7 Movements and practices are co-­constitutive of a place, which itself is contributing to constellations of diverse, related and unrelated things and processes in movement (Pink 2012: 27). Place is both the context for practices and a product of those same practices.

Through sound and through listening to an environment, place can be reconsidered as an intersection, as a specific and singular configuration of happenings. Place doesn’t provide practices with a static context, but lets us experience how things come together, are together, or reconstitute themselves within constantly changing constellations or ecologies. Through sound and listening, it becomes possible to rethink the concept of “place” beyond demarcation, seclusion, and stability, beyond its physical boundaries, as an active participant in interactions between heterogeneous entities; place can thus be understood as contingent and contributing to the creation of events, together with various other human and nonhuman agents (Pink 2012: 25–29). As such, a place cannot be defined exclusively by its physical properties; it is also, and equivalently, socially and politically constituted. And sounds inscribe themselves in places, as sonic marks in networks of acoustic territoriality.

January 2021

Why Bother About Sounds?

Why bother about sounds? Why bother about the ear? Ostensibly, Western culture is the result of acts of inscription and readingacts within the domain of vision and visibility. James Clifford relies on this assumption in the introduction to his 1986 book Writing Culture. His words echo those of Michel Foucault (1973: 89), who stated in Birth of the Clinic that the eye that knows and decides is the eye that governs; it is the depositary and source of clarity. Whereas the ear is connected to immersion and subjectivity, the empiricism of the eye (re)presents intellect, abstraction, rationality, and objectivity, and thus “has the power to bring a truth to light […]. The eye first opens the truth” (Foucault 1973: xiii).8

Why bother about sounds? Well, perhaps to recognize and understand the impact and importance of sound for our culture; to acknowledge the affective working of sounds on living beings;9 to investigate how soundsperhaps specifically everyday soundsconsciously and unconsciously guide our behavior. However, here, sound is not only the object of study, the results of which can be articulated through texts, words and existing concepts, it is also the medium through which we can reconsider our being-­in-­the-­world.10 Sound is a sensory modality that can be used as an expressive category through which interaction takes place. Engaging with and being immersed in sounds thus offers a possibility to explore and reveal new ways of knowing, to gain new knowledge of how human and nonhuman agents relate to one another and their environment; it is a move from “speaking about the sonic” to “letting the sonic speak.”11

Why bother about sounds? The dominance of the eye in Western history, philosophy, cultural theories and everyday speech is (still) quite obvious: terms such as enlightenment, perspective, vision, observation, visionary, point of view, imagination and reflection permeate Western discourses. However, thinkers have lent an ear to “the other”, to a “minor tradition” in and of contemporary culture; that is, they have “discovered” the other senses, primarily orality and the use of auditory concepts: Martin Heidegger writes about Stimmung, about being attuned; Jacques Derrida about non-­discursive sonority; Gilles Deleuze about the refrain; Jean-­Luc Nancy about resonance and vibration. However, their philosophies somehow remain as deaf, as silent as the ones they are opposing. Sounds and philosophizing seem to be condemned to remain in separate(d) domains, almost excluding each other.

However, the final decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century have given rise to what is now known as “auditory culture” or “sound studies”, a developing discourse that places the aural relation between (human and nonhuman) beings and their environment at the center of its investigations. Since then, sound studies have dealt more and more with ontological, epistemological and methodological questions, questions such as: how can the sonic be scrutinized? How can we generate knowledge on as well as through sounds? And which strategies best enable the articulation of sonic knowledge? These questions have led to the first initial and cautious steps towards what can be called a sonic materialism, which tries to avoid the pitfalls of a (new) essentialism or realism, and predominantly argues in favor of acknowledging temporality and process (somehow comparable to Deleuze’s idea of “becoming”).12

By explicitly focusing on everyday sounds, I will sketch some contours of what a sonic materialism could be(come) and how it deviates from the conceptual frameworks which have dominated Western culture and discourses, as represented above through Clifford and Foucault.13 The book will draw upon the work of some sound scholars who have already dealt with formulating and shaping this concept, but it will also take implicit as well as explicit inspiration from New Materialism, complexity theories, the Actor-­Network Theory and the philosophy of becoming. The aim is not so much to do justice to any of these movements, but to use or perhaps even misuse them in order to say something about everyday sounds, with and without their visual affiliation; to say something about the role, function and position of the sonic in our everyday lives as it unfolds between the material and the one who is listening…14

