[-empyre-] Day 2 Week 2: Sonic Paths

Douglas Kahn djkahn at ucdavis.edu
Wed Jun 11 10:11:26 EST 2014

Hello all: 

This is great! I now see that other commitments are on the back burner this
week (see, already a thermal metaphor).  

Marcus, part of the book does address historical media theory, hopefully in
a way that will open things up to "nature" and ecology beyond
manifestations of programming and ecological communication; and in
complement with green media analyses, while going beyond the framework of
depletion, exploitation and pollution to a radically positive being on a
dynamically homeostatic planet. This is the topic of the book I'm working
on right now "A Natural History of Media," which carries on from the last
chapter of Earth Sound Earth Signal. 

Per your second point, mentions of energy are dismissed by some as thinly-
or not-so-thinly disguised panpsychism or undigested quantum popsci,
infused with either vibrating subatomic particles or the soul (sometimes
they're right but no need to dismiss). Nebulous energies course through
quite a bit of Deleuzean discourse and can be found circulating as the
juice through a variety of assemblages. It can show up as a generative
backup (resonant field) too, not just a current or capillary flow, in
different religions, occult and mystical traditions (Hinduism/Tantrism), as
well as in Elizabeth Grosz's Chaos, Territory, Art where, by the way, it is
vibratory, vibration, etc. 

The easy approach is to dismiss such things for any variety of reasons,
whereas I think doing so is just plain lazy. If you study the arts, music,
religion...hell, culture, you will be cutting out some of the most
interesting phenomena. People don't shy away from dealing with Catholicism,
say, so why is Wilhelm Reich too strange? Within the study of Western art
music, the usual procedure is to nod to a composer's attachment to occult
or spiritualist attachments, but not sink oneselve into the field and
literature of those places themselves to understand the possible
attractions and the work that their attachments modulate. 

And you're right, Reich was very influential. I mention in passing how
Sheridan Speeth, a scientist at Bell Labs, first told James Tenney and
Carolee Schneemann about Reich, and in Noise Water Meat I mention Michael
McClure's fascination with Reich (and Tantrism) in the formation of his
beast language. "The body" in the poetry and arts of the 1960s was greatly
influenced by Reich and, someone should write a book on the topic, if
they're not writing it as we speak (or already written it...). There's
scholarship on Wm Burroughs that addresses his Reichian activities fairly
well, and there's a new book on him and Scientology (whackier than Reich)
that looks good.     

The task is to get deep into the messay workings of things, specify and
work out from there; that was Walter Benjamin's working method in a
nutshell. What might actually be happening in the black boxes of "becoming"
or "transduction"? Waving a hand over a process is too much of a
metaphorical procedure. It is not as though you will avoid metaphor
altogether (or at all) by breaking open the black box and specifying the
mechanism and means, but you will likely a more provocative field of
switching arrays and grounds for better metaphors. It doesn't have to be
scientific but, if (non-)humanists are grand synthesizers, scientists are
the masters of specification. Get into the biophysics of transduction
involved in human vision and soon you're into mechanisms present in new and
possible forms of quantum computing, solar power, etc., metaphors of plant
life and Cold War communications; it's really quite wonderful. 

I think Karen Barad's work is very good at such specification. She is, of
course, a theoretical physicist working the quantum beat, while my
contention is that most of the world people live in operates in the manner
of classical physics, and that's where poetic engagements and political
vernaculars will more readily develop. As I say in the book, Maxwellian
electromagnetic waves, when compared to "sound" or other experiential
energies, are historically very recent and do not have vernaculars
commensurate with their saturation and importance culturally and
ecologically. The "quantum floor" keeps rising but is still comparatively
very shallow.

I have to head off to a meeting on the other side of town but will be back
this afternoon to continue with Nina's contribution.

