Every sensory interaction relates back to us not the object/phenomenon perceived, but that object/ phenomenon filtered, shaped and produced by the sense employed in its perception, whereby the senses employed are always already ideologically and aesthetically determined, bringing their own influence to perception - the perceptual object and the perceptual subject. It is therefore a matter of accepting the a priori influence while working towards a listening in spite rather than because of it. The task is to suspend, as much as possible, ideas of genre, category, purpose and historical context, to achieve a hearing that is the material heard, now, contingently and individually. This suspension does not mean to disregard context or intention, nor is it thoughtless and lazy. Instead it means appreciating the context and intention through a practice of listening rather than as a description and limitation of hearing. To rely on the pre-given does in any event not make the perceived more valid. It simply makes it more certain within its own description. However, this also means that perception can only ever know the work to the degree to which it fulfils that certainty. Listening not in the service of that certainty pursues a different engagement. Left in the dark, I need to explore what I hear, and what I hear is discovered not received, and this discovery is generative: always different and subjective and continually, presently now producing my auditory fantasy.
An aesthetic and philosophy of sound art has to be based on this discovering drive to produce the context and meaning of the work in its inventive perception rather than through the expectation of an a priori. Such a listening does not pursue the question of meaning, as a collective, total comprehension, but as interpretation in the sense of a phantasmagoric, individual and contingent practice of production. This practice remains necessarily incomplete in relation to an objective totality but complete in its subjective contingency. Sound narrates, outlines and fills, but it is always ephemeral and doubtful. Between my heard and the sonic object/phenomenon I will never know its truth but can only invent it, producing a knowing for me. This is knowing as participle, always now, unfolding in the present, bringing with it the uncertainty of a fleeting understanding.
This knowing is the experience of sound as temporal relationship. This relationship is not between things but is the thing, is sound itself. Listening cannot contemplate the object/phenomenon heard separate from its audition because the object does not precede listening. Rather, the auditory is generated in the listening practice: in listening I am in sound, there can be no gap between the heard and hearing, I either hear it or I don’t, and what I perceive is what I hear. I can perceive a distance but that is a heard distance. The distance is what I hear here, not the over-there. It does not signal a separation of objects or events but is the separation as perceived phenomenon.
The aesthetic subject in sound is defined by this fact of interaction with the auditory world. The listeners are placed in the midst of its materiality, complicit with its production. The sounds of their footsteps are part of the auditory place they produce in their movements through it: entwined with the heard - their sense of the world and of themselves is constituted in this bond. The understanding gained is a knowing of the moment as a sensory event that involves the listener and the sound in a reciprocal inventive production.
In 1948 Maurice Merleau-Ponty was commissioned by the French National radio to give seven audio-lectures on ‘The Development of Ideas’ to be broadcast as part of ‘The French Culture Hour’.
In these lectures Merleau-Ponty considers the perception of the world not as a passive gazing at its a priori attributes but instates visual perception via modern painting and everyday objects an active role. Merleau-Ponty talks about painting and the artistic demand to see beyond the intellectual expectation of a representational reality into the perception of ‘a space in which we too are located’. He outlines a phenomenology of perception, a world and art perceived rather than known: ‘a world in which regions of space are separated by the time it takes to move our gaze from one to the other a world in which being is not given but emerges over time’. [i]
In print his ideas retain the notion of a finished painting rather than the movement of unfolding that he attributes to the sensory material. Through the spoken words of the broadcast however the painting unfolds, refolds, from me, as an audio work. I hear and participate in the process of layers, distances, times and separations. The dark serendipity of radio grants no room: its nearness and temporality is not that of my reading but that of its own unfolding, out of the dark into my ears, in the physical time of the broadcast. Listening I perform the complexity of the painting bodily and in some haste – perceiving it as a sonic work.
The words as text, as language, however, perform the musical work: framed by convention it allows entry to scrutinizing eyes, makes time and grants space for a visual analysis. Music invites the supposition of language to ensure the listener fulfills the expectation of what is to be heard. By contrast, sound does not allow for an interpretation on top of its work-ness but is interpretation as all there is, temporal and contingent, happening in a very small dark space. The issue here is not a distinction between music and sound art, but how they are listened to.
The word as voice is the bodily fragment of its sound, and the painting unfolding in that voice takes that body to meet mine in a dark and transient conduit. Here the painting is experienced in all its complexity rather than appreciated as a firm fact: trembling and in doubt it is the motility of being. And so, when in another broadcast in the series, Merleau-Ponty explains the complex unity of perception through the yellow sourness of a lemon and the liquid stickiness of honey, it is from his voice, the bodily and transient sound of his appearance out of the darkness of the broadcast, that the lemon and honey get formed in my listening as uncertain and complex unities that reveal my own unsure intricacy.
