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What a sonic body can do

This book review was written as part of a comprehensive review on sound studies and sonic rhetoric scholarship, part of my continuing theoretical and technical work on the Virtual Martin Luther King, Jr. Project.


"We don't know what a sonic body can do"


Steve Goodman’s adaptation of Spinoza-via-Deleuze is the leitmotif that permeates and motivates Paul Jasen's Low End Theory. The sonic body (a term introduced by Julian Henrique, 2003) is the molecular body as it exists in vibration, a realm where new possibilities for experience are opened by the physical effects of sound as it moves and shakes matter.

Most vibration goes unnoticed (at least consciously). A small band of it (usually defined as 20 Hz - 20k Hz) is called sound. The varied phenomena that emerge between about 120 Hz down to 0.01 Hz make up the general subject of the book. More specifically, Jasen's intention is to explore low frequencies as sites of asignifying affect, synesthetic experience, and mystifying disorientation. In his analysis, just like in lived experience, sound blends with touch, sight, proprioception, and other less understood realms of sensory perception. This is why (super)natural sonic phenomena and the work of sound artists are examined alongside the uncanny beings and becomings of H. P. Lovecraft's fiction, or the distorted figures of Francis Bacon's paintings.

Myth-scientists and affect engineers

Low End Theory is an intervention on two fronts, pushing against both constructivist and positivist tendencies in sound scholarship. First, Jasen targets the dominant discourses in sound and music studies that focus on cultural interpretation, identity construction, and other semiotic concerns at the expense of the asignifying materiality that has potential to problematize (or reinforce) such constructs. At the same time, Jasen resists any sort of positivism or reductive materialism, continually highlighting how material experience is always tied up with (but not subjugated to) discursive practice. Further, he prioritizes subjective testimony and exceptional circumstances as valuable data for studying real (always contingent) sonic experience. For instance, chapter 2 – which focuses on spectral encounters ("spectral" meaning ghosts and specters as well as strange parts of the frequency spectrum) – investigates infrasonic hauntings and preternatural phenomena like The Hum. While these hauntings only affect some people and can be conveniently hand-waved as complex convergences of vibrational, cultural, and psychological factors, this is precisely their value as objects of study: here the physical properties of sound act as a catalyst of an array of interrelated factors and, by virtue of being anomalous, highlights the contingency of embodied experience. While it might at first seem like an outlier among chapters primarily concerned with music and sound art, chapter 2 does important foundational work in describing this process of spectral catalysis which will later be harnessed by religious, artistic, and musical cultures as a force to deliberately destabilize and reorganize embodied experience.

This chapter also most provocatively illustrates myth-science in practice. This methodology, borrowing terminology from Jazz musician Sun Ra, is an attempt to address powerful, mystifying sonic experience on its own terms. Taking equal inspiration from Kodwo Eshun's sonic fiction, William James's radical empiricism, and Deleuze and Guattari’s nomad science, myth-science asks questions "to mystify, rather than to educate[...] to complexify not to clarify" (Eshun, 1998, p. 29). This sense of the term "science" first saw widespread usage in hip hop culture (particularly among those influenced by Sun Ra's Afrofuturist sensibilities), and has been employed in the rhetorical tradition since 2006 as ka-knowledge (the product of droppin' science) to address sound's epistemo-rhetorical functions (Rice, 2006; Koehler, 2010). As a mode of inquiry, myth-science involves rigorous empirical examination with the goal of developing new descriptive language to articulate the full affective potential of (sonic) phenomena. The idea is to avoid stratifying, explaining, and reducing phenomena to simple cause-and-effect. For this reason, myth-science is also decidedly non-metaphorical [1]. Myth-science is largely a speculative practice that creates concepts and vocabularies to imagine the potentials of experience. Myth, in this sense, is a story about something that creates new and productive ways of engaging with it.

Applied myth-science is affect engineering. Affect engineering – a term applied broadly to creators who make affecting the body and the senses their objective – is likewise an empirical endeavor, as mathematical formulae and theoretical principles are peripheral to intuition and trial-and-error. The role of affect engineers and this dichotomy (which follows Deleuze and Guattari's delineation of Royal science vs. nomad science) is illustrated succinctly in Chapter 3, with an anecdote about a brief period when church organ-building – traditionally an artistic practice based on esoteric intuited knowledge (which came to be known as The Arcanum) – was briefly systematized according to musical-mathematical principles (i.e. the transcendent divine order sought by Royal science). The sound qualities of organs noticeably deteriorated and soon the intuitive, embodied practice of affect engineering (i.e. immanent divine inspiration; nomad science) once again dominated organ-building.