Until then, 





> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Thank you to Renate and Tim, and to Marcus, for the invitation to engage in
> this conversation with Douglas, Marcus, and the <empyre> community.
> The rabbit hole of physical energy or, vibration, opened up beneath my feet
> when I started to question the assumptions I had to hold in order to
> subscribe to the category �sound.� It was experiences within my own
> sustained practice of singing and inquiry other singers'  vocal pieces,
> pieces that initially did not make sense to me, that led to my doubting and
> questioning assumptions around sound. So, to address Marcus� initial
> question: deeply indebted to the questions and perspectives sounds studies
> have opened up (Alain Corbin, Veit Erlmann, Julian Henrique, Doug Kahn,
> Mara Mills, Jonathan Sterne, Emily Thompson, and others), the way in which
> my work relates to sound studies is by interrogating the very category of
> sound. 
> For example, in my forthcoming book, Sensing Sound, I am interested in how
> the different conceptualizations of and names (say, �sound�) given that
> which might be thought about as
> vibrations-transmitted-or-transducted-through-material directs our overall
> experience of it. (How might this relate to Doug�s three part framework:
> vibration, inscription and transmission?) For example, how is subsequent
> aesthetics and analysis marked by the understanding that sound is
> understood as measureable within in time�i.e. that a given sound starts,
> goes on, and ends? Moreover, if it is assumed we can know sound and that it
> occupies a certain time-span, what else is it assumed we ought to know
> about it? And, if a given person is not able to recognize or name according
> to such parameters, what do we believe their naming or inability to name
> the sound tells us about that person? 
> In other words, thinking about vibration in the form of sound seems to push
> into the territory of assumption about what can be known, and value and
> virtue around people who hold such knowledge. The assumption that we can
> identify a given vibration as a knowable sound, also presumes that there is
> something stable, or, a prior, to an iteration of vibration towards which
> the given iteration of vibration is compared. Moreover, thinking about
> sound as knowable, presumes the listener not only hears and recognizes the
> sound, but, prior to that assessment, holds knowledge about possible sound
> designations. The knowledge about these sound designations is used to
> subsequently compare and recognize sounds. Finally, what does thinking
> about a certain category of vibration as sound, presumes vis-�-vis
> listening, or perception thereof, more broadly?
> To me, it is here the body--already mentioned by Douglas and Marcus--is
> inextricably linked to a category such as sound. Who whom or to what
> (whether human, animal, object, or instrument of measurement, or other)
> does that energetic or vibrational field unfold as *sound*? More
> importantly, what is gained, or, what (political, social, ethical, etc.)
> work can be carried out by understanding energetic or vibrational field as
> sound? 
> Nina
> On Jun 10, 2014, at 6:28 AM, Marcus Boon <mboon at yorku.ca> wrote:
> > ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> > I think that notion of energy and its relation to the arts is an
> important one. I was just browsing through the <empyre> archive and
> reading Alex Galloway's comments about the Excommunication book, and his
> interest in finding ways of talking about media that aren't predicated on
> communication or networks in their various reified forms.  Earth Sound,
> Earth Signal offers a start at finding vocabularies and practices for
> thinking about and engaging with energy qua energy.
> > 
> > But it's true that "energy" can be an incredibly vague word, when used by
> artists or other non-scientists.  And then there's the various New Age
> framings of energy, which the book acknowledges, while insisting on some
> kind of concrete practice of engagement with energy, however esoteric the
> theory.  I wonder how the work of someone like Wilhelm Reich (who's
> mentioned a couple of times in ESER) fits into the argument: he has a
> theory of universal energy (the orgone), various practices for mobilizing
> it (including the infamous cloud busters that were attempts to manipulate
> geophysical energies) ... and an influence on the arts that is probably
> still uncharted (I think of Burroughs with his orgone accumulator ...).
> > 
