The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol06/nr01/a05

Phenomenological Approaches to Sound

We’ve seen the historical, technological and methodological reasons for certain tendencies in animation sound. Practice follows a fixed model for fulfilling expectation, one based on and applied from photographic forms. What I wish to propose is that animation practice integrate a more creative model based on ontological concerns rather than physical ones. This incorporates aspects of consciousness, intention, and disclosure, ideas arising from the philosophical tradition of phenomenology. Rather than using sound to connect the audience to objective and visibly present imagery, the aim here is to use sound to connect setting to character, and thereby connect character to the audience. There are two methodological notes to mention before continuing:

  • Sound for audiovisual forms is comprised of three elements: dialogue, music and sound effects. This investigation concentrates on sound effects—the nonmusical, non-spoken sounds of the world in which a character exists.
  • This essay considers sound effects as connected less to visual objects, and more to elements of narrative structure—character, setting and plot, particularly the first two and the relationship between them.

It is impossible to encompass the philosophical tradition of phenomenology that I wish to consider here in a comprehensive fashion. But I will offer a very brief trajectory of some of its tenets which are relevant to this exploration. The Cartesian epistemological investigation into the subjectivity/objectivity or mind/body problem was to regard matter as the world of extension, plus a mind that thinks it. The world is a world of things out there which I perceive. In order for there to be a world that makes sense to us, it must maintain its consistency in terms of the contents that reside within the extended world. The point, for the purposes of this essay, is that Cartesian thinking implies that there is a rational mind and outside it is a world of external objects. The phenomenological approach, on the other hand, is more inclined to account for a subject who inhabits a world, and the manner in which perception of the outside comes to consciousness. There is, in any object or event, a particular manifestation of disclosure; it is not the entirety of the thing that we come to perceive, nor even its qualities, but rather those aspects of the thing intended by the subject that gives him or her a sense of the thing in that moment of experience. In this way, we the audience can perceive sound not only through its objective nature, but in how it is disclosed to a character, through his or her particular mode of being in that moment of disclosure.

A Cartesian view of sound design is closely tied to how people typically practice the art: The world is a world of things; therefore one must record, layer and design sound toward the completion of the objective convention of thingness. It presents sound as purely physical in its knowability. As a related component of Cartesian thinking, the sonic world must establish a permanence of consistency and expectation. If someone walks down the street, one must hear footsteps that provide a sense of psychological closure on that image in a way that satisfies the physical laws of the diegetic world. This is the verisimilitude of the film world, which arises “not from truth but from convention” (Chion 1994). Here we find a limitation in the adherence to the diegetic/nondiegetic distinction. These terms tend to relate to an object’s or event’s physical presence or lack thereof. While it accounts for a hearing character (his or her subjectivity) the distinction does not consider the existential manner in which a sonic event is heard when heard subjectively.

It is curious that this adherence to a physical “real world” is as strong if not stronger in animation compared with film. The typical filmed setting has realistic sounds—realistic by virtue of the photographic element that reproduces it—that are captured by microphones. So it becomes a process of reinforcing this reality through the sound design. In animation, there is no profilmic world to reify. There are physical laws of the particular animated story world, but this world is invented. From this, we can push the idea of ”reality” aside somewhat and instead consider the idea of being using a phenomenological approach. Descartes’ other influential notion—his dualism being mentioned previously—is his famous proclamation of philosophical rationality: cogito ergo sum. This paved the way for philosophical thinking over the next 300 years. Martin Heidegger’s response to Descartes in the early 20th Century was that this resulting direction in philosophy mistakenly embraced one aspect of his famous cogito (I think), while ignoring what Heidegger regarded as the more important aspect (I am) (Heidegger 2010). This second half—“I am” equates to “being”—considers the particular self as it is in the world, what Heidegger called one’s Dasein (Heidegger 2010). The world “is essentially disclosed with the being of Dasein” (Heidegger 2010: 203). The two comprise a relationship, including a relationship with other beings, their Daseins, and their relationships with a self and a shared world. This is connected to Heidegger’s notion of “thrownness” into a world that is not of our choosing, but one in which we experience our particular being. This constitutes the being-in-the-world of every Dasein; but in particular it relates to my awareness of my Dasein in relation to others and the surroundings in which one is present.

