Meets Sound Studies
by John Cobb and Byrd McDaniel
Process theology proposes that the entire universe is composed of events not substances, and that we can better understand themselves, and interact with the wider world in healthier ways, if we think in terms of events. "Sounds" are among the most fundamental events we know, and they can become a metaphor for the very nature of the universe. And yet process theology has unfolded without reference to the emerging field of sound studies. This page offers a short reflection by John Cobb on the need to reclaim hearing as a source for understanding the world and an introduction to sound studies by Byrd McDaniel. The page is an invitation to a dialogue that can be developed further by scholars, artists, and activists.
-- Jay McDaniel
-- Jay McDaniel
From Seeing to Hearing
by John Cobb (Process theologian, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences)
Western philosophy has always tended to focus on what we learn through sight rather than the other senses or nonsensuous experience. This focus has been heightened and rigidified in modernity. It is almost always assumed that our knowledge of the external world is given to us only through our sense organs. Then, with little or no further discussion, the examples of sense experience come primarily from vision and secondarily from touch. What we experience in these ways are most easily understood as substantial objects that endure through time. Objects are sharply distinguished from subjects, the external, from the internal.
One could accept sensory data as having priority, but then go to other senses: taste, smell, and sound. The world given us through these sense suggests something very different. All three occur as events. The idea of independent, long-lasting objects would be hard to fit in. It is hard to draw a sharp line between the external and the internal. Is the taste in the tongue, or in the food one is chewing, or in the personal experience. It turns out also to be difficult to separate taste from smell.
Since much of the time taste and smell are playing a very minor role in our experience, the real alternative to seeing as a source of knowledge of the world is hearing. Hearing plays a large role in our experience, and although Western philosophers have neglected it, there are traditions in which its role is primary. This was true of the ancient Hebrews. So through the influence of the Bible hearing continued for a long time to be important in Western civilization. However, now, as the role of the Bible fades, the world of passive objects, quite alien to subjects, has taken over our educational system and our culture more generally. The consequences are not positive.
Consider the question of value, or, if you prefer, meaning, importance, and life-orientation. Until the twentieth century in was assumed that education helped people find their way in this area of their life. But now, our schools avoid all this. The world given us in sight does not include values. So we have decided that schools should "value-free." Institutions, such as churches, keep talking about values; so they are marginalized. The result is quite naturally "meaninglessness."
There are, of course, meaningless sounds. But much of the world we enter as children is constituted by language. Much of what we hear has to do with how we should behave.
A philosopher may distinguish the hearing of sound from its interpretation as meaningful language, but in fact the two are inseparable. Sounds often communicate meanings better than the interpretations. A boy may know that he is being scolded even if pays no attention to the words and their conventional interpretations. Music may communicate much related to the world of meaning without ever being verbally interpreted.
The world of sound is a world of events in which we individuals are participants. These events are meaningful and shape us in meaningful ways. Individual and group life takes the form of a story, and an important way of forming meanings is by telling stories. Of course, all of this continues in some way even when the culture focuses on sight instead. The invention of written language, which we associate with the origin of civilization, brought language and story into the world of sight. Whereas oral language is clearly event-oriented, written language has the endurance and autonomy of objects. Philosophers are almost always oriented to the written word.
The Abrahamic traditions are strongly oriented to speaking and hearing. God is known as speaker. In creation God spoke the world into existence. The focus is on God's "Word." Making visible images of God is forbidden. God calls, and people ignore or respond. God's words are sometimes audible, but mainly meaningful communications not associated with physical sounds. This is easily understood in a world of hearing but quite meaningless in a world of seeing.
Obviously, both seeing and hearing are important to our lives and to our understanding of our world. Modernity arose seeking clear and distinct ideas and objective arguments. It opened doors wide that had only been cracked before. But in its inappropriate arrogance, it tries to silence the wisdom that is found in the world of sound.
Today we need a renewed balance. And I believe that can be attained best if we take the world of hearing as the better clue to the reality that is known also in seeing. The world of hearing leads easily into the nonsensory perceptions out of which all forms of sensory experience arise.
Introducing Sound Studies
by Byrd McDaniel (PhD Candidate, Brown University, Ethnomusicology)
John Cobb recommends an event-based cosmology that challenges the substance view of reality that we inherit from vision-based epistemologies. He has good ideas to offer sound studies and vice versa; both process scholars and sound studies scholars seem to be working toward similar ends. Consider, for example, Alain Corbin’s work on 19th century French villages and the importance of bells, showing how they establish a zone of relevance for citizens and a constant “sacral recharging” of the public sphere. He writes that the bells, which mark things like marriage, leisure activities, and important events, challenge the notion of “quantitative time,” or the measured regular time of everyday life that clocks give us today. He argues that these bells provided "qualitative time,” or a time based around heightened movements of importance within the community--moments not entirely separate from one another or moments that are not necessarily measured as discrete units. This resonates with John Cobb's thought and suggests the presence of alternative views of time that might also entail challenges to the view of history as the succession of material events through cause and effect.
Indeed, process theology can benefit considerably from an engagement with sound studies. The work of sound studies sheds light on many of the themes offered here, particularly those themes that concern:
John Cobb's impulse here points to an important insight: that turning to sound we may find ways to undermine logocentrism that rests on the idea that objects exist outside of human experience and may be analyzed as discrete entities, without paying attention to the ways our own subjective experiences shape those objects in our own meaning making process. The lesson that results is that we should not treat sound as we sometimes treat vision.
We could imagine confronting Western occularcentric epistemologies on two fronts. First, we could say sound doesn’t really work like that. Sound doesn’t function as a discrete object but rather vibrates our bodies and can thus teach us about how we exist in our world. We feel sound resonate our bodies--not just pass through our ears. Sound demonstrates that our experience of the world involves embodied, subjective (and often unconscious, unarticulated) meaning making. Second, we could say that thinking about sound can illuminate important epistemologies that run counter to dominant ways of meaning making. It’s no accident that the dominant forms of knowledge that revolve around vision (and things like literacy, maps, land rights, etc.) reinforce the power of a select few.
We can even think about sound as something not entire composed of vibrations in the air, as something that exists in an experiential way around and within and through our bodies. Sound studies also counters ways of viewing music that take music as a discrete object, rather than as something experiential and involving creative impulses from our own bodies. In Musicking Bodies, Matthew Rahaim writes:
"What do we miss if we reduce music to sound? People, for one thing. And when people make music, they move: a finger slides along the neck of a violin, a palm whacks a drumhead, a laryngeal cartilage tilts back and forth as air is pushed through the vocal folds. But musical action also includes inaudible motion. Flamenco singers heighten the rhetorical impact of their performance with dramatic movements of the hands, arms, and eyes. Singers of Beijing Opera assume stylized gestural dispositions according to specific role types. And systems of hand gesture have long been part of Coptic, Jewish, Byzantine, and other liturgical chant practices.”
In other words, we do a lot of things with our bodies to discriminate sounds, in ways that communicate how sound feels to others and also help shape sounds meaning in our own bodies. Such a process clearly underscores the way sound “invades our body,” to use Julian Henriques’s description of Jamaican reggae.
As a final note, I might also add that hearing has been subject to the historical construction of the senses and the notorious separation of them as five separate abilities. How we think about and separate senses differs in each historical era. Rather than dispense with vision (in our anti-occularcentric project), we might think through the ways sound and vision work in tandem--and how sound can teach us new ways to understand vision as not simply an exercise of looking at objective phenomena in our field of vision. This is the link to taste, smell, and the many visceral experiences we sometimes label as affect or emotion or touch but often fall beyond the limits of language