> > Doug mentioned that he mostly bracketed the issue of the body, as a
> complex and subtle field of energetic forces. I'm definitely interested in
> the body in my own work, because the kinds of manipulation of energy,
> vibration, and sound that happen say in a dancehall, are very much tuned to
> the capabilities or possibilities of the human body.  Julian Henriques'
> Sonic Bodies is a marvellous attempt to fully catalog what that force field
> of the dancehall is composed of.  I'd also say that it's difficult to avoid
> the issue of "psychic energy" when talking about subcultural scenes which
> are often concerned with what Goodman calls "affective mobilization".  The
> emphasis in Doug's book on transduction is very helpful to me ... I'm
> interested in what constitutes affective transduction.  I know that folks
> like Brian Massumi have done some elegant work on this ... but I'm
> increasingly drawn to thinking it through in terms of psychoanalysis, and
> the ways in which the psyche is structured 
> > to accept, reject, seek to repeat or seek to block internal and external
> energy.  But of course it gets tricky because the status of energy, or
> libido, within psychoanalysis today is pretty shaky.  
> > 
> > 
> > 
> > On 2014-06-09, at 8:00 PM, Douglas Kahn wrote:
> > 
> >> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> >> Hello everyone.
> >> 
> >> Thanks to Tim and Renate, and thanks to Marcus for inviting Nina and
> myself
> >> to <empyre>. It's now Tuesday morning here in Sydney; it's nice to
> wake up
> >> to this discussion. 
> >> 
> >> My book Earth Sound Earth Signal took many years to research and write.
> >> Like the genesis of books for many people, I was not planning to write
> it;
> >> instead it grew out of trying to understand a few works by the composer
> >> Alvin Lucier and the artist Joyce Hinterding that involved "natural
> radio." 
> >> 
> >> Investigating natural radio turned out to be the natural place to start
> >> unpacking the relationship between two energies, sound and
> >> electromagnetism, especially the historical trade between the two
> starting
> >> in 19th C. telecommunications. Natural radio, it turned out, was heard
> on
> >> telephone lines nearly two decades before Marconi's wireless telegraphy
> >> device and about a decade before Hertz verified the existence of
> >> electromagnetic waves. Thus, the catch phrase: radio was heard before
> it
> >> was invented.
> >> 
> >> Sound is considered first of all a physical energy in the major
> classical
> >> physics branch of mechanics, electromagnetism as the other; with their
> >> relations falling within moments and means of transduction (which I
> break
> >> down into two very general categories in-degree and in-kind). So the
> >> expansion of sound studies that Marcus mentions is based upon the
> >> generalization of sound among other energies. It was a dual task layed
> out
> >> methodologically by trying to understand what artists do on the terms
> upon
> >> which they work (rather than through received canonical or theoretical
> >> lenses) and going wherever the sound leads.   
> >> 
> >> The "expansion" of sound studies was how sound studies got going in the
> >> first place. It is also the mode of operation in much of the
> avant-garde
> >> and experimental arts that I study; they have in the past been thought
> to
> >> be reduced acts of transgression when they can be seen more generatively
> as
> >> proposing or enacting possibility. Those two "opening ups" coupled with
> >> what Michel Serres says about collectivist reciprocation (too many
> >> scientists, he says, take knowledge from nature and give nothing back)
> is
> >> what animates my own work. 
> >> 
> >> In this sense, I've boiled it down to: John Cage opened music to sound;
> >> it's time to open sound to energy. Of course, it has always been open;
> only
> >> our analyses have been lacking. In theory and philosophy when "energy"
> is
> >> discussed, it is very rarely specified; it's more of a short hand and
> broad
> >> brush. I hope we can think about that in our discussion of "vibration".
> My
> >> first recourse now is wonder what differnt energies may be interacting.
> >> 
> >> In Earth Sound Earth Signal I kept away from the body for a good reason.
> I
> >> only dipped below Alvin Lucier's scalp for his brainwaves and traced
> the
> >> transduction down tympan alley past the cilia to the ion channels. I
> >> avoided the body and got out as quickly as I could. The body works on a
> >> very complex and different set of energies than radio and other