May 2021


… Following up on the previous section: the thoughts on a sonic materialism that I will present here stem from another objective, namely to create affective relationships to placesto the interior and exterior environments in which we live, perceive, breathe and dreamby listening to familiar as well as less familiar sounds, and by exploring various listening attitudes, in which emotions, knowledge, reflection and engagement interlace with all kinds of routine actions and habits (Norman 2015: 208). By focusing on the sense of hearing, by beingat least temporarilyless focused on sight than on hearing, by first of all experiencing and exploring the sonic ambiance, the world reveals itself and does so differently. And it immediately becomes clear as well that listening to mundane sounds also gives access to events other than these sounds: political, social, economic, ethical, material or historical events that pertain more or less directly to our everyday environment. Sound is not merely vibration, frequency, pitch, rhythm or timbre; it (also) mediates relationships between human and nonhuman agents and their environments, reflecting and initiating a dynamic, complex and emergent system of various interactions between different agents.

In his essay “Radical Radio,” Raymond Murray Schafer fantasized about radio programs broadcasting natural sounds of remote locations uninhabited by humans, or the sounds of human activities in everyday situations, or ocean sounds for 24 hours, all this without any intervention by the announcer. Schafer called this phenomenological instead of humanistic broadcasting: “Let the phenomena of the world speak for themselves, in their own time, without the human always at the center, twisting, exploiting and misusing the events of the world for private advantage” (Schafer 1990: 214). Although one can hear in his thoughts, besides the echoes of Martin Heidegger and John Cage, a clear hint of essentialism, what attracts me in Schafer’s text is not just the aesthetic appeal to become more aware of and involved with our sonic environment, but the ethical imperative and practical task to listen to the world around us—to listen critically, for example—in order to resist the idea of the world as mainly a material resource and commodity. Learning to listen to everyday sounds, and thereby simultaneously engaging with extra-­aural events, can be one step towards a social, political and ecological responsibility or response-­ability: that is, the capacity to respond properly, as listening always already implies thinking, reflecting, acting, interacting, etc. Actively connecting with ordinary sounds—for example, through listening to these sounds, or through playing with them, imitating them, recording them, composing with them—can become, as Richard Oddie claims, a “form of poetic expression that draws us nearer, in the sense of concerned and meaningful involvement, to the local environment” (Oddie 2012: 167).

So, another objective of this study is to give a voice to the less ear-­catching sounds of everyday life. Through real as well as imaginative encounters with ordinary sounds, both these sounds and everyday life in general can be perceived and valued differently; possible outcomes might be to either produce an inventory of mundane sounds of life, to celebrate them or to improve them. Or, as Barry Truax enumerates, engaging with one’s sonic ambiance can lead to a critical evaluation, including questions about what we hear and ideas about its function, interest and beauty—or a lack of the same; to the preservation and protection of the sounds and other agents that together create the acoustic atmosphere; to a design of alternatives, whether or not with the help of sound artists and musicians who are already experienced listeners (Truax 2001: 106–8). And although this is not a publication on sound design, it is my aim—by also presenting some less familiar everyday sounds or by presenting them in an alternative context—to contribute to their preservation and protection, or to their improvement.

September 2020


I have decided not to hide my disclaimers as paratextual elements in the margins of this publication, either on the inside or on the outside. Because they are relevant for each section of this work, I include them here as an integral part of the body text.

The first disclaimer: although the texts presented here are interspersed with audio files and photographs, I certainly do not consider myself a (professional) sound artist or photographer. On the other hand, I strongly believe that the recordings and images do contribute to the overall arguments I want to make, and that they are more than mere supplements or embellishments for what might otherwise be considered a boring book.15 The recording of several ordinary practices might contribute to an ethnophony of everyday life (Thibaud 1998: 21). Another of their tasks is to work against a potential stabilization of meaning and signification, which almost always accompanies an academic text; they might contribute to receive “what thought is not prepared to think” (Lyotard 1991: 73).16 I therefore consider the interactions between text, audio files and photos as relevant, necessary, but also immanently provisional and contingent.

The second disclaimer: I am well aware that, by presenting recordings of everyday sounds out of the context in which they are normally heard, the familiar already becomes slightly unfamiliar. This is intentional. However, it has not been my intention to push for a recategorization of everyday sounds as musical ones. I was less interested in achieving a distinctive, aural aesthetic than in somehow reflecting on ordinary sonic environments through an appeal of aisthesis in terms of sensory perception or bodily sensations.