The audiogenesis of religion and dance

Through case studies of historical and contemporary affect engineers as well as the speculative, generative practices of myth-science, Jasen offers two myths of audiogenesis. The first is addressed in depth in chapter 3, and is taken from a controversial 1984 article by Donald Tuzin that details the audiogenesis of religious culture. According to Tuzin, certain types of sound (particularly low frequencies) have a mystifying, disorienting, and anxiety-inducing effect. Evolutionary explanations of varying likelihood aside, there are a number of observable reasons for this: At sufficiently high volumes and sufficiently low frequencies, pressure in the air is felt in the body and proprioception is affected as the vestibular system in the inner ear is likewise vibrated. At this point, auditory, tactile, proprioceptive, and visual inputs may contradict each other slightly, a possible source of the stress, motion sickness, cognitive interruption, and generally defamiliarizing effects [2] that have been shown to result from exposure to extreme sound (Leventhall, Pelmear, & Benton, 2003; Parker, 1976; Rao & Ashley, 1976). Despite their physical presence, however, low frequencies remain highly ambiguous – pitch and location become increasingly difficult to identify as pitch lowers. These sounds are simultaneously localized in the physical body and dispersed among infinite virtual points and bodies of origin. Tuzin's thesis is that religious culture exists, in part, as a mythology to attribute supernatural power to, and productively harness, this mystifying bodily experience. It is then no coincidence that thunder gods are so prevalent in religious cultures, nor that these cultures consistently create and use powerful, low-frequency instruments like drums, bells, pipe organs, and bullroarers in their rituals.

In this chapter, Jasen also takes on the dominant narrative that the church consistently placed primary importance on language and intelligibility (i.e. logos; The Word) compared to music and affect (which is decidedly bodily and earthly). While this view was indeed held and expressed by many, a closer examination reveals a more complex relationship and tactical interplay. This interplay is visible in choral practices throughout the middle ages (for instance, the powerful contrabass of Russian orthodox octavists that likewise fascinated Roland Barthes in his seminal essay "The Grain of the Voice" [1972]) as well as the central role that the organ (and the continuing quest for lower and louder notes) has played in church practice.

The disorienting and mystifying properties of sound have an additional response demand. As low frequency sound moves through the body, it interrupts other material flows and defamiliarizes movement on both the molecular and the molar level. The discomfort and anxiety that result from the body being shaken – being subject to the radiant will of thunder or of an 808 bass – demands movement to explore new ways of inhabiting the material world. Much like Tuzin's audiogenesis of religion, this phenomenon represents an audiogenesis of dance as a way to test flows and motion in a space permeated with interesting vibrations. Incipient dance (including phenomena of compelled movement more generally) is explored as one of three broad categories of vibratory arts outlined in chapter 4, and later in chapter 5 the different “physio-logics" produced by different sorts of low end movement are given more thorough treatment as an important concern for bass cults. Bass cults are those cults who opt not to mythologize low end sound but to weaponize it, taking special interest in the body and exploring how different sounds can drive it to feel and move in different ways. In approaching bass-centric popular music, Jasen rejects the notion of "bass music" in favor of examining bass cults, taking interest not just the content of the music but the form and expression, how genres and styles exemplify different embodied logics of movement, and the technology and culture involved in its production.

Like most writers and artists concerned with bass cults, Jasen starts his genealogical narrative with Jamaica in the 1960s. Here, the seeds of hip-hop music were planted in sonic warfare between gangs and the entrepreneurial affect engineers who sought to physically overpower their rivals with louder and deeper bass. He then continues with a history of bass synthesis and sampling technology and the different affective possibilities afforded (often unintentionally) by these emerging technologies. The book culminates in an analysis of three types of dance music and how the low end tactics inscribed in each affect the sonic body, facilitating different types of movement. These movements are traditionally treated as a happy side effect of a genre's musical codes, but are in practice the result of a very deliberate sonic experiment that investigates different physio-logics – patterns of vibration, how they affect and destabilize the (molecular) sonic body, and what sorts of molar movements are suitable responses.

Sound arts and the sonic body

Aside from art designed to facilitate dance or religious expression, Jasen addresses two general tendencies of representational art in chapter 4, which he describes as Cymatic Art and Perceptual Abstraction. Cymatic Art is named for the study of vibrational patterns, a practice which involves making sound visible in the organized patterns that emerge when small particles or fluids are spread over a steadily vibrating surface (as in the classic example where a bow is drawn across a metal plate covered in sand, revealing a different pattern according to the resonant frequency of the plate). Cymaticism, coined by scientist Hans Jenny, was intended to study periodicity in nature in a vein not dissimilar to systems theory and chaos theory, but the concepts also blend seamlessly with Jasen's established Deleuzo-Guattarian framework. This should be little surprise considering D&G's own debt to systems theory and the vibrational metaphors that are foundational to their ontology [3]. Jasen describes Cymatic Art as "any radically empirical project aimed at ‘hearing systems in nature’ or ‘seeing sound’" (p. 117). While Jenny was concerned with the latter aim, the former is exemplified by a variety of documentary art practices that capture (and, when necessary, make audible through manipulation) the vibrational forces of anything from planets to glaciers to cities to terror attacks. Of these Cymatic Arts, Jasen draws a distinction between those with an extensive ethic and those with an intensive ethic. That is, art that incorporates the vibrational patterns of systems (sampling and remediating sounds from natural or manmade processes for their material signification) versus art that recreates the logic of that system (using any number of sound generation techniques not to represent or evoke a source, but to illustrate its processes on a bodily, affective level), respectively.

