Think Piece

Will Sound Studies Ever “Emerge”?

by guest contributor Jacek Blaszkiewicz

By Jacek Blaszkiewicz

In a recent issue of H-France Forum, four historians—David Garrioch, Éva Guillorel, Una McIlvenn, and Lewis C. Seifert—published reviews of Nicholas Hammond’s book, The Powers of Sound and Song in Early Modern Paris (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019). Impressed by its use of sound as an area of inquiry, Lewis C. Seifert writes that Hammond’s book is “inspired by the emerging field of sound studies.” As a musicologist interested in the aural dimensions of nineteenth-century Parisian street culture, I was struck by this claim, as I have seen it before. In 1991, Alain Corbin warned that historians “can no longer afford to neglect materials pertaining to auditory perception.” Years later, we learn in a 2007 edited volume that “historians have, until recently, been silent about sound.” Even practitioners of sound studies cannot resist the rhetoric of discovery, marking their field as “an emerging interdisciplinary area” and “a vibrant new interdisciplinary field.”

Reflecting on these claims of academic novelty, I began to think about how the rhetoric of emergence and interdisciplinarity can, ironically, thwart interdisciplinary exchange and silence research that is truly new. Reading these references to the “emergence” of sound and to the “pioneers” of its study, I also could not help notice the persistence of colonialist rhetoric that pervades subject areas which, though technically no longer marginalized, cannot shake their marginalized identity.

The subfield known as sound studies was popularized by the composer and scholar R. Murray Schafer, whose 1971 study The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World suggested that a study of sound can help humans make sense of ever-changing built and natural environments. Countless books and articles that refer to “sound studies” (like Hammond’s) also refer back to Schafer’s definitions of sound, in effect reinventing the wheel every time. Published over forty years ago, Schafer’s book was of course not the final word on the subject. In fact, Michael Bull has critiqued Schafer’s “romantic, neo-colonial representation of sonic experience” (83). Attempts at distinguishing the study of the aural from Shafer orthodoxy have led to a rather inconsistent distinction between “sound studies,” the slightly more inclusive “auditory culture,” and the still more comprehensive yet more vague “sensory history.” A mountain of publications—many of them multi-author volumes—have tackled the ontology and epistemology of sound. The Sound Studies Reader contains well-known writings by Schafer, Jacques Derrida, Adriana Cavarero, and Jacques Attali, alongside recent scholarship that uses sound as a motive in philosophy, sociology, linguistics, disability studies, musicology, and other fields. Entire academic journals and blogs (see Sound Studies, The Journal of Sonic Studies, and Sounding Out!) were founded with the understanding that the study of sound does not always mean the study of music.

But they, too, often lean on the rhetoric of newness. This language is particularly apparent in promotional texts such as book series introductions, calls for papers, and abstracts. For example, the series preface to the Sound Studies Lab at Humboldt Universität proposes work “on a rather new yet well-known field of research.” One can argue that the scholarly rhetoric of emergence reflects the neoliberal drive within academia to disrupt, innovate, and produce—a sort of disciplinary “creative destruction.” But the purported “emergence” of sound, particularly in history, presents an opportunity to reflect how colonialist rhetoric pervades how we read the archive, convert sonic documents into scholarship, and broadcast that scholarship across disciplines.

Whereas much of the extant scholarship in sound studies relies on recording technology and ethnography, historians—particularly of periods predating the phonograph—must recover evidence of sound through the archive, rather than hear it for themselves. Moving beyond “textual” representations of musical sound such as sheet music, song lyrics, and print images, how can historians gauge sound’s role in the discourses and practices of the past? This is a question that historical musicologists and ethnomusicologists continue to grapple with. Of particular importance is unsettling the logocentrism and ocularcentrism (or what Johannes Fabian would call hegemonic “visualism”) of the Western archive. In her book Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Columbia, Ana María Ochoa Gautier explores how the very act of listening was a subject of intense political dispute between European colonizers and the colonized societies of Latin America. Rather than fetishizing sound qua sound as an archival quirk, Ochoa Gautier digs into its use as a colonial epistemology. She defines “aurality” not as the opposite of writing, but rather as “a historical mode of audibility that emerges in divesting the voice of unwanted features while pretending to be speaking about it” (20).

The rhetoric of newness around sound studies further reinforces the hegemony of the eye over the ear. The solution, then, is not to refer back to presumed “pioneering” texts in the field, but to approach the study of sound from a reflexive position. Historians ought not be lured by sound’s supposed novelty—a supposition baked into the ocular/logocentrism of Western humanistic disciplines. Sound is not just an ephemeral, acoustic occurrence, but a method of framing history.

