Erik Davis discusses the relationship between electronic sound and environment.
In this essay I’d like to talk about some abstract ideas, some images, some open-ended notions about acoustic space. Based on a talk delivered at the Xchange conference, Riga, Latvia, November 1997In particular, I am interested in the relationship between electronic sound and environments, on the Internet or in music. I won’t talk about the various technologies involved; instead, I’ll try to get at some of the deeper issues about sound and the ways it constructs subjectivities and can act as a kind of map.
A good place to start is with a distinction that Marshall McLuhan draws between visual space and acoustic space. McLuhan used the notion of visual space as a way to describe how Western subjectivity has been organized on a technical basis since the Renaissance. McLuhan argued that Renaissance perspective not only provided a powerful new way of organizing the visual field (in terms of representation), but also engendered a very specific form of subjectivity. He didn’t just associate this subjectivity with the point-of-view produced by Renaissance perspective painting - he related to it also to print technologies and to the new form of the book. In essence, he argued that the self that comes down to us from the Renaissance - the “molar” self of the modern West, as some have called it - is a visual self.
Renaissance perspective thus serves as a pictorial analogy for a much more general phenomenon - the power to create a distinct, single point of view that organizes thought and perception along linear lines. This is related to print technologies - and print culture - because, according to McLuhan, these technologies inculcate within us a habit of organizing the world in a linear, atomized, and sequential fashion. Central to this visual space is the axiom or assumption that “different” objects, vectors, or points are not and cannot be superimposed; instead, the world is perceived as a linear grid organized along strictly causal lines.
McLuhan contrasts this construction of visual space, and the kind of subjectivity associated with it, with what he calls “acoustic space.” Acoustic space is the space we hear rather than the space we see, and he argued that electronic media were submerging us in this acoustic environment, with its own language of affect and subjectivity. Acoustic space isn’t limited to a world of music or sound; the environment of electronic media itself engenders this way of organizing and perceiving the other spaces we intersect.
Acoustic space is capable of simultaneity, superimposition, and nonlinearity, but above all, it resonates. “Resonance” can be seen as a form of causality, of course, but its causality is very different than that associated with visual space, because resonance allows things to respond to each other in a nonlinear fashion. Through resonance in a physical system, a small activity or event can gain a great deal of energy; for example, if I belted out a pitch that resonated with the unique acoustic characteristics of this room, the energy of my voice would be amplified by the environment. That’s why some singers can shatter a glass with their voice: they hit the resonant frequency of the glass (which is a space and contains a space), making it vibrate to the point of shattering. Resonance is a very powerful analogy for understanding how various types of energies and spaces operate.
Resonance is just one quality of acoustic space; another one is simultaneity. Where visual space emphasizes linearity, acoustic space emphasizes simultaneity - the possibility that many events that occur in the same zone of space-time. In such a scheme, a subject - a person, maybe - organizes space by synthesizing a variety of different events, points, images, and sources of information into a kind of organic totality. This isn’t true in the strictest sense, but, nonetheless, our thoughts and perceptions can tend towards this simultaneity: we sense many things at once, and combine them into a coherent if fragmentary whole.
McLuhan argued that what we hear is very different from what we see. Needless to say, we hear things and we see things simultaneously - but according to different logics, logics that are culturally defined and change over time. There’s no hard-and-fast, timeless distinction between the two; rather, these are simplified ways of talking about the conditions for experiencing information, consciousness, conception. And the rise of electronic media is awakening more acoustic sensibilities in the ways we experience the world.
Much of what people say about cyberspace, the Internet, virtual reality, and other electronic spaces is centered on visual images and graphics. This discourse occurs on many levels - the artistic, the intellectual, as well as more practical technical issues and pragmatic social practices. And given the nature of today’s interfaces, it isn’t hard to see why. But I think we might benefit by weaving some of the deeper questions raised by acoustics, which includes hearing and orality, into the broader technocultural debate. For one thing, there’s electronic music, a tremendously innovative, exciting and polycentered field, which raises all sorts of issues around aesthetics, spatial constructions, the non-thought, the production of subjectivity. And then there’s the larger environment of electronic arts or information culture - the Internet, virtual reality, for example - which remain for the most part centered on the lingering dreams of visual space. If you think for a moment about the technical construction of virtual environments, I think you’ll agree that Renaissance perspective continues to play an extraordinarily powerful role.