The third disclaimer: these texts are written from a privileged white, male, (more than) middle-­aged and North-­European perspective; I belong to the middle class, have a permanent job, and am married with two kids. Undeniably, the effects of this socio-­cultural position permeate the reflections, musings and judgments that I submit here.17 For example, I am well aware that one’s house is not always a place for the cultivation of privacy, or individual and family caring; I certainly will not deny the darker (social) aspects of domestic life (Blunt and Dowling 2006: 2, 125, 132). The question that should always haunt you is: what would these everyday sounds be and do when heard and shared by someone else, someone from “elsewhere”? There certainly is a multiplicity of everydaynesses (Highmore 2002b: 17).

The fourth disclaimer (closely related to the previous one): this publication is the result of a reflexive and experiential process, through which knowledge (in the broadest sense of the word) is produced. It does not claim to present an objective or truthful account of reality, instead offering experiences and thoughts regarding a sonic reality, physical and mental engagements with the materiality and sensoriality of everyday sounds (Pink 2009).18 However, this rather personal account is always already formed, informed, and transformed by many other human as well as nonhuman agents. The interweaving of theory, experience, reflection, discourse, memory and imagination that typifies this study could never have come into being without a multitude of interactions.

The fifth disclaimer: don’t be deceived by the dates. As I am clearly compelled to tell this story retrospectively, it will unfold itself selectively around those aspects that seemed important during the acts of writing, creating and selecting the audio and visual materials at the expense of all others. This is not unlike daily practices in which often small, innocuous modifications are made to what “really happened.”

The sixth disclaimer: it has not been my intention to enter into a long discussion about a conceivable definition of “the everyday” or “everyday sounds.” What they are will differ along individual, geographical, historical and cultural vectors, hence my decision to approach it from a (fictive) auto-­ethnographic position. This being said, my idea of “the everyday” bears some resemblance to Foucault’s term dispositif, “a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions [… and…] the connection that can exist between these heterogeneous elements” (Foucault 1980: 194). The everyday has a stable set-­up, yet with variable plasticity which structures agency in a specific context; it is framed by daily routines—taking place on the “inside” (the house) and on the “outside” (streets, squares, cities, forests, rivers, other buildings, etc.)—as well as scholarly discourses, whereas everyday sounds are formed by normal activities (the sonic design of houses and environments, noise abatement regulations, etc.), and their perception is shaped by listening practices, ideas and discussions coming from sound studies, etc. This implies that “everyday sounds” are not a simple given, waiting to be discovered and / or studied; rather, they come into existence in and through this dispositif, which can therefore be regarded as a productive and creative force.

The seventh disclaimer (mindful of Jonathan Sterne): the process of engaging with sounds develops through a relationship between listening and thinking, and also through the input from and interplay with the other senses; sounds are heard and felt synesthetically, kinesthetically and affectively.

December 2020


How should we engage with everyday sounds? How should we access them and communicate some ideas about them? From the previous sections, it should be clear that my investigations into everyday sounds and the everyday in general take place not only through academic reflection, through grand narratives or critical analyses of other people’s texts, but are primarily formed and informed by my personal experiences with sonic environments and my own exploratory movements through them. At the same time, I could only experience these everyday sonic environments through a constellation of—sometimes preexisting —socio-­political, discursive and technological forms. What I have previously read, heard and recorded, what I have experienced, felt and reflected upon before—directly as well as indirectly connected to the current topic—always already forms the background against which my engagement with everyday sounds occurs.19 Therefore, the ideas and thoughts I am sharing here are always situated—that is, produced from a located as well as embodied perspective. Gaining some insight into how everyday sounds affect and are affected is thus a matter of participation; this means that gaining insight is specific, experiential and contingent on how sounds connect with other agents: human as well as nonhuman, material as well as immaterial, concrete as well as abstract.

The interacting of texts, sounds and photos can be considered as emerging from a diffractive methodology (Barad 2007). Diffraction, the term for the behavior of waves when they combine and overlap or encounter an obstacle, becomes a kind of research method in which images, words and audio recordings are brought together, get entangled and start affecting each other. When the three elements (the diffraction apparatus) meet (diffract), they cannot not be responsive, both materially and meaningfully; that is, they cannot not be generative of mattering or not-­mattering (the diffraction pattern).