In teaching and in research, historians of sound can ask themselves questions that cut into the presuppositions of their discipline. What is the difference between the aesthetics of music and those of noise? Who gets to decide those differences? How is sound written about in archival sources? Who decides what gets included in such archives? How have different cultures written about sound? What does the reliance on visual metaphor in Western music in particular (“high” and “low” notes, “long” and “short” passages) say about how Western culture has privileged the eye over the ear? The mind over the body? How does sonic history confirm or undermine oral history—another subfield with its own marginalization vis à vis the written archive?

With decades of interdisciplinary scholarship behind it, “sound studies” seems to be stuck in a perpetual state of emergence. Far from it being the fault of individual authors, this rhetoric of emergence reflects a structural problem with how humanities fields produce and promote research across disciplinary lines.

The language of novelty is often deployed to direct an argument towards a publishing or funding opportunity. To that end, academic gatekeepers—publishers and editors, as well as conference organizers, grant reviewers, advisors, and academically minded journalists— have the power to mitigate this colonialist rhetoric. Just as the word “emerging” can give a false sense of novelty, humanists should also be skeptical in announcing “turns” in their respective fields. The Pennsylvania State University Press’s “Perspectives on Sensory History” (where Hammond’s book appears) announces a “sensory turn” on its website. The University of Illinois Press’s own “Studies in Sensory History” series hopes to “galvanize a burgeoning field.” Beginning with much-discussed “cultural,” “linguistic,” and “reflexive” turns, and continuing unabated through “material,” “affective,” “spatial,” “network,” “maker,” and “computational” turns, academia announces methodological shifts with drum-like rhythm.

More on the nose is the “sonic turn,” which Tom McEnaney claims began with the publication of Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity (2002) and Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past (2003). Although these two books continue to shape current thought on sound, their suggested role in initiating a “turn” perpetuates an origin myth that not only ignores what came before, but also forces the hand of future scholars to cite these texts for their “pioneering” status. When they are overused, “turns” ring more of marketing jargon than of paradigm shifts. Moreover, “turns” often overlap in their subject matter and methods. Philosophies of sound, for instance, shed light on theories of affect and embodiment, while also featuring in critical work on race theory, gender and sexuality, and postcolonial geographies. The rhetoric of “turns” is not only unconvincing in its repetitiveness, but like “emergence,” it also betrays a colonialist rhetoric of discovery and origination. While a “turn” can push a discipline beyond its orthodoxies, it can potentially encroach on another field for whom such a “turn” had long ago occurred.    

Sound, as Nicholas Hammond and many others have argued, can be an elusive area of critical study. It is especially challenging when considering the eras predating recording technology. Despite the challenges with recovering sonic practices from written archives, this elusiveness should not be mistaken for silence. Historians do not “discover” sound. Sound was always there, even though it is not always apparent in the written archive. It does not belong to any discipline, nor does it need to be claimed. Sound does not imprint itself; it is reproduced through notation, oral tradition, formal education, or technology. It also resonates, which makes reflexivity a crucial component of its study.

For years now, historians have grappled with the sonic archive as a philosophical and colonialist enterprise, have questioned its inclusivity, and have penetrated its ideological underpinning. As Paul Ricoeur writes, “the moment of the archive is the moment of the entry into writing of the historiographical operation. Testimony is by origin oral. It is listened to, heard. The archive is written. It is read, consulted. In the archive, the professional historian is a reader.” Yet archival reading need not be a silent act, at least not inwardly. What if archives were read ethnographically (what Peter McMurray calls a “sensual recollection”), triggering memories of sound real or imagined, personal or vicarious?[1] This question of how to recover sound from the archive—to hear through the ears of the past—is one that historians and musicologists can ask of themselves, and of one another.

[1] See Peter McMurray, “On serendipity: Or, toward a sensual ethnography,” in Queering the Field: Sounding Out Ethnomusicology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 380-96.

Jacek Blaszkiewicz is assistant professor of music history at Wayne State University. He is interested in how sound interfaces with urban policies and fictional narratives of cities, in particular Paris and Detroit. His current book project examines how music shaped the urban history of Paris during the nineteenth century. He received his PhD in musicology from the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester in 2018.

Featured Image: William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician (1741). Courtesy of the Tate Museum.

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