I’ve had the opportunity to experience a number of very high-end virtual reality environments. Some of them are profoundly immersive experiences. This isn’t necessarily a goal for all virtual environments, but it’s definitely a looming question for the people who work on making them: How can we create a space where perception and subjectivity are sucked into an alternate dimension, an alternate kind of space? This is a central narrative about virtual reality; there are many, but this a very strong one. In many ways, it’s a naive narrative. Yet the first time I experienced 3D audio, I was transported far more viscerally than in any of the far more sophisticated visually-based virtual reality installations. There was something about the very pure non-graphic spatial organization of very good 3D audio that created an incredibly powerful immersive experience. Typically, people relegate acoustic dimensions to the “background” - a soundtrack or score that “accompanies” a primary visual experience. But in an immersive acoustic environment, you might hear all the sounds you would hear on a street corner, spatially organized in real time, surrounding you. This is much, much, stronger than a visual experience, which tacitly distances you, places you in a transcendent, removed position, rather than embodying you at the center of a new context.
My question here is: why are acoustic spaces so effective in this regard? What is it about sound that is so potentially immersive? I think it has to do with how we register it - how it affects different areas of the bodymind than visuals do. Affect is a tremendously important dimension of experience, and one of the most difficult to achieve in a visual environment. “Atmosphere” might be a good way to describe this aspect: sound produces atmosphere, almost in the way that incense - which registers with yet another sense - can do. Sound and smell carry vectors of mood and affect which change the qualitative organization of space, unfolding a different logic with a space’s range of potentials. Ambient music, or an ambient soundscape, can change the quality of a space in subtle or dramatic ways.
We’ve seen some interesting experiments and opportunities with the use of RealAudio on the Internet, for example. But, more than that, I’m interested in getting people to think about the larger implications of sound and acoustics. Not as simply a vehicle for communicating information or establishing dialog between far-flung actors; and not simply as electronic music, a genre of activity and expression that, however fascinating, is commodified and compartmentalized from our “other” activities and experiences. A broader understanding of acoustic space is what I’m after: I’m really talking about different dimensions of the kind of subjectivity that we produce in networked environments. This dimension is profound, and we should consider it, work with it, explore it.
A historical example of the possibilities of acoustics that’s worth considering is the history of radio: there was a tremendous amount of vitality in the early years of radio, and most of it was sapped away as it became commodified and consumerized, with the exception of pirate radio efforts, some public radio, and the fringes of radio art. Our situation now has a bit of deja vu about it: when the ability to communicate via wireless telegraphy occurred, it was absorbed into - and contributed to - the construction of a utopian imagination, in ways that strongly resemble some of the rhetoric surrounding information technology. In fact, with each significant mutation in electronic technologies from the mid-nineteenth century on, there was an eruption of utopian energy. “Now we will be able to communicate across the world, now we will be able to solve conflicts, now we will have better education, now we will have more democracy.” These ideas were very much associated with the mutation in electronic acoustic space brought about by radio.
Imagine for a moment what the radio spectrum presented - a space that was not a space, wide-open, unknown, literally cosmic. As people began to interact with the world of vibrating waves, a sort of “hacker” culture develop around it: people began to build their own crystal sets and talk to with others in unknown places, exchanging information and building their own networks. In fact, broadcast radio emerged from the ground up - from these smaller radio hackers deciding to broadcast music and news. This is very much like what we associate with the Internet’s cultural development. But radio was quickly absorbed into commodity systems, and the state imposed its desire to organize the space of the spectrum, establishing the boundaries and rules that define the commercial radio that now dominates our airwaves.
Of course, there are other dimensions of the spectrum which maintain a more utopian, progressive, and imaginative aspect. There are pirate radio broadcasters, and there are people who listen to lightning storms, there are our favorite college radio stations…the spectrum is still open, in a sense. But for the most part it’s a vast, depressing wasteland.
Now, Internet “radio” isn’t radio; it does not exploit the spectrum, and that is a big difference. But it is hardly immune to the same kinds of domination at the hands of similar forces. It’s incredibly important to maintain electronic communications media as a space of openness, of indetermination, of the affects of the unknown. What made early radio so exciting, in terms of the technical, the social, and the imaginative, was its openness: it was a space that wasn’t entirely defined, wasn’t totally mapped. More than that, I think, it was an acoustic space, which opened up a different logic. And that’s happening again: the acoustic dimension of electronic media, and particularly of the Internet, offers an opportunity that is very different than simply providing more information, or making more web sites, or more entrancing animations. Or even making cheap phone calls.
The idea that we can create another kind of dimension with its own possibilities - not just “informational” possibilities - gives us a more atmospheric sense of where we are headed, as we plunge into the 21st century and its weird global environs. It’s really difficult to see what this might mean, impossible even. All of the different factors, all of the different networks that are commingling and interacting…how do we make our way through this? How do we ground ourselves enough to get a sense of what our spaces are or might be, or how we relate to these spaces? It is precisely this acoustic dimension that gives us tools, not just as individuals, but particularly as collectivities as well. It enables us to modulate and re-singularize this new environment in powerful ways - ways that the visual, the graphic, and the text-based, do not.