This is the case with the quality of being-honeyed. Honey is a slow-moving liquid; while it undoubtedly has a certain consistency and allows itself to be grasped, it soon creeps slyly from the fingers and returns to where it started from. It comes apart as soon as it has been given a particular shape, and what is more, it reverses the roles, by grasping the hands of whoever would take hold of it.[ii]
Being honeyed expresses the reciprocity of his phenomenological intersubjectivity. The honey can only be felt through my stickiness. It cannot be grasped as a remote object but comes in to being in my honeyed-hands as a complex phenomenon of no certain shape but a demanding nature. While the text describes the process, the voice produces it. His voice becomes the honey that drips into my ears and engages me without taking a certain shape; it remains a roving complexity that grasps me in its formlessness and presents me with my own.
Merleau-Ponty talks about his world of perception in visual terms. The sensibility of his perception however is not that of vision, it is a sonic sensibility: a dark, serendipitous practice of perception that invents the object/phenomenon under consideration contingently and subjectively. The sonic reality thus produced is intersubjective and generative: presently producing the work and the world from my being honeyed in its sound.[iii]
Listening as a generative and intersubjective practice challenges how we see and how we participate in the production of the visual world. Its focus on the dynamic nature of things renders the perceptual object unstable, fluid and ephemeral: unsettling what is through a world of sonic phenomena and audible spirits. The spectre of sound unsettles the idea of visual stability and involves us as listeners in the production of an invisible world. It challenges, augments and expands what we see, without presenting a negative illusion, by producing the reality of lived experience. Through this generative experience listening revisits those philosophical tenets that are bound to the sovereignty of the visual.
Listening, in this sense, is an aesthetic activity that challenges the philosophical tradition of the West, which, according to film theorist Christian Metz, is based on a hierarchy between the senses which positions sound in the location of the attribute, sublimated to the visual and its linguistic structure. In that position sound is left to describe and enhance but never to do and become. It is a small adjective to the mighty visual noun, furnishing its objects and enhancing its perspective without being acknowledged in that position. [iv]
When we start to listen as a critical motility this position becomes untenable. Listening emancipated from the expectation to enhance does something else. It produces, it invents, it generates. It demands that the heard be more than a ghost of the visual, a flimsy figment of the imagination, soon dispelled. However, instead of denying the ephemeral quality of its object, it is the preference for the assumed substance of visuality that needs to be reassessed by focusing on the ephemeral exactly.
Listening to Things
Our relationship with things is not a distant one, each speaks to our body and the way we live. […] Humanity is invested in the things of the world and these are invested in it. [v]
Listening to sound is where objectivity and subjectivity meet: in the experience of our own generative perception we produce the objectivity from our subjective and particular position of listening, which in its turn is constituted by the objectivity of the object as a prior moment of hearing, subjective and particular. It is this particularity of the listening subject in the contingency of his experience that has to be kept in mind, in order, according to Theodor W. Adorno, not to turn the individual subject already into an (objective) universal; in order, in other words, to avoid ideology and hierarchy. It is neither the thing that dominates the being nor the being that dominates the thing. They are reciprocal and equivalent, but in their momentary meeting they are also distinct. They are produced on the spot, together in difference, any prior objectivity and prior subjectivity is invested in this momentary and complex production but does not subsume it.
Objectivity and subjectivity are partners rather than adversaries in such a conception. They are concrete and causal, constituted through each other without abandoning themselves. And while, according to Adorno, transcendental subjects are more constitutive of a current (visual) society that emphasizes rationality and abstraction, they are in that reality always already deformed into the rationality of their surrounding structure. By contrast, empirical subjects are formless, in that they have no visibility nor power in that social order, and exist but as beings for themselves, outside the social exchange.[vi]
The sonic subject is this empirical subject understood as an experiential subject. Its determination, practised in listening, is formless but not powerless: the sonic object/phenomenon discharges a systemic reality through its insistence on being heard, being experienced rather than abstracted. It challenges the pseudo-rationality of abstracted relations and its acquiescent ideologies and values and instead insists on concrete experience.
matières induites (1975)
Bernard Parmegiani’s matières induites builds a whole forest of things, dark, multi-layered, precise, calculated, bursting forth, here, there and going. As a short 3:44 minutes sequence it brings to life and takes away a tiny thing of sound. It is but a snippet, sweet sized, rolling around in my ears. I sense it as a formless shape that fills me with my form. It is a sonic thing that is also a landscape and a narration of things that do not exist. It drums and tinkers, rings and scrapes, flickers and dances firmly around itself. It is a thing that moves through its own production rather than representing it. And yet it remains here and makes me move. We move against each other, in opposite direction circling on the same spot, while moving on. Its time and space is simultaneous and complex. Condensed. Its elements never sit beside each other but produce in four dimensions the sensory complexity of its hearing. Away from its series, 12 pieces entitled De Natura Sonorum, it seems like a little being, lost and exposed to my interpreting ears. And yet it is in itself a pressing thing, with the authority and demand of its own materiality. The composition induces and brings forth its own object, whose objectivity is fragile and passing, but insistent. It can take any form or shape, growing into what is around, into my ears, into what I hear. Listening means to tempt and encourage the complex object intended in composition but shaped by the listener’s subjectivity, bound to the objectivity of prior hearings.
It is the sensorial force of Parmegiani’s matières induites, which ignites the question about habits of perception that cloak the practice of listening that motivates my enquiry into the Heideggerian Thing – das Ding – through which he grapples with the ontological notion of the Wesen der Dinge, the nature of the things, on his way to a philosophy of art.
