Of the possible material and sensorial effects of hearing

By Melissa Van Drie

Emergent themes from Sensing the Sonic: Histories of Hearing Differently (1800-now), University of Cambridge (CRASSH), 15-16 June 2018

What happens when hearing doesn’t do what it purportedly should? 

In our opening statement, Melle Kromhout and I expressed three main points of inquiry that had stimulated the conference’s conception. First, the observation that ways of working with sonic phenomena have begun to fit quite comfortably within a set of useable, normalized conceptualisations and categorisations that are often related to generalized listening and sounding practices—which we described here as a singular ‘ear-centric’ perspective.

Second, and in contrast, the increasing awareness of the scholarly, scientific and artistic work being done that proposes alternatives to this singular ear. This includes attesting of other ways of sensing sound: from different modalities and perspectives of hearing—both human and non-human—via more nuanced and detailed chronicles on deafnesses, impaired, augmented hearing; to other accounts of the auditory that have so far been ignored, erased or marginalized; to new concepts pertaining to the workings of non-human organisms, experimental systems and interspecies relations.

Third, taking into account the highly reflective position of researcher as hearer, the need to further develop methodological and conceptual tools that would permit interacting with the question of sound beyond that idealised ear-centric perspective.  How can we craft different critiques and define new subjects by revisiting the presence and embodiment of sound?

To engage these points, Melle and I chose a format that would facilitate discussion. We organized four panels consisting of four 15-minute presentations. Each presentation was given back to back. After a 30-minute discussion between guest respondents and panellists, the floor was opened to a one-hour discussion with the audience. The participants included: Michael Bull Zeynep Bulut, Melissa Dickson, Nina Eidsheim, Bastien Gallet, Edward Gillin, Julian Henriques, Douglas Kahn, Anahid Kassabian Seth Kim-Cohen, Aleks Kolkowski, Sander van Maas, Mara Mills, Úna Monaghan, Ita Monaghan, Gascia Ouzounian, Jillian Rogers, Matthieu Saladin, Holger Schulze, Jason Stanyek, Jonathan Sterne, David Trippett. The discussion was further animated by Georgina Born, Ruth Bernatek, John Levack Drever, Josephine Hoegaerts, Peter Hughes, Santinder Gil among many others in the audience (see programme here)


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We all hear differently. The impossibility of a singular ear has been a central question in sound research since at least the 19th Century.  Indeed, difference and multiplicity are key characteristics in 19th-century scientific and musical descriptions of the limits of hearing and the constitution of the individualized listener. While it seems natural that our perception of sonic phenomena differs from those of the past, because our hearing situation is even more diverse and multiplied than that of the 19th Century, we must still be wary of some trans-historic notion of a singular ear that crosses through our technologies,  practices and beliefs.

 Paying attention to the actual experience of hearing

At the Sensing the sonic conference Nina Eidsheim addressed this problem by calling for a shift in perspective. She pointed out that our ears in the end are ‘boringly similar’, and that we should be more attentive to the reasons constructing this similitude. Eidsheim suggested the need to dislodge the ideal and neutralised ear—and that a critique of our current discourses on ear differences was necessary to do this. Mara Mills further elaborated this train of thought by asking ‘when does hearing differently matter’? Jonathan Sterne further proposed that in order to better make sense of hearing differently that we return to ways in which hearing creates the corporeal.

Throughout the conference attention was given to rethinking the actual experience of hearing and doing this by fleshing out its material and sensorial effects. We reflected on the utility of drawing on lived or idiosyncratic experience to question what acts reflect and reinforce categories; what acts reveal our relationship to idealised positions of audition; how the symbolic is derived from the material and why this is ignored.

During discussion, the suggestion arose that pursuing such directions could help confront the shortcomings of our current analytical modes and the continued ‘lazy’ use of metaphor in work on hearing and deafnesses. Indeed throughout the discussion concern was raised in regard to how ideologies of sound were still being perpetuated in current scientific and musical research—ideologies that were deeply rooted in 19th-century constructs of Nature. We agreed that developing other methods and modes of inquiry was necessary for attending to forgotten sonic practices and hearers, as well as the historical cultural acts that brutally silenced such stories. Further, as we think about the kinds of dynamic relations involved in any hearing event between species, matter or machines, we need to think of alternative concepts to our continued anthropomorphisation of matter and animals. As such topics of materialisms and materialities became central for this extended historical period of 1800-present.

Such a rapid gloss cannot relate the continuous noise level of animated conversation that marked these events: neither the flow between different discursive and expressive modes of working on sound, nor the punctuated exclamations of convergence and disagreement. I hope very much that this encounter of styles of sensing can be gleaned through listening to the audio archives of the event. My sincerest thanks to everyone who joined us for Sensing the sonic. Our work together has most definitely stimulated my own.

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