The Journal of Sonic Studies

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

The Hearing Subject

To better understand the subject of audiovisual storytelling, let us begin by examining the dialectic at work. If we are to accept the idea of the subjective, we must also consider the objective, which exists outside regardless of consciousness. The term “objective” in filmic terms refers to a perceptual agreement, a sense that what we hear is heard in a way that is available to all characters within the diegesis. This of course has value in the world-building dynamic. But as used exclusively in the process of designing, it places sound into an artistic restraint, distancing the sounds we hear from the characters who interact with them. The distinction between the objective and the subjective is more clear with images than with sound. The camera presents a position and we can usually get a sense of whether we are seeing from a realm of non-corporeal observation or one of embodied character through point-of-view (POV). Sound is not only represented in a different manner, but it is more difficult to structure. Consider the following example: Imagine there is a long shot of a road, shot from a 45-degree angle, from a camera placed high on a crane. In this shot, a car arrives from a distance, comes to its closest point in relation to the camera, then zooms out of frame. There is no assumption of visual subjectivity here because we don’t imagine someone floating high above the ground. The sound, however, assumes an auditory position, or point-of-audition (POA).[3] The car, as it approaches, begins quiet and reaches its loudest point the closest it comes to the camera position. While there is no particular subject established here visually, there is one presented (but never established) aurally. This illustrates that the audience is always hearing from somewhere. We the audience become something like a presumptive nondiegetic subject hearing diegetically, which exposes a problem in conceptualizing things from this strictly physical basis. But in fact, we are more in line with a nonexistent (or rather, universal) entity hearing objectively, and we therefore regard such sound as objective. A true subject, on the other hand, has particularity as an individual character hearing her world.

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell propose two possible modes of film subjectivity: perceptual and mental (Thompson and Bordwell 2008). The former works in a visual sense (POV) because the camera position is fixed, and that shot is the only way that perspective can be considered. But their use of perceptual subjectivity with sound—“soft noises suggesting that the source is distant from the character’s ear”—doesn’t work in all cases for reasons mentioned previously. Also, because of the diffuse nature of sound, one or more characters standing anywhere near another character would hear the sound in the same manner, as is common in film, thereby dissolving anything particular (or narratively exceptional) in the notion of subjectivity. There remains a possibility of perceptual subjectivity if it is exclusive to that character, but their notion of perceptual subjectivity is more in line with objective sound (a rational agreement). Mental subjectivity for Thompson and Bordwell consists of images or sounds entirely inside the mind and not presently outside it—for example, inner thoughts as dialogue, mental images, visual or auditory hallucinations, or flashbacks (Thompson and Bordwell 2008). In regard to sound, however, there are difficulties here as well. By making a hard distinction between what is exclusively inside or outside the mind, we are back to our Cartesian problem of dualism. A phenomenological approach to sonic subjectivity would be to recognize both the objective and what they term the mental subjective as an ongoing relationship. Rather than an either/or approach, we instead imagine sound in the particular mode that the character hears it—a sonic event’s disclosure to individual being. Heidegger would term this as “attunement,” or the particular mood of Dasein in relation to thrownness in a particular moment. "In attunement lies existentially a disclosive submission to world out of which things that matter can be encountered" (Heidegger 2010: 129-130). This is often done cinematically in highly emotional moments. An extreme example of this is the mode of hearing after a bomb explosion. Sounds become muffled and perhaps there is ringing in the ears, all in an effort to connect story events more strongly to an individual character. But it can be used in any number of ways, not quite so dramatic, when hearing as the character is important, such as moments of attention or realization. What we are hearing is not purely mental nor purely objective; it is the objective world coming to the consciousness of the subject in an particular manner. Therefore, what is heard phenomenologically has the effect of connecting audience with character more strongly than visuals can. It is in this identification with character that we come to empathize with the narrative events for someone.

We can expand on this idea of a “someone” by turning to another well-known phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Influenced by Edmund Husserl and Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty suggested that how we perceive is as a relation of our body within a world. But he is not producing a dualistic structure with this idea and is in fact openly critical of Cartesian rationalism and later British empiricists who tended to think in such ways. For him body and consciousness comprise the same phenomenological experience. A perception of the world is not of objects in isolation but always through the distinctiveness of one’s own presence within that world in that moment. “A thing is, therefore, not actually given in perception, it is internally taken up by us, reconstituted and experienced by us in so far as it is bound up with a world, the basic structures of which we carry with us, and of which it is merely one of many possible concrete forms" (Merleau-Ponty 1945: 381). The last part of this statement is important in regard to sound as design in the phenomenological approach. The world in our relation to it is not fixed; rather there are infinite possibilities within the disclosure/nondisclosure dynamic. How one hears or listens to a phenomenon depends in part on how one is negotiating his sense of being within that world. Considered phenomenologically, the primary effort in all sound design should be to develop this shifting relationship between self and world, character and setting, as channeled to the audience. This does not mean that all sound should be presented in this way. We still need sound as our means of reason and common sense. But in terms of design, it is more creative to consider the many ways in which we can hear for someone as a starting point in the design process.