> locations
> >> along the electromagnetic spectrum. No one had ever tried to introduce
> the
> >> aesthetics and politics along the e-m spectrum (in 1994 Hugh Aitken had
> >> proposed a SHOT-style project to do so, but he died and no one took up
> the
> >> task), so I had enough work to do without multiplying the level of
> >> complication. 
> >> 
> >> But I am starting to think about it now. The "discourse" of energy is
> alive
> >> and well among artists, but what for instance does a musician or actor
> mean
> >> when they talk about the energy in the room? The other direction is to
> >> relate these energies with the ecological realities facing the planet.
> If
> >> we understand global media systems to be energetic ones (and not, say,
> >> merely cartographic/inscriptive networks), then how might that relate
> to
> >> that other energy issue happening in the solar-terrestrial environment.
> >> Again, I think there are concrete ways to proceed. 
> >> 
> >> Douglas           
> >> 
> >> 
> >> Douglas Kahn
> >> Professor of Media and Innovation
> >> Australia Research Council Fellow
> >> National Institute for Experimental Arts
> >> College of Fine Arts
> >> University of New South Wales, Sydney
> >> 
> >> 
> >> 
> >> 
> >> 
> >> 
> >> 
> >> 
> >> 
> >> 
> >> 
> >>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> >>> Thanks to Tim and Renate for inviting us to participate in empyre this
> >>> week!
> >>> 
> >>> When Tim and Renate asked me what directions my own interest in sound
> >>> studies were taking, I thought immediately about Douglas Kahn's new
> book
> >>> Earth Sound, Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts,
> which
> >>> U. California published a few months ago.  I've been interested in
> expanded
> >>> ideas of sound studies for a while, particularly in thinking about
> >>> vibration as it relates to popular and experimental music scenes --
> partly
> >>> under the influence of Steve Goodman and his fascinating book Sonic
> >>> Warfare, which MIT published a few years ago.  I've been talking with
> Nina
> >>> Eidsheim for several years now, and was struck by her work on vibration
> and
> >>> singing/performance (which will be published in her forthcoming book
> >>> Sensing Sound).  So I thought it'd be interesting to have a
> conversation
> >>> about different ideas re. an expanded field of sound studies, that
> would
> >>> include different frameworks of physical or other forces that in some
> way
> >>> underlie what we call sound.  When I suggested
> >>> this to Doug, he immediately pointed out to me that for him, it's not
> >>> (just) about vibration, or sound as a particular kind of vibration ...
> but
> >>> a three part framework: vibration, inscription and transmission, that
> he
> >>> uses to think different technocultural practices.  What he's given us
> is a
> >>> history of visual and sonic arts that mobilize the electromagnetic
> spectrum
> >>> in different ways.  That (to me) is a major expansion of what
> constitutes
> >>> possible materials or matters of concern when it comes to making art.
> >>> 
> >>> So I'd like to begin by asking Doug and Nina to talk a little about
> >>> expanded frameworks of sound studies ... how do they think about that?
> >>> What's at stake in shifting the parameters?
> >>> 
> >>> For myself, I'll save the details for a later post, but I'm intrigued
> by
> >>> what Goodman calls "the politics of sub-frequency". Where he focuses
> on
> >>> warfare and violence, I'm interested in the erotics of sub frequency
> ...
> >>> the kinds of intimacy that are sustained through sound and vibration
> in
> >>> subcultural and experimental music scenes.  But also the limits of that
> ...
> >>> a kind of resistance to vibration, to being touched by it, that one
> notices
> >>> especially with drone music, which still makes a lot of people
> >>> uncomfortable ... or "bored" ....
> >>> 
> >>> One note. Doug is in Sydney, Australia, Nina is in LA, I am in Montreal
> ...
> >>> so expect some significant lags ... and of course, respond to us or ask
> us
> >>> to explain ourselves whenever you like.
> >>> 
> >>> More soon ....
> >>> 
> >>> 
> >> 
> >> _______________________________________________
> >> empyre forum
> >> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> >> http://www.subtle.net/empyre
> > 
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Douglas Kahn
National Institute for Experimental Arts
College of Fine Arts
University of New South Wales, Sydney

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