As Karen Barad explains in Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007: 88, 90), through attention to the details and differences that matter, a diffractive methodology tries to performatively understand the world from within, as a part of it, instead of reflecting on the world from the outside and at a distance. It is a critical practice of engagement that includes various kinds of knowledge-­making practices. Theorizing, listening, observing and recording may count as material practices of interacting within and as part of the (sonic) environment, as ways to materially as well as critically engage with one’s milieu. By entangling sounds, images and texts, the audio and visual materials and the discursive emerge through and within their interrelations.20 However, not only sounds, images and texts are enfolded here; this also includes the recording devices, the digital audio production applications and other technological equipment, as well as myself (as the researcher). The nature of a particular sound changes according to changes in the device by means of which this sound is registered, be it the human ear or a microphone and recording device. Each device will emphasize particular characteristics at the exclusion of others. A performative understanding of everyday sounds thus challenges the idea of preexisting sounds altogether: they are co-­constituted in and through their interactions with other material-­discursive agents.21 And as the knowledge-­making practices are “material enactments that contribute to, and are part of, the phenomena we describe” (Barad 2007: 32), this also implies an entanglement of sounds and the one who listens, records, analyzes and / or reflects on them. In short, a diffractive methodology emanates from the idea that the material, the discursive, the agencies of observation and their interrelationships are inseparable, thus also leading to an entangled nature of matter and meaning.22

A performative understanding of everyday sounds also implies an active intertwining of perceiving, feeling, thinking and making in order to cultivate an attitude conducive to encountering the world in an uninhibited, playful, investigative and creative way. This requires training and experimentation; it is an act of resistance against the fixed patterns and habits with which we normally approach everyday sounds. Creativity, being open to differences that matter, is not an exclusive domain of artists, but accessible for everyone. The experiencing, knowing and situated body is integral to one’s relationships to the materialities of everyday lives, and essential to developing an attentive engagement with (sonic) environments. A diffractive sonic methodology should make clear that there is more to thinking and engagement than argumentation and knowing.

Towards a Sonic Materialism #2:
Beyond Philosophy

Developing a sonic materialism is not only about searching for a sonic component within the philosophical strand called New Materialism, but perhaps first of all a quest into how the sonic can somehow contribute to and participate in current philosophical discourses without being encapsulated beforehand in the written or spoken language typical of philosophy or theorizing. In other words, François Laruelle’s warning is worth recalling here, namely that it is a pretension of philosophy that it can elevate itself above an object in order to reveal what the object cannot reveal about itself: its essence, its nature, its fundamental reality. In this way, Laruelle states, philosophy often seeks to dominate its object, subjecting it to philosophical rules, thereby ignoring what that object has to say on its own behalf.23

So, rather than trying to carve out a space for sound, sound art and soundscapes within the frames of New Materialism and other related philosophies, searching for a sonic materialism would orbit around the issue of how to think in and through the sonic, rather than thinking about it. How can sound alter or inflect philosophy? What concepts and forms of thought can be generated by engaging with the sonic, through listening for example? And (how) can these concepts and thoughts be articulated in and through sounds? Searching for a sonic materialism might involve tracing how philosophy is or could be affected, infected and inflected by the sonic, to produce not a philosophy of sound but an aural, sounding philosophy. Perhaps a sonic materialism might be able or apt for expanding and augmenting philosophical enquiries by letting the sonic intervene in their articulations, and (thus) claiming that there is more to thinking and engagement than argument and knowing.

Sonic materialism is not a noun but a verb;24 it is a practice rather than a theory, a multifaceted engagement with the sonic, in which theory and practice are mutually implicated. As a practice, it cannot be separated from its practitioner: it comes into existence through inhabiting sonic events, through exploring sonic atmospheres, through engaging with sonic environments. Sonic materialism is less about the question of what we can know about sounds than what we do with sounds and what they do to us; it is less about signification than about significance and affective intensities. Thus, it requires the awareness that sounds are iteratively transformed in each new context and with each new interaction. Consequently, sonic materialism can also be called a performative or relational materialism, in which ontology and epistemology are mutually constituting each other. The sonic environment does not precede the bodily and / or material devices with which it is perceived. Human as well as nonhuman agents always partly constitute and are partly constituted by their sonic environment (Gamble, Hanan and Nail 2019). This is what Karen Barad calls agential realism.

The sections that together should form the provisional and flexible contours of a sonic materialism will act as intruders, as specters that haunt the reflections on everyday sounds, the sonic presentations, and the photos. And they are strange specters, as they precede their concrete manifestation. They are not specters that return to the world of mortals; they are not mirages of a past, but specters that announce a future—specters as harbingers (Derrida 1994: 4)