Borrowing Martin Heidegger’s philosophical focus I am acknowledging the ontological frame of the search for the nature of things, and understand that sound as Thing responds to that investigation and thus I want to engage in the question of thingness via sound. Heidegger asks, ‘als was zeigen sich die Dinge?’ How do the things show themselves, and wants us to appreciate the Thing from its-showing-of-itself that which shows itself in the way that it shows itself in its present attendance. In this way he performs a phenomenological reduction from the naively grasped being (Seienden) of the Thing, to the being (Sein) of the Thing thinging: ‘Das Ding dingt.’[vii]
I take Heidegger’s focus on the elemental notion of the Thing in its Dingheit, thinging, and foreground the generative possibility of such a thinging Thing: not just to be, intransitive and transcendental, but to presently, in a current encounter, impress on the listener its own production. The sounding Thing is dinglich through its own sound track rather than in relation to other things. Since in sound the material is what is heard already in its Dingheit, thinging, rather than as a secondary motion from a pre-conceived thing. [The naïve apperception of the sonic material (das Seiende) is not what precedes the phenomenological engagement of listening, but is its visual avoidance.]
The Thing as sound is a verb, the thing is what ‘things’ in its contingent production. To thing, it is to do a thing rather than be a Thing. In fact any notion of being as a positive or transcendental existence, in and of itself, is negated in sonic thingness. The sonic thing is not perspectival, organized in relation to other things, social functions, or ordered in relation to a purpose. The sonic thing makes the organization and the purpose, contingently, in passing, and any purpose or social relations thus resounded is equally contingent and transitive. It is empirical, neither formed nor deformed, but formless.
The sonic thing as a doing ‘substance’ is not sublimated to the noun in the sentence. Rather it abandons the hierarchy and becomes the noun as a thinging being, and when the sonic object does not precede its sounding, when the thing is only its thinging, the noun is the location of the verb. The thing is the doing of the individual perception of what it does. It involves the perceiver in the thinging and declares that the world at large is a complex thing generated in our individual and collective listening production of it as such and of us as thinging within it.
By sonic thingness we grasp the complexity of the object rather than list its attributes or purposes, and we grasp it in its particular and contingent doing. In other words, the thingness is the presence of every object and subject as honey: concrete and formless, grasping and slipping away, it is the moment of perception as a reciprocal sensory-motor action. Parmegiani creates a sonic Thing that is neither less nor more than the visual object; it does not negate nor sublimate visuality, but builds itself out of its own material to be itself as sound. Its thingness is formless but concrete. Its substantiality is the actuality of my fleeting perception, which produces the work as aesthetic moment.
The sense produced in this aesthetic moment is Merleau-Ponty’s non-sense, which is neither sense as rational meaning, nor is it its nonsensical opposite. Instead it describes a sense that comes out of an experiential sensing of the work and the world.
[viii] It is not the pure sensation of an object’s attributes nor its positive determination, but is the sensation of the honeyed thing, involved and complex. This sense has no claim to generality and shared communication, but remains experience as contingent interpretation - a fantasy. It involves the sensation of the sensorial object as well as of the sensing subject as things thinging, and its sense cannot divorce the two nor step out of their sphere. This contingent sense brings the object and the subject of perception together in the aesthetic moment that triggers and constitutes the thinging of the work.
[i] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception, trans. Oliver Davis, London and New York: Routledge, 2008, p. 41.
[ii] Ibid., p. 46.
[iii] Merleau-Ponty never overtly deals with sound, if at all then he mentions music and treats it within its conventions. It is only in his very last writing, collected together under the title The Visible and the Invisible, published posthumously in 1964 from his manuscripts, that he deals with silence and mentions sounds. I believe that, had he lived longer, this silence would have brought him to a lot more noise, as I understand sound to realize Merleau-Ponty’s theoretical phenomenology in practice. ‘We shall have to follow more closely this transition from the mute world to the speaking world.’ Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis, edited by Claude Lefort, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1968, p. 154.
[iv] In his 1975 essay ‘Aural Objects’ [originally entitled ‘le perçu et le nommé’ (‘the perceived and the named’), Metz discusses the preference for the substantial, the visible and tactile, which he identifies as primary senses above
smell and sound, which are thus qualified as secondary and attributal. Metz correlates this hierarchical order with a capitalist orientation in the West. He talks about a ‘primitive substantialism’, which according to him reflects the Western philosophical tradition since Descartes and Spinoza. This tradition, to him, is apparent in the subject–predicate structure particular to Indo-European languages, where the noun of the sentence orientates and determines the predicate, which is thus sublimated to this noun.
[v] Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception, p. 49.
[vi] Theodor, W. Adorno, ‘Subject and Object’, in The Adorno Reader, edited by Brian O’Connor, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, p. 141.
[vii] Martin Heidegger, ‘Das Ding’, in Vorträge und Aufsätze, Prullingen, Germany: Verlag Günther 1959, p. 172.
[viii] Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964
An edited excerpt from ‘Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art’, New York: Continuum, 2010