While Cymatic Arts deal with cymatic systems, the artists that Jasen addresses under the framework of Perceptual Abstraction are concerned with vibration as a force. This includes a collection of electronic drone musicians, who use minimalism and pure synthetic sound waves to explore the very movement of sound waves, devoid of anything that might be thought of as representation. He compares this type of sound art to painter (or “optical artist”) Bridget Riley, who uses simple shapes and patterns to address the eye directly, intriguing and discomforting through sensory perception itself. Rather than optical illusions, Riley's paintings can be thought of as "optical interventions" (p. 134). Sound artists like Eleh and La Monte Young play with sound in a similar way, asking: what does it sound/feel like for waves in the air to drift out of phase? stretch out or compress? How does the body itself react to different types of pure, abstracted harmony and dissonance, convergence and divergence, and movement more broadly?

One concern that runs through the book, related to Jasen's critique of strict constructivism, is how destabilizing the sonic body can disrupt and reshape subjectivity. To examine this effect in a situated, embodied experience, chapter 5 involves a discussion of dance music, drawing a dichotomy between the dancefloor-of-affect and the dancefloor-of-affectation (and the corresponding DJ-as-affect-engineer and DJ-of-signs). The latter involves semiotic strategies. Under this paradigm, dance music is built on cultural codes; familiar rhythms and textures meant to provide a sonic space for likewise familiar patterns of movement. By appealing to these codes, this approach can only reinscribe existing subjectivities. In contrast, material strategies – those adopted by the DJ-as-affect-engineer – operate on the pre-subjective body, rejecting reliance on codes in favor of experimentation with new types of visceral movement. The dancefloor-as-affect is a site that can undercut, interrupt, and open subjectivities.

This is not a universal good, Jasen warns, as it should be evident that not all subjectivities are desirable. Following Deleuze and Guattari's warning of a fascistic body without organs, Jasen reminds that there are "totalitarian sonic bodies and black holes of bass strategy" – situations in which the most suitable response to a sonic experience may be a paranoid descent into a reactionary rhythm. While this point is not expounded upon in great detail, we might look to other scholars for complementary examples of these strategies at work. For example, Carolyn Birdsall's (2012) work on the soundscapes of Nazi Germany details how the sonic experience of local festivals were appropriated to catalyze anti-semitic sentiments, while Goodman (2010) carries out a thorough analysis of the martial sonic strategies at play in the global military-entertainment complex.

Final thoughts

Jasen’s monograph is in many ways a follow-up to Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (2010) – one of the most captivating and insightful works in 21st century sound studies. While Goodman addresses the wide array of psychological and physiological characteristics of sound used in military, advertising, infrastructure, art, and other arenas where power is enacted and counteracted; Jasen focuses specifically on the material effects of low end sound. Not only does the Venn diagram of the two’s theoretical influences closely resemble a circle, Jasen specifically takes up a number of Goodman’s concepts and uses several of the same case studies in order to expand on the latter’s work.

One of the most valuable dimensions of Low End Theory is how Jasen engages productively with his diverse and challenging web of influences. Aside from Goodman, the most quantitatively present of these influences is the symbiotic machine of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, both their combined writings and respective solo work. Jasen is evidently a close reader of each, and he applies psycho-socio-metaphysical concepts like the assemblage and the body without organs with remarkable fidelity and fluidity, and to insightful and illustrative ends (which is more than can be said for the sizable number of humanities scholars who reductively misappropriate the duo’s work). In addition to its constructive examination of sonic phenomena, I would recommend Low End Theory as a stand-out example of Deleuze and Guattari's esoteric lexicon in literary practice.