Towards a Sonic Materialism #3:
The World as Movement

Perhaps a discussion on sonic materialism should start with this question: what is the difference between standing blindfolded on wooden floorboards and standing blindfolded on stone or concrete? One possible answer, and relevant in the current context, is that one can “hear” approaching footsteps through the feet when standing on wood (Ingold 2000: 274). Three closely related conclusions can be drawn from Ingold’s answer. First, the implied hearing-­touching nexus can only emerge when something moves. To hear is to hear difference, to hear change, up-­and-­down motion (Evens 2005: 1). Second, the ears are not alone in responding to vibrations. Bodies are also sensitive and receptive to the vibrations of the external world. Sound, regarded first and foremost as physical vibration, seems equally palpable as audible; not just registered by ears, it affects material bodies (Trower 2012: 1). Said differently, sounds also exist beyond (human) audibility, in the shape of vibrations. For example, ultralow frequencies and infrasound can cause vibrations in a body; it is here that the tactility of sound becomes apparent. Three, vibration makes it possible to overcome the allegedly fundamental separation between subjects and objects; both are always already connected by their shared ability to resonate. For Jean-­Luc Nancy (2007: 13), vibration in general, and sound in particular, are in themselves characterized by movements of extending and penetrating, thereby bridging the (visual) gaps between object and object, subject and subject, and object and subject—intersubjectivity and interobjectivity exist thanks to vibration.

Hearing means being shaken, which can be sensed through the ear but also through the body. So sound and vibration are intimately linked; without oscillation, no sound exists or can be detected. But sound and vibration are also connected in another way. As Shelley Trower writes in Senses of Vibration, “sound […] is central to the vibratory paradigm” (Trower 2012: 5). It is through sound that more general conceptualizations of vibration have been made possible; from antiquity to the present, sound has formed the basis for the study of all kinds of vibratory activity (Trower 2012: 4), even though many vibrations rest below the threshold of (human) audible perception. Trower describes in her book how, especially in the 19th century, scientific discourses shifted from emphasizing the stability of objects to an understanding that things, both inside the human body (for example, the neurological system and brain waves) as well as outside (new technologies such as trains, bicycles, sewing machines, telephony and radio), are constantly vibrating.

Within each object, a lively molecular process is in operation. All matter sounds all the time at an atomic level simply because it is vibrating. Sounds can be heard in the spin of electrons, in the quanta of atoms and in the structure of molecules, Joachim Ernst Berendt writes in The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma; it only requires enough modification and amplification to become perceptible for humans. Picking up on this thought, John Cage reminisces in the mid-­eighties about music consisting of innate sounds that are beyond the range of human hearing: “For musical pleasure, I could make audible to you what this book sounds like, and then what the table sounds like, and then what that wall sounds like” (Cage in Kostelanetz 2003: 75). All that was needed were proper “receiving sets.”

It would be simply by means of technology a revelation of sound even where we don’t expect that it exists. For instance, in an area with an audience, the arrangement of such things so that this table, for instance, around which we’re sitting, is made experiential as sound, without striking it. It is, we know, in a state of vibration. It is therefore making a sound.

Cage in Kostelanetz 2003: 112

When Cage states that he would like to listen to the table, he adds an interesting remark: he doesn’t want to use the table as a percussion instrument, for example by tapping or striking it. Cage wants to listen to “its inner life.” He thus understands things themselves as consisting of modes of motion. What once was an object now becomes a process (Cage 1981: 221).25

Cage touches here upon the fundamental, ontological and epistemological consequences of emphasizing vibration. A “vibrational ontology”—the term is coined by Steve Goodman (2010)—starts with the simple premise that everything moves;26 things are modes of movement, events rather than stable identities.27 Anything experienced as static is only so due to the rather restricted level of human perception. Vibration is thus bound up with materiality: it moves, and moves through, material. Through reflections on sound—but beyond a mere philosophy of sound or the physics of acoustics—this vibrational ontology engages with “processes of entities affecting other entities. […] All entities are potential media that can feel or whose vibrations can be felt by other entities. […] Vibrations always exceed the actual entities that emit them […], constituting a mesh of relation in which discreet entities prehend each other’s vibrations” (Goodman 2010: 81–3). Bodies, things or entities thus affect and are affected, infect and are infected, vibrate and are made to vibrate. Vibration connects every separate entity; it entangles bodies into an expanded field of resonating energy. A sonic materialism should thus be built on two principles: movement and relationality—sound leaves a body, enters others and returns to itself.28

Nancy articulates this converging of movement and relationality both eloquently and succinctly: “To sound is to vibrate in itself or by itself: it is not only, for the sonorous body, to emit a sound, but it is also to stretch out, to carry itself and be resolved into vibrations that both return it to itself and place it outside itself” (Nancy 2007: 8). However, Nancy claims, this “itself” should not be understood as a being, a stable entity, but as a coming and a passing, a stretching out and a coming back: sounding is always re-­sounding (Nancy 2007: 8). Sound is thus an enmeshment of encounters and returns; its place is a taking place, always moving and always in relation to itself and its environment, always differing in and of itself. Sound waves transmitted from a certain location are diffracted back to its source in a continual stream of re-­doings of those waves.