Acoustic spaces can create different subjectivities; they open possibilities and potentials - particularly on an aesthetic and informational levels - that can help us feel our way through the spaces we are opening up and moving into. The greatest example of this is music, particularly electronic music. Of course, one could talk about music in general and its relationship to affect, the way that its vibrations resonate inside the body, conjuring up pleasures, fears, singularities, etc.. But I’m especially interested in electronic music, because its history loosely maps the changing relationship between subjectivity and the “acoustic space” of electronic media in the twentieth century.
An example: the first truly electronic instrument is a gadget invented by the Russian Leon Theremin, which was appropriately called the theremin. Theremin created his instrument in the early twenties; basically, it created an electromagnetic field that you could modulate with your hand. You controlled pitch and volume by inserting your body into this field; seemingly, you plucked the music from thin air. Theremin thought of his creation as a concert hall instrument, and Clara Rockmore, the greatest thereminist of all time, used it for performances of Rachmaninoff and Ravel. But what do we see and feel when we hear the theremin’s eerie etheric tones, its weird and wavering voice? We know the instrument through the soundtracks of fifties UFO movies and pop songs like the appropriately named “Good Vibrations.” So though the instrument was constructed as an instrument to play “real” music, it drifted through twentieth-century pop culture, picking up any number of strange associations - cosmic vibrations, outer space, paranoia, drugs. Electronic space opens up a variety of curious modes of subjectivity - and not just science-fiction clichés. Think of what happened to electronic music in the sixties and seventies, in both psychedelic music and art music like Stockhausen. We find an emphasis on the cosmic, on spatial disorientation, on transport, on affect, on the nonhuman. The acoustic spaces of electronic music aren’t limited to the organization of affect and narrative that define much popular music, with its highly personalized structures of love and loss.
Rather than merely extending the language of human affect along such typical lines, electronic music opened up much less personalized soundscapes and psychic spaces. It’s not just a genre or technique of music, but a much deeper phenomenon that involves mapping the electronic media spaces that humans find themselves in, whether the “space” of the spectrum, the acoustic space of McLuhan, or the deterritorialized spaces that have become so important for the articulation of postmodern subjectivity.
Another example one could site is dub music. Dub music arose in a very crude technological context, in low-tech Jamaican recording studios in the early seventies. Basically, what dub artists did was take the backing tracks from whatever pop songs were laying around, and cut and splice them, mutating their various elements by submitting them to a variety of strange and often primitive effects: echoes, distortion, reverb. The result was that an ordinary reggae tune, with its dance-friendly rhythms, became unfolded into a strange and somewhat alien electronic space. When you listen to dub music, you become submerged in a kind of immersive space carved out by all these sonic effects. The “invisible landscapes” of John Cage or the ambient music of Brian Eno furnish other, very different, examples. And yet all these environments suggest a kind of cyberspace - a spacious electronic orientation of affect and quality rather than information and quantity, a space of simultaneity, superimposition, nonlinearity, odd repetitions, and odder resonances. At the same time, as many of these musical forms propagated themselves, their various folds and mutations created new spaces for subculture, psychic resistance, and popular rituals.
Music and sound are tremendously powerful forces for organizing affect; their power to structure subjectivity, in the here and now and over time, makes them an incredibly productive language, one capable of overcoming the linear grids implied by text. This isn’t just true of electronic music: all popular music functions, particularly for young people, as a way to construct and define a whole worldview, a whole position, a whole set of ways of organizing the world. It is no accident that you find the logic of youth subculture most strongly articulated around music. And in the world we’re moving into, a world full of cultural viruses, memes, decentered subjects and unfolding para-spaces, these issues will only become more important.
In closing, I’d like to re-emphasize that the acoustic dimension of electronic technology is a powerful emergent domain - not just for aesthetics, but for the organization of subjectivity and hence for the organization of collectives, of larger political groupings in the broadest sense of politics. I have used the example of music because it demonstrates most clearly how large groups of people around can organize - or be organized - around the politics of affect, of resonance. This is a very powerful language, even a dangerous one. Electro-acoustic spaces aren’t simply a genre of music or a backdrop for good VR - they are interfaces with the machine, interfaces where we mutate in order to feel our way. As our machines become more complex, our relationships with them will become more complex, and whole new domains and dimensions will keep opening up - and closing down as well. By pushing the boundaries of electro-acoustic environments, of acoustic cyberspace, we can maintain a line into the open spaces of the unknown.