Toward an Object-Oriented Sonic Phenomenology

2012-08-24 19.49.30

Here is a piece that will be included in an exhibition commissioned by the Centre for Research into Sound Art Practice <> based at LCC, London and is the fourth in the series of online exhibitions concerned with sound across a range of research fields. The exhibition is titled _Not for Human Consumption_:

“Not for Human Consumption (NfHC) invites us to explore sonic events where the listener is situated on the periphery. From the inaudible to the barely registered and the overheard to the impossibly loud, This online exhibition presents a collection of sonic phenomena, tests, byproducts and compositions that challenge our, self-given, position at the centre of sonic events.”

Launches online: 16th November 2012


Toward an Object-Oriented Sonic Phenomenology // Steven R. Hammer

The famous scenario of a tree falling and no one around to hear it, whether one considers it to be a question of science (does an unsensed vibration constitute sound?) or a philosophical inquiry into the nature of existence via human perception, was no doubt complicated after humans developed the means to hear sounds irrespective of time and space. Sound is no longer contingent upon whether a human observes it since our ears became extended by electronic technology. Marshall McLuhan framed technological innovation as self-amputations and extensions of the self: the wheel is an extension of the foot, the computer an extension of the central nervous system, and so on. Similarly, our ability to listen from afar and catalog sonic phenomena, minimizing limitations of space and time, respectively, has undoubtedly changed our relationship with our new, electronic “ears” as well as the phenomenon of sound itself. This project employs contact microphone field recordings of high-mast lighting poles to illustrate how sound is created and experienced by complex networks of (human and nonhuman) actants.

Sonic Phenomenologies

First, how can we conceptualize our relationship with technologies, if they are indeed metaphorical extensions of ourselves? This is one of the considerations of posthuman and glitch art, and certainly a question inherent in object-oriented ontology and speculative realism. Are humans and nonhumans, as Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, and others suggest, on equal ontological footing? Any serious examination of sonic phenomena would yield a resounding “yes!” Sound is the sensory phenomena which perhaps best illustrates object-oriented analysis, as it is precisely the result of objects (human and nonhuman alike) colliding, vibrating, and moving in relation to one another. In other words, exploration of sonic phenomena reinforces that sound transcends anthropocentric models of both ontology (being) and phenomenology (experiencing). Our relationships with objects, then, whether they are tools by which we gather and record data or the sources of data themselves, are more complex than the philosophies we have inherited from the Modernists and Romantics. Indeed, if we take object-oriented listening seriously, we must disrupt the long standing model of humanist composition; we must resign from our position as colonial masters (however benevolent we might imagine ourselves) and understand composition and creation as a collaborative, if not postcolonial act.

This group of recordings is a gesture toward such an approach to sonic composition. Instead of gathering sonic phenomena using instruments that reproduce and extend the sonic epistemology of the human ear (i.e., via air vibrations), I used a contact microphone to hear from the perspective of a high-mast lighting pole near Interstate Highway 94 in Fargo, ND, USA. Contact microphones, unlike commonly used condenser or dynamic microphones, listen and relay sounds transmitted through vibrations in solid objects. In this way, sound can be understood from an alternate phenomenology, one experienced by an object in very real ways. It is important here to pause and caution readers of a common misreading of object-oriented philosophers and actor network theorists, namely that we somehow diminish the relative power and agency of the human being and either dehumanize humans or humanize nonhumans. The human, like the colonial force, is indeed powerful and influential, and in many cases the creator of the myriad other objects in question. The object-oriented task is concerned primarily with the “flattening” of ontology, not assumed equity in terms of agency or consciousness. Evoking the language of postcolonial theory here is not an attempt to draw attention to the likeness of nonhumans to humans, but to articulate the problematic aspects of current authorship models.

The Sounds of Hearing

Second, these recordings highlight the many ears through which contemporary listeners hear. While most recording technologies have sought to minimize their own presence as a way to present a somehow truer, more objective representation of phenomena, I instead chose to present sound that calls attention to itself and its production. In other words, I have called attention to the layers of interpretation (human and nonhuman) embedded in a sonic experience. I argue that any sound recording/performance experience is heavily interpreted through a network of actors, despite attempts to mute those layers. When that muting fails, the result is typically called “noise,” a sonic feature that one must endure to hear the “true” recording, the real content. Yet instead of listening around the noise of these recordings, try to consider what glitch theory artists and scholars have suggested: think of the noise/glitch not as a flaw, but as an aesthetic feature.

This group of recordings contains several levels of what I’ll refer to as interpretation, which simply refers to the way in which objects/actants receive alien data and transmit the same data in a similar yet distinguishable way. (For instance, consider the way that applying a distortion effect to an incoming guitar signal receives then changes, or interprets that signal)  First, we must consider the human actant. I chose equipment, time, and location (my collaborators, if you will). I manipulated physical materials to make the recordings possible. While I am not an audibly apparent layer of the recordings, we must not understate the relatively powerful position of humans in object-oriented approaches or inquiries. Second, consider the primary (or intended) sound source, which is actually a complex network of actants in itself, as sound necessarily results from the convergence of multiple actants. The sounds we experience in these recordings result from a) automobile tires making contact with the highway near the high-mast lighting pole, b) wind moving the high-mast lighting pole, c) the movement of the pole in relation to its concrete base, d) the (small) movement of the contact microphone attached via putty to the pole, e) the notoriously noisy XLR input of the Marantz PMD-222 cassette field recorder, and f) the low-quality medium of recording: a Type I cassette tape.

The sounds of these recordings, therefore, are the result of a highly complex network of actants in motion and collision with and against one another. The sounds are heavily interpreted, processed, and filtered through these various alliances. These recordings are a documentation of sonic object-oriented events, happenings; it is the premeditated memoir of networked actants. Yet the memoir fails to call on the sonic memories and sensibilities of anthropocentric phenomenology. Instead, it calls on the many ears and alien phenomenologies through which sonic events occur.

The Kruchenykh Project

This piece is a precursor to a project currently under development, titled The Kruchenykh Project (named for the Russian Cubo-Futurist and founder of zaum, Alexei Kruchenykh), in which I am constructing an instrument to trigger multiple real-time streams of object-oriented sonic phenomenology through contact microphones, hydrophones, coil pickups, and other alien sonic epistemologies. The instrument offers a new and indeterminant sonic language to users in which they can explore the silenced sounds of their immediate environment and enter into a physical relationship with them via the interface.


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Harman, Graham. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne: Re-press, 2009. Web.

Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. War and Peace in the Global Village. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Print.

“Notes and Queries.” Scientific American 50.14 (April 1884): 218-219.

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