October 2020

Field Recordings

Hi, it’s me again. I just wanted to say that, as this publication also includes several field recordings, it feels necessary to offer a brief reflection on their status, their status here in this book as well as in general.

Although field recordings are often used for documentary purposes and as an objective tool, a tool, for example, to conserve disappearing sounds or to capture a sonic environment for research or development reasons, numerous critical remarks, warnings and ontological claims have been made regarding the problematic use of technological devices to somehow represent an external and preexisting reality. The influence of the recordist and the recorder determine to a large extent what is recorded, when it is recorded, where it is recorded and how it is recorded: what kind of devices are used? What mics and how many? Which cables? Where will the devices be put? How long will the recording be? Will the recordist be present or absent in the recording?29 What will be done during the postproduction? 30 Of course, this doesn’t imply that field recordings cannot be used properly to gather data or for knowledge production: we certainly can get access to parts of our everyday environments by listening to them.31 However, a few problems need to be foregrounded when considering the issue of field recordings as an adequate sonic representation of reality.

Field recordings, regarded as snapshots based on all kinds of arbitrary decisions and motivations make us aware that reality consists of a multiplicity of orders that are not reducible to one another. Conventional ideas linking field recordings to representation leave many of the singular, material aspects and contingent conditions of signification unmentioned and untouched. Extremely simplified, one could state that the recording could have been different and that there can be no appeal to reality in refuting the representative value of that recording. But the idea of this dispersion of reality has a more fundamental consequence: It seems that a sonic reality can only present itself through mediation, through interpretation, through the interaction between the one who listens, the sounds that are listened to and how these sounds are recorded. This would logically imply that this sonic reality cannot present itself before it is mediated and unless it is mediated. It is in and through mediation—either by the human ear or a technological device—that sonic realities are produced and constructed; as such their givenness is destabilized.32

Rather than thinking in terms of reproducing or representing reality, recordings establish an affective encounter and engagement with the actual and virtual forces that constitute a site; they invite listeners to carefully perceive sounds that in normal situations remain in the background and help them to think, imagine, and reflect on the everyday as it is recorded. As an eco-­aesthetic archive of multiple relations (Feld 2013: 206), they present traces of a sonic environment or event, traces that are always also marked by differences.33 A field recording—devoid of the idea that it is a transparent medium—thus always already establishes a creative and transformative relation to the sounds that are recorded, an affective, immanent, and explorative relation with the heterogeneous elements that together constitute the assemblage of a sonic place or event. Field recording as an experimental practice enables new connections; it adds an extra layer to the experience of a sonic environment, both less and more than a live experience. Less, because it will never be able to completely capture this live experience, and more, because it will—probably—also register things that were not experienced directly or consciously at the moment of visiting that site. As such, a recording enhances ways of engaging with listening to an environment; it embodies and activates an encountering and generating of sites, relationships, and possibilities. Recording is a way of amplifying experience, offering the possibility to think about the interdependence of the social, the political, the technological, the ecological and the acoustic (Feld 2013: 212).34

In short, field recordings are as much creative reworkings of a reality (that didn’t exist before or outside of the recording) as they have documentary value. They present at once an actual or possible world and a mirage, oscillating between an abstraction from their immediate surroundings and their connectivity to a site. This creative reworking is also a “critically engaged enactment of the contingent production of auditory ‘reality’” to which one listens “with and through the implied presence of another listener” who presents something somewhere on the continuum between the otherworldly and the extremely familiar (Findlay-­Walsh 2019: 35, 38).

October 2020


Besides written and spoken text and sound recordings, this publication also contains photos. Whereas the texts and recordings are generally closely related to one another, their relationship with the photos is looser and less determined; they seldom depict the sounds’ sources, for example. Rather, they present objects that attracted my attention on my strolls and travels. These are everyday objects, objects that do not usually attract much attention, although I noticed that, through the process of photographing them, they immediately lose their familiarity and ordinariness and become items for contemplation, because we are surrounded by them, because we live with them day in and day out. Invisible in their ordinariness, photographing renders them visible; extracted from anonymity and disregard, through fixture, capture, and documentation everyday objects become matter that matters. The materiality of the photo, as well as the materiality of the objects themselves, together with the act of photographing them, work upon me as the observer, inciting me to assess them differently, for example as beautiful and / or meaningful—a trash aesthetics that can be used to diffractively attend to the everyday (Highmore 2002a: 65).