The phenomenological approach moves us further away from the demands of rational, universal, external things and closer to the particular manner in which sonic events disclose themselves to a particular consciousness. Such a relationship with the world occurs within an inexact and continually fluid dynamic of concealment and unconcealment (Heidegger 2010). For Heidegger, and against the rational/empirical tradition from Descartes up until Kant, phenomena are not given to consciousness. The world as disclosed to a particular “being” of Dasein (in its distinctiveness) is a relationship; in this relationship is an ongoing process of hiding and revealing. And even as revealed, the phenomenon maintains an aspect of concealment which clouds understanding. Dasein is always in a hermeneutical process—or a particular mode of interpretation—in any given moment. As applied to practice, this does several important things. First, it produces a more active role for the subject in the context of his or her surroundings. It also introduces the element of intersubjectivity (our relations with other beings) and multiple perspectives in a way that Descartes and his followers never did. Lastly, the phenomenological mode obviates the inclination to sonify visual objects to rationalize the image. Footsteps, sounds of the synchronous and rational condition, lose their relevance. Instead, we concentrate on the subject in a relationship—for our purposes, a particular character and her mode of being-in-the-world as a hearing individual. We as an audience thereby come to empathize with that character in her world as she hears it. In Descartes we have the world of things extended in space; in Heidegger we have a particular Dasein possessing an (often narratively flawed) awareness of his condition and position in the world, his sense of his past and anticipation of his future, and his particular feeling or “mood” in the present moment. In narrative terms, a phenomenological approach to sound involves a relationship between a character and the setting with which she interacts, plus the various plot elements that come to be heard in the way they are heard. In this manner, we as an audience do not hear from some objective distance. We are not an omniscient god who hears from everywhere all at once. Rather we hear for and even as the character with whom we should connect. In the phenomenological approach, we as audience experience the world and other beings as the character does. Sounds, concealing and unconcealing along the horizons of being, do so for the character, as he or she comes to know them.

Let us now put this into the context of a specific audiovisual narrative. Robynn Stilwell uses a good example of a hearing subject in her analysis of a scene from the Michael Mann film The Insider (Mann 1999). Main character Jeffrey Wigand is driving to his court date and as Stilwell notes, his state of mind is in turmoil. The music does an effective job of presenting his emotional being in that moment. "The character becomes the bridging mechanism between the audience and the diegesis as we enter into his or her subjectivity” (Stilwell 2007: 196). This idea of a character “bridging” story to audience through music hints toward what is possible with a phenomenological approach to sound. However, rather than thinking of bridging audience and diegesis, we should think of it as connecting his evolving modes of being—not his mental or physical presence—to the audience. The music we hear is him, not only his subjectivity but his being in this moment—what Heidegger would call his “care” in relation to the world (Heidegger 2010). It is also worth noting that Stilwell, in analyzing the diegetic/nondiegetic gap in regard to music only, stops her analysis when the music fades and the sounds of the objective world emerge. But this shift itself is what is interesting in the scene because it is still Wigand’s consciousness. The music fading isn’t the end of the subjective moment, because we are still hearing as and for him. What has changed is not subjectivity to objectivity, but the subject’s relationship to his world. His moment of hearing the sound effects emerge is his shift in attention from his inward concern out toward the concerns of the world. He comes out of his contemplative state and “refocuses” his mind toward the task at hand—the court appearance—that now stands before him in sharp reality. Here, through sound, the filmmakers have enriched the condition of the main character’s journey and the dual struggle that faces him—his love of his family (his reflectiveness through music) and his duty to his principles (the hard sounds of the world he faces).