With its methodology of generative speculation and respect for lived sonic experience, Low End Theory has little to offer those who subscribe to a conventional scientific epistemology. "Royal science" is repeatedly subject to accusations of reductivism and a general inability and unwillingness to account for the anomalous and preternatural forces that pervade lived experience. This is both an attack on scientific institutions and a defense of the scientific source material that Jasen does choose to rely on, much of which has been supposedly debunked by the type of strict rationalist inquiry that Jasen finds unhelpful (see Mühlhans, 2017). The other edge of his critique is directed at scholars in sound studies, cultural studies, musicology, and other humanities and social scientific disciplines that focus on discursive construction and cultural mediation of experience at the expense of direct material embodiment. Thanks to his careful engagement with questions of cultural interpretation and expression, however, these scholars are at more liberty (compared with those in the hard sciences) to receive the book as a call to take the insights from the linguistic turn and move forward into materiality and affect (rather than as an outsider's attack on their disciplinary foundations). More than a refutation of either perspective, however, Jasen makes clear his intention to simply approach the topic of sonic experience from a new, interesting, and practically useful angle. He cites Massumi in arguing that "neither science nor philosophy has a greater claim to reality; they (along with art) simply have different claims to it" (p. 186).

Notes

[1] Although Jasen does not make the connection, I am reminded of Nietzsche's (1990) critique of truth and language as the layering of metaphors into useful falsehoods that erase difference. While Nietzsche would undoubtedly take issue with the suggestion that any language or ideation can be non-metaphorical, myth-science can be seen as a creative response to this problem of language. It is an attempt to inject nuance back into the world by creating concepts that open rather than close variance and possibility, one that "confuses the conceptual categories and cells by bringing forward new transferences, metaphors, and metonymies" (p. 89).

[2] Defamiliarization, or ostranenie (Shklovsky, 1917), was likely first articulated as a rhetorical technique by Aristotle (2007). Traditionally understood as the manipulation of language in order to cast a familiar concept in a new way (Westin, 2017; Iglesias-Crespo, 2021; Kennedy’s notes on Aristotle, 2007), Jasen points to ways that such a process can be pre-symbolic, able to be applied to the body directly. This type of sonic phenomena may therefore offer rhetorical scholars a way to expand our conception of defamiliarization to the material realm.

[3] See also Goodman's (2010) "Ontology of Vibrational Force" (p. 81-84), which deals with the metaphysics of sound more directly.


References

  • Aristotle. (2007). On rhetoric: A theory of civic discourse. (G. A. Kennedy, Trans.). Oxford University Press.

  • Barthes, R. (1977). The grain of the voice. In S. Heath (Trans.), Image, music, text (pp. 179–179-189). Fontana Press.

  • Birdsall, C. (2012). Nazi soundscapes: Sound, technology and urban space in Germany, 1933-1945. Amsterdam University Press.

  • Eshun, K. (1998). More brilliant than the sun: Adventures in sonic fiction. Quartet Books.

  • Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic Warfare: Sound, affect, and the ecology of fear. MIT Press.

  • Henriques, J. (2003). Sonic dominance and the reggae sound system session. In M. Bull and L. Back (Eds.), The auditory culture reader. Berg

  • Iglesias-Crespo, C. (2021). Energeia as defamiliarization: Reading Aristotle with Shklovsky’s eyes. Journal for the History of Rhetoric, 24(3), 274–289. https://doi.org/10.1080/26878003.2021.1975465

  • Jasen, P. C. (2016). Low End Theory: Bass, Bodies and the Materiality of Sonic Experience. Bloomsbury Academic.

  • Koehler, A. (2010). "Frozen Music, Unthawed": Ka-Knowledge, Creative Writing, and the Electromagnetic Imaginary. Enculturation (7).

  • Leventhall, G., Pelmear, P., & Benton, S. (2003) (rep.). A Review of Published Research on Low Frequency Noise and its Effects. London: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

  • Mühlhans, J. H. (2017). Low frequency and infrasound: A critical review of the myths, misbeliefs and their relevance to music perception research. Musicae Scientiae 21(3), 267 –286.

  • Nietzsche, F. (1990/1873). On Truth and Lies In A Nonmoral Sense. In D. Breazeale (Trans.), Philosophy and Truth Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870's (pp. 79–97). Humanities Press International.

  • Parker, D. E. (1976). Effects of Sound on the Vestibular System. In W. Tempest (Ed.), Infrasound and low frequency vibration. Academic Press.

  • Rao, B. K. N., and Ashely, C. (1976). Subjective Effects of Vibration. In W. Tempest (Ed.), Infrasound and low frequency vibration. Academic Press.

  • Rice, J. (2006). The making of ka-knowledge: Digital aurality. Computers and Composition 23(3), 266–279.

  • Shklovsky, V. (2016). Art as Device. In A. Berlina (Trans.), Viktor Shklovsky: A reader (pp. 73–96). Bloomsbury Academic.

  • Tuzin, D. (1984) Miraculous Voices: The Auditory Experience of Numinous Objects. Current Anthropology, 25(5), 579-96.

  • Westin, M. (2017). Aristotle’s rhetorical energeia: An extended note. Advances in the History of Rhetoric, 20(3), 252–261. https://doi.org/10.1080/15362426.2017.1384769


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