Just like the field recordings, the photos should not be considered as representations of a reality; rather, they are the traces of an engagement with the everyday, with my environment, with my habitat. Whereas Perec sought to describe what he called “the rest” or “the unnoticed” and “the unimportant,” I visually present some kind of nodes where the familiar and the unfamiliar, the ugly and the beautiful, the trivial and the meaningful converge, extracted from the space and time in which my encounters with these objects took place.

However, engaging with the everyday doesn’t automatically imply regarding ordinary things as beautiful, essential or vital; it also means acknowledging the poetry of dirtiness, decay or ugliness. But perhaps more striking is that engaging with everyday things—either through photos, audio files or texts—discloses their indifference to our categorizations and classifications, discloses their infinite otherness, thereby simultaneously revealing the tenuousness of human existence, the limitedness of our calculative and instrumental way of interacting with non-­living things (Introna 2009: 39–40).

Towards a Sonic Materialism #4:
Auditory Ontoepistemology

Considering, as a whole, the central topic of this publication—everyday sounds and the role they (can) play in our being-­in-­the-­world—, my brief reflections on field recording, and the relative importance I attribute to the audio files, I could define my work here as an auditory ontoepistemology.35

Field recording can be regarded as a tool for auditory ontoepistemology; it is a way of engaging with sonic environments and / through technology and, simultaneously, of acknowledging the role of listening and the listener as giving meaning to what is heard.36 In that sense, the making of and listening to field recordings are forms of situated knowledge: ecological, technological and sensual-­corporeal factors affect this process of knowledge production. Auditory ontoepistemology thus refers to alternative ways of encountering the world, to a special kind of knowing, a knowing in and through sound and the sensual, bodily experiencing of sound. Besides mapping and reflecting on the sonic environment or atmosphere, it also deals with the manner in which a sonic ambiance is shaped by cultural, historical, social and political factors, as well as the singular circumstances of each agent. Auditory ontoepistemology foregrounds sonic experiences as a way towards knowledge production, as a way of relating to the (surrounding) world and simultaneously opening the possibility of discovering other realities. In auditory ontoepistemology, sounding and an embodied experience of sound, sonic presence and sonic awareness are connected to each other. It builds on a sensibility that forms the basis of an experiential truth that is not objective nor completely relative but always “partial, split, heterogeneous, incomplete, complex” (Haraway 1988: 589).

Although the word “epistemology” seems to be putting the knowing subject center-­stage, auditory ontoepistemology, in accordance with Steven Feld’s acoustemology, defies the idea of a sonic environment that is static, waiting passively to be revealed by a detached, objective researcher. Knowledge production in and through sound implies moving through, participating in and interacting with an environment that is dynamic and incessantly in flux, if only because it is cocreated with the researcher themselves. The sonic environment is not an inactive entity, waiting only to be investigated; it is not simply raw material for human interests. Gaining knowledge in and through sound should be understood as an emergent and contingent process, unfolding through an ongoing interplay between humans, but also between humans and nonhuman forms of life, materialities, technologies and sites: “senses make place and places make sense” (Feld 1994: 4). Auditory ontoepistemology can therefore be considered as one component of Karen Barad’s agential realism: sonic experiences, either with or without the help of technological devices, such as recorders or playback equipment, never simply disclose a preexisting reality but also always play a role in constituting that reality. Conversely, humans always constitute and are constituted by that which they hear.37

Auditory ontoepistemology cannot do without listening, whether live, in an acoustic setting, or through audio files and recordings. This implies that conveying knowledge about a sonic environment is not always best achieved through writing, through adhering and holding on to established academic traditions of (re)presentation and mediation. Instead of trying to describe the richness of a specific sonic atmosphere—an attempt that is bound to fail anyway—it might be more comprehensible to utilize aural tools.38 Of course, as with writing, presenting audio files as source material to enhance our affective relation with the world can never take place in a completely neutral way: next to material, technological, ideological and ethical considerations, aesthetic choices are inevitable.39 The way knowledge is presented and structured, decisions about how elements should be connected, and (inner) deliberations about what to include and exclude also have a strong aesthetic component; form and content are always in some way related to one another. Hence, personal experience, scientific study and aesthetic concerns will always intersect in auditory epistemology. Instead of simply reporting “facts” or “truths,” the outcome is reflexive knowledge, providing insight into the relation between sound and environment, as well as insight into how that knowledge came into existence. Reflexive knowledge as I understand it here is therefore less preoccupied with an evaluation of everyday sounds than advocating for a sensitivity to sonic ways of knowing which is experiential, contingent, contextual, emergent and situated.

Towards a Sonic Materialism #5:
Deconstructing Identity

To hear means to experience air pressure fluctuations, waves of pressure traveling through the air. Therefore, sound—frequency, amplitude, timbre—is motion, a change over time, even though we might perceive it as a constant. Random air fluctuations in a surrounding space make it so that “the same” sound can be experienced quite differently, depending on the room and the event. Besides, all human and nonhuman beings in the (direct) environment affect the sound’s working, an idea nicely expressed by Aden Evens in Sound Ideas:

An open E-­string bowed on a violin excites at once the string, the body of the violin, the other strings, the body of the violinist, the air around the violin, the material of the room, and the bodies of the listeners. When one wave meets another, they add together, reinforcing each other when they are in phase and canceling each other when they are out of phase. Thus, every sound interacts with all the vibrations already present in the surrounding space; the sound, the total timbre of an instrument is never just that instrument, but that instrument in concert with all the other vibrations in the room, other instruments, the creaking of chairs, even the constant, barely perceptible motion of the air. Measured at some point in space, all of this vibration adds up to a continuous variation in pressure, a wave. Complex, irregular, and erratic, this wave changes constantly and incorporates many frequencies and shifting amplitudes.

Evens 2005: 6–7

Sounds are uneven agential topologies, meaning that certain sound waves—e.g., those of greater frequency and amplitude—leave deeper traces in a space and on bodies occupying that space; they travel unequally in an environment, amplifying or drowning each other out (Fairbairn 2020: 49). Sound waves superpose and diffract through successive interferences.40 However, space and bodies are not merely passive recipients, but for their part actively affect the sound. Sound, space and bodies are affected by one another and perpetually affecting each other; in a way, all of them are spatio-­temporal events, continuously (re)constituted rather than fixed. When a sound moves from its source toward a listener, one should not forget all the surfaces, bodies and other sounds it brushes against. In that sense, one could even ask whether a sound that emerges from a certain point can still be perceived as the same sound when it reaches another point. Through the (constructive or destructive) overlapping and interference of different wavefronts, produced by processes of diffraction and reflection, the spatial unfolding of a sound may be perceived differently. When each point comprises a unique constellation of vibrations and agents, the omnidirectional commingling of waves and agents enact new sonic phenomena throughout (Paiuk 2020). Regarding the working of sound as vibration, as movement, as traversing a space while in an immaterial way connecting dispersed material bodies, thus seriously challenges prevailing ideas about identity and stability.

Although it has no body of its own, sound is physical, leaving traces on bodies. These traces inscribe its conceptual entanglement with the world. Sound serves as the pivot between material bodies and immaterial interactions between them; it is active, an enactment rather than a noun. Ripples expanding from a croaking frog in a pond,41 destroyed hair cells in the inner ear due to high amplitude exposure, or glass exploding when a low-­flying airplane breaks the sound barrier demonstrate that certain sound waves inscribe more dramatic traces on some bodies than others. On the one hand, this depends on the quality of the sounds—their volume or frequency—and, on the other hand, on the specific features of the body—whether made from metal, flesh, water, etc.42 And although none of these bodies are equally open to the working of sonic vibrations, they all have a certain response-­ability, that is the capacity to develop (new) relations, the capacity of their matter to respond to a stimulus, in this case sound.

Sound waves are, in their sounding, connecting that which is visually and tactically perceived as being separated. Whereas the visual and the tactile are “tied to the metaphysics of objects” (Ihde 2007: 7), it is through sound that the interrelationships of agents become materialized, perceptible and experiential. “[S]ound operates as an emergent community, stitching together bodies that do not necessarily search for each other, and forcing them into proximity” (LaBelle 2010: 1). Its vibration through bodies and spaces maps the concatenation of embodied agents. Sound waves thus create a web of mutual influences wherein space and time congeal. They accentuate durational qualities and uncover the spatial environment, not by tearing down physical walls but by opening up the temporal boundaries. Using a neologism of Barad, one could say that sound makes us aware of “spacetimemattering.” Space and time are not a priori categories, as Immanuel Kant proposed in the 18th century, but active components in an ongoing coming-­into-­being;43 besides, “matter is not a fixed essence; rather, matter is substance in its intra-­active becoming—not a thing but a doing” (Barad 2007: 183–4).44 Barad’s agential realism and sonic materialism both reject the “thingification” of traditional metaphysics, in which the world is considered as consisting of separate things or entities instead of relations. It is against this background that sound waves should not be considered as things; their existence emerges in the iterative participation of all surrounding agents, each complicit and interdependent within this intra-­active becoming (Fairbairn 2020: 15). Sonic materialism substitutes identity and placement with emergence, interconnections and interdependencies.45

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